Space elevator takes romance out of the void
OF ALL the possible space-traveling vehicles conjured up by our best sci-fi writers, none has quite captured our imagination like the "space elevator" -- and by "captured," I mean stuffed it into a burlap bag, beaten it with bamboo rods and tossed it into the river.
Originally conceived by Arthur C. Clark in a 1978 novel (though some suspect he was only modifying an idea first described in a Led Zeppelin tune some seven years earlier), the space elevator is inching up toward reality -- in almost the exact form you're imagining right at this moment with virtually no effort whatsoever.
Scientists are spitballing ideas for what they describe as a long tether, 62,000 miles long, very, very long (they're also spitballing a new word for "long") that would be anchored on the ocean floor on the terra firma side, and by an orbiting space station on the infinite void side. The station would serve as a last-chance roadside diner before utter nothingness (almost as bad as that stretch in West Texas between El Paso and Abilene).
The prospect of a space elevator dangling from Earth like a frayed sweater string is growing thanks to the development of "carbon nanotubes," a new Saran Wrap-like substance that will be at least 100 times stronger than steel, and worth at least four times as many points in Scrabble.
According to Wired.com, engineers suggest that by 2020 or so, it will be cost efficient to propel up to 20 tons of material along a carbon nanotube tether by reflecting high-intensity lasers off an elevator car.
Late last month, at a $50,000 NASA-sponsored competition, a team from the University of Saskatchewan (go Green and White) pushed a load of solar cells 40 feet up a 200-foot tether using a 10,000-watt light. They set the curve, but still didn't finish in the money.
Nevertheless, scientists say that for as little as $10 a pound, humans on an elevator could reach space within hours, and depending on how much paid vacation time they have, go even farther -- From the Lobby to the Moon.
Still, Digital Slobs react to all this the exact same way cats react to their owners after they return from a long trip: Yawn.
The fact is, no matter how many carbon bells and nano-whistles you put on it, an elevator is still an elevator -- the most boring and awkward conveyance ever concocted. And all its annoying traditions would be sure to seep into any space-age upgrade as well.
First, "hours" in a space elevator? That amount of time would surely stretch the limits of human endurance past the breaking point -- not for weightlessness, but for the nonstop Musak renditions of Burt Bacharach tunes coming from the stereo system.
Even on regular elevators, I have to get off every 10 floors and bang my head on a wall until "What's New Pussycat" goes away.
Second, spaceships, transporters and Fonzie's motorcycle are all cool because you can control where they take you -- even Mork's egg had its own guidance system.
Think about it. Could Luke Skywalker destroy a Death Star while scrunched between some lady trying to burp her screaming kid and a weirdo intent on telling him how his pet parakeet is stealing his Social Security checks? Sadly, just like us, the Jedi would have to get off and take the stairs.
The Force just doesn't travel along a tether.