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U.S. Grants Patent For Free-Standing Space Elevator Tower


Now to space, and we'll take the elevator. The U.S. Patent Office has granted a patent for a freestanding space elevator tower. The idea of a space elevator has long captured the imaginations of writers, from Arthur C. Clarke to Roald Dahl.


JOHNNY DEPP: (As Willy Wonka) Luckily for us, we have the great glass elevator to speed things - speed things along. Come on.

CORNISH: That was Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka, bumping into a transparent glass elevator. In Dahl's books, it flew to outer space.


Well, the patent given to the Thoth technology company is different. The tower would rise some 12 miles into the sky with a runway or launch pad on top - Inventor Brendan Quine.

BRENDAN QUINE: We believe that if you take off from the top of our structure, you could have a single stage-to-orbit space plane. Then access to space would become more like taking of modern passenger jet.

CORNISH: Quine says he thought this up while he was in the shower. It would take billions of dollars to make, he says, and he hopes a big company will buy a license for his idea.

QUINE: Like SpaceX or Alphabet, Google's new holding company, or perhaps Boeing to step up and build the first prototypes.

SIEGEL: But we wondered if this is as crazy as it sounds or crazier. So we called NPR science desk to ask correspondent Geoff Brumfiel, and he's here now. Hiya.


SIEGEL: So what do you think of this idea?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I think the key word here is, it's an idea. And the Patent Office deals with idea's novelty, not necessarily their feasibility, so that's important to keep in mind.

SIEGEL: Does it strike you as remotely feasible?

BRUMFIEL: Well, I mean, it combines two classic sci-fi ideas - a space plane that could take off from a runway and a space elevator that would take you all the way to space. Both of those are extremely difficult to do, so this seems to be meeting halfway. You go 12 miles up in an elevator and take off in a plane. I can see lots of reasons why it'd be tough, though. I mean, you could just imagine the winds 12 miles up would make it difficult to fly.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, it beats walking up 12 miles of stairs.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah - well, yeah. I suppose so. And they didn't patent that, so I guess we'll just have to see what happens.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). OK, thanks. That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reacting to a new patent for a space elevator tower. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.