Letter From Discover

Sunday, July 25, 2004
RELATED TAGS: SPACE FLIGHT

The world on a 62,000-mile-long string

Pointing out that “no human being . . . has ventured further upward into space than 386 miles” in the last 30 years, President Bush proposed new goals for NASA as 2004 began. The agency, he said, should build a new spacecraft called Crew Exploration Vehicle by 2008, retire the space shuttle by 2010, return to the moon by 2015, and send spacecraft from there to “Mars and to worlds beyond.”

We applaud the idea of putting humans on Mars. Exploring and colonizing the solar system and eventually the farthest reaches of the galaxy may be humankind’s salvation.

But the half-century-old practice of blasting people and machinery into space via barely controlled chemical explosions is a dangerous and expensive way to achieve such noble objectives. The president, Congress, NASA, and the American people need to actively consider the possibility of reaching space without rockets at all.

So it was unfortunate that the president did not utter the word elevator even once during his address at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. A space elevator—a fantastic yet surprisingly down-to-earth concept—could make getting into space as safe, easy, and cheap as flying from New York to Tokyo. Aerospace engineer Brad Edwards of the Institute for Scientific Research has crafted a detailed plan that could send the first space elevator climbing skyward in just 15 years.

Is he a visionary or a whack job? Estimating the time and expense for such ambitious projects is tricky, and Edwards concedes that some aspects—such as creating the superstrong 62,000-mile-long ribbon on which the elevators would ride—aren’t quite possible yet. But the idea should be part of any debate about the future of America’s space program. And it certainly merits more than the silence it received last January. Turn the page to find out why.

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