A Space Elevator needs Space Elevator Music
Inspired by the words "space" and "elevator"
When I say, “space elevator,” what image comes to mind? If, not including a DJ for space elevator music, you pictured a literal elevator that goes into orbit from the surface of Earth - you’re right. When I first heard the term, despite knowing nothing about the structure itself, I pictured something like the glass elevator from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that rockets through Willy Wonka’s ceiling. The difference however, is the tether.
First proposed in 1895 (by Russian rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky), and popularized in 1979 (by author of The Fountains of Paradise, Sir Arthur C. Clarke), the space elevator was designed to reach geosynchronous orbit. Like all buildings, it was meant to be supported by compression. That is, by its own weight - working against gravity. The modern thought however, has, quite literally, flipped the space elevator upside down. Rather than being supported from below by compression, it’s to be supported through tension by a counterweight in space. How?
If you've ever spun headphones or a power cord, you'll be familiar with the phenomenon.
When the power block (pictured left) is being spun, the cord throws the block away from the anchor (my arm) in a tangent. The force of this perpendicular movement keeps the tether between the counterweight and its anchor taut, and as long as the tether is strong enough to keep the counterweight from breaking away, my arm will keep spinning the power block (before I break something).
The principle that keeps the block airborne is what keeps the counterweight of the space elevator in orbit, and the tether from falling back to earth. Because the counterweight is tethered to the earth’s surface, they rotate at the same speed. The planet’s gravitational energy acts as my spinning wrist, throwing the counterweight, which in turn keeps the tether taut.
While the physics behind the space elevator is sound, the ingredient still in the works is a material with sufficient tensile strength to not be broken by the force of the tugging counterweight. Enter graphene: a one-atom-thick, 2-dimensional carbon lattice, boasting an impressive tensile strength.
Graphene is the material space elevator enthusiasts have been waiting for. Although a production method was only discovered in 2004, the mass producible method needed for the sheer quantity required by the space elevator is still only hypothetical.
But let’s jump forward in time to an era when graphene can be made in quantity and the space elevator is a reality. Credibility is given to the layman's question, “why should I care about the space elevator?”
In this future, the space elevator will represent a relatively cheap and efficient way of getting people and supplies into space - but it's the implications of this that are truly exciting. The grandest, extreme end of space-elevator-enabled construction is terraforming: the process of altering a planet's surface so that it can support human life.
And the space between celestial bodies? The presence of materials in orbit means that there will be habitable buildings, or even farms in space. Couldn't crops be grown the world over without giving weather and pests a second thought? Wouldn’t solar power be the best source of energy if the solar cells were out of orbit and could never be decommissioned by clouds? How about geosynchronous cell towers for service anywhere on Earth - or even the moon? And imagine the vistas to be captured by Hubble Telescope 2.0.
As shown by the trend of uninspired smartphone designs from the past few years (with some exceptions of course), we're running out of terrestrial ideas for how to make something “better.” We should want to go to space for - at the very least - one of the same reasons we like travelling across the globe: to break the routine and refresh our perspectives.
Going to space will change how we think and feel
Earth has been an incubator for our species - a place for us to figure out how the world works and how to interact with it. We’ve figured out, to some non-absolute degree, how to bend nature to our will (this article is about technology, not ethics, so I’ll stay away from labeling our dominion on Earth good or bad). And yet, we still have little first-hand experience with the expanse of cosmic sky that surrounds our little nest.
Space elevators can be the golden ticket for our entry to the cosmic arena. Humanity doesn’t need new ways of making money - it needs new ways of interacting with our inner and outer environments. So in the words of Grandpa George: “There's plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there's only five of them in the whole world, and that's all there's ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”