Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Goodbye Space Shuttle. Hello Space Elevator.

On April 12, 1981, NASA and the United States made history by launching Space Shuttle Columbia into space. It was the first orbital spacecraft that could be recycled and reused for future space flights.

I remember the first launch. The teachers packed everyone from our Elementary School into our auditorium to watch the historic event. Much like my parents witnessing man(supposedly) walking on the moon in the summer of '69 - the Space Shuttle launch was an exciting, historical experience that will be rememered by our generation. Well, maybe not the kindergarteners in attendance at the time.

Now, 26 years later, the basic premise of the Space Shuttle, not to mention the craft itself, is starting to show its age. Crappy O-rings. Negligent upkeep and construction. Rips and tears in the outer layers of the craft. And let's not forget the other historical experience of our generation - the two fatal space shuttle explosions in 1986 and 2003.

I don't know about you, but I think it's time to stick a fork in this ship. It's done.

So, what's going to happen after the space shuttle heads to Florida to hang with the geezers and catch up on spring training? Will there be a new space shuttle prototype? If not, what new aircraft or invention will be created to make this flying hunk of space junk obsolete?

I've been reading up a bit on this particular subject. And a lot of scientists, engineers and well-known big thinkers and inventors of the world are pointing towards the possiblity of a gigantic elevator to launch people, ships and materials into space.


I know. I know. It's sounds like something out of a science fiction novel. In fact, the fundamental principle of space elevators has been postulated for quite some time. Even well-known science-minded fiction authors including Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clark (2001: A Space Odyssey) have written about it.

I was a little dubious to the idea at first. I mean, when you envision an elevator shooting into space, it does seem a bit odd. But, the more I've thought about it, the more it makes sense.

In fact, a June 8 article in the The Economist reported that two companies, LiftPort and X-Tech Projects, have been founded to pursue commercial space-elevator projects, and America's space agency, NASA, has provided a $400,000 prize-fund for an annual competition, the Space Elevator Challenge, to encourage space-elevator research.

Sounds like I'm not the only guy that thinks this is a little plausible, eh?

Look, I'm not an engineer. And if you ask me to explain the science behind the whole thing, then you're barking up the wrong tree. To get more scientific, fact-based theories and history on space elevators, check out the Wikipedia entry here. And an article from Wired Magazine here. I'm sure you could also get tons of more information by googling 'space elevator' as well.

But here's what I can explain.

The basic premise is to design a elevator to transport material, spacecrafts and humans from a designated spot on Earth through our atmosphere and into some sort of station in space.

As the planet rotates, the inertia at the end of the tether counteracts gravity, and also keeps the cable/elevator taut. In other words, the lack of gravity coupled with the earth's rotation will keep the elevator from breaking apart and collapsing into the ocean.

The very first thing I thought about when I came across this idea was: weather. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or maybe it does) to envision the damage a Category 6 hurricane could do to an invention like this. That's why the elevator would have to be built in a rather even-keeled, temperate climate that's free from massive thunderstorms, hurricanes, high winds or any type of crazy weather. Author Arthur C. Clark created an island close to the Equator for his ficticious space elevator home base. And it looks like a lot of engineers are also pointing to a similar location for the eventual construction of a protoype.

Of course, engineers would have to find materials that could handle the Earth's atmosphere not to mention elevator re-entry and all kinds of other physics mumbo jumbo. There are definitely a lot of kinks that need to be worked out before construction begins on this project.

On a personal level, I just think the plausibility of a space elevator shooting passengers, space ships and possible planetary explorers into space is a pretty cool idea. Add to the fact that it may happen in our lifetime is even more exciting.

I'm also curious what you - all two of my readers - think.


Rainer said...


I enjoyed reading your post, especially the part of the aging shuttle. I am a bit disappointed at this, as I am planning a trip to Discovery's launch. So the tear and wear is causing a lot of grief to me...

On to the elevator concept: I, too, have read quite a lot about it. But the latest scientific news I read (don't remember where) is that no current material is strong enough to withstand the forces. The conclusion there was that it could not be done...

I'll add a link to your page to my blog as an alternate concept ;)


Your Finest Eimer said...

@ Rainer

Thanks for the reply.