Glenn Reynold’s latest Tech Central Station article is interesting, but doesn’t go into much detail on the technical details and benefits to get going on it.
I personally think NASA is acting stupid in the way only a big bureaucracy can by suggesting we spend 100 billion dollars and use 40 year-old Apollo-style rockets to get us to the moon and Mars. How can their engineers be motivated to get out of bed in the morning to work on such a small-minded plan which does nothing more than get us 4 men back on the moon in 13 years?!
NASA needs to quit sniffing the glue used to affix the ceramic tiles, ignore the idea that a space elevator sounds like science fiction the way going to the moon sounded like science fiction in 1960, and just start work on it. Scientists have been speculating about how to build such things for 50 years and have understood that with long strings and counterweights it would be much cheaper to put a pound into space than attaching it to a bomb as we do today. The biggest holdup has been in the materials science, but in 1991 carbon nanotubes were invented which allow us to build a string the width of a human hair which is strong enough to lift a car.
With that alone, we have the essential technology which has been holding things up and we can build something which is 10-2000x cheaper per pound than conventional technology.
However, we can build space elevators even more cheaply by taking advantage of other new technologies which are well understood in the laboratory but which needs to be built at largescale by the engineers with the big budgets. We need to build a set of devices which will climb the first string (which will initially be installed by rockets or the space shuttle) and add another string to it, eventually building a ribon. These climbers could be powered by conventional mechanisms, but it is much smarter to leave the the power source on the ground and use laser beams (first demonstrated by Bell Labs way back in 1960) to beam the energy to the climbers. This keeps the climbers lightweight which we will need in the bootstrapping process. NASA would need to build new types of drives to convert the laser energy to work; the best appears to be magneto-plasma-dynamic (MPD) drives which shoot out ions at 40,000 m/s, another technology waiting for an application for productive use.
These are just two of the biggest breakthroughs which will come out of our space elevator research and all of it can be ours for only $6 billion. In addition, there are many more small and interesting problems that building the space elevator will force scientists to undertake. Beyond the nanotechnology, which may get widespread use because of this effort, there is much more materials science work to build ribbons, support structures, housing, etc. to withstand the elements and the oxidation and the radiation from space and other new challenges. It becomes important to build systems to track (and eventually clean up) the junk floating in space which could threaten the ribbon. We will learn very much building and maintaining this big system.
The space elevator will not only make it dramatically cheaper to put a pound into space, it has the potentially to fundamentally change many things. The idea of building big rockets may become obsolete when most of the energy getting from here to there is handled by space elevators on the Earth and Moon and Mars. (Once you build the first one, subsequent ones are much cheaper to build.) Satellites are built in a particular way because they are launched at high Gs and it takes a year and $500 million to fix them. When these dynamics change and they become more disposable, it will improve the diversity and quantity of them. Space tourism and other commercial enterprises will drive most future efforts in space, and the tourism might start with a modest hotel in .1 g 14,000 km out. 3He could be used in the future for nucular reactors and it is available in very large quantities from the moon which has been collecting it from the sun. A kilo of 3He put into a nucular reactor is worth 157,480 barrels of oil. It puts into perspective our silly worries about oil when we have so many energy sources available.
This scratches the surface of the changes to our world which will occur when space becomes affordable: could even Tim Berners-Lee predict how the Internet would change our world in 1990? A great book which discusses in more detail most of what I have written is The Space Elevator by Bradley Edwards & Eric Westling, I encourage you to read it–it is more exciting than sci-fi! I sent 20 copies of this book to the White House 2 weeks ago; hopefully they haven’t gotten lost. It is currently only #86027 on Amazon.com’s list, but it must be more important to humanity’s future then that!!
We should demand our government seriously consider investing $6 billion to build us a 200 ton space elevator in 5 years. If we told ourselves it would take 50 years, we would build it in 51. If we had to build it in 5, we could build it in 5. The rabbit hole is waiting.
— UPDATE: — I have written more about how Institutional Inertia rather than glue could be what has completely blinded NASA to recognizing a transformation technology in a new post above.
— UPDATE 2: — Arthur C. Clarke and I both make recent predictions about when humanity will start work on the space elevator here. Check it out and put your thoughts in!