Can We Build an Elevator to Space?


VICTOR HABBICK VISIONS/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

With the end of the shuttle program and an International Space Station still in need of supplies, the aerospace industry is working the kinks of out of a century-old idea to build a service elevator from Earth to outer space.

Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from howstuffworks.com

Josh: Hey, welcome to the Pod Cast. I'm Josh Clark and there is Charles W. Chuck Bryant and that makes this stuff you should miss, so. Did you hear Snoop Dogg's son got a football scholarship to I think UCLA.

Chuck: Yes, so did P Diddy's.

Josh: No way.

Chuck: Yes and actually, Shawn Combs was the first to happen. It was about a month ago and people got upset because they were like we shouldn't be paying for this millionaire, multi-millionaires son to go to college.

Josh: I could see that.

Chuck: But it was explained. The sports guys came out and really defended it and said, it's not you paying for it, it's athletic scholarships that are earned by athletes and it's a separate -

Josh: It's paid for by the Booster Club.

Chuck: Well, probably. But it was basically it's not like some kid is missing out on an application because P Diddy's son earned a football scholarship. He should be treated the same and so should Snoop Dog's son.

Josh: Was there an outcry about Snoop Dog's son?

Chuck: Not as much, because he's the G you see. No one likes Buffy. It's like I don't want to pay for that.

Josh: I don't understand it. He seems like a nice enough guy.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: He's friends with Biggie Smalls.

Chuck: I was in his house once. Did I ever tell you that?

Josh: No.

Chuck: I had to - I was working on a music video with him and I had to deliver as a PA something to his home in Beverly Hills. And, I went to the door and I rang the doorbell and some really large guy in a warm up suit and like a tango hat, invited me in and took my thing and then escorted me out. So I was like in the little foyer and it was like lots of white marble and it could have been like the King of France living there as far as I know.

Josh: There is a fountain of ciroxba.

Chuck: Of course, you know, he's rich.

Josh: I took your thing is that legal, talking about everything above the board?

Chuck: Oh yes, it was like a video cassette for a shoot or something like that. I wouldn't be delivering anything illegal.

Josh: I didn't know if he did something illegal to you by taking your thing as you put it.

Chuck: Oh no, it was all on the up and up.

Josh: Good going Chuck.

Chuck: I haven't been to Snoop's house yet, although I did see him one night in Atlanta.

Josh: You did?

Chuck: Yes, but I can't tell that story though.

Josh: O really. He lives here part time doesn't he?

Chuck: I don't know.

Josh: He used to I believe.

Chuck: What a weird start for the show.

Josh: Yes, it is a little weird especially since we are talking about space elevators.

Chuck: Nothing to do with it.

Josh: This is like we are talking about like P Funk or George Clinton or anything like that, or even Bill Clinton.

Chuck: Although he could build space elevators in his mind.

Josh: He has many times Chuck. I've got something I want to intro.

Chuck: A real intro?

Josh: Yes, it seems kind of stupid now.

Chuck: Let's hear it.

Josh: Well, okay. At 5:57 am in July 21, 2011, about a year ago, something big ended. Something that really helped with our childhood. Like really was an icon of our childhood. I'm not even going to let you guess. The Space Shuttle. The program ended. It started in 1981 and went all the way to 2011. Thirty great years.

Chuck: She had a great run.

Josh: Yes. And -

Chuck: More than 100 missions.

Josh: 135 and actually there is this awesome thing on Gizmodo. You can watch all of the Space Shuttle launches at once. It's just like 135 little tiles on the screen and it like starts from countdown to lift off and it's got everything.

Chuck: Well, they probably don't have the one ill-fated attempt.

Josh: There were two accidents. It's there and I think I found it and it just goes dark at about the time the Challenger exploded. But, this was a huge deal for our childhood. But, it was also a huge deal for the space program because when they launched the first shuttle, I think it was Colombia, it was the first time that anyone had ever shot a spacecraft into space and then brought it back intact.

