The Stars No Longer Ours

American can't do big technology anymore.

A reader sent us a link to a Times article - this being the Times of London, the original one, they don't need a qualifying adjective.  "Japan hopes to turn sci-fi into reality with elevator to the stars" gives us both good news and profoundly sad news.

The Good News

The article says:

Now the finest scientific minds of Japan are devoting themselves to cracking the greatest sci-fi vision of all: the space elevator. Man has so far conquered space by painfully and inefficiently blasting himself out of the atmosphere but the 21st century should bring a more leisurely ride to the final frontier.

For chemists, physicists, material scientists, astronauts and dreamers across the globe, the space elevator represents the most tantalizing of concepts: cables stronger and lighter than any fiber yet woven, tethered to the ground and disappearing beyond the atmosphere to a satellite docking station in geosynchronous orbit above Earth.

The space elevator was explained in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 book The Fountains of Paradise.  As the earth spins, centrifugal force tends to make us float off the earth.  At the earth's surface, this effect is a lot weaker than the force of gravity, so we stay put.

Suppose, however, that you ran a string from the surface of the earth out to a rock far enough away that centrifugal force would be stronger than gravity and would tend to pull the rock away from earth.  The "string" would run from the surface of the earth out to regions where satellites orbit.

That's a long string.  Once you have the string in place, however, you can use it like an elevator to climb to and from orbit:

Up and down the 22,000 mile-long (36,000km) cables - or flat ribbons - will run the elevator carriages, themselves requiring huge breakthroughs in engineering to which the biggest Japanese companies and universities have turned their collective attention. [emphasis added]

The article refers to breakthroughs in engineering.  The raw science is already done, in that we know in principle how to make ribbons strong enough for the space elevator.  What remains is the engineering problem of manufacturing ribbons in huge quantities and unimaginable lengths at low cost and then running trains up and down a 22,000 mile ribbon.  That's like wrapping a ribbon all the way around the earth and running a freight train on it - only this would be straight up.

Political Innovation

Although the project has aroused the interest of government agencies such as NASA, the leadership is using unconventional management approaches to encourage the many technological innovations that will be needed:

Several competing space elevator projects are gathering pace as various groups vie to build practical carriages, tethers and the hundreds of other parts required to carry out the plan.  There are prizes offered by space elevator-related scientific organizations for breakthroughs and competitions for the best and fastest design of carriage.

Instead of relying on a single contractor, many organizations are competing to supply the best solutions.  Instead of awarding research contracts, the organization is offering prizes for the best solution to specified problems, a policy that Sen. McCain has proposed to encourage innovation in the US.

The Times explained that there's really only one scientific issue involved; most of the science is already done.  Once we learn how to make a strong cable, the rest is engineering, which is recognized as a core Japanese competency:

Japan is renowned as a global leader in the precision engineering and high-quality material production without which the idea could never be possible.

The biggest obstacle lies in the cables. To extend the elevator to a stationary satellite from the Earth's surface would require twice that length of cable to reach a counterweight, ensuring that the cable maintains its tension.

The cable must be exceptionally light, staggeringly strong and able to withstand all projectiles thrown at it inside and outside the atmosphere.  The answer, according to the groups working on designs, will lie in carbon nanotubes - microscopic particles that can be formed into fibers and whose mass production is now a focus of Japan's big textile companies.

The bottom line is that once we know how to manufacture the cable, everything else boils down to finding engineering solutions so that we can apply the technology.  No more scientific breakthroughs are needed.

As people who recognize that outer space contains huge quantities of raw materials which are in short supply on earth, we celebrate the advent of the space elevator as good news beyond belief.

What's more, solar energy collectors work vastly better and more reliably in space than on the ground.  Carbon nanotubes are excellent conductors of electricity; as elevators go up and down the cable, electricity can flow down from space.

Imagine really huge orbiting solar collectors sending electricity down the cable, generating no carbon footprint at all.  We'll need transmission lines to get electricity from the base of the elevator to the cities, but we know how to build those, assuming the environmentalists will let us.

But now comes the bad news:

The Bad News

Along with the link to the article, our reader said:

Dunno if they're serious, but if anyone can do it, it's them. Not us anymore. [emphasis added]

We've written about a few of the many obstacles that the American government has put in place to make it more and more difficult to deploy American innovations.  Our scientists remain first-rate, for now, but we're no longer training the vast numbers of engineers we'll need to turn scientific discoveries into practical devices we can use. Our schools are filled with foreign students to take what they've learned here and go home to innovate.

We mourn our reader's realization that when the space elevator is built, it won't be an American device.  We'll need a passport and we'll have to jump through foreign hoops to visit space despite our having pioneered travel to the moon back in 1969.  Imagine having to get a visa from the Japanese to visit space!

