Making Space Exploration Affordable - Arushi Kolluru

The dream of floating in the beauty of space is currently out of reach for those who aren’t astronauts or billionaires. There are, however, several concepts that could help make space exploration for the common person a possible reality.

The Space Elevator

In present times, a rocket requires enough fuel to move upwards and sideways to overcome the force of gravity and reach the orbit. This results in the excess fuel adding more weight to the rocket’s mass, making it unable to carry heavier goods or people. Therefore, rockets burn a huge amount of fuel to get a small weight of cargo into space. This immense cost is one of the major limitations of human spaceflight.

A Space Elevator, however, uses much less fuel, as it taps into the energy of the Earth’s rotation to give the cargo enough of a ‘boost’ to reach the orbit. It also drastically reduces the cost of sending cargo into space to less than 2% of the current amount. This means that it would take a mere $200 to transport 1kg of payload into space.

The manufacture of a Space Elevator is currently restricted to the realm of science fiction. But various comprehensive studies of this piece of technology and its variants have been done with varying levels of professionalism. 

There are 4 main components of the standard Space Elevator- The tether, climber, anchor and counterweight. The tether and the climber form the elevator components which will extend outwards from the surface of the Earth to the counterweight, positioned in space. The anchor will hold the tether to the surface of the Earth.

The tether is like a tightrope; drawn taut, it will connect the anchor on the ground to the counterweight up in space. The climber will act as a regular elevator carrier, moving up and down the tether, transporting rockets, cargo and probes into orbit. The anchor would pin the tether to the Earth and maintain stability at the ground level. The counterweight, situated at the top, would hold up the tether and maintain balance on the upper end of the Space Elevator. The counterweight is vital in supporting the tether and holding it up with the use of tension. The counterweight would serve as not only a launching point for all space missions but could also be used as an International Space Station and point of experimentation.

A Space Elevator on the Earth, is, however, a far-fetched dream at present. For starters, a difficulty in the creation of a Space Elevator is that the initial building cost of a Space Elevator is at least $20 billion. This would make Space Elevators the single largest one-time investment in the space exploration sector. 

Even if we are to acquire the necessary funds for such a massive project, there lie problems with the components, materials, installation and possible hazards.

In terms of materials and components, the tether is the most difficult main component to acquire and make. The tether needs to be light, affordable, resistant to damage, strong and able to withstand the effects of radiation, weather and atmospheric corrosion. No material that we currently know of and can produce has the stability and resistance that we require. Although graphene and diamond nano threads are possible options, they too might not prove to be put to the task. Moreover producing enough length (nearly 40000 km) of the tether will prove to be a near-impossible task.

With regards to installation, the tether needs to be either launched into space from Earth or lured down to the ground from the Space Station, both difficult and time-consuming processes. To build a Space Elevator on the Earth, we still have several major technological hurdles to overcome.

Most of all, however, a Space Elevator, in case of a malfunction, would cause great loss of property and finance. If the tether were to break, there would be catastrophic results. We need to get it right the first time if we want to keep the Earth safe.

These difficulties do not reduce the benefits of Space Elevators in any way. However, to keep ourselves out of direct harm and to make do with the materials currently available to us, we should consider making a Space Elevator on the moon. The moon’s gravity is much weaker than the Earth’s. Therefore a flimsier, existing and more widely available material can be used, while also decreasing the overall required length of the tether. Weaker materials like kevlar could be used. Moreover, stronger self-healing fabrics and fibres like the famed wolverine cloth could be put to use to drastically reduce or eliminate the possibility of a tear in the tether. Installation would also be easier to accomplish on the moon’s surface and it would give us the necessary experience to, one day, build a Space Elevator on Earth.

Despite all the challenges, the payoff of having a Space Elevator would be immense. A fully functioning and properly utilised Space Elevator might be the first step in humanity’s journey to becoming a space-faring civilisation.

That goal, however, has a long way to go. Having a properly utilised Space Elevator situated on the moon would require far more regular trips to and from the moon, making it the launchpad for rockets and probes headed to other planets. Humanity is currently far from that stage of sophisticated development and expansion in space. Moreover, the setup on the moon would require a considerable number of human trips to our natural satellite. According to me, such technology is truly revolutionary and will mark the beginning of a new era of human civilisation. The era will consist of planetary exploration, asteroid mining and colonisation of planets, but it cannot begin today. Visits to the moon need to rise along with the visits to other planets in our solar system if we wish to make effective use of our Space Elevator. Superior technology needs to increase in availability and be used more often.

For now, Space Elevators are a possible plan for the future at most, but a highly beneficial plan at that! Space Elevators could be our future gateway to becoming an interplanetary and technologically advanced civilisation.

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