If the space elevator dream comes true, robo-cars powered by laser light will roll on a carbon-nanotube ribbon stretching up tens of thousands of miles from Earth’s surface, carrying cargo and passengers on a monorail to the sky.
But when Michael Laine, president of the LiftPort Group, manned a booth at a Seattle robotics exhibition last month, he didn’t dwell on that dream for the next decade: Instead, he highlighted down-to-Earth applications that could emerge in the next year or two, such as servicing balloon-based platforms for wireless Internet access or aerial surveillance.
And rather than flashing gee-whiz animations of future spaceships, he flipped a switch on a demonstration robot named “Squeak” that clattered up and down a 10-foot length of plastic webbing.
“Our plan is to do this in an incremental fashion, producing revenue from the beginning,” he said.
From science fiction to business model
Bit by bit, the space elevator concept is moving from high-flying science fiction into nitty-gritty business models, and its proponents are turning their focus from the grand scheme to the technologies required to make it work: hardy robotic transports, new super-strong materials and innovative power sources.
Eventually, elevator enthusiasts hope that those technologies will come together to create a space transportation system several orders of magnitude cheaper than current rocket-based technologies. Some of the schemes call for carbon-nanotube ribbons to be unfurled as far as 62,500 miles (100,000 kilometers) into space, connecting Earth’s surface to a jumping-off point for exploration or satellite deployment. If the wildest dreams come true, the cost of putting a pound of payload into space could drop from $10,000 to just a few dollars.
In the past couple of years, the concept has gained respectability, thanks to interest from Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA. Now space elevator evangelists are looking for ways to make the dream pay for itself.