A space elevator was first conceptualised more than 120 years ago, many believe it is a concept of fiction, something to be seen in movies or TV shows. But that is no longer true, we could build a space elevator if we so wished. In doing so, Britain would solidify itself as the most ambitious and advanced nation on earth.
The idea of a space elevator was first conceived by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895. The basic concept is relatively simple, a tether, whether that be a cable or structure on earth that travels all the way up into space, with a platform or station suspended in geostationary orbit. The station/platform would rotate the earth in geostationary orbit ensuring the cable remains vertical and upright.
There are many iterations of a space elevator, the concept I will be focusing on is a large structure on earth that can be used for cargo and personnel, and a station up in space that can house people and cargo as well as being able to host spaceships in the future. The station would be amenable to subsequent expansions as its purpose and usage change. The cable would be able to transport cargo and people to space and back down to earth. This is a simple explanation of the concept.
Before I set out the economics and management of the elevator, I’ll answer the question of why we should build one in the first place.
Britain has been suffering from a severe lack of confidence ever since the end of the Second World War. Its leaders don’t particularly like their own country, its people sacrificed their lives and future prosperity to win not one but two world wars, and it is coasting on the success of past greater men and greater achievements. There have been brief respites from this lack of confidence, the Falklands War was one such, but when our citizens see that it takes the state more than 30 years to plan and build a high-speed rail network, it’s no wonder people have such low expectations.
Britain has built great things before, Concorde, Calder Hall nuclear power station (the world’s first commercial nuclear power station), and the British Empire. Megaprojects are a part of the DNA of what it is to be British, progress and innovation used to be our guiding philosophy. It’s time we got that back.
Making a choice to build a space elevator, the world’s first, is so ambitious and revolutionary, it would reverse decades of British decline and fast-track Britain into a country of the 22nd century.
Given that this project has never been done before and would be what is called a ‘moonshot’ project (a plan or aim to do something that seems almost impossible), you would be forgiven for thinking this project would bankrupt Britain. It wouldn’t.
Bradley Edwards, an American Physicist who has spent his career developing a concept of a space elevator wrote a paper in 2004 with David Raitt of the European Space Agency in which they concluded a space elevator could cost around $6.2 billion. Adjusted for inflation and converted to British pounds, this amounts to around £12 billion for the project. This equates to around 25 days of total NHS spending. Edwards and Raitt warn however that a more realistic cost could ‘perhaps be twice this’. The elevator would then cost Britain £24bn. 50 days of NHS spending. HS2 is costing more than £100bn. The elevator would cost around the same amount as the Channel Tunnel that connects Britain and France.
Like all megaprojects, the elevator would create thousands of jobs, and create entirely new industries, one in which Britain would have a headstart. But once the elevator is built, that is when the real benefits will become apparent.
Not only is an elevator into space on British soil a visible sign of Britain’s innate superiority, but it also has the potential to be a major money maker. Britain, being the only country on earth with an elevator, would effectively have a monopoly on cheap space transportation. Space tourism, interplanetary travel, the moving and actual building of spaceships in space instead of on earth, asteroid mining, satellite launches, and even military operations. All would net a handsome revenue and eventual profit for British taxpayers.
The British government (British taxpayers) would be paying for the development and construction of the elevator, given this, some flexibility can be taken in terms of funding and management. Failures will be inevitable, and these failures will have to be tolerated in order to commit fully to the project. The elevator is not being built by a public or private company with various investors etc, because of this money, loss-making and failure are less of a concern. Perhaps the most similar past project that can be related to any future space elevator development is the Apollo Space Programme. Arguably humanity’s greatest feat is the mission to the moon.
The Apollo mission to land on the Moon is the definitive example of how a space elevator project would be structured and managed. George Mueller, an engineer and head of the Apollo programme restructured NASA from its former crippling bureaucracy and disintegration. The head of such a project has to be truly great, it cannot be a civil servant plucked out of obscurity. In order for a project like this to succeed, only great men/managers with willpower, vision and skill should be given authority over it. People like George Muller, Jim Webb, Leslie Groves, and even Elon Musk.
The project should be effectively independent of the civil service and should operate similarly to how the Vaccine Taskforce in 2020 operated. That is reporting directly to the Prime Minister. The government bureaucracy plus parliament should not be allowed to interfere with a project this complex and as such its budget should be protected.
A space elevator is entirely possible and interest is only growing, but it will take state funds to push forward. Edwards wrote in a separate paper in 2000:
The space elevator has tremendous potential for improving access to Earth orbit, space and the other planets. When originally proposed this potential appeared to be in the distant future constrained by the lack of viable materials. Carbon nanotubes with theoretical strength-to-mass ratio sufficient for construction of the space elevator are now being produced in small quantities and work is proceeding to fabricate longer nanotubes in greater quantity. As this work proceeds a space elevator will become viable. The feasibility of the space elevator then hinges on the other aspects of its design, construction, deployment and utilization. We have presented the various aspects of the space elevator along with the problems and possible solutions associated with each. In our examination we found none of the possible problems unsolvable with current or near-future technology but further, detailed studies are required.
China and Japan have already expressed their plans to build a space elevator of their own, I’m not convinced China has the political capital, knowledge or innovation capacity to build such an elevator, and Japan doesn’t have the monetary capital.
Britain is the natural home of advancement and progress, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, and the Space Revolution can too. The space elevator will be the first step of Britain’s wider mission to colonise space.
If you are someone with any sense of aesthetics or vision, you are excited about this proposal, if you aren’t you are probably screeching at the screen, wishing that Inflamer Media had a comment section so that you could say we shouldn’t waste our time or resources on this project and instead spend this money on the NHS.
JFK famously said of the mission to land on the Moon, ‘We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’. I simply say this, we can choose to be the first, to be great and to advance humanity, or we can allow stagnation to fade us away. You cannot stop what is coming, progress comes, whether we like it or not. Let us make sure it’s on our terms.