Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Shaftless Elevator

I have flown many times as a passenger and fewer times (and in smaller aircraft) as a pilot. I've got a degree in physics and have read extensively on the science and technology of powered flight. But every time I board a Boeing 747, there's still a part of me that has trouble believing that this nearly 400 metric tonne auditorium can actually fly. I had the same feeling when I attended a cocktail party beneath the Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center last summer. I don't doubt the physics or the demonstrated reality that these giant vehicles can indeed fly. It may be "just engineering" but it's still pretty mind-boggling.

Someday I may say the same sort of thing about the space elevator. Of course no one has built one yet, but the physics and many preliminary engineering details have been worked out. It definitely can work, and I hope to live to board a 20 tonne (or heavier) "climber" that will use laser-beam powered electric motors to pull itself up a 100,000 kilometer long carbon nanotube ribbon into the sky. That would be really cool.

I've read several books about the space elevator, including a very good one by Dr. Bradley Edwards, the main author of two NASA studies that helped to make the concepts of the space elevator more widely known and more practical than the space elevator versions that have appeared in science fiction. Right now I'm reading another one, Liftport: Opening Space to Everyone, and it's also quite good. It's really a series of short pieces by various authors, some of them on the technical features of the space elevator (lifters, power, safety, materials, etc.). The explanations are intended for general readers, and some of them (especially chapter 16 on the counterweight and its role in "holding up" the space elevator ribbon) are especially well done. The other works are science fiction on space elevator themes. These are of widely varying quality, some good and/or historic, e.g., excerpts from Arthur Clarke's Fountains of Paradise, and some really, really bad. Some of them have serious technical errors and there are also a fair number of typographical errors. But all of them help to lend a touch of "you are there" reality to a future world in which space will be just a few-day elevator ride away.

1 comment:

"Space Elevator Guy" - Michael Laine said...

Thanks for your comments on our book. I tend to agree with you about the errors - both in typesetting and in the fiction.

As to the typesetting and layout, without pointing fingers or laying blame anywhere, all I can say about that is that this final printed version was not the version we approved. The final printed version was a copy that was about 3 revisions back, and they simply used the wrong file in the production run. You can't imagine how angry that made me. Nevertheless, the content of the book was pretty good, even if the layout and design were mediocre.

When you first look at the cover, you notice it has a strong SciFi flavor to it. Again, that marketing decision was not up to us. The conclusion was that it would sell better in the fiction section... So they hired a terrific artist (mattingly does most of the cover work for the honor harrington stuff) and he went to work. Visually, it's pretty, technically, it's a farce.

Finally, I like SciFi. A lot. So while the fiction stories range all over the map, I tended to enjoy them, and I hope you did too. No, they were not technically accurate. We gave each author a rundown of what this thing was, and how it worked, and let them have free reign. So the storied emphasized the "people" and not the technology itself.

We learned a lot of lessons putting this book together. I am certain that I will like the next effort better. Don't get me wrong, I liked this book. I liked working on it, and for the most part, I liked the result. But I have some frustrations with it, as well.

Finally, Blaise Gassend is a terrific guy, and I will pass along your comments to him. He has been researching and asking questions about the harmonics of the system for a long time. He is tackling a very tricky set of problems.

Anyway, thanks for your interest in the project, and we appreciate the support.

Take care. mjl