That farout sci-fi staple known as the space elevator is in the news again, among real engineers who take the idea seriously. An organization known as the Japan Space Elevator Association will hold the 1st Japan Space Elevator Conference in Tokyo on 15-16 November. And the attendees should have a lot to discuss.
A piece from CNN ('Space elevator' would take humans into orbit) reports that interest in developing a space elevator has never been higher, with hundreds of engineers and scientists from Asia, Europe, and the Americas working hard to turn the visionary concept into a reality, possibly within a few decades.
The CNN item refers to the challenge of building a cable that would extend from a ground station to an orbiting outpost thosands of miles above as 'an unprecedented feat of human engineering'. Once built and deployed, the tether would theoretically be capable of conveying an attached platform into space.
To learn more about the space elevator concept, please read our cover story from the August 2005 issue of IEEE Spectrum, A Hoist to the Heavens. In it, space scientist Bradley Carl Edwards writes: 'Roomy elevator cars powered by electricity would speed along the cable. For a fraction of the cost, risk, and complexity of today's rocket boosters, people and cargo would be whisked into space in relative comfort and safety.'
Credit for popularizing the idea of a tethered transport system from the earth to space goes to famous science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who died earlier this year. In his 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, Clarke fictionalized a system that had recently been put forth by U.S. space scientist Jerome Pearson.
Before he passed away in March, Clarke spoke with Spectrum contributor Saswato R. Das about the prospects of a space elevator from his hospital bed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In his last published interview, Final Thoughts from Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008), Clarke told Das that he thought such a space transport system would be "considered equally important" to the breakthroughs brought about by rockets and satellites.
"I'm often asked when I think the space elevator will be built," Clarke told Das with a smile. "My answer is about 10 years after everyone stops laughing. Maybe 20 years. But I am pretty sure that the space elevator is an important element in future space travel."
Last week, the head of the Japan Space Elevator Association, Akira Tsuchida, told CNN that his group is already working with U.S. and European firms on early cable prototypes based on carbon nanotube technology.
"At present we have a tether which is made of carbon nanotube[s], and has one-third or one-quarter of the strength required to make a space elevator. We expect that we will have strong enough cable in the 2020s or 2030s," Tsuchida noted. "Because we don't have a material which has enough strength to construct [a] space elevator yet, it is difficult to change people's mind[s] so they believe that it can be real."
Next month in Tokyo, real scientist and engineers will gather to grapple with the fiction-inspired notion of hoisting people and objects into space along a tether strong enough to leash a planet. It's a far-fetched idea, all right. But if they can inspire one another into producing a few key breakthroughs, they'll have started a process that might eventually change the minds of people around the world.