Friday, October 3, 2008

Rick and the Beanstalk

It seems to be called a "space elevator" these days, but I prefer the term beanstalk. In the fairy tale Jack climbed a magic beanstalk up to the giant's castle in the sky, but there are serious people today who think we could build a stalk that would ascend all the way from the ground to geosynchronous orbit.

This would be tremendous. Space travel today is dangerous, inefficient and hideously expensive, because chemical rockets are the only way we have to get off of Earth. But a beanstalk would let us ride an elevator into orbit. Properly built, it could be much safer and orders of magnitude cheaper, pound for pound, to put payloads into space. (Well, it would be cheaper once you'd recovered the cost of building it. It won't be cheap.)

We don't have the technology for a beanstalk yet. But I just read an article that says we might have it soon, and that's incredibly exciting news. Here's the full article:

I did find the article a bit amusing at a couple of places.

"Indeed, if successfully built, the space elevator would be an unprecedented feat of human engineering."

...ya think? It's only a tower that's over 22,000 miles tall.

"It is thought that inertia ... will cause the cable to stay stretched taut..."

Well, yes. It is also thought that if you drop a heavy rock onto your bare toes, it will hurt. This isn't some new, untested theory. Isaac Newton would have understood the space elevator perfectly 300 years ago, had he thought of it. Certainly there are plenty of engineering problems to be solved. But the basics, while unintuitive to us ground-dwellers, are simple and certain. If you make a cable long and strong enough and put it in place: yes, it will stay stretched taut.

I'm not going to start celebrating yet, but some experts think there's a chance that I could see a beanstalk actually built, or at least begun, in my lifetime. I'll have to take care of myself, and hope I inherited the longevity of my mother's family, but hey--it could happen!

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