Google X tried to design a Space Elevator

Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team, has confirmed for the first time ever that Google’s research and development lab actually tried to design a space elevator.

“It would be a massive capital investment,” he said in this month’s issue of Fast Company. But once this hypothetical machine was built, “it could take you from ground to orbit with a net of basically zero energy. It drives down the space-access costs, operationally, to being incredibly low.”

NBF – This is not quite correct. The energy is still the electricity to create the change in potential energy.

Space elevator economics are discussed here and here.

Current proposals envision payload prices starting as low as $220 per kilogram ($100 per pound), similar to the $5–$300/kg estimates of the Launch loop, but higher than the $310/ton to 500 km orbit quoted to Dr. Jerry Pournelle for an orbital airship system.

If SpaceX is successful in developing the reusable technology, it is expected to significantly reduce the cost of access to space, and change the increasingly competitive market in space launch services. The Falcon 9 has a published cost of US$56.5 million per launch to low Earth orbit, “Falcon 9 rockets are already the cheapest in the industry. Reusable Falcon 9s could drop the price by an order of magnitude, sparking more space-based enterprise, which in turn would drop the cost of access to space still further through economies of scale. Space industry analyst Ajay Kothari has noted that SpaceX reusable technology could do for space transport “what jet engines did for air transportation sixty years ago when people never imagined that more than 500 million passengers would travel by airplanes every year and that the cost could be reduced to the level it is—all because of passenger volume and reliable reusability.” SpaceX has said that if they are successful in developing the reusable technology, launch prices of around US$5 to 7 million for a reusable Falcon 9 are possible. Spacex could even bring the cost down to US$1 million by reusing a rocket hundreds of times like a commercial jetplane.

One use Falcon 9 rocket launch cost $1,862/lb
One use Falcon Heavy launch cost $1000/lb
First stage reusable Falcon 9 launch cost $1200/lb
First stage reusable Falcon Heavy launch cost $600/lb
Reusable (about fifteen times) Falcon 9 rocket launch cost all stages reusable $100/lb

Google X does not employ your typical Silicon Valley types. Google already has a large lab division, Google Research, that is devoted mainly to computer science and Internet technologies. The distinction is sometimes framed this way: Google Research is mostly bits; Google X is mostly atoms. In other words, X is tasked with making actual objects that interact with the physical world, which to a certain extent gives logical coherence to the four main projects that have so far emerged from X: driverless cars, Google Glass, high-­altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and glucose-monitoring contact lenses. Mostly, X seeks out people who want to build stuff, and who won’t get easily daunted. Inside the lab, now more than 250 ­employees strong, there is an idiosyncratic troupe of former park rangers, sculptors, philosophers, and machinists; one X scientist has won two Academy Awards for special effects.

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