Vol. 1, Issue 19, September 23, 2003
Think Difference (Engine).

Space Elevator Project Hits Snag

With advances toward ultrastrong fibers, the concept of building an elevator 60,000 miles high to carry cargo into space is moving from the realm of science fiction to the fringes of reality. However, some traditional obstacles remain.

A conference sponsored this month by the Los Alamos National Laboratory discussed the feasibility of using carbon nanotubules to build a cable strong enough to enable such an elevator to work. Carbon nanotubules are cylindrical molecules of carbon with many times the strength of steel. In theory, a slender carbon nanotubule cable could be dropped from a satellite in orbit 50,000 miles above the earth, enabling NASA to send small vehicles up and down the cable at a fraction of the cost of a conventional rocket launch.

"However," said keynote speaker Arthur C. Clarke in his address, "although such an elevator is becoming feasible, we cannot escape the traditional quandary of what to do about the thirteenth floor."

Most high-rise buildings discreetly omit the thirteenth floor from their listings out of superstition, labeling the floor above the twelfth floor the fourteenth. This is because most tenants do not want to occupy floor thirteen. With a space elevator, however, the problem is more complicated.

"With no concrete floors, we are stuck tracking the ascent and descent of the car in kilometers," said Dr. Bryan Laubscher of Los Alamos. "How are we going to skip the thirteenth kilometer of our ascent?"

Moreover, with a projected length of the cable at 50,000 miles, the number 13 would appear over five hundred times on an altimeter tracking progress in miles. Using the shorter kilometers of the metric system, the problem is even worse.

"We could program the elevator's altimeters to omit all numbers ending in 13," said Laubscher, "but that would make accurate orbital calculations a bit tricky."

Clarke suggested that the best solution may lie with a color-coding scheme similar to what the Department of Homeland Security employs.

"Red orbit, blue orbit, orange orbit... It would get rid of the whole bothersome numbers and counting process," Clarke said. "I bet the president would like that."

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