Chuck: Yes, reusable was huge.

Josh: Yes. We are not talking about a capsule where like Larry Hagman comes down and splashes into the sea and then gets out. Because those capsules weren't reused. This was like we have an appropriately named Space Shuttle. [Crosstalk]

Chuck: It even looked like a plane.

Josh: So it was a big deal when this happened and it proved like okay we can go to space and back using the same equipment, it brought costs down tremendously, they are still pretty high.

And then the Space Shuttle Program ends and everybody is like, how are we going to get to space and back now Obama? Did you think this through? And, Obama didn't say it but I bet he was thinking it when he was kind of skulking away after being shouted at for basically closing NASA.

Chuck: Not true.

Josh: He probably thought have you ever thought of the Space Elevator dummy.

Chuck: He should say that. That's what we are going to talk about Josh. And, I thought this was a thrilling article.

Josh: You thought the article itself was thrilling?

Chuck: No, no, no. The concept of the Space Elevator. The article itself was a little -

Josh: It was a little 2005.

Chuck: Yes, it's a little outdated but it's pretty cool. So you mentioned the Space Shuttle. Even though the Space Shuttle took place over the span, of what did you say 30 years?

Josh: Yes, 1981-2011.

Chuck: The price of getting the thing going didn't change a whole lot, which was pretty remarkable. It stayed about $10,000 per pound.

Josh: Right. And they originally predicted when they were working on the shuttle program before it started that it was going to be about $50 million a mission. It came to about $500 million a mission. And every mission they spent half a billion dollars on the shuttle mission. And that $10,000 per pound, 90 percent of that is fuel.

Chuck: Yes, is that the per pound of everything on there? Josh: Yes, I think it's just like that kind of equation.

Chuck: So a lighter astronaut would be cheaper?

Josh: I don't really think - if you take the full weight of this -

Chuck: Yes, and divide it by the money spent. I get it. So in theory a lighter astronaut would make it cheaper, but not really.

Josh: Not really. Because I think they had those astronauts weighed down to the gram, exactly what they wanted them to weigh. They would probably be like, you need to excrete because you are about to suit up, go excrete.

Chuck: You need to pee six ounces right now. I'd be a great astronaut then, because I can pee on command.

Josh: Can you really?

Chuck: Almost always.

Josh: Okay, so I've got something for you about six ounces. Have you seen the little diagram of the Solo Cup, you know the lines on a Solo Cup? They're measurements. The bottom one is an ounce. The top one, so like liquor. The middle one five ounces for wine. And then I'm not kidding, the lowest top band is 12 ounces for beer.

Chuck: I never knew that. That's ingenious.

Josh: It is.

Chuck: I love little tidbits like that. Like the amount of matches in a matchbook is equal to the amount of cigarettes in a pack.

Josh: Oh, I didn't know that. That makes sense.

Chuck: We should just talk about those things all day instead of Space Elevator.

Josh: No, let's talk about the Space Elevator.

Chuck: Okay, let's talk about it. Quickly a Space Elevator, and we will get into the specifics here. But what it basically is, it's a ribbon, a carbon nano tube composite ribbon, anchored to a platform offshore way out in the Pacific Ocean. And it has a counter weight way up in space, 62,000 miles and they basically would - that would be the elevator shaft and they would send stuff crawling up and down this ribbon to outer space.

Josh: Yes. Have you ever seen somebody like a piano mover lift a piano to a second story apartment? Except in space.

Chuck: Yes, that's pretty much it. I don't like the comparison to the game of tetherball here.

Josh: I thought it was a terrible, terrible analogy.

Chuck: So let's just skip it, because it didn't make much sense to me.

Josh: I think you said it. Basically we're connecting a line to a platform in the ocean and a satellite up in space and we are putting something on it that can go up and down.

Chuck: The cool thing about this to me is every single part of this is feasible right now to do except for the one thing that they need to do it which are the carbon nano tubes that go 62,000 miles into space. They are around but we can't make them that long yet.

