Science fiction has always imagined fantastic modes of space travel. One idea that began as science fiction seems suddenly within our grasp–a space elevator.
With our sleek space shuttles and orbiting stations, why on earth do we need a space elevator? According to scientists, such an elevator could transport people and payloads into space at a fraction of the cost of conventional rockets. Consisting of an earth-based platform, an elevator chamber, and cables extending from earth up to an orbiting platform sixty-two thousand miles away, researchers believe that a space elevator would revolutionize space travel.
Visionaries began to seriously consider space elevator fantasies in the 1960s. But it was only in the past decade that scientists discovered material strong enough to construct an elevator cable capable of surviving the rigors of supporting a large chamber as it climbs into space. Carbon contains structures called carbon nanotubes–long arrangements of carbon molecules able to withstand tremendous stresses. An elevator cable made from carbon nanotubes would be one-hundred times stronger than a steel cable of the same diameter.
Scientists are now working on ways to create cables that include carbon nanotubes embedded in a sturdy surrounding material. The trick is to engineer the cable so that the nanotubes absorb the majority of the stresses placed on the cable. Besides the potential danger of lightning and space debris, a space elevator occupant would have to contend with the ten-day journey required to reach the orbiting platform. So, future space elevator travelers will have to make sure to bring along plenty of good elevator music.