Build the Space Elevator Above Volcano Thermals

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David Bigelow is the name of a very smart and courageous aviator you've probably never heard of. In 2008, Bigelow used the hot air rising from Hawaii's volcanoes to fly a glider higher than 33,000 feet. Riding the thermal above these volcanoes, where air rises as fast as 600 feet per minute, Bigelow surfed vertically within a huge hot-air wave. In early 2009, Bigelow sought to break his own record by gliding to 40,000 feet. In that attempt his glider crashed, and he lost his life.

Take my word that it's worth joining Bigelow in the cockpit for his 2008 record-breaking flight. You can do so in this incredible YouTube video, which includes excellent animations showing the glider's flight path above the volcano.

Watching that video I could not help but think that Bigelow was pointing the way for humanity to build its dreamed-of space elevator. With that much hot air rising from these volcanoes 365 days per year, you could haul a bunch of stuff up to 20,000 feet using, say, one hundred to two hundred specially designed wide-winged gliders.

Using elevator lingo, let's call that staging area for space flight the Second Floor. Keeping materials aloft at the Second Floor while a spacecraft is assembled would take real time, effort, energy, and expense. But ingenious ways could be devised to keep the Second Floor aloft, ranging from hot air balloons to helicopter blades powered by helicopter fuel, photovoltaics, or some other energy source.

What might that other energy source be? It could be water hauled up by the gliders. How could water keep the Second Floor aloft, you might wonder? In the center of the Second Floor – its center of gravity – would be a 3-foot-diameter tube that extends about a half mile back to Earth. Water falling through that tube would generate energy to help turn a large, slow-turning helicopter blade above the center of gravity of the Second Floor. For simplicity's sake, this energy-harnessing mechanism could be mechanical (rather than mechanical/electrical), with the water falling down a screw-shape in the tube. In engineering terms, think of this as a reverse impeller.

You might be wondering how water could be transferred smoothly from gliders to the Second Floor. There could be a way for gliders to affix themselves to the bottom of the Second Floor while they slowly release their water load down the tube. I can't visualize exactly how this would work, but I can understand the physics of it – and the physics are quite simple. Admittedly, you would need half of the glider trips up to the Second Floor to be used to carry water, but the energy for doing so is freely captured energy from the rising hot air.

So you can now visualize the Second Floor as being a floating, relatively small square platform suspended at an altitude of 20,000 feet above Hawaii's volcanoes. Over a six-month period, the platform and rocket would be assembled, Lego-style, from parts hauled up via gliders. Rocket parts would be hauled by gliders piece by piece. Fuel for the rockets, the heaviest part, would be the last material raised to the Second Floor.

The rockets that would be assembled at the Second Floor would be nothing like a huge Saturn V rocket. These rockets would be much smaller. Would all the expense and trouble of designing a Second Floor be worth the effort in saved fuel costs in sending materials to space? I don't know. But David Bigelow got me thinking about this, and I believe he knew something the rest of us could benefit from knowing. He may have been pointing the way for us to build a space elevator by a means few had ever imagined.

With hot air rising steadily at 600 feet per minute above the volcanoes, it's difficult to not imagine how that energy might be used to send materials into space. Might this same geothermal energy also be used to lift photovoltaic panels to energy-generating stations floating above the clouds? Perhaps.

I commend David Bigelow, his family and supporters. Here is a person cut from the same cloth as the Wright Brothers. His bravery is matched only by his powerful imagination and aviation smarts. David Bigelow's dream is alive and vibrant today. I can feel the power of that dream. Can you?

If you feel the power of that dream, watch this short tribute to David Bigelow created with video footage from his own flights.

Thank you, David, for soaring. You taught us as much about the human imagination as about aviation.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and technology commentator in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at and on Twitter at

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