Space Station

Further Marginalizing the US

The news that the Japanese government is officially backing a space elevator doesn't seem like that big of a deal in light of the current financial woes in the US, but this could potentially be huge.

First, a space elevator would lower costs of getting getting things into space to a fraction of what it is today. If they allowed tourists, you could afford to go. It might get as low as a few hundred dollars (long run, not short run, obviously). At first you wouldn't actually be able to go because tons of technology companies would be working like mad to take advantage of this and they'll all be lined up in front of you. The micro-gravity in Earth orbit would be a huge boon to many areas. There could truly be a technological revolution here, not to mention an explosion of business in space.

So who cares if the Japanese build it first? Well, the US should, for one thing. The Japanese price tag of $5 billion is a joke. It will cost them far, far more than that. However, the real cost of building a space elevator is actually the cost of building the first space elevator. If you have the first one, subsequent ones are actually cheap. Not only do you have the technology, you then have the access to space. All of my reading of space elevator technology suggests whichever country or group first builds a space elevator will have such a dominant position in the industry that it will be very difficult for any others to overcome. If the US then tries to put up an elevator, the Japanese can just put up two or three more for a pittance, further increasing their dominance in space.

So if Japan succeeds, the US, like every other country on the planet, automatically becomes a second-rate player. The Japanese will be the ones who could potentially solve our energy crisis. The Japanese will be the ones who be able to chase down rare materials we can't get on earth. The Japanese are the ones who will make huge strides in materials technology. And even though they have almost nothing by way of a military, they stand to become a hugely influential military power ("Oh yeah, we'll just take out all of your satellites!").

Frankly, I won't be too disappointed by this. I want someone to take advantage of this. Better the Japanese than no one.
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I agree. I suspect that in the long run, building a space elevator will massively benefit all of humanity, even if in the short run it causes conflict & inequality. In the long run, it should provide at least as much of a boost to humanity as a whole as the industrial revolution did. Sure, the Japanese may take over half the world in the short term (the British did, after all, largely fuelled by the industrial revolution), but they're more likely to do so economically than militarily -- and more likely still to not much care about conquering THIS world (there's a whole lot of prime real estate up there on the high frontier, after all).
Only if you want to. It's not like the rest of the world will fall apart. Plus, I would be very surprised if the Japanese pull this off. If it looks like they're getting close, other nations are going to wake up and smell the exhaust (I hope). I'd love to see a space elevator race.
The US were there first
Reading your post without viewing the links first, I had déjà vu. I read about this six years ago, in 2002, only it was an American physicist touting the $5 billion dollar initial investment cost. You might find the article [] interesting reading.

Edited at 2008-09-23 01:25 pm (UTC)
Old Arthur C. would approve, I'm sure. He always regarded the popularisation of the space elevator concept as the thing he'd be most remembered for... eventually. But just think of the agony if the lift goes on the fritz and you have to take the stairs! I hope they do it, although it'll be far too late to help ease the 4-year gap the US space program is currently facing with the shuttle being retired in 2010 and the 2014 delivery date of Ares (assuming no delays... wahahaha, yeah, right!). If McCain gets in, the program's totally screwed! I'm not sure he even believes space exists. I think the US is looking at conceeding it's lead to China and India at this rate, with Japan and ESA tagging along just behind. At least you've done better than the UK did. We gave up in 1971 and haven't bothered since. And now China's ready to launch it's next Shenzhou mission this week, and try it's hand at space walking. These days, the real space race is in Asia. So, will the future belong to the astronaut or the taikonaut?
Well, the moment he invited Creationist Sarah Palin onto his team, it became apparent he had *reality issues*. Just hope he doesn't get in, immediately have a heart attack and leave her in charge. Everyone on the planet is screwed then! I think the whole world is hoping (I'm an atheist, so can't say 'praying') America does it a favour and votes Obama ;)
Well, due to the recent financial crisis, support for Obama in the polls has jumped to over 50% and McCain is down in the lower 40s. Plus, I've received my absentee ballot, so count me down for one :)

Of course, being from Oregon, guaranteed to go for Obama, and our system being based on the electoral college, my vote for Obama doesn't even count, but I'll vote nonetheless.
The research might be enormously beneficial to Japan, but economically / technologically this is even more of a pipe dream than Reagan's Star Wars project was.

This is not something that is actually going to happen in the next 100 years, if ever. Even carbon nanotubes are not strong enough, and they're more expensive than gold.
"So if Japan succeeds, the US, like every other country on the planet, automatically becomes a second-rate player."

Why? I doubt they will succeed, but if they did, how does that make the real rest of the world a second-rate power? The US got the first atomic bomb, the first hydrogen bomb, the first neutron bomb. None of those turned the USSR into a second-rate power (although economically it already WAS a second-rate power). Then the USSR got Sputnik, the first spacewalk, etc., and that didn't turn the US into a second-rate power. Then the US got to the Moon, but again, the USSR didn't sink into the sea.

Our economic / military / technological might is not tied to any one project.

Edited at 2008-09-23 09:50 pm (UTC)
Aside from developing the appropriate tensile strength for the cable (something we're very, very close to doing), there are no serious technological hurdles here. The hurdles are financial -- not a great time for this -- and political. As the Japanese are much more comfortable with technology than the US, I doubt they'll have much in the way of political pressure against this unless it really hurts them financially.

