Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Space Elevator – a real “Stairway to Heaven”

Imagine an elevator that is tens of thousands of miles high, an elevator into space. Such a structure is theoretically possible and, with the rapid pace of technology, is now looming on the horizon as a real possibility.

I’ve been fascinated by this concept ever since I read Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise.” This is a fictional story of an engineer who does, indeed, succeed in building such an elevator. To quote Mr. Clarke; “The concept was first developed in detail by a Leningrad engineer, Yuri Artsutanov, in 1960 and later by several American engineers quite unaware of Artsutanov's work.” It’s an idea whose time has come.

One of the major hurdles towards building such a structure has been finding a material strong enough to handle the tremendous stresses that something this large would be under. Conventional materials, even the strongest steel, Kevlar, etc. are nowhere near strong enough. With the rapid developments in carbon nanotubes, however, this hurdle may be jumped in the near future. Other problems exist, for example creating sufficient radiation shielding to protect passengers and crew. But these are going to be overcome, too. Predictions are now being made that such a structure will be built and operational within 15 years; hopefully within my lifetime.

The advantages of such an elevator are enormous. No longer do we need to have rockets with their expensive payloads and polluting exhaust to lift items out of earth’s gravity well. Simple electricity can power the “climbers” that would travel up and down the elevator cable. Energy can be recovered from items coming down and used again. With cheap “lift costs”, space industry and exploration will begin to happen in a big way. The space-end of the elevator will be whipping through space at high speeds and can be used to launch space craft (which were brought up the elevator and assembled in space).

Multiple elevators can be built. As the technology gets still better, the costs to ship goods into space should become still cheaper. The exploration of space will open to commercial enterprises. The possibilities are literally endless.

The best book, so far, on this subject is “The Space Elevator; A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System” by Bradley Edwards and Eric Westling. It’s a fascinating look at the possibilities and does a fine job of listing advantages to such a project and hurdles yet to be overcome. The 3rd Annual Space Elevator conference was recently held. There are several web sites that discuss this concept; some of them are here, here, and here. There is an online discussion group devoted to talking about subject. And, a 12 minute video discussing current events in this arena has been posted at the release1-0 web site (registration required).

I can’t wait – maybe I’ll make it to space after all…

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