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Captain_Fantasy's avatar

Will we see a Space Elevator in our lifetimes?

Asked by Captain_Fantasy (11416 points ) February 16th, 2010

It seems like the best theory we aren’t currently exploring.

Rockets require tremendous amounts of fuel and energy just to get out of our atmosphere. It’s incredibly inefficient.

If the Space Elevator works as is theorized, it could be a permanent gateway from Earth to outer space and opens a lot of doors which could lead to momentous breakthroughs in astronomy and deep space exploration. We’re talking “2001: A Space Odyssey” types of breakthroughs, except without psychedelic monoliths or artificial intelligence gone awry.

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27 Answers

wundayatta's avatar

Need significant breakthroughs in materials science, and serious financial and political agreements to make such a thing. Maybe, if we’re ten years old, we might see it in our lifetimes. Not gonna happen for me, though.

tentaclepuppy's avatar

I’m down for it. i like that this thread is near the “How often did Carl Sagan get high” thread- its a different kind of space elevator

jaytkay's avatar

I think the math works, but we cannot yet make the materials.

And the quality control is rather daunting. If you make a 1-mile mistake in a 3,000 mile cross-continental highway, it’s an inconvenience. If you botch an inch in a 22,000 mile space elevator, it’s a disaster.

PS
I would really like to see it happen.

TexasDude's avatar

Most likely not.

BhacSsylan's avatar

Main problem with this is the materials, as people have been saying. The best bet for the materials needed would be a good superconductor for power, which we’re only okay at, and carbon nanotubes for structure, which we certaintly are not good enough at yet. We can make nanotubes maybe, oh, an inch long or so. Possibly a few inches. We need a coherent strand 22,000 miles long. Yeah, gonna be a while.

Steve_A's avatar

No,and honestly I don’t think it is something worth putting effort,time and money into right now.

toomuchcoffee911's avatar

Depends how old you are.

But I thinks it’s a cool idea.

ETpro's avatar

It seems to me the technical challenges are far beyond those of rocket science and without unseen breakthroughs in materials science, energy and even the motion of objects in our solar system and beyond, the cost would be too. So I doubt it. Of course, when I was a kid playing with IBM punchcards to write my first COBOL program, I sure didn’t see a workstation like this or my cell phone coming either. :-)

Haleth's avatar

That would be awesome, but I doubt we’ll see it. We’d need something to build an elevator to, and we’re really far from establishing a base on the moon or in space.

Poser's avatar

It’ll happen. I’ll live to see it.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

I think a Space Pier would be a much more effective use of resources.

It all depends how robust nano-scale manufacturing becomes. If Drexler’s vision is close to reality, we’ll see stuff like this someday. If Smalley is right, then we probably never will.

suncatnin's avatar

I agree with @Haleth We’d need to build it to something. And how would we built it to something if the Earth is constantly rotating? Would it be to a space station so that we would not have to break through the Earth’s atmosphere with rockets every time to get to space? I think we are a long, long way from anything like that.

ETpro's avatar

@hiphiphopflipflapflop Smalley’s seem to stand a small chance of being right if the history of naysayers’ successes is any guide. His concerns about the sinister implications of Drexler’s work may make more sense, though.

bostonbeliever's avatar

we were just getting to this part in the Modern Marvels special on Carbon in Chem class when my teacher turned it off because classmates were goofing off :(
but i think we actually have most of the materials necessary. by turning graphite into carbon fiber we are able to make super strong, durable, heat resistant, material that’s great for building, and the nano carbon tubes are the next step.
we’re getting there, but it’s an incredibly risky investment because like someone said, if any part of it gets fucked up it’s hard to fix. plus it’s so tall that the chance of something hitting it is pretty high. it would be awesome, but let’s focus on making our space shuttles better first, i think

BhacSsylan's avatar

@ETpro and @hiphiphopflipflapflop, would one of you mind explaining the comments about Drexler and Smalley? Sorry, I don’t recognize who they are.

As to @suncatnin and @Haleth, It would have to be some kind of space station, as it needs to be in Geosynchronous opbit (that is, always over the same point on the globe, like communications sattelites). Otherwise, the elevator would get stretched and break. So the Moon’s out. And the ISS is progressing, just very slowly. They just opened a new module today, I believe.

@bostonbeliever As a chemist, I assure you we’re not that close. We can make cool graphite analogues, but they’re not strong enough for this application (they’d probably shear if given those stresses), and while we can make nanotubes, we can’t make them to a length above a few inches. We have a long way to go.

Cruiser's avatar

Will we ever have an administration that doesn’t spend the entire present and future savings all in the same year. Health Care Reform, Social Security and NASA it was a nice ride while it lasted.

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

@BhacSsylan for a news article (by a journalist rather biased towards Drexler’s vision IIRC) see The Incredible Shrinking Man.

ETpro's avatar

@BhacSsylan Richard Smalley and K. Eric Drexler both were scientists pushing the state of the art in nanotechnology. Smalley’s great achievement was the synthesizing of buckministerfullerene, C-60, or 60 carbon atoms bonded together in a shape rather like Buckminister Fuller’s Geodesic Bucky Balls. He also did pioneering work in carbon nanotechnology and nanotubes. Smalley spent his last years pushing for the rapid development of scientific education, as he felt that only a large team of well-educated scientists could save mankind from engineering his own undoing.

Drexler proposed a scheme whereby nano manufacturing might be carried on at the atomic level. Smalley argued that it was not possible for several technical reasons. He was also worried that the Drexler’s warnings about what might go wrong iof his molecular factories got out of control would terrify the public to the extent they might abandon needed scientific pursuits.

mrentropy's avatar

I would love to see a future where Drexler’s version of nano technology works.

However, I’m still working on a compromise to the Space Elevator: The Space Escalator. Make sure your shoes are tied.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@ETpro thanks, my field is Biochem, so I’m not the best on materials science all the time. I know the buckyball, didn’t realize Smalley was the man who synthesized it.

@hiphiphopflipflapflop Thanks, interesting read. I have to say, though, the reporter may be biased towards his vision, but he still makes him sound a bit crazy. I also know of the gray goo problem, and it’s largely bunk. The main issue is that we’d need to make Drexel’s machines before gray goo can happen, and that’s still very, very far away, if even possible.

mrentropy's avatar

I might also add that Drexler’s idea of nanobots was inspired by Richard Feynman.

ETpro's avatar

@BhacSsylan Actually, theoretical chemistry first posited the possibility of C-60 and Smalley succeeded in proving the theory held up by making some. Later we found out nature makes it all the time. It lines fissures in volcanic rock where lots of carbon is present in the magma.

BhacSsylan's avatar

@ETpro Yes, I’m aware. Sorry, I was mostly just unaware of who Smalley was. The chemistry behind it I’m pretty good on.

ucme's avatar

Beam me up Uranus,er.. no thanks.There may be a black hole nearby.

mattbrowne's avatar

Most likely yes, because of accelerating change. The key might be carbon nanotubes. In 2050 perhaps.

ETpro's avatar

@mattbrowne Let’s see, I’ll be a youthful 105 then when it happens. Hope I can afford that many birthday candles.

NanoNano's avatar

Carbon nanotubes are here, and labs have the ability to produce strings of them a few feet in length. Getting from there to a cable 50,000 miles in length is a bit of an undertaking.

We may be a century off for a space elevator.

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