I want to live in a world where the following may actually be a reality:
I’m a high-powered businesswoman, let’s say, and I’m late for an extremely important meeting. Carrying an expensive attaché case and rocking a pantsuit with some sweet shoulder pads that are now back in fashion, I hop into an elevator. There’s an operator inside, wearing an old-fashioned bellhop’s uniform. He or she asks me what floor.
Sipping out of an environmentally-friendly Starbucks cup, I respond, “The moon, please.”
Without batting an eye, the attendant responds, “Right away, ma’am.”
That’s how I always pictured the advent of a space elevator, although clearly more intelligent people view the concept of a space elevator as a means to enter space beyond geostationary orbit without the use of large rockets to break through Earth’s gravitational pull.
Although first conceived in 1895 by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the concept of a space elevator reached a much wider audience in 1979 with the publication of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Fountains of Paradise’.
Outside of science fiction, a plethora of scientists and engineers researched ways in which a space elevator would be feasible. In the 1990s, cylindrical microscopic nanostructures known as carbon nanotubes gave engineers and scientists the idea that these strong materials could be used in the creation of a space elevator.
This week, two stories surfaced that may indicate we’re closer to rocket-free flights into space.
In a recent study published by ‘Nature Materials’, engineer John Badding and his team from Penn State University became one of the first groups to create long nanothreads that are significantly stronger than carbon nanotubes. The team was able to pattern carbon atoms to create a tetrahedron shape, resulting in a new type of nanomaterial.
In a press release, Badding stated:
“It is as if an incredible jeweler has strung together the smallest possible diamonds into a long miniature necklace. Because this thread is diamond at heart, we expect that it will prove to be extraordinary stuff, extraordinary strong, and extraordinarily useful.”
Useful, let’s say, in the creation of a space elevator? Badding seems to think so.
Coincidentally, Japanese construction company Obayashi announced this week they plan to have a space elevator up and running by the year 2050. With their advances in carbon nanotechnology, Yoji Ishikawa, a research and development manager at Obayashi, believes that they’ll be able to utilize carbon nanotubes to construct adequate cables by the year 2030.
Additionally, Obayashi enlists the help of universities all over Japan to create solutions for the advancement of a space elevator. For example, a team from Kanagawa University began studying the types of “cars” needed to transport people and cargo into space.
While an actual space elevator may not be the silly transport I was envisioning, these advances certainly make the prospect of space travel without the cost and danger of rockets seem like a reality. Perhaps one day we will see a world in which a large population of people can go to the moon. Hopefully the lines won’t be too long. If so, I’m taking the stairs.