To build a space elevator, you'll need a very light car and a very strong string.
- By Michael Milstein
- Air & Space magazine, March 2006
(Page 4 of 6)
“I’m going to do what I can to make sure that happens,” said Lopresti, zipping around in his wheelchair at an industrial park in Mountain View, California, where teams tuned up their climbers before the competition. It was tense as competitors sized up opponents they’d face the next day. Some worked through the night, struggling with last-minute fixes.
The trouble they all ran into was one that has always dogged spacefarers: Lifting even a pretty small craft takes a lot of power. That’s especially true when relying on solar panels, which capture only a small slice of energy from light falling on them. Even the industrial searchlight provided for the contest, as bright as it was, did not generate much juice.
Lopresti’s climber, Space Miner, wouldn’t budge. “We cut off all the extra things, but it’s still 70 freaking pounds,” an exasperated Pierce
Other teams tried novel ways to wring power from the light. Engineer Matthew Abrams arrived from Maryland with his climber in suitcases bearing duct-tape labels that said “Robot parts—fragile.” When he got it together, a reflective dome focused light on a water-filled canister.
The plan was for the water to heat up, producing pressure to drive a piston that would yank the climber up the strap. But the water hit only 150 degrees instead of the 300-plus Abrams needed.
“That’s all?” Abrams asked in disbelief, watching a thermometer tick off the degrees much too slowly. “We’re screwed.”
None of it discouraged Bradley Edwards. He has the cost penciled out at around $10 billion, the price of a few space shuttles. It would take about 15 years to build, he said, once we set our minds to it. “It’s definitely doable. The question is just: When is it going to be built and who’s going to build it?”
That’s why he started his Seattle-based company, X-Tech Projects—to help propel the space elevator toward reality. Edwards, who has a boyish look and wry sense of humor, knows that developing an elevator will require a bit of showmanship. He’s talking with Las Vegas casinos about building mock space elevators that would be part amusement-park ride, part teaching tool, and part public relations gimmick. Tourists would hop in an elevator that, simulating the real space elevator he envisions, would whisk them to a deck where they could see prototype elevators and take in simulations of the scenery of space.