The key to conquering the solar system is inside a black plastic briefcase on Brad Edwards’s desk. Without ceremony, he pops open the case to reveal it: a piece of black ribbon about a foot long and a half-inch wide, stretched across a steel frame.
Huh? No glowing infinite-energy orb, no antigravity disk, just a hunk of tape with black fibers. “This came off a five-kilometer-long spool,” says Edwards, tapping it with his index finger. “The technology is moving along quickly.”
The ribbon is a piece of carbon-nanotube composite. In as little as 15 years, Edwards says, a version that’s three feet wide and thinner than the page you are reading could be anchored to a platform 1,200 miles off the coast of Ecuador and stretch upward 62,000 miles into deep space, kept taut by the centripetal force provided by Earth’s rotation. The expensive, dangerous business of rocketing people and cargo into space would become obsolete as elevators climb the ribbon and hoist occupants to any height they fancy: low, for space tourism; geosynchronous, for communications satellites; or high, where Earth’s rotation would help fling spacecraft to the moon, Mars, or beyond. Edwards contends that a space elevator could drop payload costs to $100 a pound versus the space shuttle’s $10,000. And it would cost as little as $6 billion to build—less than half what Boston spent on the Big Dig highway project.
Science fiction writers, beginning with Arthur C. Clarke in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, and a few engineers have kicked around fantastic notions of a space elevator for years. But Edwards’s proposal—laid out in a two-year $500,000 study funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts—strikes those familiar with it as surprisingly practical. “Brad really put the pieces together,” says Patricia Russell, associate director of the institute. “Everyone is intrigued. He brought it into the realm of reality.”
“It’s the most detailed proposal I have seen so far. I was delighted with the simplicity of it,” says David Smitherman, technical manager of the advanced projects office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “A lot of us feel that it’s worth pursuing.”
Still, there’s many a slip between speculative space proposals and the messy real world. The space shuttle, to name one example, was originally projected to cost $5.5 million per launch; the actual cost is more than 70 times as much. The International Space Station’s cost may turn out to be 10 times its original $8 billion estimate. While NASA takes the space elevator seriously, the idea is officially just one of dozens of advanced concepts jostling for tight funding, and it was conspicuously absent from President Bush’s January 14 address, in which he laid out plans for returning to the moon by 2020, followed by a manned mission to Mars.
So the United States does not appear to be in a mad rush to build an elevator to heaven anytime soon. On the other hand, for reasons Edwards makes abundantly clear, the United States cannot afford to dither around for decades with his proposal. “The first entity to build a space elevator will own space,” he says. And after several hours spent listening to Edwards explain just how and why that is so, one comes away persuaded that he is probably right.
The office of the world’s leading space elevator designer is across the street from the Foxx Pawn Shop in the somewhat frayed downtown of Fairmont, West Virginia. The little mining community of 19,000—hit hard by the 1990 Clean Air Act, which made the local sulfurous coal a tough sell—aims to become a high-tech hub, helped by lashings of funds from Congressman Alan Mollohan, a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee. Edwards is director of research for the Institute for Scientific Research, a four-year-old technology development house headquartered here in a new, cool, rather spartan office building. The space elevator is the most prominent of a dozen projects on the institute’s agenda.