Via slashdot I was led to a page about a practical proposal for a space
The system is based on a "space elevator" and space hotel in low
Earth orbit. The hotel would orbit 775 miles above the Earth, and
would suspend a space dock 160 miles above the Earth, via a hanging
tether. Passengers and cargo would be brought to the dock by a new
suborbital reusable launch vehicle, and would travel up the tether
via a space elevator. The launch vehicle latches onto the dock, and is
carried back to the launch site. The dock moves at only 79% of orbital
velocity, which quadruples the payload capacity of the launch vehicle.
The paper attributes this idea of a "mini" space elevator to Hans
Moravec in the 1970s. It doesn't go all the way down to the ground,
but by reaching into low earth orbit and moving at suborbital velocity
it greatly decreases the cost of the launch vehicle. Current materials
can support a hanging cable of up to about 1000 miles, far less than the
25000+ needed for a true ground-to-orbit space elevator, but still good
enough for this mini elevator.
One concern is that the author describes himself as an "amateur" rocket
scientist, and his academic credentials consist of an MS in electrical
engineering. He raises a number of good issues but obviously the design
would require huge amounts of work before a prototype could be attempted.
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