Space Elevators  Interview

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Space Elevators Interview with Mr. Ben Shelef - founder of the Spaceward Foundation which is a public-funds non-profit organization dedicated to furthering space science and technology in the public mindshare and in educational curriculums.

ASG: What is Space Elevator and what is its purpose? 

Spaceward: The Space Elevator is a revolutionary space access technology, capable of delivering staggering amounts of payloads to space in a safe and benign manner, without any of the problems that plague rocket based travel.  The overview below considers a concrete design for a 20-ton capacity Space Elevator, but Space Elevators are infinitely scalable one can just as easily construct them ten times or one hundred times larger.

The Space Elevator structure is a tether, about 1/4" (0.6 cm) in diameter, and about 60,000 miles long, one end attached to the ground (or more precisely, to a ship on the equator) and the other end attached to a counterweight in space. The structure (tether and counterweight) spins in unison with earth, completing one revolution every 24 hours, and this rotation keeps the tether taught by the pull of the counterweight. For an earth-bound observer, the tether seems to simply stretch straight up into space, with the counterweight pulling up on it as if by magic. Were the tether to be released from the anchor, it would fly upwards into space, following the counterweight. For various reasons, outside of the atmosphere, the tether is spread out to be very wide and very thin (keeping the same cross sectional area) making it look more like Saran Wrap than like a round tether. In such a configuration, it is referred to as a ribbon.


In order to access space, vehicles called climbers, travel up the ribbon using mechanical traction wheels, powered by electric motors and a photo-voltaic array. The climbers move at about 200 km/h (about 120 mph), and the ride to GEO takes 4 days. Since solar light is not powerful enough to drive the climbers straight up the ribbon, the design has the photo-voltaic array placed at the underside of the climbers, and a strong beam of light projected from the ground and providing the source of power. Since the power source is left on the ground, a climber can be 25% structure and 75% payload in contrast to the 1-5% payload numbers that are common with rocket based launch systems.


The ride in the Space Elevator is comparable to a ride in a ship there are no strong accelerations, vibrations, or risk of explosion. Payloads can be launched fully deployed (there is no practical limit on the size of the cargo), and can be switched on while still attached to the climber. If testing shows a problem, the payload can be brought back down again.


In addition to its earth-to-orbit capabilities, the Space Elevator can use its rotation to sling payloads to earth escape trajectories, again without the use of any propellant. If dedicated to Mars exploration, for example, the Space Elevator can place 10 ton payloads on the surface of Mars at an average rate of one per day.


In this 20 ton capacity design, the tether weighs about 1000 tons, and the counterweight weighs another 600 tons. For a sense of scale, the international space station weighs about 500 tons, and a Space Shuttle weighs about 2000 tons at liftoff, and can carry about 20 tons to space.

ASG:  How will you further space science and technology in the public mindshare and in educational curriculums? 

Spaceward:  Elevator:2010 is designed to address the "social engineering" of the Space Elevator.  Its goals are to advocate the concept to the general public, and capture mindshare in the science and technology community.


In order to achieve these goals, we are following two parallel tracks a competitive track aimed at academia and private industry, and an outreach track aimed at K-12 and the general public.


In the days of airships, the advocates of airplanes devised a new way to promote their (obviously impractical...) inventions. It was called an "air show", and it had a dual purpose:


-    First, these pioneers knew that they could explain airplanes all they wanted using equations and diagrams; it was not until they showed them flying that they really got their message across.


-    Second, they recognized the power of competition - by bringing together airplane enthusiasts in a competitive environment, they were able to accelerate the rate of development beyond what was likely in the isolated confines of their shops.

We plan to follow in their footsteps.  Our Space Elevator competitions will demonstrate to the public what it is that we're advocating, and draw engineering and scientific talent to work on the project.

ASG:  What is the Space Elevator Roving Showcase?

Spaceward:  The Space Elevator Roving Showcase (SERS) is a mobile demonstration of the Space Elevator. SERS will tour the country, setting up shop in all major airshows and science fairs, as well as schools, universities, and as a visiting exhibit at tech museums and other places of interest.

Operated by a crew of two (narrator and operator) and featuring a working 100-foot tall beam-powered climber display, an A/V tent, and several additional displays, SERS is a miniature mobile space science museum, capable of going to where the crowds already are - truly a public outreach program!

Tallying the attendance figures of all the events and destinations SERS can reach, SERS will bring a first-hand Space Elevator experience to easily two million people per year. 

SERS was conceived during International Space Conference 2005 (ISDC) in May 2005, after breaking our knuckles in the conference parking lot for 3 days (most of the parts arrived in DC direct from the machine shop - we brought the mockup from concept to hardware in less than 2 weeks). The result was both satisfying and tantalizing - it was very clear that we should have this display boxed and packaged, and take it on the road.

SERS will be much grander than the ISDC mockup, but we intend to grow the fully functional SERS from the mock-up in a gradual manner. Our first appearance, with a rental truck, a 100 foot boom, a slide projector and a re-vamped version of the Washington DC climber mock-up will probably occur in the middle of June 2005.

This appearance will validate the concept, and will give our sponsors some more images to chew on. Following a successful appearance, we will continue to develop the display, adding signage, a working climber, an outdoor theater and more A/V content.

More details are available on our web site,

ASG:  How are the projects finanaced and how can people help? 

Spaceward:  We're sponsorship based.  Our current partners are very excited about SERS, since they can easily see the exposure potential. We are now looking for more sponsorship - SERS will not come for free, and will have significant construction and operating expenses. We intend to create a lot of buzz around the Space Elevator, have high-attendance (100,000 visitor) events, and get corporate sponsors.

ASG: Ben, thank you for talking to ASG via email (May 29, 2005).

Read about the Space Elevator Games. 2006 Space Elevator Competition.


The Space Elevator: A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System
by Bradley C. Edwards, Eric A. Westling

A Vision of Future Space Transportation by Tim McElyea, David Brin

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