Space colonization has reached an impasse, for reasons far more fundamental than a lack of money for the Space Shuttle program. There is simply no way humans can travel easily offworld without using massive amounts of rocket fuel to escape the gravity well — and that’s both expensive and environmentally unsustainable. So how will we get off this rock?
That was the subject of a three-day conference I attended at Microsoft’s Redmond campus in 2011, where scientists and enthusiasts talked about plans to build a space elevator. This enormous engineering project would allow us to haul materials, and eventually people, into high orbit without rockets. Some say the project could get started within a decade, and NASA is offering prizes of over $1 million to people who can come up with materials to make it happen. Here’s what needs to happen before you can ride an elevator into space, according to speakers at the Space Elevator Conference.
Physicist and inventor Bryan Laubscher kicked off the conference by giving us a broad overview of the project, and where we are with current science. The working design that the group hopes to realize comes from a concept invented by NASA scientist Bradley Edwards, who wrote a feasibility study of space elevators in the 1990s called The Space Elevator. His design calls for three basic components: A robotic “climber” or elevator car; a ground-based laser beam power source for the climber; and an elevator cable, the “ribbon,” made of ultra-light, ultra-strong carbon nanotubes.
Edwards’ design was inspired, in part, by Arthur C. Clarke’s description of a space elevator in The Fountains of Paradise.
The elevator’s design is fairly simple. It’s attached to the Earth at the equator, probably on a floating platform off the coast of Ecuador in international waters. The ribbon stretches 100,000 kilometers out into space, held taut by a counterweight that could be anything from a captured asteroid to a space station. Along the thread would be way stations where people could get off and transfer to orbiting space stations or to vessels that would carry them to the Moon and beyond.
We have some basic problems to surmount, from weather and space junk wrecking the elevator ribbon to the legal status of such a structure. Who would it belong to? Would it be a kind of Panama Canal to space, where everybody pays a toll to the country who builds it first? Or would it be supervised by the UN space committees? But before we get to the point where we’re dodging micro-meteorites and dealing with elevator tolls, we need to surmount some technological obstacles to building the space elevator.
Here’s where we are in terms of the space elevator’s basic components.
The Robotic Climber, or Elevator Car
It turns out that this is the easiest part of the equation. We already have robotic climbers that can scale ropes and lift incredibly heavy objects. This aspect of the space elevator is so widely understood that the Space Elevator Conference sponsored a “kid’s day” which included lego space elevator climber races. Robots designed by teens and kids competed to see which could climb “ribbons” attached to the ceiling and place a “satellite” at the top.
Of course it will take some effort to get from lego climbers to lifters big enough to haul components of a space hotel up through thousands of kilometers of atmosphere and space. But this is within the capabilities of our current technology. So we’ve got our elevator car.