Russian engineer, Yuri Artsutanov, known as one of the fathers of the modern space elevator program.
Credit: Ted Semon/The Space Elevator Blog

Russian engineer, Yuri Artsutanov, known as one of the fathers of the modern space elevator program, died earlier this month.

Artsutanov’s proposal, created in the early 1960s, used newly discovered graphite whiskers to propose an Elevator to Space using cables attached to a satellite, and running in both directions.

Artsutanov published his ideas in the Sunday supplement Komsomolskaya Pravda in 1960.
Courtesy: ISEC

Eifel tower inspiration

The concept of the “space elevator” first appeared in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, inspired by the newly constructed Eifel Tower in Paris, thought of a tower that reached all the way into space.

In 1957 Yuri Artsutanov drew up a more feasible plan for building such a space tower. He proposed using a geostationary satellite as a base from which to build it. He suggested lowering a cable toward Earth while a counterweight was extended from Earth, keeping the cable’s center of gravity at the geosynchronous point.

Artsutanov published his ideas in the Sunday supplement Komsomolskaya Pravda (a national newspaper) in 1960.

Inspiration, concepts, and applications

Also paying tribute to Artsutanov is fellow innovator, Jerome Pearson.

“We in the space elevator technical community are all saddened to see the passing of Yuri Artsutanov, who applied his originality and inspiration to the grandiose idea of the space elevator, and later applied the concept to the Moon as well,” Pearson told Inside Outer Space.

Climber makes it way up lengthy space elevator.
Credit: Frank Chase/Chase Design Studios

Unfortunately, Artsutanov did not have initial government support for publication of his ideas, Pearson said, and he was limited to publishing in popular newspapers and magazines in the 1960’s and 1970’s when he produced multiple papers.

“But he was the first to conceive of the space elevator as a practical engineering feat, and originated the exponential taper from the maximum diameter at the synchronous orbit point to the ends, which is necessary to minimize the mass and make its construction feasible,” Pearson said. “I am glad to be a part of the community that publicly recognizes the debt we owe Yuri for his space elevator inspiration, concepts, and applications.”

Groundbreaking work

President of STAR, Inc. in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Pearson pioneered the space elevator in the early 1970s, when he was at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He published his ideas in an international journal that first brought the idea to the attention of the entire world of spaceflight researchers.

Indeed, it was the groundbreaking work by both Artsutanov and Pearson that was recognized by Arthur C. Clarke in the afterword to the epic novel, The Fountains of Paradise.

Credit: Publisher: Gollancz/Orion Publishing Group

Clarke prediction

Bringing the concept to a popular readership, Clarke, in his 1978 novel, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the mythical island of Taprobane – closely based on Sri Lanka, the country where Clarke resided.

The builders use advanced materials such as the carbon nanofibers.

“I’m often asked when I think the space elevator will be built,” Clarke said once during an interview. “My answer is about 10 years, when everyone stops laughing.”

Artwork of Pat Rawlings shows the concept of a space elevator as viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down the length of the elevator towards the Earth.
Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

Pushing the concept to completion

“Yuri Artsutanov is recognized as one of the innovators in our field,” said Pete Swan, president of the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC). He took the thought experiment of Tsiolkovsky [a compressive structure from Earth to Geosynchronous altitude] to the next level of development, a tether with tensile strength strong enough to deploy from GEO to the Earth and upward towards the counterweight [i.e. Apex Anchor], Swan said.

Artsutanov (3rd from left) and to his left, Jerome Pearson, at 2010 Space Elevator conference in Seattle with fellow blue sky thinkers.
Courtesy: Pete Swan/ISEC

“Artsutanov developed the baseline that we all use to understand the concept and grow towards an operational system,” Swan said. “He established key concepts and spoke out to push the concept towards completion.

The ISEC invited Artsutanov to be a keynote speaker at the 2010 International Space Elevator Conference in Seattle.  “We enjoyed his presence in Seattle as he recognized that much had been accomplished and he was part of the initiation of our dream for the future,” Swan said.

One Response to “Space Elevator Pioneer Dies”

  • Don Wenski says:

    Great article about great minds! I have tried to follow the progress on both the Earth and Lunar space elevators.

    I was ready to make a trip up the space elevator in Arthur C. Clarke’s “3001: The Final Odyssey”, when Jerome informed me that it wasn’t built yet. Jerome also told me about his work on the Lunar space elevator.

    So, I can only hope we get to ride one of these days. 🙂

    Ad Astra!

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