Why build a Space Elevator?

The short answer to this question is that the Space Elevator is the only proposal today that offers a road to an interplanetary civilization, one in which mankind inhabits the solar system in much the same way that it inhabits the Earth.

The longer answer has to do with why we need to expand to an interplanetary civilization, and this relates directly to what the Spaceward Foundation is concerned about.

Room to Grow

Wars over dwindling resources, food shortages, fragility through complexity and other 21st century trends are merely symptoms of a much broader problem: We have outgrown our habitat and need to expand it.

There are too many of us, and we are too technologically advanced for the size of our cage. We can travel between any two points on the globe in less than a day and communicate between any two point in less than a second. Either through malice or incompetence, we are now able to devastate the entire globe.

Space offers us almost infinite room to grow. Mars is habitable, and later on, so are the asteroids. A single iron asteroid can produce more steel than all of the Earth's mines, enabling space structures of "science fiction" scale. Comets contain cubic miles of water, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn are rich with other chemical building blocks. These descriptions may seem far-fetched to us today, but so does our current industrial base (and lifestyle) to anyone from the 16th century.

An interplanetary civilization is not only possible, it is our only way forward, and the enabler to such a civilization is the Space Elevator.

"No room to breath" -
An almost universal morning picture.

An O'Neil "type 3" space colony,
designed for about 1,000,000 inhabitants.

Global Village vs. Isolated Kingdoms

Throughout human history, mankind was physically separated into many smaller civilizations. Contrary to first instinct, this was actually a good thing! The different civilizations got to try out different ideas, and through competition and cultural exchange (and wars) the best components of each society transferred on to the other ones. In addition, when one of the societies collapsed, external influences helped put it back together again relatively quickly.

For the first time ever, this is no longer the case. We are a single global village now, with all of our eggs in one basket.

Expanding our reach to the rest of the solar system will return us to the model of isolated kingdoms. Technologically, even once we establish a space-faring civilization, we won't be able to conquer the vast expanses of the Solar System in the same way that we've conquered the oceans of Earth.

Communication across the solar system can never be instantaneous, and travel across the solar system, even if vastly improved, will remain a long and expensive affair, so when Mars and the Asteroids are inhabited, their economies and culture will be largely independent of those of Earth.

Energy and Climate Change

The world economy is consuming resources at ever increasing rates, and it seems that the first resource to run out is room to contain waste Carbon Dioxide. We have generated so much CO2 in the last 100 years that geological and biological processes will take tens of thousands of years to absorb it.

While there's no short-term method to eliminate all CO2 emissions, two technologies that can solve the problem in the long run are dependent on having a large industrial base in space. Solar Power Satellites which capture sunlight in huge space-borne solar farms and transmit the generated electricity to the ground using microwaves, and Nuclear Fusion which is perhaps the ultimate power source, but that appears to require Helium-3 which is only available in miniscule quantities on the moon and in larger quantities deep within the gravity well of Jupiter.

(Side note: In the meantime, we should most definitely pursue other renewable energy sources such as geothermal, wind, tidal or solar technologies. Even though we cannot reduce the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, we should do all we can to at least stop increasing them!)

A solar power satellite.

Several km of water ice beaconing us
on the surface of Mars.

Because it's there, man!!!

The first explorers braved the oceans not because of weighty socio-economic reasons, they did so simply because they could see one shore of the ocean and could not see the other. It is human nature to go to where we ain't at. We're currently on Earth and we're not on Mars, and this needs to be fixed!

More seriously - societies are much like organisms - lack of growth is not a viable option. When we're not moving into new frontiers, we grow stagnant.

We put more effort into getting efficient at what we know how to do than into learning how to do new things. It's almost as if we're content that as a civilization we've arrived at our final destination and all that needs to be done is get comfortable. Judging by history, this is almost a sure sign of the beginning of decay.

© The Spaceward Foundation 2008 - - Mountain View, CA