24 September 2003

Not Science Fiction: An Elevator to Space

SANTA FE, NM With advances toward ultrastrong fibers, the concept of building an elevator 60,000 miles high to carry cargo into space is moving from the realm of science fiction to the fringes of reality.

This month, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was a sponsor of a conference to ponder the concept. Yet, the keynote address was by a titan of science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, speaking via satellite from his home in Sri Lanka. 'I'm happy that people are taking it more and more seriously,' said Mr. Clarke, whose novel 'The Fountains of Paradise' (1978) revolved around such a space elevator.

The discovery in 1991 of nanotubes, cylindrical molecules of carbon with many times the strength of steel, turned the idea from a fantastical impossibility to an intriguing possibility that could be realized in as little as a decade or two.

Proponents say the economic and technological advantages of a space elevator over rockets make it inevitable. They predict it will lower the cost of putting a satellite into space from $10,000 a pound to $100.

'As soon as we can build it, we should build it,' said Dr. Bryan E. Laubscher, a scientist at Los Alamos who organized the conference. Just as the transcontinental railroad opened the West in the late 1800's, 'I feel the space elevator is going to be such a paradigm shift in space access,' Dr. Laubscher said.

Easier economical access to space might also make practical other grandiose projects like solar power satellites that could collect sunlight and beam energy down to Earth.

The conference, a three-day session here, drew 60 people, a mix of scientists and engineers who are working on the concept, space enthusiasts who wanted to hear more and dilettantes from nearby Los Alamos laboratory attracted by curiosity.

The estimate is US$12 billion. That is a lot less than the International Space Station at US$100 billion. The environmental impacts would be radically less than the Shuttle which is also expensive and dangerous. All we need is the polymer/nanotube composite.

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