To the moon and back: That’s quite a distance, and a round trip that would take the average person a very long time to achieve, even if it were possible. How awesome would it be to step on an escalator, like the cartoon Jetson family, to travel through space? What if astronauts didn’t have to make the journey to the moon via rockets? What if we could develop an elevator that would lift people from the Earth to the moon? Wishful thinking, or are we that technically advanced? Well, it could happen within the next few decades.
The idea of an Earth-to-moon elevator isn’t a new one: In 1959, Russian engineer Yuri Artsutanov proposed the concept. The execution is simple: A cable would be stretched from a satellite counterweight above the High Earth orbit (geosynchronous orbit) and then attached to a floating anchor station at the equator. Centrifugal force would allow the cable to stand on its own, and a car would travel along the cable “road” from Earth to a space station.
NASA, along with space agencies in China and Japan, have been working on this idea for years, and the Japanese Obayashi Corporation has even promised to have a prototype ready and working by 2050 at the mere cost of $90 billion.
A non-peer reviewed study by Zephyr Penoyre from the University of Cambridge and Emily Sandford at Columbia University indicates that the elevator is possible and can be built using materials currently available. However, their idea is different from those of NASA and other space agencies. Under their theory, the cable would run from the moon down toward the Earth, hanging in the geosynchronous orbit, approximately 22,236 miles above the surface.
Michael Laine, the founder of LiftPort Group, worked at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) from 2001 to 2003. The team created the hypothesis for an Earth elevator. “[The study] looks really legit,” he told Fox News. “It looks like they have independently invented the lunar space elevator. We got there first, but it’s really gratifying to have somebody unrelated to our field do the math, figure it out, and say ‘Yeah, that’s a real thing.’”
However, Laine said it isn’t as solid as one would like. “Mathematically, the Earth elevator concept models very nicely,” he said. “The problem is that in the actual real world there are still a lot of problems with it.”
The geosynchronous orbit is a High Earth orbit that allows satellites to match our planet’s rotation. This is the perfect position for satellites that monitor weather, enable communications, and provide surveillance. The cables would need to not only be strong enough to support the weight of the elevator and cargo but also be able to dodge satellites and space debris gliding around.
“When [NIAC investigator] Dr. Bradley Edwards and I were doing this work nearly 20 years ago, there were only 350 satellites. We now have about 1,500 satellites – 400 were launched last year alone and we’re moving to a world where there’s going to be possibly 17,000 satellites, most of them in Low Earth orbit. So the idea of having the string dodge 17,000 objects is really challenging. I’m not sure that that works anymore.”
Taking an elevator to the moon may seem farfetched, and perhaps it is until we find a way to avoid all the satellites roaming around in the final frontier. But imagine how much that would change our world. What kind of minerals could be mined there? And is it even a good idea when futuristic science fiction movies show us Earth nearly destroyed because of our encroachment on the moon? How long before more elevators could be created to take us to other planets, such as Saturn and Mars?