Oh, well, maybe our Navy can get a job protecting the lower end of the elevator, wherever the Japanese decide to put it.  We'll have to just hope that we won't need to buy a ticket on a Chinese spaceship up at the top end; at least the Japanese are as close friends as America has in this world.

The Stars are No Longer Ours

It's not that we can't do the engineering.  Our scientists have worked with carbon nanotubes, we know how it's done, but can you imagine any American company building anything as ambitious as the space elevator?

Our FAA can't rearrange the flight patterns around New York City.  The current air routes were put in place back in the 1930's.  Modernizing the flight pattern would cut delays in and out of New York airspace.  This would benefit the entire country because New York accounts for most of the aircraft delays all across America - but the new routing plan is tied up in lawsuits, has been for decades, and no doubt will be still when we're all dead.

If we can't even rearrange our flight paths, a change that requires no construction and no engineering, merely the printing of new maps, how could we build a space elevator?  A cable to the stars might inconvenience a duck or two; we can't have that.

Americans aren't even talking about a space elevator, and with good reason.  Although American universities still do world-class scientific research, the American regulatory and legal environment has become entirely hostile to applying their discoveries.

The reason why the US can't build it anymore is obvious: government regulation at every level.  From our local towns to the federal government we are burdened by regulations and laws that smother progress.  The markets are not free and unfettered.

When we went to the moon, government not only got out of the way, but took a bulldozer to anything that would get in the way.  What's even more insane about the situation is that on a federal level, there's little constitutional authority for most of the regulations.  It is our bureaucracies that stand in the way.

They've stood in the way of progress so long, we can't even do the things we've already done.  Americans went to the Moon before most people alive today were even born and haven't been back since.  When Bush talked about a return visit, NASA said that it would take longer for them to do it now than it took the first time.

This week, Chinese astronauts enjoyed a spacewalk in a Chinese spacesuit from a Chinese spaceship; their government is talking, not just about visiting the moon, but establishing a base there.  Does anyone seriously believe they can't do it?

Doing it is more a matter of desire than technology.  When we went to the moon, the goal was set and obstacles were overcome one by one.  The mission wasn't limited by engineering.  It was pushed by effective leadership in the political, business, and scientific community all across the fruited plain.

As a practical matter, does anyone believe we still can?

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
Great article. I totally agree that government stands in the way of innovation and inventor ship in US through an oppressive corporate tax structure, special interest group support, multiple levels of obfuscated bureaucracy, and an unfounded support of radical environmentalism.

I do retain hope however that we will get in gear and support a US owned space ascender/elevator program, as we still remain the most space-centric country in the world. It will take a leader, a Kennedy or a Reagan type with the vision and flavor of style leadership to motivate the government, economy and people to achieve such a feat. The US will need to engage in a new space race, but on friendlier terms with the Japanese. And we need to convince the general population, and private business that this is both within the realm of scientific possibility and a profitable business endeavor.
October 7, 2008 1:14 PM
Seriously? Once we know how to make the cables it all boils down to enginnering? First, the technical challenges with the cables are enormous. Second the cables are unlikely to be manufactured in Japan...they would probably have to be manufactured in orbit and lowered down (maybe using Japanese techniques). Third, the ground terminus would most likely be on the equator, not in Japan or the United States. Putting it off the equator would a lot of unneeded North South motion creating torsion and greater loads. You will almost certainly need a passport to go to space, but it will likely be to Equador, not Japan or the US.

I agree that the only "good" way to conquer the tyranny of our gravity well is to build an elevator, but I think the article simplifies some of the challenges to a cartoonish level. One final thought: this would be such an enormous challenge it would require a concerted global effort to achieve it. The resources required are astronomical (no pun intended) and the cable would literally impact the entire world. Speaking of regulation...think of the impact of a cable break. The article states that the cable is 22k miles long, which is roughly the circumference of the Earth. Think of the impact zone of a nearly unbreakable ribbon falling from space across thousands of miles spanning multiple oceans, airspaces, and contries. Talk about a regulatory nightmare!

But I agree, we are loosing our mojo :P
June 5, 2009 8:55 AM
The fact that you bring up all that regulatory horse hockey in the first place shows we've lost our mojo.

Did the guys who built the Panama Canal worry about regulatory horse hockey? No, they encouraged a revolution in which panama split off from Columbia to minimize horse hockey.

Did the guys that built the Brooklyn Bridge worry about horse hockey? No, they built it even as some of the men died of caisson disease.

Lost our mojo. We're for the chop.
June 5, 2009 10:16 PM

Well said. So your solution is to create a coup in Equador? Your right, that would bring back our the early 1900s. Seriously, the point of my post was that this *wasn't* just an engineering problem. The Panama Canal was just an engineering fact the Suez Canal, though smaller, had been dug over 25 years earlier. So Panama was just a grander version of something people had done before, not something completely new. As for the Brooklyn Bridge, again people have been building bridges for a long time.

