Building a Space Elevator

By April 20, 2006Manufacturing Institute

I seem to recall reading an Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi novel once where there was an elevator into outer space. Like a lot of science fiction, it didn’t seem like it was something we’d see in our lifetime, if ever.

So you’d be probably be as surprised as I was to find out that such an invention is being investigated and explored actively. A space elevator is a thin ribbon, with a cross-section area roughly half that of a pencil, extending from a ship-borne anchor to a counterweight way out in space. It can carry up to 15 tons of cargo on a ribbon that is 62,000 miles long, about 3 feet wide, and is thinner than a sheet of paper, made out of carbon nanotube composites.

I came across this bit of futuristic information in checking on the exhibitors at the April 26-27 Cool Products Expo being held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The Expo is sponsored by the universitiy’s Graduate School of Business, Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing (AIM) and Stanford Engineering. The very first item on their list of exhibits is the Spaceward Foundation and work on its space elevator! Apparently NASA has recently completed a study of this form of transport and concludes that they could become a reality within 50 years.

If you visit the Cool Products Expo webpage, you’ll see that there are entries from General Motors, Segway, Freescale Semiconductor, Boston Scientific and other household manufacturing names. Many of these companies participate in the Stanford forum that is helping sponsor the Expo, the Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing (AIM). These companies, like most manufacturers, know that keeping ahead of the curve on new products and processes is what distinguishes manufacturing from all other sectors in the economy. We like to cite the equation manufacturing=technology=productivity. And these new ideas, no matter how far-fetched they may seem to us now, could be the basis of whole new industries within our lifetimes. After all, in the early 1800s, common knowledge was that a thing called a railroad would never work and that certainly no human could survive a wild 30 mph ride in any case. Be sure to check out that space elevator.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • ok says:

    ok. Not all of us go down in history as someone who actually did somthing to contribute to society. I’m sure the person before me will fit nicley in to that catagory and will soon be forgotten much the same as his primitive and pessimistic way of thinking. First of all, the space elevator will become a reality and in the near future. Also, I can’t seem to understand why everyone thinks that the government has to fund such a venture. Private Enterprise is much more efficient and cost effective. This project could be completed with roughly $10 billion dollars. That is chump change in big business. (ExxonMobil made $8 billion dollars the previous QUARTER of this year) so dont say that such a project is impossible because not olny are you undermining the capacity of human innovation but, im afraid, you are on the wrong side of history.

  • jesus says:

    we will never build the space elevator for useful purposes. Because by the time we do, 90% of the world’s population will be dead–climate change, depletion of resources, overcrowding, wars over resources, desease, little nuclear skirmishes, biological weapons….the high maintenance of civ (we are on life support with oil–take cheap energy away, were all screwed)..etc, etc. tighter control over the remainder of the pop.

    By then a space elevator will be relic.

    Naw, this century is doomsday. Its the end of the world.

  • Don Nuckols says:

    According to Brad Edwards, we need a material with a tensile strength of at least 63GPa. If you believe everything you read on the Internet, a company in The Netherlands has come up with a fiber material with a tensile strength of at least 350GPa!

    That oughta do it.

    Their website is located at:

  • Brian Dunbar says:

    We liked the idea so much that a company was formed in 2002 to investigate the idea of building an ‘Edwards’ SE by private interests. See our page

  • David says:

    50 years is too far out. We only need one real technological breakthrough — usable carbon nanotube production. Everything else is doable today. Once nanotubes (or some other sufficiently strong material) can be produced in suitable form, all that remains are the political hurdles and a reason enough to pursue it. Expanding space commerce is probably reason enough, so political issues would likely be the deciding factor. And considering the economic advantage any one country or group of countries would gain with a working space elevator, I expect a real space elevator race to take off in about 15 years. I give it a total of 30 years at the outside.