Josh: I think that's a really good point. All of us just are waiting. I saw a little video that Micimacko made about this explaining it. And he was saying like everything has been surmounted now. Like now it's all in the realm of physical possibility. There are just a few more break throughs and it's all carbon nano tubes which are - we've talked about graphene before right?

The strongest substance known to man or human kind. It's a one atom think layer of carbon. Incredible strong. It's like 100 times stronger than steel at about one fifth of the weight. And a carbon nano tube is a layer of graphene rolled into a tube.

Chuck: It looks like chicken wire, a soccer ball chicken wire.

Josh: Exactly. If you spread out a length of chicken wire and roll it up, nano tube, carbon nano tube.

Chuck: And we say soccer ball because the shape of the traditional soccer ball, not these crazy ones they are using these days -

Josh: I don't even recognize those as soccer balls.

Chuck: But the old school soccer ball, the shape is the same shape as these carbon atoms, which is the key to its strength. I've seen it described as stiff but flexible like a steel guitar string. So it moves but it's still super, super strong and even though it's just a few atoms across, they are 10 million times as long as they are wide once you get this thing going. So like a guitar string.

Josh: Yes, because these are nano tubes, so their diameter is like a few billionths of a meter.

Chuck: I think one billionth.

Josh: Is that right?

Chuck: Yes, because a nano is a billion.

Josh: A billionth?

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: So it's very thin.

Chuck: Very thin.

Josh: That's the point and ultimately I saw that this 62,000 mile cable would be, it could be as thin as a piece of saran wrap. But it would still be strong enough to not snap under its own weight. 62,000 miles. There is no quality of material outside of this that wouldn't just snap like a hair. Like pulling one of your hairs in half. This one will. But the problem is you don't make carbon nano tubes. You grow them.

Chuck: Yes, there's a really cool Nova video too on YouTube where it shows a guy in the lab pulling a braided forest of carbon nano tubes and he starts pulling and you see it all coalescing together and he gets ten feet away and it finally snaps. And then it's just smaller than a human hair, just like floats away almost.

Josh: That's longer than I've seen. The record that I saw was four centimeters in length.

Chuck: Yes, well this was - I think it was stretching. I don't think it was the original size.

Josh: I got you. So the carbon nano tubes grow and then after - that's the world record, four centimeters, which is like 1.6 inches. That's short and then it just stops growing.

Chuck: You need 62,000 miles.

Josh: Right, exactly. One of the problems with them not being able to figure out why it stops growing is that scientists don't know why it grows in the first place. They have no idea. They are just like, oh this happens when they do this.

They figured out that there are some things like hydrogen gas in certain amounts makes it grow longer. If you do too much hydrogen gas it won't grow at all. So, there are figuring this out, but they are still at a point where they don't understand carbon nano tubes at all. They were only officially discovered in 1991.

Chuck: Yes, which is a blip in the scientific community.

Josh: But, we are making headway and like you said once the carbon nano tube technology is able to be made into things that are maybe several meters long, or they can figure out how to basically wrap smaller pieces together in like how you insulate wires with plastic, something like without the alloy coming away, then we will be able to make this space ribbon. The ribbon for the elevator.

Chuck: Which essentially is going to be like they would braid these things together like a rope, correct?

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Which would still be timely though.

Josh: Yes, so it would either be several meters in length braided together or a really short one braided together. But either way they are not just going to make one continuous 62,000 meters - or 62,000 mile strand.

Chuck: There is one thing I didn't get though. If it's so small it needs to be a certain size to have these lifters attached to it. It can't be a human hair.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: What could you attach to that?

Josh: They have to gain traction with it. So, it couldn't just be as thin as plastic wrap even though strength wise it could be.

Chuck: So that's one of the things they are working on, bulking it up.

Josh: I guess so, because you have to put the lifter on it like you were saying. So the lifter from now on all this exists. We can make this today. You and I can make it right now.

