Ideas really don’t get more ambitious than this. Scientists in Los Alamos are enthusiastically researching the possibility of replacing spacebound rockets with an elevator that travels from the equatorial ocean through the atmosphere and into space. The elevator’s shaft would be nothing more than a thin piece of ribbon made out of carbon nanotubes, a nascent material that is ten times stronger than steel. The Space Elevator: Going Up?
One of the more fantastic alternatives to conventional rockets proposed to date has been the space elevator. The concept is deceptively simple: rig a cable, tower, or some other structure from the surface of the earth at the Equator out to the altitude of geosynchronous orbit—36,000 kilometers—or beyond. A spacecraft could be ferried up the elevator to GEO and released and, voilà, it’s in orbit. No need for rockets, ramjets, or other propulsive technologies, and the ascent to orbit can be made in a far more benign, safe environment than within a rocket. The space elevator had generally been treated as an interesting concept, but one ahead of its time. An elevator appeared to require materials and engineering techniques decades, if not centuries, into the future. Recent innovations in materials science, coupled with a fresh look at the elevator concept, have changed some peoples’ opinions on the topic.