“In one moment, Earth; in the next, Heaven.”
— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”
If the player isn’t familiar with the concept of a space elevator, this video and its accompanying quote serves as a pretty good introduction. The idea is to build a giant tether between the planet’s surface and orbit. On the one side, it is tied to the ground. On the other, it is hooked to a massive counterweight in a geosynchronous orbit.
The point of this whole rigmarole is to make accessing space fast and routine. Theoretically, this is done by providing a means by which the payload can climb into orbit without needing to expel a large multiple of its mass in rocket fuel and oxidant on the way. The demands of Newton’s Third Law can be satisfied much more easily by pushing against a long cable instead.
This is a great idea. But the trick to it – the reason why we haven’t built one already on Earth – is that the cable would have to be made of some substance with an incredibly high tensile strength. That’s why the tenth-tier Super Tensile Solids technology is needed to make this dream a reality.
The reason why you’d need an incredible, top-of-the-tree super-strong material to pull this off might not be immediately intuitive. That’s because most people’s image of objects in orbit involves them floating in seemingly serene weightlessness, presumably because they’re so high up that they don’t feel gravity anymore. So it might take a long time for the elevator to crawl up the cable, maybe, but it’s not obvious why you’d need the cable to be made of anything other than traditional steel.
But objects don’t actually stay in Earth orbit because they’re so high up. They stay in orbit because they’re flying fast. So fast, in fact, that despite the fact that they’re constantly falling, they never hit the ground. The reason why you need to go up to get into a stable orbit isn’t to get away from gravity; it’s to get away from the atmosphere. That way there’s no drag trying to constantly slow down your spaceship.
So a better analogy for a space elevator might be the Olympic hammer throw competition. Imagine the planet as the hammer thrower twirling around and around in a circle before he lets go. The weight at the end of the hammer is the counterweight – the space station in the video. And the thin cable is the tether that holds the two together.
There are complications in this image. But hopefully this gives a better intuitive sense of the kind of stress the cable has to be under in order to make this work. And, thus, why building such a structure would be such an accomplishment.
In the game, the Space Elevator gives a few related economic benefits. First, it serves as a multiplier facility for energy production in the base it is constructed, modeling all the global traffic that now needs to flow through this base. Second, the easy access to space that this grants allows all the faction’s bases to build satellites and take full advantage of the ones in orbit, without needing a local Aerospace Complex. Third, it doubles production of all future satellites built in any base, which is probably better thought of as halving their mineral cost.
It also gives a really cool military benefit. Any land unit equipped with drop pods can now target anywhere on Planet for their drop. There’s no distance restriction any longer. Instead of being mere paratroopers, the idea is that they’re now able to successfully make drops all the way from orbit while under fire.
For the purposes of determining the implied canon, it is quite interesting to note that Zakharov pulled this one down. This would have almost certainly been a hotly-contested secret project, given how we have seen that the Gaians, the Morganites, and the Spartans have all placed a strong emphasis on space operations for their own reasons. The University seemed to be pretty quiet in the mid-game, but this appears to be a sign that they will still be a factor as the game comes to a close.