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Space Elevator panel
A panel of experts discusses the future of the space elevator during a conference in Washington DC on June 30. From left: Paul Spudis, Donna Shirley, Robert Sackheim, Brad Edwards, George Whitesides, and Tom Rogers. (credit: J. Foust)

Elevators and exploration

Does a space elevator fit into the Vision for Space Exploration?

NASA’s new Vision for Space Exploration, with its call to return humans to the Moon in preparation for voyages beyond, sets a bold new course for the space agency from its previous focus on the space shuttle and International Space Station. One of the sharpest breaks from the past, arguably, is in the field of space transportation. Since the end of Apollo, much of the agency’s energies have been spent on efforts to reduce the cost of space access, through the shuttle, National Aerospace Plane, X-33, and the Space Launch Initiative. All of those efforts failed: only the shuttle actually flew, and, while a capable machine, came nowhere near the cost and frequency goals its backers promised three decades ago.

NASA has taken a new attitude with the Vision. The cornerstone of the program is a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), that in many minds will essentially be an updated version of the Apollo spacecraft, to be launched on versions of the EELV or, perhaps, a shuttle-derived booster (See “CEV: a different approach”, The Space Review, September 13, 2004). A new heavy-lift booster might also be developed, either derived from EELV or shuttle components or even as a clean-sheet design. However, none of those vehicles are designed with low cost in mind. By adopting this approach to the Vision, NASA has abandoned its decades-long quest for the Holy Grail of cheap access to space.

Work to reduce the cost of space access does continue in the private sector, although those efforts, such as SpaceX’s Falcon and the gaggle of suborbital vehicle developers, are still in the nascent stage. The US military’s recent interest in “responsive space” may lead to vehicles that can not only launch on short notice, but also for lower cost. These efforts, though, largely offer evolutionary, not revolutionary, reductions in launch costs. One innovation that has promised such revolutionary reductions is the space elevator: long consigned to the realm of science fiction, the concept has gained support in recent years thanks to new developments such as carbon nanotubes. (See “The space elevator: going up?” Part 1 and Part 2, September 15 and 22, 2003). With NASA’s focus towards the Vision and not on low-cost space transportation, though, is there any hope to get the agency, or some other entity, to fund continued development of the space elevator idea?

Seeking other supporters

That’s the question a panel of experts considered during the closing session of the Third International Space Elevator Conference in Washington DC in late June. With NASA being focused—at least for the time being—on the new exploration plan, to the point of canceling or cutting back technology programs not related to it, who else is out there that could pick up the slack?

With the Vision, NASA has effectively abandoned its decades-long quest for the Holy Grail of cheap access to space.

One obvious alternative, at least in terms of the size of its pocketbook and its interest in space access, is the Defense Department. The ability to launch large amounts of mass inexpensively would certainly reshape how the military operates in space. Moreover, the early stage of development of space elevator technologies would seem to be a natural fit for DARPA, the military agency that funds technology development that may take years to come to fruition.

“The military will have to be a major factor, I believe, in whatever way we go, whether it is a space elevator or a combination of things, said Robert Sackheim, assistant director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “It won’t happen without the DoD.”

“The space elevator is a fully reusable vehicle, and we’re all agreed that that’s the kind of booster that we need,” said Tom Rogers, chief engineer of the Space Transportation Association. He added that besides offering funding to support the project, the DoD can also provide a sense of fiscal discipline when dealing with large, expensive programs. “There are people in the Defense Department who do pay attention to dollars. Defense can bring that to the table.” Neither Rogers nor Sackheim, though, offered any thoughts about exactly how the Defense Department might get involved, or even if there were people there in positions of influence who might be interested in the concept.

For near-term technology funding, another avenue of government support could come from the National Science Foundation. “The [carbon nanotube] material is not just for space elevators, it has much broader applications,” said Donna Shirley, the former head of NASA’s Mars Exploration program back in the halcyon days of Mars Pathfinder. “The NSF is just hot to trot on nanotechnology, so I think there’s definitely bucks out there.”

The current strong interest in nanotechnology also opens the door to support from the private sector. While a project as risky and expensive as a space elevator would seem to be solely in the realm of government, private investors could play a role. Already one company, LiftPort, is trying to commercially develop a space elevator. Wealthy people interested in space could also make critical investments. “There are people out there who have money and who see going to space, creating a spacefaring civilization, as a good thing to do with their money,” said Shirley. In her current position as director of the new Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, she has experience with one such person: Paul Allen, who spent about $25 million on the museum—on the same order as what he has spent on Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne project.