I will say that if there were a significant breakthrough and we were suddenly able to build an elevator, NASA would probably not be the organization to build it. The first time man went to the moon in the 1960s, it was much more than an engineering problem (at least at first). Now it is merely an engineering and yet the main article mentions that it will take us longer to return to the moon than it took to go there in the first place. The bureaucratic mentality there is stifling all innovation--we would be better served to get rid of NASA and start over with a new organization without all the entrenched bureaucracies and special interests. That much of the main article was spot on.

June 6, 2009 7:31 AM
Physics news says that the Japanese plan to build a base on the moon.

Believing that a moon base is essential for exploration of the solar system, Japan has recently announced plans to send humanoid robots to the moon to construct a robot lunar base. As part of the $2.2 billion project, the robots will begin surveying the moon around 2015, and then build the unmanned base near the moon's South Pole by 2020.

A Japanese government panel chaired by Katsuhiko Shirai, President of Waseda University, has developed a rough outline of the project. First, the robots, weighing about 660 pounds each, will begin by surveying the moon, taking images of the surface, collecting rocks, and returning the rocks to Earth via rocket for seismographic research. Later, robots will be sent to the moon to construct the lunar base for themselves.

According to the government panel, the robots and the unmanned moon base will be powered by solar panels. The robots will be controlled from Earth, but will also have a high degree of autonomy that enables them to operate on their own to perform certain tasks. Ultimately, the base could serve as a starting point for future robot colonizers, and even human colonizers.
May 31, 2010 8:20 AM

Very nice lunar elevator study report from Israel. Student Project at The Technion, Israel, about 2007. A full year under the supervision of Dr' Alexander Kogan, now retired to Canada. The team is now disbanded, some work at the Israeli Aerospace Industries.


• Cargo delivery from the Moon to the Earth can be done within 6 days using solar power and no propellant.
• The cargo system uses a cable car moving along a stretched ribbon.
• The ribbon is kept stretched by terrestrial and lunar gravity. One end is anchored on the Moon and the other one free.
• The cargo released from the cable car performs a passive flight to the Earth. At landing, no parachute is needed.

Here is the link to the details:

December 31, 2013 2:10 PM

Someone write an "Elevator" screenplay and write merchandising contracts for all the characters. Use tax money for financing the project. Every kid in the US will want another character for their Disney Infinity console! Think of what an Elevator video game could generate. We are hooked to media propaganda, so use it creatively! War is propogandized all the time....look where it has gotten us? A civil war? Perhaps a new tax code? Sci-Tax? Plus we will be pretraining elevator engineers! Boys with Toys (guns) gotta grow up at some point.

February 9, 2017 12:56 PM

Someone write an "Elevator" screenplay and write merchandising contracts for all the characters. Use tax money for financing the project. Every kid in the US will want another character for their Disney Infinity console! Think of what an Elevator video game could generate. We are hooked to media propaganda, so use it creatively! War is propogandized all the time....look where it has gotten us? A civil war? Perhaps a new tax code? Sci-Tax? Plus we will be pretraining elevator engineers! Boys with Toys (guns) gotta grow up at some point.

February 9, 2017 12:56 PM debates the future of NASA.

SpaceX’s plan to send two private citizens on a round-the-moon trip in 2018 was a big surprise to everyone — including NASA. There is no indication the agency was given a heads up about SpaceX’s announcement. Of course, NASA trotted out a statement of positive feelings for its commercial partner, and suggested that SpaceX’s pursuits in this realm and others meant NASA had more time and resources to allocate to go “beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”

If that’s really the plan, NASA would be wise to stick with it — and President Donald Trump would be even wiser to let the agency set its own course and focus on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.

When the Obama administration nixed NASA’s Constellation program (which sought a resurrection of human spaceflight to the moon) in favor of a larger goal of exploring Mars, the agency began pursuing technologies that were more critical to facilitating crewed missions much farther out. The “Journey to Mars,” as NASA likes to call it, started to get fleshed out, with NASA greenlighting two key technologies that would help humans make it happen: Orion, a new deep space crew capsule, and the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket which would ensure the feasibility of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles deep into space.

March 4, 2017 12:59 PM

It really is that bad.

NASA has been talking about getting humans to Mars for years, and continues to provide updated plans for getting there. Unfortunately, though, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William H. Gerstenmaier, just announced that the agency can’t achieve the Mars goal on its current budget.

“I can’t put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don’t have the surface systems available for Mars,” Gerstenmaier said during a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on Wednesday. “And that entry, descent, and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars.”

July 14, 2017 11:01 AM
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