The idea of a space elevator has long captivated various minds since it was both theorized in scientific circles by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and introduced into popular culture by Arthur C. Clarke. This fascination is divided between the technical difficulties associated with its construction and the optimistic returns from its successful operation. The most prominent benefit of a space elevator is the presumed dramatic lower launch costs as travel into space would move from expensive single-use launch systems to the multi-use consistent space elevator. Some have attempted to dampen the optimism associated with a functioning space elevator by suggesting that a space elevator in general will not significantly affect the overall cost of space travel.
These suggestions are more than likely incorrect because they commonly fail to appreciate the eventual evolution of a space elevator for the first prototype for any form of new technology is always the most expensive and least efficient. Also the non-launch elements associated with space travel, that skeptics reference as a significant cost factor unaffected by a space elevator, should also see significant cost drops over time, through not immediately, as industries adjust to space travel being a more common occurrence than less than once per year. Therefore, those industries directly related to space travel, especially those that supply parts and consumables, will create more streamlined procedures to prepare for and supply launches. Costs will also reduce through the interaction between the private sector and the public sector as with lower costs associated with space travel governments will be more willing to fund space travel increasing the rate of private funding. Finally a space elevator should be an important achievement for humanity in general if it wishes to actually leave the confides of Earth to colonize other heavily bodies, be them planets, moons, asteroids, etc, with any level of success.
While a lot of effort has been spent on the technical issues and the back and forth of how valuable a space elevator will be, very little time has been spent on the political and secondary economical issues associated with a space elevator. This lack of attention is unfortunate because these issues are very important to the stability of a space elevator both physically and functionality. Therefore, it is important to understand these issues and how they can be successfully managed in order to effectively influence the positive operation of a space elevator after its construction.
The most talked about and analyzed secondary issue with a space elevator is protecting it from environmental damage. The list of possible threats to a space elevator is rather extensive including, but not limited to: lightning and high winds, oxygen and other atmospheric (both lower and higher) chemical reactions, radiation and electromagnetic fields, and space debris along with micro-meteors and other low-Earth orbiting objects like satellites. Concerning satellites it is expected that twice per day each orbital plane will intersect with the elevator and there will be times when both a satellite and the elevator will fill the same area at the same time threatening a collision that will damage both the satellite and the elevator. This problem is not viewed as critical in any real light because operating satellites commonly have a means to generate slight course corrections that can be used to avoid these potential collisions. Non-operational satellites and other space debris are more complicated for they cannot make any adjustments.
Meteoroids, especially micrometeorites, are even worse than space debris for they are much less predictable. Impacts from micrometeorites are almost guaranteed, forcing one of three possible strategies: 1) deploying some form of shielding that could be absorb the damage and then regenerate itself some how; 2) designing a different system for elevator continuity beyond the more conventional ribbon design. One example that has been discussed is the hoytether system, which involves a network of strands in either cylindrical or planar arrangement with multiple helical strands; 3) create an autonomous repair system to manage the various points of damage.
One common and almost universally agreed upon strategy for minimizing the damage potential from orbiting objects is to anchor the space elevator on a mobile controllable target like a large ship or ocean-going platform. By making the anchor point mobile, it should be easier to avoid negative weather patterns as well as non-controllable orbiting objects. Most want this platform in the Eastern Pacific Ocean due to its relatively calm winds and the low probability of lightning. Using non-conductive fibers and small cross-sectional areas that rotate with the wind can provide additional protection. Issues associated with ice formation have been a little more troublesome due to weight considerations. However, all told there may be some meaningful problems with this moving anchor strategy that are not discussed by its proponents, which will be highlighted later.
There is some question to whether or not oxygen corrosion in the upper atmosphere will actually be a significant problem. One way to test the problem potential of oxygen corrosion could be to send various potential elevator material to the International Space Station and expose those materials to the appropriate conditions for extended periods of time. If corrosion is a problem then either the tether must be made from corrosion resistant material like gold or platinum or be coated with such a material. Finally actual repairs to the space elevator are somewhat ambiguous with space elevator supporters simply reporting that there will be special repair climbers that handle this issue. However, it does not lend much confidence when it simply must be assumed that once construction is completed sufficient knowledge will exist to design these repair climbers.
Overall the previously mentioned issues may be the easiest ones when dealing with a space elevator. Very little work has been done on the political issues associated with the operation of a space elevator. For example suppose country A builds a space elevator, what would be the procedure for allowing another country, group or individual to launch something into space? Will the only requirement be the ability to pay some monetary sum established by country A? If so, would that allow a group like Hamas or ISIS to launch something into space?
