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July 2015 Issue

The Space Elevator: From Imagination to Reality
Dr. Peter A. Swan
The tonnage that goes through the Panama Canal, with ships the size of small villages, is staggeringly high when compared to the tonnage that goes into orbit via successful space launches. A persistent question has always been: Can we open up our solar system to more activity?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy of novels envisions humanity traveling to and from space via dedicated elevator. We are working on making this vision a reality—a system of six space elevators enabling routine, safe launches daily near the Equator using current space technologies that will be leveraged and refined.

An essential element of a space elevator will be the marine node anchoring tethers near the Equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The space elevator will have an apex anchor node anchoring the upper end approximately 100,000 kilometers above the marine node. Multiple tether climbers will be mounted on the tether cable stretching between the two nodes.

Once the tether material is developed, i.e., carbon nanotubes, the space elevator will enable low-cost and routine access to space. This revolutionary infrastructure will enable large quantities of materials and people (more than 35,000 metric tons per year) to lift off to, and return from, geosynchronous altitude and beyond at less than $100 per pound. The current price is $20,000 per pound using expendable launch vehicles. This low-cost access to our solar system will enable businesses to flourish and venture capitalists to invest in ideas, such as almost-free energy to the surface of the Earth using solar-power satellites, or mining minerals on the Moon or other celestial bodies, such as Mars and asteroids.

The marine node will be located in the middle of the ocean because the maximum carrying capacity of a space elevator is for vertical lift, which falls off rapidly as the node moves off the Equator. An ocean placement also covers the space elevator under the International Convention of the Sea, which would open the platform to international free-market commerce.

The marine node’s primary purpose is the mating and de-mating of climbers. It is where the climber is prepared and then sent on its way safely. The marine node will tie together all of the space elevator’s Earth-based aspects: safety, security, inspection of cargo, loading of cargo onto the climber, loading of the climber onto the space elevator tether, offloading of climbers, and support to teams in the area.

The marine node will be a city on multiple platforms floating in the eastern Pacific, the main element of which will be the floating operations platform (FOP). Secondary floating platform elements support the FOP, which would have living quarters, kitchens, laundries, as well as recreational and medical facilities. It will facilitate helicopter landings, local support watercraft, and the loading/unloading of cargo and personnel from oceangoing vehicles. The FOP could be tethered in deepwater, or, more likely, floating free and operating independently. Certain locations along the Equator would allow long-duration operations without encountering major storms, lightning or heavy seas.

Suitable locations studied to date place the marine node more than 1,000 nautical miles west of the Galapagos. As such, the FOP will be self-powered and capable of positioning itself to minimize the effects of wave energy and weather on daily operations. It will be able to safely receive, offload, handle and process containerized cargo, including climber payloads, a variety of fuels and consumables. Floating breakwaters may be required to be deployed during cargo loading/offloading. The main docking area will have the capability to berth small container ships, general cargo vessels, oceangoing tugs/barges and visiting yachts. The FOP will also accommodate personnel and high-value cargo to/from high-speed ferries, helicopters and long-distance seaplanes. It will harbor a small fleet of its own vessels, e.g., offshore service vessels, tugboats, high-speed patrol craft, fireboats and outboard utility boats. This will require facilities such as onboard maintenance shops, refueling stations and protected (covered) berthing areas.

The FOP can be developed by converting an existing aircraft carrier, drillship or offshore oil platform; or, it can be designed and constructed from scratch based upon its special operating requirements. The basic hull or semisubmersible structure will house the main power plant and electrical distribution system, fuel and water storage tanks, desalinization plant, waste treatment plant, fire suppression equipment, thruster machinery and ballast tanks. The superstructure decks include areas and equipment for the tether climber operations center, administrative offices, computer center, meteorology and oceanography control center, and client office space. The upper deck(s) would contain personnel recreation and support facilities, including emergency care facilities, a multipurpose meeting room, food and beverage service, a media center, staterooms and crew quarters. The top deck will house electronic equipment antennas, weather station equipment, helipad and possible tether terminus equipment.

Developing the marine node for the space elevator system will provide many opportunities for the ocean technology community, from platform design and heavy construction to undersea defense systems. The node will be the Earth anchor for a revolutionary infrastructure that will open the solar system further to mankind in the first half of this century.

Dr. Peter A. Swan, president of the International Space Elevator Consortium and member of the International Academy of Astronautics, is a creative space system architect who literally wrote the book on space elevators. He’d like to thank Robert E “Skip” Penny Jr., vice president of the International Space Elevator Consortium, and Vernon E. Hall, P.E., former Port of Los Angeles director of development, for helping write this article.


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