The Space Elevator concept has been evolving for the better part of a century now, thanks to the combined effort of many people. Thomas Edison explained once that technological innovation is comprised of "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration". The history of the Space Elevator is no exception.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, when asked about the Space Elevator, said that he thinks it will be built "50 years after everyone stops laughing". Later in his life, he dropped the number to 20, and then to 10. This happened since the combined work of the people listed here have slowly conquered the concept of the Space Elevator and reduced it from a work of Science Fiction to a viable engineering concept.
We provided the online sources for the various publications when available. They make for interesting reads, since they show how the maturity of the Space Elevator evolved in the minds of the researchers.
1895: A Tall Tower
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneer scientist who formulated the Rocket Equation, is inspired by the Eiffel Tower to describe an imaginary tower so tall, that its tip would become orbital. If you were to step off from the observation deck at the top of this tower, just like in the cartoons, you will simply stay floating next to it.
It is ironic that this inspiration paved the way to the Space Elevator, which is the only Earth-to-space system that can break the "curse" of the Rocket Equation
1960: A Taut Tether
This is the seminal Space Elevator proposal by Yuri Artsutanov. This development is widely credited as the invention of the Space Elevator, since for the first time it is correctly identified as a Tension Structure - a taut tether rather than a tall tower. (That's a lot of T's)
The concept of the Space Elevator was so radical that Yuri couldn't get it published. Instead, the article appeared in the youth section of the Russian "Pravda" newspaper.
The article is technically light, but it is obvious that Yuri Artsutanov did go through at least some of the details, except that of course the youth section of Pravda probably was not the right platform for mathematical analysis...
In the article, Yuri Artsutanov introduces the concept of the taper and the ribbon geometry, and discusses deployment and bootstrapping schemes. He also surveys other places to build a Space Elevator - the moon, Mars, and even Mercury!
The advance made with this publication is that the base description of the Space Elevator is now physically correct. The tall tower was an unstable structure that would sink directly into the Earth under its own weight, buckle, and snap - probably all at the same time... The tension structure, on the other hand, is probably the most stable structure ever conceived - the world's tallest pendulum.
Artsutanov followed up with another paper in 1969, the details of which I do not have. Artsutanov believed that the Space Elevator is still only a thought experiment, since the required material was highly speculative.
1966: Elevator Redux
The team of Isaacs, Vine, Bradner, and Bachus publishes Satellite Elongation into a True Sky-Hook in Science Magazine.
This is the first publication in a leading scientific journal, and is an independent effort from Artsutanov's. The paper covers most of the basics of the Space Elevator, including the proposal of a small scale Space Elevator.
1974: Elevator Re-Redux
Jerome Pearson, then working for the United States Air Force, describes the mathematical underpinnings of the Space Elevator in a rigorous and detailed manner. Pearson introduces the concept of taper, and calculates the profile of the tether, and addresses material selection ("perfect-crystal whiskers of graphite").
Pearson also describes the transfer of angular momentum from the Earth to the climber, interplanetary launches, preferred tether length, oscillation analysis, and discusses some of the hazards to the Space Elevator such as winds and lunar-induced oscillations.
The bibliography section of this page points to other relevant papers. Pearson also advocates a Lunar Space Elevator.
1979: Science Fiction
The Fountains of Paradise by Sir Arthur C. Clarke is not exactly a technological step towards the Space Elevator but it is a huge step in terms of public perception. For the first time, the concept propagates beyond the small group of aerospace scientists into the vastly larger (yet still small) group of Science Fiction readers.
Also published in 1979 - The Web Between the Worlds by Dr. Charles Sheffield. Sir Clarke publishes an open letter saying that this is more than a coincidence, but simply a case of an invention whose time has come.
1991: Carbon Nanotubes
This is something that happens less than once in a generation - Dr. Sumio Iijima discovered a new type of material, one that's been predicted before but never produced intentionally in a lab.
