originally published September 7, 2013
A scientist looks at a problem and asks, “How?” A skeptic looks at a problem and asks, “Why?” A caribou looks at a problem and just keeps on moseying along because a caribou has no damn problems. When faced with the dilemma of constructing a viable and dependable space elevator, the caribou will show no interest, exhibit no signs of stress, and simply carry on eating whatever it is that a caribou eats (I’m guessing raccoons?).
But humankind didn’t get where it is by giving up and eating. No, we packed that food into a quickly-consumable paste of protein and insulating chemicals, threw on our paisley thinking-vests, and addressed the issue with imagination, innovation, and ridiculously difficult math.
Certainly if we can transplant one’s butt hair to one’s head, if we can process cheese into shiny, single-wrapped squares, if we can teach a frog to play “The Rainbow Connection” on the banjo, we can figure out how to build an elevator into space. How hard can it be?
That crazy-looking Russian is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, scientist, theorist, and professional crazy-looking Russian. His work in astronomic theory paved the way for all those people-packed tubes of steel we’ve tossed beyond the sky. One day, Konstantin was checking out the newly-minted Eiffel Tower and he thought, “Hey… why can’t we build another one of these, except bigger? Like, all the way to outer space?”
Keep in mind, this is the same guy who believed that humankind’s pinnacle of perfection would be achieved once we could colonize space, as it would lead to immortality and a carefree existence somehow. But as insane as Konstantin’s thought may have seemed back in 1895, now that we are perpetually messing about with satellites and space stations and various other orbital concerns, our species is putting a lot of consideration into some variant of Konstantin’s notion. We just haven’t yet figured out how we’ll pull it off.
The trick to building the space elevator is to have it stretch all the way to geostationary orbit, where one orbital cycle (one full circle) is equivalent to an earth day. A satellite in geostationary orbit – which has to be above the equator – would appear to be hovering over the same slab of land all day, every day. To get there you’d need to travel 35,786 kilometers or 22,236 miles up.
That’s a hell of an elevator, and the logistics pretty quickly rule out any hope of Konstantin’s Mega-Eiffel-Tower complex. You could build the entire thing out of quartz or diamond and it still won’t be strong enough to support its own weight. In 1959, Yuri N. Artsutanov suggested starting the process on a geostationary satellite, then just dropping a cable down to earth. We could use a counterweight extended beyond the satellite out into space, and in theory (some sort of complex theory that I might have understood if only I hadn’t flunked high school physics), it should hold the cable in place.
So how feasible is this crazy idea? In theory (there’s that term again), it might work. That’s about the best we can do. The discovery of carbon nanotubes, a funky way of joining carbon molecules in a handy cylindrical shape, could account for the material necessary for an earth-to-space cable. Next we’d have to figure out how thick to make it. Along the lower part of the cable you’d only be dealing with the force of gravity, but as you pass the point of low orbit you’d have a lateral centrifugal force yanking sideways on the cable as well. For this reason, the cable would need to be considerably thicker the higher up you go.
Then you have the issues of wind, lunar gravity affecting the counterweight, and space debris swooping in and knocking out a gazillion dollars-worth of taxpayer funds. And the counterweight – do you use a ridiculously long cable, a docked space station or a massive heap of heavy debris? What about the climbers? Once you get the cable thing figured out, you still need to determine how to ride up and down the thing.
Scientists have optimistically predicted that the space elevator concept would be a lot easier to set up on the moon, due to the relatively miniscule amount of gravity. Mars would be easier also, except for goddamn Phobos, the low-orbit Martian moon that intersects with the equator and would probably mess up any lengthy elevator concept. But that’s okay! We’ve still got a gazillion roadblocks keeping us from doing this on our own planet. Mars can wait.
One thing they’ve figured out is to not build the thing on land. A mobile ocean-based platform can move to avoid high winds, storms, an invading Rebel X-Wing fleet, whatever. But at some point, someone is going to have to be able to figure out math like this:
In 2005, a corporation by the name of LiftPort Group announced they’d be building a carbon nanotube plant in New Jersey for the sole purpose of getting the space elevator project off the ground (pun sadly intended). The following year they successfully launched an observation and communications platform a mile into the air, meaning they only had 22,235 more miles to conquer. Hey, it’s a start.
Their goal was to have a space elevator in place and ready to go by 2010. That didn’t happen. But all is not lost; Elevator:2010 is a contest to encourage science-lovers to develop bits of the necessary technology in hopes that someday NASA (or someone) will be able to put it all together and make the space elevator a reality.
Japan is on board. They announced in 2008 that they would build an elevator at the low, low price of one trillion yen, or roughly $8 billion. There was a strange rumor that Google was in the game as well, though they have explicitly stated that no, they would not be building a space elevator. That’s just as well – I’d hate to step into the elevator with someone who’d be tempted to hit the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.
There are easily a thousand technological developments that excite me more than the prospect of a space elevator. This is cool stuff of course, but if they ever do figure out how to do it, I’ll be long gone by the time it gets put into action. Even then, an elevator car moving at a blazing 300 km/h (180mph) will still require five days to reach geostationary orbit. That’s a long time having to listen to the Muzak version of Earth Wind & Fire’s “September”.
Maybe we should consider an escalator instead?