Science-fiction author proposes 20-kilometre
rocket-launching skyscraper


Science-fiction author proposes 20-kilometre skyscraper

News: science-fiction author Neal Stephenson is developing a concept for a 20-kilometre (12.4-mile) skyscraper that could be used to launch rockets into space.

Working alongside scientists and engineers from Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, Stephenson is exploring the limits of tall building construction using materials that are already in existence.

The author, who studied physics before moving into science-fiction, says that high-grade steel could one day be used to build a tower that is around 24 times as tall as the 830-metre Burj Khalifa - currently the tallest man-made structure in the world - and near double the height flown by most commercial aeroplanes.

"It ends up being all about wind," he told the BBC. "In a windless environment making a structure that tall would almost be trivial. But when you build something that is going to poke up through and get hit by the jet stream from time to time, then it becomes shockingly much more difficult."

Science-fiction author proposes 20-kilometre skyscraper
Graph charting the world's tallest buildings since 1885 - click for larger image

Stephenson and ASU structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad are now looking at where a building like this could be located and whether it is possible to address the problems caused by wind pressure. If so, Stephenson claims its height could make it the cheapest way to send objects into outer space.

"The future of space travel, at this writing, is up for grabs with NASA eyeing destinations more distant than the International Space Station and commercial space travel just starting to get some traction," writes Hjelmstad in an accompanying research paper. "It is an interesting time to consider ideas like the Tall Tower."

The Tall Building project is a strand of Project Hieroglyph, a research programme bringing various science-fiction writers together with scientists to develop ambitions for the future. Inspired by papers written by author and scientist Geoffrey Landis, Stephenson began his project with the question: "How tall can we build something?"

"The idea of the project in general is to come up with innovations or ideas... sufficiently near-term and doable that a person sort of graduating from university today could say, 'Well, if I began working on this now, then by the time I retire it might exist'," he said.

Here's an introductory movie from Project Hieroglyph:

The Burj Khalifa became the world's tallest building in 2010, but is set to be overtaken by the Kingdom Tower, currently under construction in Jeddah and designed with a height of 1000 metres. A report published in 2011 predicts what the tallest buildings will be in 2020.

See more skyscraper news »

Top image by Utkarsh Kumar, Violet Whitney and Vineet Bhosle.

Here's some extra information from the project team:

The Tall Tower

The Tall Tower project is part of Project Hieroglyph, headquartered at the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. Hieroglyph teams up top science fiction writers (including Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and Madeline Ashby) with scientists and engineers to imagine a near future radically changed by technological innovation. The project is designed to reignite our grand ambitions for the future and to inspire scientists, engineers and students to think big about the projects they pursue during their careers. The first Hieroglyph anthology, co-edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, will be published by HarperCollins in late 2014.

The Tall Tower project began with Neal Stephenson asking a simple question: how tall can we build something? (The question was inspired by papers on the subject written by hard science fiction author and scientist Geoffrey Landis.) As he started working with structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad of ASU's School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, it became clear that it might be possible to build a very large structure – up to 20km tall – using high-grade steel. Keith developed some simple models to explore the structural requirements of such a tower and Neal began thinking about where such a building might be placed.

As the tower conversation continues, the circle of collaborators has expanded to include aerospace engineering, sophisticated digital modelling and architectural design. In a sure sign that the tower project is about to get excitingly weird, Bruce Sterling wants in. In the months to come the tower project will continue to serve as a pilot for the larger ideal of Hieroglyph: a freewheeling conversation about a radically ambitious project that could be accomplished within the next few decades. An original story about the Tall Tower, written by Stephenson and titled "Atmosphæra Incognita," will be featured in the Hieroglyph anthology.

  • To any self-respecting gamer, this reminds you of Half-Life’s Citadel ;)

    It’s an inspiring project, for sure. Like a ‘poor man’s space elevator.’ And even if it’s never constructed, it might produce some clever innovations that might later be adopted by engineers and architects.

  • Stephanie Press

    Is “Hieroglyph” a reference to Kubrick’s 2001?

  • JayCee

    I love Stephenson’s books. Snow Crash remains the seminal sci-fi novel about the possibilities of the internet. And The Diamond Age is required reading for everyone who thinks their ideas about 3D printing and nano-technology are anything new.

  • boooo!

    It would be outrageously expensive… so quite at home with other space travel technologies. Looks good though.

  • asolitarywave

    hmmm. Doesn’t altitude sickness kick in about 3000m? and isn’t 8000m ‘the dead zone’ where the oxygen is so thin it actually gets sucked out of your blood? I guess it brings new meaning to the term ‘air tightness’ but i wouldn’t want a balcony…

  • ramubay

    “Self-respecting gamer” is an oxymoron.

  • demokris

    Is there enough steel in the world for such a structure?

    • Who says it would have to be steel?

      • demokris

        Uhm… the article?

        • So it does. Sorry >_< But you know what? As a Sci-Fi author, Stephenson should be ready to explore new composite materials that could be better than steel. Otherwise this exercise will be as quaint as XIXth century scientists trying to conceive a trip to the Moon, using XIXth century technology.

  • Buzzkill

    Three words: Square-Cube Law

  • Faoladh

    Though, perhaps it’s a little bit insensitive to mention video games in relation to Neal Stephenson right at the moment.

  • David_Evans

    It’s not clear to me that starting 20km high is a significant advantage for a space launch. What is needed is speed, not height. I suspect that developing a cheap re-usable first stage would give much better cost benefits.

    Not to mention that getting a fully fueled rocket to the top of the tower would be a non-trivial challenge. And working on it when it was up there.

  • Tracker

    I know that there aren’t any 12 mile high mountains but surely it would be easier and cheaper to take a rocket up a mountain and blast off from there?

  • mick

    Great post, stupid idea.

  • Don Yu

    Forget that, just build more Arcos like those you see in Simcity 2000!

  • that guy….

    Although this is very interesting and inspiring, it would be marginally easier to experiment with newly discovered propulsion systems that only require minimal storage for longer and faster space travel. It’s almost like building a petrol station in your backyard just to get to the shops.

  • Naimit

    An orbital elevator descending from low Earth orbital space would seem the more practical solution. Not only would it require vastly less materials to build (the weight of the structure is actually supported from the top, not the bottom), an orbital elevator would also obviate fossil fuel-reliant technologies such as conventional chemical rockets. Instead of blasting off from a launch deck, as in the above proposal, freight would be lifted into space via elevator.

  • Portlandman

    Why not build this on top of Mount Everest then?