Carbon Nanotubes are molecular-scale filaments of pure Carbon that exhibit a lot of interesting properties, not the least important of which is tensile strength - in fact, Carbon Nanotubes seem to be more than strong enough to build a Space Elevator.
Carbon Nanotubes are only a few nanometers in diameter, but can be grown to any length. Carbon Nanotubes that are a few cm in length can be combined to create an infinitely long tether.
Upon hearing of this development, Arthur C. Clarke wastes no time in calling on the world's governments to built a Space Elevator. The world's governments consider this request and immediately proceed to ignore it and spend the money on all the other things they usually choose to spend it on.
1992 – 1996: The Mars Trilogy
Even as a Science Fiction concept, the Space Elevator was not highly successful. Concepts that are far less robust (E.g. Light sabers and Spice-eating sand-dwelling worms) faired much better.
For this reason, it was refreshing to see a high-profile science-fiction set of books by Kim Stanley Robinson place the Space Elevator front and center in the plot.
1999: NASA Study
Following a call by Arthur C. Clark, NASA investigates the concept of the Space Elevator.
The study was conducted by Marshall Space Flight Center, and (IMHO) it steered too close to the design depicted by Arthur C. Clarke in the Fountains of Paradise. (Sir Clarke tended to imagine things a lot larger than they needed to be...)
The almost inescapable conclusion was that the Space Elevator is not feasible within the foreseeable future.
Back to the drawing boards?
Dr. Brad Edwards completes a NIAC study about the Space Elevator, and follows with the publication of his Space Elevator book, which is a detailed reduction-to-practice of the Space Elevator concept.
The study correctly identified Carbon Nanotubes as the construction material, and introduced concepts such as the ocean-going anchor, and power beaming. It also called for a small 20-ton capacity Space Elevator as the first practical goal.
We refer to this design as the "modern" Space Elevator.
Michael Laine forms Liftport, a commercial entity intended to incubate Space Elevator related technologies.
Liftport experiments with Carbon Nanotube production and tethered balloon towers, but is not a commercial success.
2003: The Spaceward Foundation. (That's us!)
Ben Shelef and Meekk Shelef create the Spaceward Foundation and approach NASA with the idea of funding a Space Elevator prize. NASA buys into the concept and allocates a $400,000 prize purse for advances in tether strength and power beaming.
The first games are launched less than a year after the proposal is accepted (2005) and are a great success. A tradition is formed, and NASA responds by increasing the prize purse to $4 Million!
The games continue to follow a very aggressive roadmap, and the next games (Scheduled for March 2009) will see teams running beam-powered Space Elevator climbers to a height of 1 km, and competing Carbon Nanotube tethers 2 meters long.
2003 – Present: Technology Maturation
In this period, we saw a lot of progress being made in fields relevant to the Space Elevator.
Solid state laser technology and photo-voltaics make great progress.
CNT technology advanced by leaps and bounds, with labs growing strong, long, and plentiful (Pick only two out of three!) Carbon Nanotubes. On the down side, both theoretical understanding of CNTs and experimental results showed that CNTs will not achieve the 100 GPa-cc/g value that the modern design was based on.
Back to the drawing boards?
2006: The Space Elevator Blog
Headed by Ted Semon, The Space Elevator Blog has become the go-to communication tool of the Space Elevator community. More informative than any book, the Blog captures the real-time progress and experience of the Space Elevator.
2008: Feasibility and Solar Climbers
The combined effect of these two concepts is that the higher power level possible with solar power translates into lower requirements on the CNT tether. Two other upshots are a great reduction in the requirements of the power beaming system, and the built-in free creation of very large arrays of solar-collectors in orbit.
2008: International Space Elevator Consortium
ISEC is formed by the Space Elevator community in order organize activities in the technical, legal, political, public relations, and business arenas.
????: The Next Big Idea
The next development could be yours! Join the Space Elevator community, make the proposals.
"A very long tether" -
The Space Elevator to Scale