Sci-Fi Visionaries: The Space Elevator

Originally Published Through Yahoo Voices

From Earth to Orbit on a String and a Prayer

The idea of taking an elevator from the surface of Earth up into orbit, or beyond has been one that challenged SF authors for decades. Now it is edging closer to reality. Two authors primarily brought space elevators into mainstream focus with their works and as such may well have enabled the kickstart of the industry that is even now churning towards generating cable and carriages able to lift themselves into the air and beyond.
Sir Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008) The British SF author most well known for the novels 2001 and the television series Mysterious World was in many ways the first. In his novel The Fountains of Paradise (1979) A Space elevator is conceptualized and constructed on a mythical Island country. Clarke theorized that diamond would be the best element, although he later stated that buckminsterfullerene or carbon filament would make a better material.

Dr. Robert L.Forward (1932-2002) American SF author and physicist most famous for the Rocheworld and Dragon’s Egg series of novels. He was one half of the company Tethers Unlimited, which has been responsible for development of multistranded tethers for use in space and orbital vehicle studies.

The development of a strong tether is key to a successful space elevator as the tether structure is the basis of the cable that will hold millions of tonnes in place against the forces trying to pull it apart along it’s thousands of kilometers length in and out of the deep gravity well that is the Earth.

Both of these authors were visionary in their ideas that would help fuel a nascent industry now developing real world models based on scientific principles set out decades earlier.

If nor for Sir Arthur’s work, the concept of a Space Elevator, location and overall length would not be workable. He figured you’d need cable that went beyond geosynchronous orbit, so an overall length of 33,000 kilometers or more, to act as a counterweight and counterbalance.

Dr. Forward worked out tether redundancy, load sharing and load balancing. With his associate Dr. Hoyt, the development of the Hoytether multistranded Redundant tether for use with satellite deorbiting has become a reality. Although it’s not yet been used in space, the tether has been proven to allow for a failsale redundancy measures in tens of years instead of weeks or months in regards to orbital debris impacts.

This is not to say that the initial work done by Scientists Tsiolkovsky, Artsutanov, Pearson and Morovec was to be discounted or set aside. Their work in the mainstream helped to develop the real physics behind the concept. However, it was Clarke’s novel in 1979, along with Charles Sheffield’s first novel which also focused on Space Elevator building, that brought main public attention to this new concept.

The technology behind a space elevator means that even though it is beyond current technology, much like Project Orion, it is not beyond our capability, if we see the need and put the resources behind such a concept.

Other authors since Sir Arthur have added to and enhanced the idea of the Space Elevator into a standard and stalwart of the Sci-Fi genre. It’s even been a focal point of TV with the Episode ‘Rise’ from Star Trek Voyager showing an orbital elevator in use. Let us not forget that from such grand SF ideas such as this can and have come great advances in real science and development.