Conversations with Yuri Artsutanov – part I

For those of you who don’t know who Yuri Artsutanov is, he is a Russian engineer and the original co-inventor of the modern idea of a Space Elevator.  It was Yuri who first postulated the Space Elevator being a tensile structure rather than a compressive one (like a conventional building or tower).

Yuri will be appearing at the upcoming Space Elevator Conference (August 12-15) in Redmond, Washington – traveling all the way from his home in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Yuri is 81 years young and is, by all accounts, in excellent health.

The Space Elevator Blog is very privileged to be able to present the first in a three-part series; “Conversations with Yuri Artsutanov”.  Parts II and III will be posted over the next several days.

Yuri Artsutanov in a phone conversation with Natalie Sherman and Eugene Schlusser – part I        
(Melbourne –St Petersburg), March 2010

Q. Yura, please tell us how the idea of “A lift into Space” came to you initially?
A. It was in 1957; I had a friend, Alik (Albert) Yezrielev; his father was a Stalin Prize winner and as such had access to foreign scientific and technical journals so Alik read them as well. One day he told me the Americans had invented a very strong material so that a cable made of this material could be as long as 400kms and would not break under its own weight. I commented that if the cable were placed vertically at an altitude of 400kms where the force of gravity is less than on earth the cable could be made even longer (for ~ 200m) without collapsing into itself. There followed this hypothetical question: what strength would a cable of infinite length have to have? And what if such a cable where erected on the equator where its centrifugal force would keep it at the higher altitude and therefore it would not fall down? That might make it possible to travel into space along such a cable instead of using rockets!

Q. What aroused your interest in the material and the thickness of the cable in first place?
A. I was interested in travelling into space from my early childhood. When I read that a new super strong material had been invented I immediately realised  it could be used for building super long cables to lift us to cosmic altitudes, i.e. for traveling into space.

Q. So the very idea of “a lift into Space” came to you when you thought about the cable, its strength etc.?
A. Yes and it was in 1957, two months before the first Sputnik was launched.

Q. Why is it so important to travel into Space?
A. To find fossils and water on other planets and to use them.

Q. What about “saving humankind”?
A. Plenty of writers and philosophers from Aristotle to the present have thought and written about this. K.E.Tsiolkovsky said that “The Earth is the cradle of humanity but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever”.  The idea of Arthur C. Clarke was “to resettle humankind around the sun to increase its possibilities of survival”. Besides, sooner or later the sun and our planet will perhaps explode and people will need transport to escape and to disperse into space. So “salvaging humankind” has two meanings:  the salvation of humankind in the event of a catastrophe, and making way for humankind in its natural aspiration to expand. Now it is closer to being realized thanks to the invention of the new super strong material – fullerene. The Americans could be using “A lift into Space” by 2040.

Q. Tell us how your idea came to be connected with Tsiolkovsky?
A. Five years after my article “A Lift into Space” was published in the newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda” a short article mentioning it appeared in the newspaper “Leningradskaya Pravda”. A year later the Americans invented the same “lift” (they called it a “space elevator”) and published an article in the American magazine “Science”. A correspondent of the “Novosti Press Agency” V. Lvov had special access to the foreign press and brought the article to “Leningradskay Pravda” where he was told that the idea was not a new one. A Russian article on the same idea had already been published in their paper one year prior. They searched their archives and found the article. Lvov then came to me convinced that the Americans had stolen my idea and he even published an article accusing the Americans. That was in 1966 when “the cold war” was coming to an end. When the Americans found out about Lvov’s article they asked him to stop alleging plagiarism because he was wrong. Their invention had been made quite independently. Lvov agreed and in an article for the American journal “Science” wrote:the space elevator had been “invented for the second time”.

