The Space Elevator

The past, and the history that fills it, can be thrilling — but the future, and the history not yet made, could be even more so. 

New Mexico’s past, with its tribes and conquistadores and frontiersmen, is often fascinating to read about and discover, but will in a sense always be finite — composed of events that have already happened, people that have already lived, and time that has already passed. New Mexico’s future, however, could contain anything, absolutely anything — even an elevator into space. 

Much of the technology for the first “space elevator” has already begun development, right here in New Mexico, but the first space elevator itself would most likely begin on a moveable platform, floating in the ocean west of Ecuador. From that platform a paper-thin, yard-wide, 62,000-mile-high metallic ribbon would extend up into the sky, stretch through Earth’s atmosphere, and end at a distant satellite — a satellite that would act as a counterweight that would work with the force of the Earth’s rotation to keep the ribbon taut. The ribbon would most likely be made of carbon nanotubes — newly invented cylindrical molecules that are stronger than diamond yet many times lighter than steel — and would be ascended into space by robotic “climbers,” traveling at high speeds. These climbers would use roomy airtight compartments to transport miners, scientists, tourists, satellites, spaceships, and parts of space stations into outer space. For power, they would use either solar power or laser light directed onto photoelectric cells, but only until leaving Earth’s orbit. 

“Once it had passed that point it would continue to travel on outwards, at an increasing acceleration — falling upwards, in fact,” wrote Arthur C. Clarke in Advances in Earth Oriented Applied Space Technologies. “Not only would it require no energy to move it away from Earth — it could generate energy, which could be used to lift other payloads.” 

The whole idea of a space elevator is so unprecedented, so huge, and so fantastic, that it’s been easy for some critics to laugh at and dismiss it. NASA, however, isn’t laughing. Neither is Congress. Neither are scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories, and neither are a growing number of physicists, aerospace engineers, and private investors. 

“Everything is crazy until it is done,” said promoter-engineer Ben Shelef, in an October 2006 Wired magazine article. “Rockets were crazy before they were done.” 

“If the carbon nanotubes tethers now under development deliver on their promise, the space elevator will be a relatively simple project, simpler than, for example, the International Space Station,” Shelef wrote in a recent e-mail. “We think it is inevitable.” 

Benefits of the space elevator — according to A History of Science in Societyby Andrew Ede and Lesley B. Cormack — would include the drastically reduced costs of taking people and cargo away from and back to the Earth, a safer and gentler and more energy efficient ride between Earth and space, and the additional possibility of using the elevator’s ribbon to hurl spacecraft at almost 16,000 miles-per-hour toward other planets, most of which could have their own space elevators as well. 

Space elevators could also be used to build enormous, miles-wide fields of solar panels out in space, panels that could generate enough clean electricity to replace the Earth’s environmentally damaging dams and power plants. Research and tourism made possible by the space elevator would almost inevitably lead to the construction of at least one city-sized space station, and possibly facilitate settlements on the moon and Mars. 

“None of us can imagine how the space elevator will change the world,” Los Alamos scientist Ron Morgan said in a 2003 online article. “I’d love to be here fifteen years after the first one is built to see how the world changes. I think it will change everything.” 

These changes might not be that far off, either. LiftPort, a private American company, has set a goal of building the first working space elevator by 2018. NASA is offering cash prizes totaling one million dollars as incentives for students and scientists to perfect the elevator’s ribbon and climbers, and Congress has voted to increase NASA’s funding. Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratories have been officially working to perfect the carbon nanotube technologies that would most likely be used to build the elevator’s ribbon and unofficially working to bring about the elevator in general. Writers, scientists, and promoters have come together once a year to hold international conferences on the subject — in 2003 they met in Santa Fe. And teams of students and scientists have been gathering annually to compete for NASA’s prize money at the annual Space Elevator Games, the most recent of which took place in October of this year in the desert near Las Cruces, with teams competing to design the best ribbon as well as the best devices to climb it. 

As evidenced by the above events and developments, New Mexico has played an undeniably large role in working toward making the space elevator a reality. 

“I would say this could be attributed directly to Brad Edwards,” Morgan said. “Many consider him the father of the space elevator. He developed the concept and wrote a book about it — The Space Elevator — and during the time he did this work he was working at Los Alamos as a physicist.” 

Edwards is the man behind the current concept of the space elevator, but the general idea goes back as far as 1895, when Konstantin Tsiolovsky, a Russian rocket scientist, wrote about the idea in “Daydreams of Heaven and Earth,” after staring at the Eiffel Tower while imagining a cable leading from its highpoint into outer space. Since then, other scientists have examined the idea in other articles, and science fiction writers have worked the idea into their novels, but until 1991, there was no material on Earth strong enough or light enough that could be used to build it — not until Sumio Iijima, a Japanese scientist, officially discovered carbon nanotubes. 

The nanotubes and the way they need to be joined together still need to be significantly improved before they can be used practically, but the work is going ahead — and New Mexico is going with it — going up. 

Just as the once-impossible dream of building a transcontinental railroad transformed America’s past and present, bringing the masses into the almost inaccessible Western frontier, so may the now unbelievable idea of a space elevator bring the world into the universe, and transform the future of all of us. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.