These are important questions for multiple reasons, but most notably pertaining to potential weaponization of space. Note that for the purpose of this discussion the term “weaponization of space” will mean: “the placement of a device in orbit that can directly destroy, damage or
disrupt the normal functioning of one or more objects within the confines of Earth.” Some individuals would argue that space has already been “militarized” due to the use of satellites in military operations, but space has yet to be “weaponized”. Also note that this definition for “weaponization of space” does not include attacks against orbiting objects like satellites for such potential already exists, demonstrated by U.S. and China and thought to be had by Russia as well.
International agreements concerning space have been far and few between and are commonly negotiated in the United Nations. The first agreement and still governing one, due to actual ratification, regarding international relations within space is the Outer Space Treaty created in 1966 and officially signed by the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union in 1967 followed by all other major space “powers”. Unfortunately the Outer Space Treaty only notes broad legalities in association with space like no national appropriation through claims of sovereignty, state responsibility and liability for actions in space or damage, peaceful intent in interaction with celestial bodies, etc. While placing nuclear weapons in space is explicitly forbidden, there is no explicit prohibition of other types of weapons.
More extensive and specific attempts for an international agreement regarding the issue of weaponizing space have been put forward, most notably the two versions of the “Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects” (PPWT) by Russia and China, but the United States has rebuffed these attempts citing security concerns over possible space assets, a lack of a verification regime and provisions that would directly prohibit possessing, testing and stockpiling weapons that could be placed in outer space. One might questions the validity behind the rationality of this rejection, especially the issue of space assets due to Article V of the PPWT explicitly granting no restriction on the right of self-defense in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations.
Nevertheless the General Assembly of the United Nations has passed two resolutions regarding the prevention of arms in space. The first resolution called on all States to contribute to the peaceful use of outer space, prevent arms races there and refrain from actions contrary to this major objective; it passed with overwhelming support with only two abstentions (Israel and the United States). The second resolution called for the “no first placement of weapons in outer space” and had less support, despite passing, with 4 countries (Georgia, Israel, Ukraine and the United States) voting against and 46 abstentions (including European Union member states). The use of the United Nations as a go-between may need to end in favor of more direct multi-national treaties due to the general lack of respect various powerful countries show the United Nations when it takes a position opposite to that of a particular powerful country as shown in the voting results on these two resolutions.
Also if an agreement is reached what would be the consequences for violating the agreement as all of the countries that could successfully build a functional space elevator have dubious foreign policy histories; thus what penalties could be levied that could reaffirm trust issues in an attempt to normalize relations if such an agreement were violated? Would the only appropriate penalty be the destruction of the space elevator or would operational control be transferred to another party? Should the idea of a treaty be scrubbed completely instead granting operational control of any space elevator to, ironically the most neutral available body, the United Nations? While such a possibility could manage future problems better, how would funding a space elevator proceed if the government of country A knew that it would not retain operational control despite providing the capital, labor and technology to construct it?
Apart from the issues of weaponizing space, the country that controls a space elevator will have an insurmountable economic advantage for launching objects into space, what would happen if this country monopolizes the technology not allowing any other nations access? Can a space elevator simply be treated as any run-of-the-mill commodity? Would anti-trust or global monopoly laws be applied? Should there be an international treaty that sets a firm price for all nations in the event of a space elevator being constructed or should the constructing country have the ability to set any price? These above issues are rarely, if ever, addressed when individuals discuss a future environment with a functional space elevator. The general mindset appears to be a “utopia-esk” societal arrangement where anyone who wants to use the space elevator can use it at cost. Clearly it is difficult to envision this particular environment as one that will develop in reality.
Managing the problems associated with a privately constructed space elevator could also be complicated. Referencing the previous major question of who would have access to the space elevator, suppose corporation A built a space elevator, what would stop them from allowing groups to use it that held political, economical and/or military beliefs that differed from those held by country A? Numerous corporations have demonstrated numerous times over the years that as long as enough money is involved they have no moral qualms against carrying out business relationships with individuals or groups that commonly engage in violent actions against other parties, even if the reasons are superficial. So what types of laws will manage private space elevators? Should it even been legal for a private corporation to have operating control over a space elevator with the severity of what could result from “bad behavior”? Once again should the United Nations take over operating control of the space elevator with all revenue going to corporation A?