Chuck: Well, let's get it into space first. What the idea is, they would spool this thing up once they created it. They would shoot it into space with some kind of spacecraft. Once it's in space they would start lowering it back to the earth, toward the platform out in the middle of the sea while it's still going out into space.

Josh: Yes, they would start lowering the ribbon but the spool would continue going up.

Chuck: It's going in two opposite directions.

Josh: It would be like some kid walking the dog.

Chuck: And eventually it gets lowered and there's a dude standing on a platform saying, all right back it down and he would take it and clip it onto a C platform, although it would be much more complicated than that.

Josh: Think about that operation. So this platform would be 400 miles from any shipping or air lanes.

Chuck: Which is important.

Josh: In the equatorial pacific and a 63,000 mile strand of rope even, say it's as thick as a cable, one of the cables holding the Golden Gate Bridge. Imagine catching that. I mean it's obviously it's not going to be a guy catching it but still there is somebody piloting a machine that - and I don't know how you would move the counter weight around, the spool so that you can get near it. How are you going to get the thread?

This is the most difficult aspect of the whole program if you ask me. Grabbing that ribbon and connecting it.

Chuck: Although they act like they've got that all figured out. They are like, we had this nano tube that was this long and we are all set. Like they have a guy out on a platform just sitting around waiting for this thing to come down from space.

Josh: So that guy catches the ribbon, ties it off, probably with a pretty decent sailor's knot and then you attach the lifter to it. Right?

Chuck: That's right. The lifter is a robotic thing and basically it's sort of like a train track that uses these traction tread rollers and it would clamp on to this ribbon. And, through something a little more advanced than a gasoline engine, I think what are they using, is a free electron lazar to create the energy to do this.

Josh: Basically what they are doing, is they are going to put solar panels, but made of stuff that really observes light from a lazar on the bottom or on the top, probably on both sides and then they are just going to shoot lazars up and down the ribbon. And then that lazar just powers - it's basically like directing sunlight on to photovoltaic cells and then converting that to electricity. It's the same thing.

Chuck: That is just plain old mechanical energy. It's like a little motor that would crawl at 118 miles an hour mind you. That's not exactly a crawl. It would shoot up this ribbon into space to the final destination, which would be anything. First they talked about capturing an asteroid to serve as the counter weight to what I think is smart, would potentially be a satellite or the spacecraft that brought it out there to begin with.

Josh: Yes, just unfolding or reconfiguring or whatever and all of a sudden bam, there's your counter weight. There's the other end of the string. Right?

Chuck: After they get this going, that can basically be a constant operational elevator to the sky, lifting as much as 13 tons of payload at a time in some cases. Humans maybe?

Josh: Eventually, yes.

Chuck: Crazy.

Josh: I guess the whole point now would be to shuttle stuff to say the International Space Station. Supplies that kind of thing. Gruel, food, or if you had some sort of asteroid mining operation, you could take your daily haul to the space elevator to be brought down.

The point is, this thing could be used for trips to lower earth orbit every day. Several times a day. Because I think lower earth orbit is between 500 and 1500 miles. So that's like a four to twelve hour trip basically.

Chuck: And they are talking going further than that though.

Josh: Right. But, lower earth orbit is where all the action is generally. The problem is that is where all the space debris is.

Chuck: Yes, and I don't think we mentioned what the best part of all this is. Is that it would cost about, the closest estimate I've seen is about $200 a pound to deliver stuff to outer space.

Josh: And what was the Space Shuttle cost?

Chuck: $10,000 a pound. So, that's why they are pursuing this because it's much, much more affordable. They likened it to the Transcontinental Railroad back in the day. Linking space to earth. So the problems Josh, avoiding junk flying around in space. It would suck if you got this thing all hooked up and some asteroid came flying out of nowhere and snapped this thing in half.

