On Building a Pillar to the Sky

Pillar to the Sky by William Forstchen

Written by William Forstchen

The idea of a space “elevator,” or “pillar,” originated in the early 20th century, when the pioneering Russian theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky laid out the math for chemical rockets to achieve orbit. Even then, Tsiolkovsky saw the fundamental flaw: the amount of energy, to achieve orbital velocity and the ratio of weight of fuel to functional payload, was absurd, and if ever achieved would be incredibly expensive. Right now it runs close to ten thousand dollars for each pound of payload lofted to low orbit, compared to less than two bucks per pound to get you across the Atlantic or Pacific. Also, at the time Tsiolkovsky figured out the math, no such rockets existed and there was doubt one could even be built.

He therefore turned his genius imagination to an alternative. Why not use the energy of the earth’s rotation to impart velocity? All that is needed is a tower, built at the equator and approximately 23,000 miles tall, reaching what is now known as geosynchrous orbit. At that altitude, the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation would actually keep the tower rigid. A payload could be lifted into space by an elevator system that uses electricity from a ground based station. Once it reaches geosynch, just push off from the top of the tower and “voila,” you are in orbit, or with a bit of an additional boost, on a trans-lunar or trans-Mars trajectory.

There’s just one problem: Building the tower.

It sounds fantastic even in our realm of science fiction…building a tower 23,000 miles into space. Of course, structural engineering 101 will teach such dreamers a cold, hard, basic lesson, that the higher the structure, the heavier the base needed to support the weight. The base for such a tower, built of steel, would be an absurd hundreds of miles across and take a millennium to build by conventional methods like stacking one beam atop another, in the manner of a NYC skyscraper such as the Flatiron building of my publisher.

Tsiolkovsky worked out the math for space pillar at the start of the 20th century and left us with challenge of figuring out what to build it with. Nearly eighty years, later the legendary Arthur C. Clarke turned his talent to the idea with the classic novel on the subject, The Fountains of Paradise. He did prophesize what was needed, a carbon fiber engineered at the molecular level, vastly stronger than any diamond, but even he, genius dreamer that he was, stated it’d be another two hundred years before such technology was at hand.

I was in my twenties when I read Clarke’s work and the idea captivated my imagination and stayed with me. While working on my Ph.D. and writing my first novels, the idea of a space elevator lingered. With the advent of the internet, I kept an eye out for research reports on the subject, eventually seeing the emergence of serious scholarly conferences on the subject, and most importantly, that the legendary NASA team had put some seed money into the concept, with several feasibility studies and publications about ten years or so back.

The emerging consensus, from those who turn dreams into hard reality with technology that works, is that the time is at hand. It seems farfetched, but when John Kennedy challenged America to reach for the moon by the end of a decade, our total manned flight time in space was just over fifteen minutes, atop a rocket with not much more than 1/50th the lifting power needed to get to the moon. We reached Kennedy’s goal in eight years and two months.

Thus, out of dreams going back to my childhood days of Apollo, coupled with the idea of my publisher and editor to put authors and NASA personnel together to share dreams and realities, I felt I had to write this novel about the building of the world’s first “space elevator,” what I call the Pillar to the Sky. One of the joys for me is that this is not some dream I hope is one day achieved a century or more hence…the reality is that it can be built now, within my lifetime.

I grew up believing that space exploration is our future. I hope that in some way this novel might push that dream forward. In closing, I will confess to a selfish reason for writing the book. I want to be one of those blessed with the chance to finally reach space, climbing upward on a Pillar to the Sky.


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3 thoughts on “On Building a Pillar to the Sky

  1. An exciting idea indeed, and plausible. After reading kim stanley robinson’s mars trilogy, in which a space elevator on mars is brought down by saboteurs, i have been intrigued by the idea. But then, i don’t need petroleum-burning thrusting devices to get excited about utilizing physics to accomplish miracles. Looking forward to reading your book.

  2. Talk about “prior art”. I don’t think the patent from the guy in Canada would be enforceable. I’ve always thought that the rotating tether is a better solution than the beanstalk. A rotating tether (rotovator) is a long cable (but short compared to a beanstalk) that sits in LEO. The whole thing rotates so the tip goes against the direction of the orbit. That subtracts the tip speed from the orbital speed. It makes the trip to orbit minutes rather than days as it is with the beanstalk. The mass of the tether need only be 200 times more than the payload rather than millions of times the mass of the payload. The time to replicate (lift the same mass as the structure) drops from thousands of years to just days.

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