With all of the above issues, if any individual or group wants to take the possible construction of a space elevator seriously then the international community must establish guidelines, rules and agreements that address these issues, especially on the issue of access. Access is the most important element because it will establish the general expectations regarding how society will utilize the space elevator to evolve both in a positive or negative manner. Without a binding and known understanding when it comes to these above issues, the probability for the successful construction of a space elevator drops dramatically because uncertainty will more than likely cause some party with the capacity to engage against the construction process in a negative way. Basically if country A does not know whether or not they will get access to a space elevator they may utilize violence to ensure the elevator is never completed.
The issue of potential violence speaks to the location of the space elevator. As noted earlier one of the more popular strategies associated with locating a space elevator is placing it on a movable anchor, most likely a ship out in the Pacific Ocean. What type of protection should this ship have to ensure the safety of the elevator? Would this ship need to house and feed a police force? Would this ship need some form of anti-aircraft defense system? What type of no-fly zone and no-sail zone, if any, would encompass the ship? While the placement of the ship in international waters would eliminating any direct issues of jurisdiction with a single country it would also eliminate a number of problems associated with launching an attack against the ship as well, for attacking a ship in sovereign waters may represent an act of war that would prevent some parties from actually launching an attack. How maneuverable would the ship be if it has to engage in combat for sharp movements may create shearing and tensile stresses on the elevator causing meaningful damage?
Another issue that must be addressed in association with a space elevator is how to manage space debris. The successful operation of a space elevator could dramatically increase the number of objects in LEO or even GEO, which will increase demands on available orbital space as well as provide additional threats to damaging the space elevator. What type of international accord will govern the procedure for managing space debris?
The most significant authority regarding space debris is Article VIII of the Outer Space Treaty which states that all countries retain their ownership rights on all objects launched into space even if those objects are no longer functioning or are pieces off of existing functional objects and the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects. There is no salvage aspect to space objects, unlike oceanic objects, which are covered by maritime law. Thus for any country or agency to interact with non-functional satellite A they need legal consent from the launching nation. The biggest problem with this current standing is that small objects that break off of a satellite or other larger space object with no functionality at all are still considered owned by the launching nation, thus technically to remove these objects there origin source would have to be identified making legal removal difficult.
One way to deal with this issue is for all “space” nations to reverse the legal standing of space objects. Basically instead of country A retaining legal standing over all launched material and its resultant components, country A would need to explicitly state what space objects they hold legal standing on, thus if no chain of custody could be established for a given object then no country could have claim on that object and it could be freely removed by an appropriate party.
The two most common removal methods for space debris are: 1) moving the object to a “graveyard” orbit where it will be unable to interact with functioning satellites; 2) launching a projectile at the object to remove it from orbit and return it to Earth. An operational space elevator would ease the obstacles associated with these two above methods as well as possibly provide a third removal method involving attaching the object to a climber and transporting it down to Earth on the elevator itself.
It is also worth noting that Article VII of the Outer Space Treaty covers liabilities; strict liability standards exist for space objects that cause damage to the surface of the Earth or aircraft and fault standards are assigned for damage occurring to a non-Earth based location. This liability would have to be transferred to any organization responsible for removing these objects. Unfortunately for those desiring a competitive marketplace for debris removal, the best strategy would actually be limiting all removal activities to the controlling operator of the space elevator due to this group possessing the most relevant knowledge and access. Competitors would not have access to the elevator and their strategies for removal would typically be more risky. Flat and fair rates should be charged for debris removal.
Due to the increased ease at removing debris, would it be appropriate for each country to replace all satellites older than x years (x to be determined by an international agreement) including all associated parts at cost before allowing the use of the space elevator? Basically with the development of a space elevator would countries be able to launch as much as they could afford or would each country have a specific quota based on the some factor (size of economy maybe) that could even be brought/sold/traded?
Overall there are a number of important political and diplomatic issues that have yet to be discussed let alone resolved regarding the construction of a space elevator. One might suggest that discussing these issues is akin to putting the cart before the horse for the technology to construct a space elevator is still in its basic infancy; however, that fact highlights the necessity of discussing these issues for if these issues cannot be successfully managed and resolved then the construction of a space elevator would produce wasted effort and resources. Managing the political issues go hand in hand with the technical issues for successfully operating a space elevator, so it is important that all aspects of a space elevator be discussing in realistic terms over some dreamy utopic ideal.