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:
Me: So you intend to take a technology that has so far produced only a cm long strand and extend it to 62,000 miles?
Me: And you intend to do this in 12 years?
Me: Why not try building a conventional suspension bridge or two first?
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
Bonus link: The WSJ's Requiem for the future
Contrast this quarter-century of near-stasis with the technological revolution that's remade our daily lives. When we were kids, computers were hulking things off in universities that chattered and blinked mysteriously before spitting out reams of paper. Today, we feel guilty about putting exponentially more-powerful machines than those out on the curb. Back then if you wanted cash you structured your day around when you'd stand in line at the bank; today your choice might be between deli ATMs or settling a debt via PayPal. We have Web-enabled phones in our pockets, instant messaging at the office and can shop in our skivvies at 3 a.m. Wonders upon wonders -- it's only up in the heavens that we're a generation behind.
What's the difference? The obvious answer is that space exploration has been driven, if that's the word, by fitful competition between two governments responding to oft-hazy rationales, while closer to home the tech revolution has been fueled by millions of entrepreneurs wanting to get rich.