If you’ve paid any attention to science fiction in any form, you’ve probably seen the concept of the space elevator. A super-strong tether or tower extends upward from the surface of the Earth, past geostationary orbit, and beyond; to get into orbit you just need to ride a car up the elevator to the geostationary point and…step off.
The space elevator solves a fundamental problem with access to space: speed. Getting height up from the Earth is fairly easy – just point a rocket up. But to get a spacecraft to stay in orbit, you also need to accelerate your vehicle to orbital velocity, which is at least 7 km/s. That’s where all the big booster rockets come from. The elevator, though, lets you get this speed without even trying. Since the whole structure remains oriented radially out from the Earth at all times, as your car climbs up the tether you automatically gain rotational kinetic energy. At the geostationary point, you will have enough energy to simply push out of the airlock and remain in orbit. Easy!
(This energy is easy to get, but it doesn’t come for free. Every time you go up the space elevator, you slow down the rotation of the Earth.)
Space elevators have some problems of their own, though. For one thing, we need materials and technologies sufficient to support the tether against the forces of gravity and rotation. For another, the Earth’s troposphere has some pesky disturbances that we call weather, and the space elevator has to be near the equator – where tropical storms happen. And then there’s…politics.
There was an article the other day about a paper examining a “partial” space elevator. The idea is to place a station at geosynchronous orbit, and run a tether only partway down to the Earth. The tether doesn’t have to deal with cyclones or touch the surface. Rockets bring payloads just to the bottom of the elevator, where they can ride the rest of the way up.
The idea reminds me of Robert Forward’s “rotovator,” which involves placing a long tether in orbit and making it rotate in the same sense and at the same rate as its orbital motion. Each tip of the tether traces a cycloid around the Earth: a trajectory that momentarily stops (relative to Earth’s surface) at the low point where it can pick up a payload, and swings back up to a high point where it flings the payloads forward much faster than the orbit velocity. It also has some similarities with cyclers, which are hypothetical objects in orbits that visit two (or more) celestial bodies at regular intervals without propulsive maneuvers. (Buzz Aldrin is a fan of these; he has an Earth-Mars cycler orbit named after him. That vehicle would alternately visit the Earth and Mars, with a 146-day transit time.)
Fundamentally, what all these concepts are trying to do is establish infrastructure in space – infrastructure that lets us offload some of the delta-v requirements from individual spacecraft, at the expense of an initial investment.
A more near-term such architecture would be an orbital propellant depot: a place where space vehicles could pause, after launch, and “top off” before they proceed onward to destinations beyond Earth orbit. Lots of technologists and policymakers have given thought to these depots, with many concepts nowadays revolving around the Falcon 9 and Falcon 9 Heavy launchers.
I’m a fan of these ideas. Any infrastructure that lets us explore space freely, without our launches being tied to landing requirements or our excursions on other worlds being limited by how we take off from the Earth, will only help our efforts to discover our place in the universe and establish humanity on other worlds. I think it’s high time our space program got back to thinking about the nuts and bolts of working in space and building the space-based vehicles that will take us to other planets and moons.