“Our generation will go to space,” guest speaker Dr. Bradley C. Edwards told the audience at the opening of the Space Elevator Conference, held July 18-20 at the Microsoft Conference Center in Redmond.
Edwards, a world-renowned physicist and entrepreneur, literally “wrote the book” on The Space Elevator, a radical new way to access outer space without chemical rocket technology. The conference drew scientists, engineers, educators, business people and some attendees who were merely fascinated by the concept of a newfangled “stairway to heaven,” an inexpensive way to transport people and goods to distant planets.
To the common man — or woman — the idea may seem like a drastic stretch of the imagination, or even a joke. But we are getting closer to seeing it come to reality, said Bryan Laubscher, general chair of the conference.
“Building bridges to the future is the motto here,” he commented. “The last conference of this type took place in Washington, D.C. in 2004. We see this as a new genesis.”
The conference featured discussions and presentations of research papers about the challenges and benefits of Space Elevator development in terms of scientific and technical advances, as well as political, social, legal and economic impacts. It’s estimated that it will take 10 years and $10 billion to build.
Edwards and other proponents of the Space Elevator see its development as a necessary continuation of the space exploration which was a national priority in the 1960s but has largely faded away. “Now it is up to the private sector,” Edwards explained — and it won’t necessarily be built with U.S. technology, but there are good reasons why scientists and entrepreneurs from all over the world are interested in this.
Beyond the capabilities for space tourism, enthusiasts say that building the first Space Elevator will address many problems on Earth, especially the need for clean, renewable, solar energy. Another promising idea is that it could be used to dispose of toxic waste, especially radioactive waste.
“The carbon nanotube is the key. Without it, it’s just science-fiction,” said Edwards.
More specifically, a carbon nanotube ribbon would stretch from the surface of Earth to a counterweight in space. Climbers (compartments) would ascend the ribbon, lifting cargo and passengers.
The strength and stability of long carbon nanotubes is currently questionable, Edwards admitted. Researchers from Cambridge University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and elsewhere are studying spinning techniques to get past this hurdle.
Indeed, in an excerpt from the conference program, Dr. Blaise Gassend, one of the presenters, wrote, “When it is built, the space elevator will be the largest structure ever built, as well as one of the flimsiest.”
Edwards forsees it being placed on an anchor station in the Eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean with extremely calm weather.
To encourage research and development, NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and sponsoring laser companies have provided $4 million in prizes for the Space Elevator Games, seeking the best designs for climbers and tethers.
Discussions will continue at a Eurospaceward conference in Luxembourg this December, a Japanese Space Elevator Association has been formed and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry in Japan has put the Space Elevator on its Technology Strategic Map. A possible conference in Brunei is also in the talking stages.
To win public support, there also are tentative plans to open “Space Orlando,” a facility combining entertainment and education about the Space Elevator, perhaps outside Epcot Center. There would be actual research and development labs, visible to the public through glass walls, as well as rides and attractions simulating travel in the Space Elevator.
For now, there’s a wealth of information on Wikipedia and YouTube.