The potential global impact of the space elevator is drawing comparisons to another great transportation achievement -- the U.S. transcontinental railroad. Completed in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, the transcontinental railroad linked the country's east and west coasts for the first time and sped the settlement of the American west. Cross-country travel was reduced from months to days. It also opened new markets and gave rise to whole new industries. By 1893, the United States had five transcontinental railroads.
The idea of a space elevator shares many of the same elements as the transcontinental railroad. A space elevator would create a permanent Earth-to-space connection that would never close. While it wouldn't make the trip to space faster, it would make trips to space more frequent and would open up space to a new era of development. Perhaps the biggest factor propelling the idea of a space elevator is that it would significantly lower the cost of putting cargo into space. Although slower than the chemically propelled space shuttle, the lifters reduce launch costs from $10,000 to $20,000 per pound, to approximately $400 per pound.
Current estimates put the cost of building a space elevator at $6 billion with legal and regulatory costs at $4 billion, according to Bradley Edwards, author of the "The Space Elevator, NIAC Phase II Final Report." (Edwards is also the Dr. Bradley Carl Edwards, President and Founder of Carbon Designs.) By comparison, the cost of the space shuttle program was predicted in 1971 to be $5.2 billion, but ended up costing $19.5 billion. Additionally, each space shuttle flight costs $500 million, which is more than 50 times more than original estimates.
The space elevator could replace the space shuttle as the main space vehicle, and be used for satellite deployment, defense, tourism and further exploration. To the latter point, a spacecraft would climb the ribbon of the elevator and then would launch toward its main target once in space. This type of launch would require less fuel than would normally be needed to break out of Earth's atmosphere. Some designers also believe that space elevators could be built on other planets, including Mars.
NASA funded Dr. Edwards' research for three years. In 2005, however, it only awarded $28 million dollars to companies researching the space elevator. Although it's still very interested in the project, for now it would prefer to sit back and wait for more concrete developments.
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