On Motherboard, Meghan Neal reports on the efforts by a "diverse group of experts" into changing the image of space elevators from "something that's just ridiculous, laughed off as the stuff of sci-fi novels" into "totally feasible and a really smart idea."
Naturally, how to build a space elevator is more difficult to answer. The gist of the idea is this: A long, strong tether is anchored at the equator and extends into geosynchronous orbit some 62,000 miles above the Earth. At the other end is a counterweight far enough away to keep the center of mass in orbit with the Earth so the cable stays over the same point above the equator as the planet rotates. The rotation keeps the cable taut, to counter the gravitational pull as robotic, electric "climbers" ride the line up into space carrying the payload. Boom.
This basic concept hasn't changed much since Arthur C. Clark's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise first popularized the idea of an elevator to space--though no one took it seriously. Decades later, in 2003, Clarke stated, "The space elevator will be built ten years after they stop laughing ... and they have stopped laughing."
What made people stop laughing? Nanotech. Carbon nanotubes were developed in the 90s and promised to be the uber-strong, light, flexible supermaterial needed to build the kind of 62,000-mile cable that could transport humans into space. By the end of the 90s, NASA had released its report on the technological progress: "Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium."
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