Fi Concept May Be Your Ticket Into Space
By Jim Bray
Get ready to spend a weekend at "the Orbiter Hilton," a luxury hotel
perched in outer space.
Okay, it isn't going to happen next week, or even next decade, but there's
a definite move afoot to bring the cost of space travel down to earth,
so to speak, allowing just about anyone with stars in his or her eyes
to travel into space.
You wouldn't have to put up with the chest-hammering experience of a
rocket launch, either.
Instead, you'd ride comfortably in a space elevator, a concept
first thought to have been imagined in 1895 when Russian scientist Konstantin
Tsiolkovsky dreamed of an Eiffel-like tower that would be topped by an
orbiting "celestial castle."
The idea became more mainstream a little more than twenty years ago in
science/science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke's novel "The Fountains
of Paradise." You may remember Mr. Clarke from "2001: a Space Odyssey,"
but he's also the man whose fertile mind was responsible for dreaming
up those now-ubiquitous communications satellites that are revolutionizing
our world - so even though the space elevator may sound more than a bit
far fetched, it isn't safe to write off Clarkes ideas as the ramblings
of just another whacko.
It probably isn't time to dump your shares in aerospace companies just
The idea is to build a platform out in geo-stationary orbit, about 24,000
miles up, where it remains forever poised over the same spot on the Earth.
To this platform would be attached a pair of "super cables," one of which
runs back to the ground and contains the actual space elevator. The other
cable would extend much farther out into space, for balance and, believe
it or not, would be anchored to a captured asteroid.
Pretty far out, isn't it?
It's thought that the groundside end of the cable would be tethered to
a thirty mile tall tower on an isolated artificial island built in an
equatorial region of ocean. This location would ensure the island is directly
under the orbiting platform as well as giving the huge cable a relatively
safe place to splash down should the unthinkable happen.
The trip up and down the space elevator, which would take about five
hours, wouldn't be like standing in those claustrophobic boxes we use
in today's buildings and towers but rather, according to artists
conceptions, would be more like travelling in a small train that zips
up and down to and from orbit.
The space elevator's proposed electromagnetic propulsion system already
exists, though undoubtedly in more primitive form. Maglev (Magnetic levitation)
trains, which are currently being experimented with as high speed people
movers of the near future, hover over their tracks and are propelled along
by powerful magnets. The technology is also the driving force behind the
thrill ride "Superman, the Escape," at California's Six Flags Magic Mountain
As far as ticket prices are concerned, the bright people pushing the
space elevator figure that such a transit system could lower the cost
of putting cargo or, better still, people into space from an estimated
$10,000 per pound to about $5. That's powerful incentive to build - and
it could go a long way toward jump starting the world's almost-stalled
manned space program.
Naturally, it's going to cost a bundle to build the thing in the first
place, but the people driving the idea claim it could transform human
society in much the same way the building of railroads and highways opened
up the world to travel and commerce. That's a pretty potent claim, and
one that only history will be able to judge, but it goes to show the incredible
potential of bringing the costs of space down to earth.
The sky would literally be the limit, and would be open to tourism, commercial
research and development, and manufacturing. In fact, any business or
discipline that could make use of the advantages of a low or zero gravity
environment would benefit from an elevator to the stars.
Construction of the space elevator would also create a whole variety
of new investment opportunities, from companies advancing the state-of-the-electromagnetic-propulsion
art to those creating new tech construction materials and, well, maybe
even good old Otis Elevators
Its an exciting concept, though building it is sure to have its
ups and downs!
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.