Josh: Not just asteroids, apparently space debris largely refers to junk, manmade junk, and lower earth's orbit is lousy with it. There was a satellite, an old out of use satellite that collided with a new in use satellite recently and blew it up and all of a sudden two pieces became 4,000 pieces.

Chuck: And that's nothing. That's a drop in the bucket.

Josh: It is. The problem is that even the small, like one centimeter diameter piece is a threat to the Space Elevator. So right now NORAD tracks things as small as ten centimeters. Did you know that?

Chuck: I did once I read this. I was pretty shocked.

Josh: But they are going to have to start tracking stuff down to one centimeter. So, this is another kind of challenge that I don't think people talk about. Tracking space debris. They are also proposing that we just go up there and get rid of it. Pay contractors to go to space and bring these things down.

Chuck: And clean up. That would be a unique approach. It's called active avoidance and it's pretty amazing that you could actually, potential because this thing is tethered to a C Platform, move the C Platform to dodge these things.

Josh: But that would mean it was guys whose job it is to -

Chuck: Joy stick it. That's crazy. It sounds very farfetched. But it's supposedly not super farfetched. I mean this company, Lift Port, they are one of the private firms that have been, I think they partnered with NASA for a while until NASA, their funding has dried up to a large degree, so they had to scratch things like partnering with Lift Port.

But, Lift Port as of now, I think I read in 2011, they have sort of scrapped, not scrapped, but they put on the back burner the space to earth version and they are working on a lunar version. So they want to put one of these on the moon which can be done right now if they had the money.

Josh: That makes sense to me.

Chuck: Not as much gravity, so they don't need the carbon nano tubes. They can use the stuff called Zylon, it's a synthetic polymer and apparently they can do this within the decade. Everything is in place, it's just a matter of doing it.

Josh: So I thought about having one that goes from the Earth to the Moon or the Earth to Mars, or -

Chuck: And then from the Moon to Mars. You could connect them. Like station one is here and then you have another one that goes there. The idea is they are going to build a bunch of these. That's the idea. Because if one goes down because of some space debris, hey no problem, we've got another one we can build even cheaper over here in this part of the ocean. So that's the idea.

Josh: What's awesome is that this is far reaching. It sounds futuristic. It's actually a smart simple idea. We are going to build an elevator that goes to space. And it's kind of actually an old idea. There was a Russian scientist named, Konstatin Tsioklovsky, who proposed this in 1895. And then he kind of went, I think everybody thought he was a crack pot for a while.

Chuck: They thought da Vinci was too, or actually did they?

Josh: No not da Vinci.

Chuck: Did they think he was a genius back then too?

Josh: Probably. Except for his flying machine. I think that's where he lost his credibility. But then Arthur C. Clark comes along and writes about this in Fountains of Paradise in 1978. And he very clearly saw the big problem was the ribbon. If you could figure out the ribbon then everything else would be fine.

Chuck: Which is still the problem. Arthur C. Clark, way ahead of his time. So that's pretty much it. If they get this lunar one going, they are talking about deep space exploration from a Lunar based system which, the benefit there is that it costs a lot of money to get from here to the moon. If you could shuttle the components of a rocket up to the moon, and just get it going up there it would be a lot cheaper.

Josh: We talked about that with asteroid mining that that was another idea, is you could launch things from these asteroids or whatever because the vast majority - remember 90 percent of the weight of the Space Shuttle is in the fuel. Almost all of that is just used within the first 10 miles. Then after that, you start to escape Earth's orbit and you -

Chuck: You don't need as much juice.

Josh: Exactly. If you could get rid of all that you just drop the cost tremendously. Space.

Chuck: I'm curious see within a decade if we are going to have a space elevator from the Moon to something else.

Josh: We will be riding one.

Chuck: You think so.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Well it all depends on funding. That's like these ideas are all great in practice but unless you have billions of dollars to get it going.

Josh: But think about Jeff Bezos has billions of dollars. Kurt Cameron, no James Cameron, Elon Musk. These guys have cash and this is what they are putting their money into. This kind of thing. So I don't think it's going to come down to NASA funding, I think it's going to come down to the will of guys like Kurt Cameron.

