Thinking Tech

Space elevator looks both closer and farther away

Space elevator looks both closer and farther away

Posting in Government

Last week's Space Elevator Conference, hosted by Microsoft, threw some cold water on fans of cheap space lift, but may have also made the dream seem more real as real solutions came under test.

Last week's Space Elevator Conference, hosted by Microsoft, threw some cold water on fans of cheap space lift, but may have also made the dream seem more real as real solutions came under test.

At the heart of a space elevator is a line of super-strong material that can rise from Earth to a geosynchronous orbit, then back down to Earth. (Picture from NASA.)

Cars would go to a station in space, matched by cars following gravity down, so the costs of reaching space and escaping Earth's gravity well would go down dramatically.

A highlight of this year's conference, described in the Space Elevator Blog, was a test by a Japanese team of some tether based on  carbon nanotubes. The strength of a tether determines whether an elevator made with it is practical and, unfortunately, this one failed to beat the "house" tether, the local champ.

But the Japanese will be back. They even plan their own meeting later this month.

Even before a real elevator is constructed, advocates envision a shorter tether that would go part-way up. As described by Michel van Pelt in his new book, "Space Tethers and Space Elevators," even this dream looks distant given the present limits of material science.

This does not mean the dream is dead. The repeated failures of Michael Laine's LiftPort seem to have only fired his imagination and that of other enthusiasts.

So where are we in terms of the space elevator?

We are at the Robert Goddard stage of space elevator development, where hobbyist-engineers try, fail, and try again. Goddard's name is now on the NASA space flight center in Maryland . Goddard made his first successful test of a liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, 35 years before the first manned space flight.

"It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow." That's from Goddard's own high school valedictory speech, given in 1904. This year's conference was also geared heavily toward schools and kids, admitted organizer (and Microsoft exec) David Horn.

NASA is backing Elevator 2010, a series of contests aimed at finding stronger tethers for space elevators and a power beam that would allow a ribbon-climbing robot to go ahead. Maybe one of the school-age engineers who attended this year's conference will win it.

So, kids, do you think we'll have a space elevator in your lifetime?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure