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Going Up?

To build a space elevator, you'll need a very light car and a very strong string.

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One evening during the competition, about 75 people gathered in a big garage where they sipped wine and waited for a string to break. It was the second half of the NASA-sponsored cash challenge, a test to see if anyone could come up with material stronger and lighter than what’s available off the shelf today.

Every entry had to be very lightweight, just like the space elevator cable, with its six feet weighing less than a penny. Contestants had to beat a “house tether” made of the best off-the-shelf material. The house tether had a built-in advantage: It was allowed to weigh 50 percent more than any of the entries. If any could beat the house, the team would win $50,000 and become the frontrunner in a similar competition planned for 2006.

The outcome might hint at whether the elevator can be built within our lifetimes. Ben Shelef, co-founder of the Spaceward Foundation, a non-profit organization that ran the event with NASA money and touts space elevators to schoolchildren and engineers with equal fervor, has a timeline worked out. If the winner of each year’s tether competition proves 50 percent stronger than the year before, the competition should lead by 2013 to material tough enough to string up the space elevator.

But only four people entered the strong string contest, and no one brought a nanotube. The house tether beat all comers: The strongest competitor broke under about 1,250 pounds of stress.

Since no one won the $50,000, Shelef’s schedule was set back at least a year, and all the prize money will roll into next year’s contest.

Tell all the engineers you know. There’s $400,000 available all this year for the owner of a robot climber or a length of stronger-than-imaginable string. Easy money?

About Michael Milstein

Michael Milstein is a freelance writer who specializes in science. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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