FOR decades engineers and science-fiction writers have dreamed of lifts capable of carrying things into orbit from the Earth’s surface. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian scientist, suggested the idea in 1895, inspired by the Eiffel Tower. And in 1979 Arthur C. Clarke wrote an entire novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”, about the construction of such a space elevator. Thanks to SpaceX and other private spaceflight companies, rocket launches have fallen in price in recent years. Each launch of the Falcon Heavy, which will become the beefiest rocket in the skies when sent up by SpaceX next week, costs around $90m. But whisking satellites, space probes and even people into orbit on a giant elevator might be cheaper, more reliable and more civilised than using giant fireworks—if one could be built. Unfortunately, the technical challenges are formidable.
The basic idea of a space elevator is to run a fixed cable from a point on the Earth’s equator to a space station directly overhead, in geostationary orbit (that is, at an altitude of...Continue reading