As for why this will change things radically, it's important to understand the qualitative difference here.

First, the US acquisition of nuclear weapons had a horrifying effect on the world and did cement much of US power, but the tremendous restraints on using nuclear weapons limited the change tremendously.

As for Sputnik and the space-walk, that also didn't change things because of one huge, heretofore insurmountable issue: the financial burden of escaping the gravity well.

There is no way that any nation on the planet can truly take advantage of space to the exclusion of others so long as the gravity well burden is there. With the space elevator, that burden becomes insignificant for two reasons. First, the cost of placing things into orbit becomes a pittance relative to benefits. Second, once that cost is removed, being able to place plenty of things into orbit means they can not only exploit that technology, but they have the freedom to innovate around it.

Japan will be able to charge other countries a much lower rate for using the elevator. And, if successful and several are built, rockets could become obsolete. Japan can come to dominate space, take advantage of the new technologies associated with it and other nations will only be able to stand by and watch with envy. As far as space goes, there is no other technology which can be so disruptive.

Further, if they get the first elevator up, subsequent elevators -- for Japan -- will be inexpensive. They would likely be wary of initially allowing other nations to get into a position of challenging the Japanese monopoly and as a result, if the US wants to compete, they may have to build their own, independent of Japan.

So you are correct that our economic/military/technological might not being tied to any one project, but there is no other project on the horizon which stands the chance of being this incredibly disruptive and so significantly lowering the cost of gaining an advantage in space. Initial analysis suggest that costs could be around $100/kg and you can compare that to SpaceX estimating a $2,900/kg cost to get to the ISS (and that appears to be cheaper than the Shuttle). Costs in the long run will only drop, particularly as subsequent, less expensive elevators are built.

More and more it looks like the 21st Century will be known as "The Rise of the East".
I'm starting to think that if we're going to stay employable in the technology sector, we're going to have to start learning Mandarin or Japanese very soon.
1) You're talking about a hypothetical MILES-HIGH tower, made of substances THAT DON'T EXIST, and whose closest cousins a) are more expensive than gold and b) have the (macroscopic) consistency of graphite powder.

2) Japan does not even have any buildings (leaving aside radio antennae) even as tall as the Empire State Building -- which was the sky-cutting edge more than three quarters of a century ago. Because they have this problem with earthquakes. So even if tomorrow they had ample supplies of some cheap superduperonium a million times tougher than steel, they'd still be at square one in terms of the technology of building something several dozen times taller than any tower ever built anywhere, by anyone.

3 No one has ever, in human history, built anything dozens of times taller than anything else previously built. Unless you believe in the Tower of Babel. Buildings have gradually, gradually increased in vertical stature over the course of millennia.)

4) If Japan built the first one (which will not be in my lifetime), someone else (China, the EU, the US, Korea) could still build the second. That was my whole point with nuclear weapons and with Sputnik and the Moon landing and so on. Can you name *any* significant technology that any country anywhere on earth has a total monopoly on? In theory one can have a near-monopoly on a resource, but no one has a monopoly on science. Why doesn't every last country have a nuclear bomb? Because getting weapons-grade uranium is difficult, not because copying the design of a bomb is difficult.

5) Between nations, the playing field is getting more even. More and more countries are fighting to be on the cutting edge of technology. The idea of a single country economically or militarily "ruling the world" was always mostly fantasy, and it's getting less and less plausible every day.


"there is no other project on the horizon which stands the chance of ... lowering the cost of gaining an advantage in space."

This I'll buy, although it's borderline on a truism -- the most grandiose space project of our era would indeed be the most grandiose space project of our era.

"there is no other project on the horizon which stands the chance of being this incredibly disruptive."

Now we're back to disagreeing. Space is not now and never will be a hospitable place. And there is a limit to how much stuff one can *usefully* have in low-Earth orbit.

Even if it already existed, Buck Rogers Space Cadet Tower could only elevate objects into low-Earth orbit; it would not send anything to the Moon, much less to Mars or Venus or Mercury or the asteroids or any comets much the less out of our solar system altogether. (Not that sending stuff out of our solar system will help us economically anyway.)
The "Buck Rogers Space Cadet Tower" has to have its centre of gravity in geosynchronous orbit otherwise it'll break, so it will get a lot higher than low-Earth orbit. And earthquakes don't matter, cos it can't be built in Japan. It would have to be built on the equator. Both of which ani fule would knoe if he'd read Arthur C. Clarke's end-notes.
Yes, I remembered that after I posted.

A 20,000+ mile high tower sticking out of the equator (not a geographical region Japan has much sway over, might I add) seems plausible to you? Whatever, ani fule.
Also, a geosynchronous orbit, while the perfect place for telecommunications satellites, is not useful for getting things, say, to the Moon, much the less outside the Earth-Lunar system.
If you were very generous, you could read into that Times article that the trillion yen is the cost for the materials research. That's somewhat more believable than that the thing could be built for that. A trillion yen (or five billion pounds) isn't even enough to stage the Olympic games, according to he latest insane budget from the London olympic thieves.

You could get a heck of a lot of useful research done with 5 billion quid. And a lot more of it would be *immediately* useful than will come out of the LHC, which costs roughly the same. Betcha the patents end up being worth a lot more than 5 billion.