A Momentary Flow

Updating Worldviews one World at a time

Will space elevators ever be more than science fiction? Our space columnist meets the man who hopes to do away with dangerous and expensive rockets forever. The Russians don’t do countdowns. For the final few seconds before launch those of us watching just hold our breath and stand well back. I find several thousand kilometres back at the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany to be safest. When ignition comes, the launcher is engulfed in clouds of toxic orange smoke before it rises through the inferno and accelerates into the clouds. Many of these Russian rockets, such as the Cosmos and Rockot launchers, are converted from missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads. Given that their launch would originally have signalled the end of the world, I don’t suppose the toxicity of the smoke was a major design consideration. Rockets are dangerous, complicated and relatively unreliable. No-one has yet built a launcher that is guaranteed to work every time. A misaligned switch, loose bolt or programming error can lead to disaster or, with a human crew, a potential tragedy. Rockets are also incredibly expensive - even the cheapest launch will set you back some $12 million, meaning the cost of any cargo costs a staggering $16,700 per kilogram. Although the funky new space planes being developed, such as Britain’s Skylon or Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, will slash the costs of getting into space, they are still based on rocket technology – using sheer brute force to escape the clutches of gravity. But there is a radical alternative. Science fiction fans have long been familiar with space elevators. Popularised by Arthur C Clarke, the concept of an elevator from the Earth to orbit has been around for more than a century. In the space operas of Iain M Banks or Alastair Reynolds, space elevators are pretty much taken for granted – they’re what advanced civilisations use to leave their planets. (via BBC - Future - Science & Environment - Space elevators: Going up?)

Will space elevators ever be more than science fiction? Our space columnist meets the man who hopes to do away with dangerous and expensive rockets forever. The Russians don’t do countdowns. For the final few seconds before launch those of us watching just hold our breath and stand well back. I find several thousand kilometres back at the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany to be safest. When ignition comes, the launcher is engulfed in clouds of toxic orange smoke before it rises through the inferno and accelerates into the clouds. Many of these Russian rockets, such as the Cosmos and Rockot launchers, are converted from missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads. Given that their launch would originally have signalled the end of the world, I don’t suppose the toxicity of the smoke was a major design consideration. Rockets are dangerous, complicated and relatively unreliable. No-one has yet built a launcher that is guaranteed to work every time. A misaligned switch, loose bolt or programming error can lead to disaster or, with a human crew, a potential tragedy. Rockets are also incredibly expensive - even the cheapest launch will set you back some $12 million, meaning the cost of any cargo costs a staggering $16,700 per kilogram. Although the funky new space planes being developed, such as Britain’s Skylon or Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, will slash the costs of getting into space, they are still based on rocket technology – using sheer brute force to escape the clutches of gravity. But there is a radical alternative. Science fiction fans have long been familiar with space elevators. Popularised by Arthur C Clarke, the concept of an elevator from the Earth to orbit has been around for more than a century. In the space operas of Iain M Banks or Alastair Reynolds, space elevators are pretty much taken for granted – they’re what advanced civilisations use to leave their planets. (via BBC - Future - Science & Environment - Space elevators: Going up?)