Stepping on an elevator and reaching the space is stuff dreams are made of. Science has advanced tremendously but the thought of using an elevator into space with just an anchor on the earth, still sounds miraculous.
It might be surprising to note that it was as early as 1895 that a Russian scientist was so impressed with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, that he allowed his imagination to run beyond the normal, about a structure that would start on the ground and reach all the way up into space.
Although, that proved unrealistic because of lack of proper material to build such a structure, there were several scientists in the recent past that had come up with various other more feasible ideas, such as skyhooks, space lifts etc. A very interesting read with this line of thought is a Novel by Arthur C. Clarke, “The Fountains of Paradise,” where a space elevator is constructed on the top of a mountain peak.
It was later in the year 1990, that NASA engineers realized the potential of high strength materials in creating an orbital skyhook and even held workshops where several scientists were invited to discuss the different concepts that could turn such an ethereal dream into reality.
How can a contest held by NASA for something like this be normal? It’s a $2 million win for anyone that succeeds in achieving this lofty feat. Surprisingly, there are many challengers, who have lived with this idea for years now and are keen to take up this opportunity, which they simply look at as creating an elevator that climbs a cable up to a space station.
Several Seattle based businesses that are competing for the prize money are said to have started working on this idea. NASA has contributed this prize money to the Space Elevator Games that are expected to take place in the fall, in the Arizona desert. This money will be awarded to those that succeed in creating stronger cables that can carry loads into space and those that create better energy beams.
This all sounds like science fiction even to proponents of this idea, such as Physicist and local businessman, Bradley Edwards. He voices his view that advanced technologies such as extremely strong nanotube fibers and laser beamed energy systems bring this whole idea closer to reality.
A nanotube is a material that is made from carbon molecules that are arranged in a cylinder. They are 50000 times thinner than human hair and have extremely important properties and a bonding structure that rivals any other forms of carbon or diamonds, making them extraordinarily strong. These properties of immense strength and flexibility have long excited space elevator scientists and give them hope.
However, the problem is working with them and nobody knows how to attach this carbon nanotube material and make it into a cable that can support a space elevator that can move into space and comes back to earth. There is no known reliable way of arranging the tubes, because too many of them have been found to result in a mess that is said to resemble a bowl of spaghetti. This is where the real challenge lies and this is what all those contestants wish to succeed in.
According to NASA scientists, there is another issue that could pose a danger. With thousands of satellites in orbit and most of them dead, they estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of space debris floating around in space, some of them are said to be the size of basketballs and several others that are tiny but bullet-fast. This debris can easily rip apart any sort of cable that holds the space elevator. The real challenge they say lies in creating a cable that can avoid all these dangers as well as has the ability to self-repair instantly.
Founder of the Spaceward foundation and Space Elevator Games coordinator, Ben Shelef says that they do understand this is going to take time, but they are happy with the number of organizations that are entering the competition and bringing with them, several new and creative ideas for a space elevator.
Looking from afar at this amazing earth-space connection, it can only be dreamt that one day, going into space is as simple as walking into a space lift and pressing a button.