Chuck: Well Kurt Cameron does not have a fine collection of faith based movies that you can check out.

Josh: But not the dirty kind of directive video. I guess that's about it right?

Chuck: That's pretty much. I'm looking forward to it. Private space exploration is definitely the way of the future.

Josh: We should put in a request for this article to be update, but I'm afraid to, I think they will say, have at it. If you want to read a hilarious out of date article on how stuff works, it still captures what's going on with the Space Elevator. And with some cool artist's rendering of stuff you can type in Space Elevator that's at the handy search bar and a great little website called howstuffworks.com. And, I said search bar and it's time right now for listener mail.

Chuck: Josh, I'm going to call this Dead Sea follow up. And I should mention we've got a lot of emails from Dead Sea visitors and tourists and a lot of photos.

And one thing we did not cover because I haven't been there and experienced this, but we said swim in the Dead Sea a lot. There isn't a lot of swimming going on in the Dead Sea. There's a lot of flailing and floating because they just say it's disorienting because you are so used to the way you move in water and all of a sudden that's totally different.

So people are gasping and eventually they will learn to trust and relax and float on their back. You don't want to go on your stomach. You don't want to try and swim. And you don't want to get it in your face because it will really sting your eyes. And it tastes really bad. We had this one lady that wrote in whose husband was suffering - they advise you not to go in with open sores or cuts obviously, her husband was suffering from a little, oh it's called a lot of different things. When you walk a lot and you get chafed between he legs. It goes by many different crude names. He had a bad case of this and didn't tell his family that he was traveling with. His wife knew. And he went in the Dead Sea and promptly got out and his family was like where did the son in law go and she was like maybe he's just not into it.

So this is from Daniel and thanks for everyone else who wrote in. I just finished the Dead Sea Pod Cast and I had a couple of interesting tid bits. You briefly mentioned the Great Salt Lake when talking about the high salinity of the Dead Sea. These lakes actually have many things in common. Both lakes are located in the desert reason, although the elevation is drastically different.

Like the Dead Sea, the Great Salt Lake here in Utah has a very high salt content. About 27 percent, making it hard for anything except halophilic bacteria and some brine shrimp to grow. This guys a graduate student by the way at BYU. Both lakes are fed mainly by a smaller fresh water lake roughly 50 miles away.

The Dead Sea being fed by the Sea of Galilee to the North by way of the Jordan River. The Great Salt Lake is fed by Utah Lake to the south also by the Jordan River. Coincidence? Not sure. In both cases the water leaves the lake only through evaporation.

And like the Dead Sea there are many areas as the Great Salt Lake that are quite stinky at times, mainly in the muddy water where the level is low. The Great Salt Lake is also dense enough for you to float with little to no effort so if you are not able to ever make it over to Europe to visit the Dead Sea, that's in the middle east wouldn't you, you can head on over for a float in its little American cousin here in Utah.

Keep up the good work guys. I really enjoy the wide variety of topics. And that is from Daniel who is a grad student at BYU, studying Micro Biology. So good for you my friend. Much smarter than I am.

Josh: Well, yes. Great student is all I've got to say.

Chuck: English under grad, Micro Biology grad.

Josh: That is a well-rounded human being.

Chuck: Agreed.

Josh: Oh wait; you're the English under -grad.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: Well to put the two of you together you're a well-rounded human being.

Chuck: Exactly.

Josh: If you have some ideas of how to put me and Chuck together to perform another super human. We want to hear them. Also, if you just want to say hi or have something cool and interesting to tell us, a great fact, we love those. Tweet or put on Facebook. You can send those via Twitter, syskpodcast. Via Facebook at facebook.com/thingsyoushouldknow. And you can send us an email to stuffpodcast@discovery.com

Female Speaker: For more on this and thousands of other topics visit howstuffworks.com

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Duration: 30 minutes