That First Step
[Written in October 2003 for the October issue of The Voyageur. Copyright © 2003 Peter de Jager.]
By now you're most probably aware we're going to try and build it ... the space elevator, a 100,000-km $20B+ ribbon of carbon nanotubes forming a stairway to the stars. It's been a long time since we've looked upwards and grasped beyond our reach. Feels good, doesn't it?
That we might find it impossible to build this dream is of little consequence. The net effect is that we'll be looking up again. Maybe that's what we need in a world filled with daily strife. It's tiring to read of the same sorry group of children squabbling in the global schoolyard every day.
Why build such a thing? Today it costs about $10,000+ to lift a pound of material into orbit. With the space elevator we'll reduce that cost to about $100. With an elevator in place, building the space station, getting to Mars or the Moon and launching satellites become relatively trivial tasks. A space elevator is our stepping-stone to much greater achievements. It provides a simple, inexpensive doorway to space. What we do once we build that doorway is limited only by our imagination.
The space elevator is one of our (science fiction) ideas. Arthur C. Clarke centred his novel Fountains of Paradise on the concept, and it was first envisioned in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky when he visited Paris. He imagined a "celestial castle" in geosynchronous orbit, attached to the top of the Eiffel Tower by a cable. People would climb the cable to reach the castle in the sky.
Is it still science fiction? Visit www.isr.us/SEHome.asp and browse around for an hour or two. At the very least you'll come away knowing that some people believe in this enough to devote the next few decades of their life to the hope of making this a reality.
One problem facing these builders of castles in the sky is that we cannot manufacture the "bricks" with which we'll build this elevator. Bucky's carbon nanotube is still the most likely building material, and we can't build it six inches long yet, never mind pieces long enough to glue together to reach 100,000 km.
But, as any engineer will assure you, if it's physically possible then it becomes just another "technical problem" ... one that time, effort, ingenuity and money will solve. Given that we can already produce these tubes in tiny lengths, it seems to be just a matter of doing it one spiral longer, and then another ... and repeat until we get there.
While there are technical problems aplenty between the dream and the reality, another big problem, as with any large endeavour, is getting people to believe in the dream and to see it as worthwhile doing. Fail to capture the heart of the people and you'll never gain the effort and determination necessary to achieve lofty goals.
Which brings us back to those children, grumbling in the global background. In the good old days we built things like the transatlantic cable, chunnels and majestic suspension bridges and worried only about the little problems of financial support and technical difficulties. Today the growling children have added a much larger problem to the mix, one which fights back with all our human ingenuity, threatening to halt our giant steps forward. Terrorism creates unavoidable risks, and large projects pose juicy targets.
The problem really isn't solvable in neatly sectioned portions. Where there are people, there are risks. It all boils down to the realization that we can't protect ourselves from ourselves. That insight is a clue to the real challenge in front of us.
Imagine the space elevator rising from our green marble like a flickering beam of hope. It would give any passerby [in space] the impression we had overcome our individual difficulties and reached an impressive level of civilization. It would be difficult to contemplate that the planet below was still fractured into warring camps.
Perhaps that first real step to the stars must always wait until the ground it stands on is safe and secure. The space elevator might just be a self-administered test—not of technical but of social achievement. Just a thought.
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