Let’s Explore Orbital Elevators

Orbital elevator technology could become a serious reality despite the fact that progress over the last ten years has been less than promising. The individuals involved with the LiftPort Space Elevator project believe that humanity is not that far away from designing a usable surface to orbit infrastructure. While there are those that remain skeptical, the project does show promise. I had tons of questions when I first heard of this. How does it work? What’s the difference between a ‘space elevator’ and ‘orbital elevator’. Is this technologically feasible? Is there going to be actual elevator music on the way to the moon (if so, count me out)? Here’s a little information I’ve discovered based on my research thus far. Let me know what you think of all of this. I personally think it has potential.

Can it be built?

Using rocketry to move equipment to the lunar surface is well within the boundaries of current engineering according to some scientists. A robotic version could theoretically be built in six years and a human-rated system might be built in ten. The Lunar Space Elevator Infrastructure, or Elsie as the project coordinators call it, wouldn’t be anywhere near an industrial complex. Therefore, one would have to be extremely careful to ensure that all necessary components ended up on the moon. Basically, what this all means is that cargo or passengers would be taken to the “liftport” in lunar orbit using rocketry available today. From there, the cargo/passengers would be transported via the orbital elevator to the moon. Therefore, the costs are reduced (it’s much cheaper to fly a fraction of the way to the moon). Plus a smaller rocket could be used to reach the liftport. Again, this reduces overall costs. The image below illustrates how this all might work once completed.

The seemingly outlandish ideas of orbital or space elevators aren’t science fiction. They represent a genuine attempt to make space travel easy and economical. Orbital elevators can be become reality in a much shorter timeframe than an Earth-to-Moon elevator such as the one recently announced by Japan (they estimate completion around 2050). Should the team at LiftPort be successful, their work would have numerous benefits for commercial and scientific developers by allowing easy access to the space and the moon.

What are your thoughts on orbital elevators? Do you think they’re realistic or will currently available technology prevent them from happening any time soon?

Image Credits: 1) Caltech 2) Liftport

  • The idea of a space elevator is very appealing, but the magnitude of the project makes me wary of it ever being built. Basically we’re talking a subway system that could go around the earth in size. That’s a monumental project. And if it fails, that’s something pretty damn big to come crashing down.

    We can’t even launch a man into space anymore. We don’t even have a payload system that could set up the starter ribbon. And Congress is hell bent on not spending money. Did you see this week’s 60 Minutes on unemployment at NASA in Florida? It’s very sad.

    I’ve always believed in space exploration and the final frontier, but it’s becoming apparent that most other Americans don’t.

  • I agree re. the space elevator. It won’t likely be the U.S. that first completes this (if it can ever be done). That’s why I think the orbital elevator approach is more feasible. This is a much better approach for a private company (with limited NASA involvement). Then of course they can partner with companies like SpaceX and others for orbital docking. Should the thing ever snap (not likely unless they completely fudge up the engineering), it would burn up upon re-entry to Earth. I didn’t see the 60 Minutes interview. I’ll go see if I can find it today online. I agree with you re. Americans’ feelings towards space exploration. This has always been the case (even during the JFK era). I read an article the other day that said something like 60% of Americans at the time didn’t support the Apollo missions. Of course once we got there, the story changed a bit. Perhaps this will always be the case but I do think there are still a lot of supporters and individuals that are enamored by space exploration. As I mentioned in a recent post, the key is perhaps taking politics out of the equation. Time will tell how it all comes out. Thanks James!

  • I get terribly excited when reading about projects such as this. I immediately begin to think of the possibilities. Then when I read of NASA having a limited role, or no role at all, I begin to feel disappointment. I agree with what James wrote. How shocking that we haven’t launched a man beyond low earth orbit since the 70s. How shocking that no one remembers the excitement of the Saturn V.

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