Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Saturday, August 20, 2005

  Space elevators by 2018

Usually I can barely restrain my skepticism regarding the space elevator concept. So when I encountered the Liftport group last month on the web, with a nanotech division in Millville, NJ (about 20 miles from where I grew up), my internal dialog went a bit like this: HOWEVER: I had been sitting on this blog post for a month, and I ressurected it just now, because the University of Texas just successfully created a nanotube sheet that was a meter long, capable of supporting over 50,000 times it's own weight - and thus I'm at least a 1000 times less dubious about nanotubes than I was when I wrote the above fictional dialog.

Further, U of T claims that they can make the material at 7 meters/minute....

Not only that, but the basic applications for nanotubes outside of the fanciful space tether - Solar cells/Diodes, improved hydrogen storage, and a Y-shaped nanotube-transistor have all been demonstrated recently.

Engineers will overestimate what they can do in a year, and underestimate what they can do in ten years. I guess, now, I have to schedule a trip to the Space Elevator competition in Mountain View in September.

I still regard the idea of creating tethers of geosyncronous length as preposterous - but (as one example) momentum-exchange tethers in low earth orbit seem ever more plausible.

Also: better suspension bridges, taller buildings, better body armor, cell phones and watches as thin as your hand or embedded in clothing - all seem more doable by the day....

It ought to be an interesting decade in materials science. I still think the space elevator folk should try building a few suspension bridges first.

It's been a weird day in space science, too. The Russians are seriously proposing He3 mining on the moon, and plan to launch their shuttle equivalent "Kliper" by 2011, and a will launch a tourist around the moon whenever one can come up with a spare $100m of scratch.

Or maybe they are just hard up for foreign exchange? I shudder to think at what the difference in exchange rate is between here and there. The Russians are launching 4 manned rockets to the ISS/year at a cost of 65m each, and we can't do more than one a year for 1.6b each?

Jeeze, I don't know what to think, after the shuttle has been ordered to stand down til March - maybe it's no longer economic for the US to operate its own rockets, and we should just buy them from Russia and China, refocus on space habitat and space vehicle development?

Bonus link: The WSJ's Requiem for the future.
 
Comments:
Me: Why not try building a conventional suspension bridge or two first?

Liftport: You're using the term 'suspension bridge' for 'useful stuff built closer to home without a big 'wow' factor attached I suspect. And if you weren't, I am.

Because there are hundreds of companies that do exactly that. And they're not interested in space access.

No doubt one or two _will_ be built with CNT - fine. Because it's useful as hell to do that it's going to be done and the field is going to be crowded. We'll plow ahead and start working on the little niggly problems like a car that runs for a week at 200 Kph with no maintennance. And thinking about funding and the real show stoppers - the political and legal problems.
 
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