Then the KGB came into the picture asserting that Artsutanov was not worthy of the status of ‘ a hero’. His father had been arrested as “an enemy of the people” and he himself hadn’t informed them about a group of young dissidents (i.e.“enemies of the Soviet State”) at the Leningrad Technological Institute where he had studied. He had known them and was even connected with them. Lvov was ordered as follows: “You need to reduce the role of Artsutanov in this invention; write that the idea originated with Tsiolkovsky and Zander, and Artsutanov had copied their idea; that is, he wasn’t the originator of the idea”.

In fact what Tsiolkovsky had written was: ”if it were possible to build a tower to a height of 36, 000 kms it might be possible to launch satellites  from the top. However, everybody understands that to build such a tower is impossible”. He didn’t even offer a solution on how to build such a tower. It was a purely mental speculation on his part, “a mental experiment” as Arthur C. Clarke put it later.

Among the rough notes belonging to F. Zander they found his calculations for the strength of a tube which could be used by people to get to the moon.  He concluded that the entire supply of  cast iron on the planet would not be enough to build such a tube. He also wrote that while it might be conceivable “everyone understands that it would be impossible”, and thereafter he never mentioned it again.

Despite all these obvious facts V. Lvov still claimed that both scientists had been thinking of “a lift into Space” long before Artsutanov.

It must be said that Tsiolkovsky’s idea for a tower was not original.  It goes back to the Biblical Tower of Babel. People wanted to build a tower to reach the sky but God punished them and destroyed the tower.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote to V. Lvov pointing out that there are no references to a lift in the works of Tsiolkovsky. The idea of a tower remained merely a speculative matter.

Q. What did Arthur C. Clarke think about it all when he found out you were the real father of the idea?
A. In his novel “The Fountains of Paradise” he clearly wrote that the lift into space was invented in the 20th century by Yuri Artsutanov and Tsiolkovsky didn’t invent any of it. Tsiolkovsky’s writings about the tower are no more than a mere “mental experiment”.

Q. How did you meet Arthur C. Clarke?
A. He came to the USSR with several purposes in mind; one  was to meet me. His main goal was to see the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the location in Siberia where the Tunguz meteor fell in 1908 (he wasn’t able to fulfil this aim). His trip was organized by the newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda” who gave him an interpreter as well. Yes, he came to my apartment, looked out from my window, we spoke sitting around the table …

Q. What do you think about Jerome Pearson and his work?
A. His is engineering work of a very high quality but the idea itself is exactly the same as mine. He had the opportunity to try to build a lift – the company, the equipment etc. which I, of course, didn’t have. The idea itself came to him through his work as an ichthyologist. In their research into the oceans it was very important to have very strong cables which wouldn’t break even at a depth of 30km. Then he realized it would be possible to pull the cable not only down underwater but up as well.

Q. Do you have other inventions on which you have written and published?
A. Dyson’s Sphere. In our search for other civilizations we need to locate and study huge objects of a length of up to one billion km. Their temperature has to be less than 50C for life to exist. In the future the increasing population on earth will need all the energy of the sun, not just that fraction which at present reaches our planet. So we need to create a sphere, where intelligent creatures can live on its inner surface and  capture all of their energy’s source – the sun’s or other sources. That’s Dyson’s idea.

Q. What is your part in the idea?
A. Nobody knows how to construct a sphere so that it isn’t destroyed by the sun’s gravitation. My article on the subject was published in the Russian magazine  “Knowledge is Power”, 1969, No.9.

© Copyright 2010 Yuri Artsutanov, Natalie Sherman, Eugene Schlusser

Note that these conversations are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced in any form without the express, written consent of either Natalie Sherman or Eugene Schlusser (you can email Eugene at eugenesc [at]

I found Yuri’s remarks, especially about the role of the KGB, absolutely fascinating.

It’s not too late to sign up to attend the Space Elevator Conference.  Yuri will be appearing with another co-inventor of the modern idea of the Space Elevator, American Engineer Jerome Pearson.  They will be hosting a Q&A session, currently scheduled for the morning of Saturday, August 14th.

Come on out and meet some true pioneers of the Space Age!