Science of the Space Elevator A Bruntouchables Case

Space Elevator

Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) explains the space elevator to Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter).

Building an elevator to space is not entirely new–the idea has been proposed as far back as 1895. Russian rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, first came up with the idea in his manuscript Speculations about Earth and Sky and on Vesta. But why would anyone want to build such a structure? Not only would it extend all the way into space, it will be the tallest structure on the planet. To say there are technical challenges is an understatement.

To put somethings in perspective, Mt. Everest’s height is 8.8 km (5.5 mi) above sea-level, and a Boeing 747 can cruise at an altitude of 12.2 km (7.6 mi). A space elevator is expected to reach an altitude of 35,790 kilometers (22,239 miles), the height of geostationary orbit. Finding the right material to build a space elevator is going to be difficult.

There are many advantages to building a space elevator. The present way of using rockets is very inefficient. Rockets ascent by expelling hot gases at high speeds to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. While travelling at high speeds, the rocket loses kinetic energy to atmospheric drag. If we could lift a payload slowly, it would encounter less drag and lose less kinetic energy as it ascends the Earth’s atmosphere. It costs NASA more than $10,000 per kilogram to send payload into low Earth orbit, altitudes of about 200-2,000 km. A space elevator will do this cheaper, safer, and more efficiently.

Space Elevator

Artist depiction of a space elevator.

In the Limitless episode, “Headquarters!” Brian Finch tracks down one of the criminals on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. The alleged criminal, Lawrence Drake (Isiah Withlock, Jr.), is also the inventor of an inflatable space elevator. So how much of this is science fiction, and how much did the show get right? Read my article on Science vs. Hollywood to find out.

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