I am not only a geek who loves technology but a geek who loves elevators. The past three years I've been following the progress of the "Space Elevator", including competitions, cool animated PBS videos, and news regarding LiftPort, the company who is spearheading the Space Elevator project. While being an optimist at heart, the conclusion that I've come up after reading all the posts, news stories and competition reports is that we are far from developing an actual working "Space Elevator." For those of you who think that I'm crazy, the premise of the Space Elevator is as follows. In the Pacific Ocean sits a base station, similar to an oil platform set as an anchor point for a long ribbon/cable made out of carbon nanotubes which extends into outer space. A space pod would then ascend and descend the carbon nanotube ribbon into outer space and to earth carrying payloads as needed. The space pod would be powered by a laser beam directed at it from the base station. Motors then would work to ascend or descend as needed thus reducing the cost of the transportation of goodies into outer space.
So now that you have the general idea of how the space elevator works let's take a step back and "see" where we are today. There is a space elevator competition every year and has teams from colleges and universities from around the global seeking to win the large amount of money if they can build a small robot capable of climbing to the top of a crane on a tether utilizing a laser beam powered motor/engine in a certain amount of time. While each year the goals increase a team has yet to win the large dollar purse.
Three months or so ago a record for the largest nanotube structure was created. Hold your horses everyone it looks as if it's around eight feet tall by four feet wide. While it seems as if we've made advances in carbon nanotube manufacturing techniques, let's face it, we have a long way to go if we want a ribbon cable that can stretch into outer space. Do I think that some day there will be a space elevator? Absolutely, but perhaps not in my life time.
Now I'm not all gloom and doom and for the most part am an optimistic geek good things come about through the race for the space elevator. Nanotube technology can really help any location devastated by an earthquake, like the recent one in China, or any other area that cell phone reception has been lost due to infrastructure tumbling. Tethered Towers, a company formed by Lift Port provides a means to launch tethered communication towers in less than 2 hours using what looks like weather balloons tied to nanotube ribbons. Nanotube ribbons or cables are extremely strong which allows high altitudes for signal strength for many types of communication networks from radio to cellular. Imagine all the cell towers, radio towers damaged in the event of a catastrophe. In two hours an antenna could be launched 1-2 miles up in the air allowing important information to be shared. I hope we never see this happen and that we never have a need for the Tethered Tower as we saw in China, devastated by earthquake there may be a day we rely on a communication system like this to keep us all in touch.
Whether we see a space elevator in our lifetime is really not the issue. If technology like the Tethered Towers and other nanotube technology projects sprout up as an offshoot of the Space Elevator we will all be better off depending on how it helps mankind!