Space elevators “could be built cost-effectively within a century”, says expert

The creation of space elevators is getting closer to reality and could enable cheaper space travel, a leading engineering expert has said.

Peter Debney, a leading engineer at global construction and design firm Arup has said the devices, which would make space far more accessible, could be built cost-effectively within 100 years.

The idea of a space elevator – a transportation system that would use a cable to move people between Earth and space – has seen much speculation for years but the potential is now only starting to be realised.

Previous predictions have said the elevators could be built as soon as 2035 but these would be hugely expensive and not cost effective – as many prototypes are.

However, writing on the company’s website, Debney said those that are practical to build could be just round the corner: “Space elevators are a permanent infrastructure that will reach from the ground to high orbit.

“I believe that they could be built cost-effectively within a century, and pay for themselves within just a few years.

“While we have not quite got all the technology in place, and there are still engineering challenges to be overcome, the space elevator has nearly arrived.”


He said introducing space elevators, while having a large initial cost, would be cheaper than regularly launching rockets into orbit.

“An elevator should reduce the cost of getting into space to about $220/kg for an estimated build cost of $20 billion.

“It is difficult to predict how much of a difference a reduction of two orders of magnitude on the launch costs will make to the space industry and society, but it is likely to be as significant.

“Today the aerospace industry carries over three billion passengers and $6 trillion of goods a year. This means that the cost of a space elevator is about the same as one day’s air freight.

“The space industry has already given us countless improvements to our lives, from small ones like Velcro and non-stick frying pans, to much bigger ones like global weather forecasting and satellite navigation.

“Cheap space flight would accelerate this innovation, and bring even more benefits in the form of lunar and asteroid mining, as well as an expansion of the human race comparable to our ancestors first leaving Africa or the discovery of America.”

Google X, the company’s experimental division, has been looking at how viable space elevators are, among other ambitious projects, and thinks they will soon be possible.

In an interview with Fast Company earlier this year the team from the research lab confirmed they had thought through making a space elevator.

However, at present the technology to build one does not quite exist.

To be able to build an elevator, in theory at least, we need to be able to manufacture a material that is significantly stronger than any form of steel that exists at the moment.

The one potential solution which has been touted is using carbon nanotubes but, as Google confirmed, it has not been possible to manufacture a carbon nanotube strand longer than a metre.

There will naturally be many more construction challenges that need to be solved before we are able to create a space elevator but the general support for the elevators will mean that when the time comes considerable resources will be put into lifting us into space.

Recipe for space colonisation: The tools needed to conquer the universe

If humans are ever going to colonise space and explore the outer solar system, technology needs to drastically advance and include ways to maintain the human body as well as spacecraft.

To live healthily in space we need to develop the technology to be able to simulate gravity, produce medicine while off the planet and also learn to hibernate.

Nano-sensors need to be fully developed to monitor our vital signs, as well as advanced telemedicine and surgery for when something does go wrong.

The ways that we would survive in space were revealed in a new report by the by the European Science Foundation looking at the development of technologies that will allow more advanced space missions.

The report, called the Technological Breakthroughs for Scientific Progress (TECHBREAK), said humans need to be able to create spacecraft that can last for at least 50 years in space.

For this to be successful we need to create spacecraft from material that can withstand high temperatures, advance their thermal control, provide energy for long periods and self-repair.

“For missions to the outer solar system, it might be necessary to establish such a long mission timeline,” it said.

“The second reason is financial: with the very high costs associated with some of the space missions, it is logical to demand that the asset can be utilised over very long time spans. In order to achieve this, space systems need to be durable, reliable and with redundant design and/or the ability to self-repair.”


The report said there are five major areas that will contribute to long-term goals.

These are building a spacecraft that can last for at least 50 years, sending a 30m+ telescope into space, enabling humans to stay in space for more than two years, being able to autonomously survey planets and reducing mass while maintaining stiffness.

It said ways to protect astronauts from radiation need to be developed.

“Keeping astronauts not only alive but healthy, motivated and alter for the duration of the mission will be a major challenge,” the report said.

“The life support system should be robust and affordable, suggesting a system that recycles almost all waste products and produces food, water, oxygen and the other necessities in flight.”


Our knowledge of the depths of space will only increase if we can send a large telescope, at least 30m in length, into space.

This presents a host of logistical and engineering challenges.

The report said one way of putting a telescope into space would be to use a flexible mirror that would be inflated or unfolded in space.

The report said: “One of the main outcome of the TECHBREAK was the definition of five ‘Overwhelming Drivers’ for space. These drivers represent the main areas where technological improvements are needed in order to be able to generate breakthroughs in space capabilities.

“The drivers also served as a brief introduction to the space environment and space operations for non-space experts and acted as a stimulant for the identification of potential helpful technologies.

“These drivers were the communication tool that the TECHBREAK team utilised for bridging the knowledge gap between space and non-space experts.”

You can read the full report here.

Featured image courtesy of Nasa. Inset images courtesy of European Space Foundation