Saturday, February 19, 2005

Space Elevators of the 20th Century

It's a given among space enthusiasts that a golden age in human space exploration awaits only the development of a cheaper method to get us from down here to up there. Last year, hopes for cheap space travel rose with the successful flights of Burt Rutan's Space Ship One. If Virgin Galactic's plans to take paying passengers into outer space using Rutan's design pan out, Space Ship One's flights likely will be seen by future historians as a turning point in the Space Age, as that point in history when human space travel leaped out of the 20th Century and into the 21st.

Space Ship One's success is taking space exploration down a path most space enthusiasts did not visualize in the 20th Century. The 20th Century's dreams of humans in space were formed by the big business/big government culture of that century. Big rockets would take big ships into orbit to rendezvous with big space stations run by big corporations and big governments. The ultimate expression of that vision was Gerard K. O'Neill's High Frontier, a huge project that involved building a giant city in orbit where thousands of people would live out their lives in freedom. The High Frontier vision paid lip service to the real-world economic question of how this would all be paid for by proposing the building of giant solar panels near the space city, which would beam cheap power to the huddled masses on Earth via microwave radiation.

Everything that marked the 20th Century is there. There's the huge nature of the project, which would require funding by big government and big business. Anybody who thinks a space city funded by big government and business would be a paradise of freedom might want to do a little bit of reading on company towns before calling the moving vans. There's the attempt to make the project seem relevant to voters back home by turning the space city into a giant power station for the Earthbound. Spinoffs anyone? There's even the attempt to justify the project on environmental grounds. After all, what's cleaner than solar power? And the giant solar panels are in space. If we could move all our power stations into orbit just imagine how we could protect the Earth? Never mind that the power from space is being transmitted to Earth via microwave beams. Wouldn't want to be the flock of birds migrating through that. And what of the public that would be asked to fund the project and use the power? No matter how many government studies declare beaming energy from space to be safe, this'll sell to the public? Some people are so concerned about stray radiation from their microwave ovens that they wait a second or so after the beeping stops before opening their oven's door. Just try and build a cellphone tower or power line in a local neighborhood. You won't have to wait long before a community activist group forms to prevent the irradiation of their kids. And why go this route when we've got fuel cells around the corner, we could get more benefit from the money by paying to install solar panels on buildings around the country, and people would benefit personally from home solar systems by selling their excess power back to the grid.

We don't hear much about High Frontier these days.

It's hard to imagine another vision of the future that is more mired in the 20th Century than High Frontier but there is. What is it? Why, it's the dream of space elevators to the sky. Imagine building a 20,000 mile-high cable, securing it to a spot near the equator on Earth and a station in geo-synchronous orbit, and then attaching pressurized elevator cars to the cable. The advantage of this system is that people ride the elevator cars up the cable to the space station, much like they might ride a train today. The disadvantage of this system is that it'll never be built.

Every now and then a story appears that touts the space elevator vision. The story from linked to this post's headline is no exception. According to the story, "The biggest challenge to the space elevator has been developing a cable tough enough to extend 62,000 miles without breaking." I don't think so. The biggest challenge facing the space elevator is not engineering. The real problem with the space elevator is that it's so 20th Century and we're already living in the 21st.

The space elevator is such a huge project that it could never be built by a single company or country. Look at the difficulties with international cooperation that have beset the International Space Station and try to imagine how it'll be different for a space elevator. Try to imagine the environmental impact statements required to build such a thing. Try to imagine the enormous cost of building a space elevator. Try to imagine the demands participating companies will make in exchange for their involvement. Try to imagine a future where the preferred route into space leaves from a single spot on the Earth. Then ask yourself, given all that, are elevator fares into space likely to be cheap or are they likely to be expensive? If space enthusiasts want access to space to be controlled by a giant public/private monopoly then the space elevator is the way to go.

But if space enthusiasts, who dream of the future as a better place than today, want access to space to be cheap and available to all, then Burt Rutan's Space Ship One is the way to go. Space Ship One was deceptively retro-looking. To anyone who has ever watched old Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers serials Space Ship One looked very familiar. Rutan's project was also reminiscent of the Wright Brothers. Yet, despite these links to the 20th Century, Rutan's way to space is not the 20th Century way.

Rutan's way to space rejects the 20th Century way.

The 20th Century way to space is the massive government spending, big business, top-down, politically motivated, exclusivist way to space. Rutan's way to space is the 21st Century way. What is the 21st Century way to space? It's the cheap, distributed way of the laptop versus the expensive centralized way of the mainframe, the home solar system versus the public utility's power station, the airplane versus the dirigible. It's inexpensive because it seeks a profit and doesn't spend a lot of money. It's private because it keeps control to itself rather than existing to obtain government contracts. It's focused because it seeks to go into space for the right reason, "to fulfill dreams" as Rutan famously said the day before Space Ship One's flight, not for politics. It's simple and safe because it relies on existing technology. It's bottom up and diverse because it's inexpensive, private, focused, simple, and safe.

As long as we have governments and big corporations the 20th Century's way to space will continue. But where has the 20th Century's way gotten us? That's us, not the military, not the astronauts, not the scientists, not the engineers. Us. Nowhere, that's where. The space elevator crawls to the same destination.



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