The Space Elevator

from Issue 4


ince the dawn of the space era more than six decades ago, there has been just one way to get to the moon and back: rockets. Penoyre and Sandford believe that we should be able to transport humans and and cargo to space and back using a different method, using some sort of high tech elevator.

The idea of space elevators is not new. Spaceflight visionaries, the people with original ideas who think about what the future will or could be like, have been talking about them since at least the late 1800s. But astronomers wanted to go more advanced, and try to provide transportation directly to the moon. In a study published 25 August 2019, researchers contend that it is technologically and financially feasible to build a lunar space elevator.
“It shocks me how cheap it could be,” says Zephyr Penoyre, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Cambridge.

Penoyre and Emily Sandford, another graduate student in Astronomy, call their lunar space elevator concept as Spaceline. The main composition of the Spaceline would be a cable that would be anchored to the moon and span more than 200,000 miles to a point above Earth’s surface. Anchoring the cable of the elevator directly to Earth’s surface is relatively impossible because the relative motions of the moon and earth would not allow it.

The simplest version of the Spaceline cable might be barely thicker than the lead in a pencil and could weigh around 88,000 pounds. This is within the budget of NASA. It would be made of Kevlar rather than carbon based materials, which have been foreseen as the key to building a classical space elevator.

Space travelers in the future would use a spacecraft to fly from earth to the end of the dangling cable, which would be held taut by Earth’s gravity, and then be transferred to solar- powered robotic vehicles that would climb up the cable to the moon. The voyage would take a couple of days to weeks.

People question the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a lunar space elevator instead of relying on proven rocket technology. This idea would spark a huge advancement of human creativity. Penoyre and Sandford say that this idea could be economical, especially for bringing raw materials back to Earth from moon-based mines.

Despite their potential advantages over rocket transport, lunar or classical space elevators have not gained much attention from space agencies or aerospace manufacturers currently. NASA occasionally funded studies on space elevator concepts in the 1970s. China and Japan have shown proposals for building classical space elevators by 2045 and 2050, respectively. But as of now, there is no ‘SpaceX’ for space elevators. With speculation, though, the idea is not far-fetched.
“One thing that’s frustrating is the lunar space elevator idea doesn’t have much traction, and yet it is a feasible idea and econo/mically a game-changer,” says Space Initiatives CEO Charles Radley.