Future Index

Revisiting the Space Elevator

September 29, 2003


Going Up     Tonight's science news features a New York Times article entitled, "Not Science Fiction: An Elevator in Space". It discusses the growing interest and acceptance of the idea of conducting research into the use of tethers to access and maneuver in space. The article places the initial cost-per-pound-to-orbit at $100 a pound, with costs dropping as technology improves and costs are amortized. The developmental time scale under discussion is 20 years.    The artist's rendition (left) shows one of the "climbers". It would be very large, and would presumably weigh tons.
    In another space elevator article, Dr. Bradley Edwards mentions that Chinese researchers have found a way to fuse carbon nanotubes together, permitting the elimination of a plastic binder.
    Considering the apparent impossibility of "skyhooks" when Charles Sheffield and Arthur Clarke wrote about them in 1978, progress has been rapid. (Charles Sheffield fantasized about using silicon whiskers, while Arthur Clarke enlisted diamond filaments for his hyper strong cable.)


The Future Ain't What It Used to Be

    Ironically, another article in tonight's science news announces that the age of the technocrat and the mega-project engineer are over...  the military-industrial-technological  The writer says<
    "Even as a visitor from 1903 would be baffled by the gadgetry of 1953, 1953's citizen would find the customs and values of 2003 much more alien than the prospect of little green men (as milked wonderfully for laughs in the movie Back To The Future)."
    I'm a visitor from 1953. I certainly don't find 2003 culturally very different from 1953. Woman's lib? I was in the very middle of feminism in 1953. In 1953, it fell under the rubric of "masculine protest". The women with whom I consorted were feminists from the get-go. A number of psychology students were women. The women's-rights advocate with whom I kept company in 1953 was a computer programmer for an IBM 650 in the Mapping and Charting Research Laboratory of the Ohio State University Research Institute. (The one major difference was the rise in the divorce rate.) We were very concerned about social issues.
    However, I have to agree with the author that we weren't aware of environmental problems. They didn't engage our attention until Rachel Carson wrote "Silent Spring" in 1962. Shortly after that, in the 1960's, the Hippie movement brought environmental awareness to full bloom.
    The author continues,
    "And space projects with no real goal other than the glorification of the state came to a similar end. Thus, von Braun's state-dominated, heavy engineering dominated future never came to pass."
    I would say that von Braun had no affinity for a state-dominated, heavy engineering dominated future. His goal was the realization of the dream of space flight. You have to realize that in the 1930's, this seemed totally absurd. The rockets of the 1930's were 4th of July skyrockets, going up, at most, a couple of hundred feet. A cannon shell could go higher than that. And no one knew what was out in space. No one had ever been there. The closest approach we had during the '30's was through Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (or in my case, through the pages of science fiction pulps such as "Astounding!" "Fantastic!", and "Amazing Stories").
One of the crucial questions was, "Who could ever pay for such a thing?"  The mechanism that stories invoked during the Great Depression was that some multimillionaire would sponsor it. (One excellent story of that era, "When Worlds Collide", published by Phillip Wylie in 1932, had a multimillionaire footing the bill for saving humanity.)
    The point of this is that space flight was unthinkably challenging in that era, and Wernher von Braun wanted to make it  happen... which he did... and it was state-dominated, heavy engineering programs that underwrote the immense efforts  involved. However, Dr. von Braun was delighted when we were transferred from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency to the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He had no yen for the military.

    What's ironic about this article is that it appears to me as though, using new technologies, we are approaching the threshold of the "conquest" of space.
    Announcing that space may not lie in our futures for another century or two seems to me as though it may be timing as unfortunate as Simon Newcomb's announcement in 1903 that practical heavier-than-air manned flight would be forever impossible, or his announcement in 1911 (the year of the first passenger flight) that although it had been possible for one aviator to fly a heavier-than-air craft, they would never get two people up there together.

    My personal take on why space flight has languished is that there are two categories of reasons. One is political. When John F, Kennedy committed us to the moon race in January, 1961, we were still smarting from the Soviet lead in space flight. Space flight was important as an indicator of a superpower's technological muscle, and was an indication of its missile prowess. I think that's why JFK made the commitment he did.
    In the latter 60's, LBJ was getting us in deeper in the Viet Nam quagmire, and trying simultaneously to support his "great Society" program (which came a cropper). Nixon continued in this tradition until 1972, when he retreated in order to win the 1972 election. Then came Watergate and President Ford. And then came President Carter, who could have pursued a revitalized space program. However, that brings us to the second problem.
    Space flight was seen from the start by a large fraction of the U. S. public as a boondoggle. What were we going to get out of space? Everybody agreed by now that satellites were paying their way, but all that we had retrieved from the moon were a few moon rocks. In the meantime, the manned space flight lobby within NASA was pushing for not-very-meaningful manned missions. The real need was for a low-cost-to-orbit transportation system, and various PR types within NASA were promising what they couldn't deliver. Several vice-presidents of Rocketdyne took turns running the manned space flight program in NASA Headquarters (before returning to Rocketdyne), and sold the reusable space shuttle that is now being revealed for what it truly is. In the meantime, the NASA was co-opted (as older most Federal agencies) by professional bureaucrats who wanted to draw their paychecks until they could retire. Like most other Federal agencies, NASA is at the mercy of the various individual Congress delegates, and can't mount bold policies without suffering vehement grand-standing criticism from some members of Congress.
    Or something like that.