The private sector has to take the lead on the space elevator, Shirley believes, “because the government simply has too many incentives not to let it happen because they want to protect the existing infrastructure.”

“The way you get rich guys involved,” she explained, “is you have an exciting thing, and the space elevator is exciting, but you need to get your technical act together. You need fundable technology, things where you can see a business proposition. Then, the rich guys will come in, and they’re willing to take a lot more risk with their money than normal people.” With all the potential spinoff technologies, including carbon nanotubes, possible with a space elevator, “it should be a slam dunk.”

Sackheim, on the other hand, felt that the space elevator was too risky for anyone but the government to handle. “The free market’s great but high-risk things usually require government investment,” he said.

Shirley, though, insists that the private sector has to take the lead on the space elevator. “It’s got to be a privately driven system because the government simply has too many incentives not to let it happen because they want to protect the existing infrastructure.”

Saving the Vision?

While experts debate which government organizations or private entities might be willing to support the development of a space elevator, most believe that there’s little support for it within an exploration-focused NASA. (One possible exception some discussed is NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which might be able to fund prizes for the development of elevator-related technologies.) However, some suggested, the low-cost space access promised by the space elevator might be what NASA needs to lower the costs of the Vision and, perhaps, save it from doom.

Rogers noted that the Vision as currently laid out by NASA “will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars.” He recalled a Congressional study he directed in the 1980s that examined the original plans for Space Station Freedom, which concluded the $8-billion estimate for the total cost to build the facility “was more of a floor than a ceiling,” a prediction that turned out to be, if anything, an understatement. Based on that history, he concluded that carrying out the full exploration plan will require “on the order of a trillion dollars.” (A study released earlier this month by the Congressional Budget Office suggested a much smaller—but still significant—overrun of $30-60 billion through 2020.)

“If you guys can make heavy lift obsolete, so much the better,” Spudis said.

“Getting the money is going to be very difficult to do,” he warned. Even worse, he said, are the overall problems with the federal budget in coming years, which faces pressures from the war on terrorism to Medicare and Social Security. “It’s not going to be much fun in this city for the next decade or so.”

While that situation might make it difficult for NASA or other government agencies to fund space elevator development, Rogers said that an elevator could greatly reduce the transportation costs associated with the vision, as well as resolve a dichotomy between NASA, which has focused on the research aspects of exploration, and the Aldridge Commission, which emphasized the role of the private sector. “It may well be that the space elevator can play a fundamental role here,” he said. “It could serve to assist NASA astronauts to travel to and from the Moon at a lower cost, and it can help attract a much greater private sector use of space.”

Paul Spudis, one of the members of the Aldridge Commission, noted that while the commission’s report stated the need to develop a heavy lift launch vehicle, that requirement doesn’t rule out the development of a space elevator. “If you guys can make heavy lift obsolete, so much the better,” he said. “My suspicion is that, if and when the elevator is built, you’re going to have a transition period when certain things are launched and other things are transported by elevator. I don’t think there’s any conflict between the two.”

Finding a new way up

Despite the benefits a space elevator could provide the exploration program, it’s clear that, for now, NASA’s attention is focused elsewhere. This will require proponents of the concept to look past the usual suspects for support. “Our allies for this fight might be outside of what we normally think of as our community,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society. “It may be that the early major proponents of this are not the big aerospace companies but the companies that are tangentially related.”

“Our allies for this fight might be outside of what we normally think of as our community,” said Whitesides.

The irony in that approach is that it was NASA, through the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC), who funded the studies that reenergized interest in the space elevator concept. “In the course of five years, it’s gone from a handful of people considering a space elevator to a roomful of 100 people, and this is only the tip of the iceberg,” said Brad Edwards, Director of Research at the Institute of Scientific Research who won the NIAC grant to look into the idea.

Despite the disconnect between the two, Edwards does think the exploration vision has helped the prospects of the space elevator. “The NASA exploration program has kickstarted some interest in space, and I think we’re rubbing off on some of that.”

The path forward for the space elevator remains uncertain: in addition to the funding complications caused by the exploration vision, there are numerous technological challenges elevator proponents have to overcome, from creating carbon nanotube fibers with the requisite strength to power-beaming systems needed to transfer energy to the vehicles that will climb up the elevator. Edwards is the first to admit those uncertainties. “I’m ecstatic and amazed that I’m involved with this. If you asked me five years ago what I would be doing today, I was certain it would not be this.”