Going Up?

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

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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.

If the real thing comes out anything like Edwards’ dream, it will be quite a ride. Elevators lifting off for space would accelerate upward as they escaped Earth’s gravity, but the trip to orbit would take about a week. Passengers might dine and sleep, as on a modern cruise ship, as they grew lighter and lighter until they enjoyed the effects of microgravity.

The fantasy of such a ride bounced around science fiction circles for decades and was popularized by Arthur C. Clarke in his 1978 novel, Fountains of Paradise. But in the 1990s a Japanese researcher took the concept out of the realm of science fiction when he developed the carbon nanotube, a tiny interlocking lattice of carbon atoms that has taken on such legendary status it’s hard to tell where reality ends and myth begins.

Nanotubes are, without a doubt, unbelievably light and strong—at least 50 times tougher than steel and harder than a diamond. A sewing thread made of them could easily dangle a limousine. The drawback is that the longest nanotubes produced so far are no more than an inch or two. Space elevator boosters, ever the optimists, point out that that’s far longer than only a few years ago.

But it’s also far shorter than the tens of thousands of miles they need to cover. Elevator proponents now hang their hopes on research that will eventually blend nanotubes with materials like high-strength plastic and spin the mix into long fibers as strong as the nanotubes they contain.

“The big issue is how do you put them together so you get their strength in the composite,” says Rodney Andrews, a nanotube researcher at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research.

Not all hopes are pegged on government funding. A Seattle startup company, LiftPort Group, is gearing up its own nanotube factory to tap into commercial demand while also exploring how nanotubes might serve a space elevator. “A lot of people think: If we just have nanotubes, we start throwing this thing together,” says LiftPort president Michael Laine. “But we still have a lot to learn. We have to build a lot of bad stuff before we start building the good stuff.”

LiftPort built its own ribbon-climbing robot and got clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to run it up the tether of a 12-foot balloon over the sagebrush of eastern Washington in September. Laine sees profit there too: LiftPort hopes to market the robots for aerial surveillance, generating income to develop better robots and space elevator designs.

“We don’t know what we’re going to get out of a space elevator,” says Laine, “but I’m damn sure it’s going to be profitable.”

About Michael Milstein

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

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