Going Up?

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

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Steven Jones crouched in a California parking lot, hoping to pioneer the next great stride into space. The clean-cut, 22-year-old senior in engineering at the University of British Columbia was tinkering with a robotic contraption he and fellow students built out of solar cells, motors, hot-tub tubing, and pieces of a purple bicycle.

Cost: about $1,000. Mission: Climb a 220-foot blue strap dangling from a crane at NASA’s Ames Research Center, powered by only a 10,000-watt searchlight aimed at the contraption’s solar panel. Reaching the top in less than three minutes would win Jones and his partners $50,000 in a NASA competition, plus a permanent place in the lore of the far-out, far-off, and far-fetched concept known as the space elevator.

The idea remains little more than a dream, at least for now. But contest promoters boasted that Jones and his competitors possessed nothing less than prototypes of a dream machine that will one day motor us into orbit along super-strong cables as easily as today’s trains carry us to the next town.

The competition offered a glimpse into everything the dream of the space elevator has going for it and against it: on the one hand, energy, ingenuity, and confidence that it is possible, and on the other, monumental technical obstacles and unforeseen mechanical breakdowns that make it seem unattainable.

As Jones’ robot, Snow Star One, inched off the launch platform, the thin crowd of onlookers cheered. But the robot was sluggish. The corrugated hot-tub hoses, clamped onto either side of the strap for grip, kept slipping. After a few feet the climber’s solar cells melted in the searchlight’s beam, black plastic dripping from them like icicles.

Snow Star One struggled to a stop.

“That robot was pretty slow,” a young spectator informed Jones as he disassembled it, rushing to catch a flight home to finish his midterms.

By the contest’s end, none of the robot climbers came close to claiming the $50,000 prize; some didn’t move at all, and only two covered any distance on light power. The same slowness could be said to describe the overall progress in the development of the space elevator itself.

In fact, NASA backed the contest only to encourage precursor space technology. “We have no plans to build a space elevator,” says Brant Sponberg, manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, which offers cash prizes to fuel innovation in the same vein as the X Prize. The idea is to attract interest in space projects from inventors beyond the usual circle of big contractors that routinely seek NASA funding. “But when you take a space elevator apart into all of its pieces, there are a lot of things we’re interested in,” Sponberg adds. “The basic physics are practical, but the material—not yet. That makes it a hard sell for the agency right now.”

But belief is growing that a space elevator may be in our future. A NASA report completed in 2000 predicted a space elevator would become practical in the second half of this century. Optimists say a functioning system is perhaps no more than a few decades away, if someone savvy in the private sector decides to attempt one.

About Michael Milstein

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

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