Close window  |  View original article

The Stars No Longer Ours

American can't do big technology anymore.

By Will Offensicht  |  October 7, 2008

A reader sent us a link to a Times article - this being the Times of London, the original one, they don't need a qualifying adjective.  "Japan hopes to turn sci-fi into reality with elevator to the stars" gives us both good news and profoundly sad news.

The Good News

The article says:

Now the finest scientific minds of Japan are devoting themselves to cracking the greatest sci-fi vision of all: the space elevator. Man has so far conquered space by painfully and inefficiently blasting himself out of the atmosphere but the 21st century should bring a more leisurely ride to the final frontier.

For chemists, physicists, material scientists, astronauts and dreamers across the globe, the space elevator represents the most tantalizing of concepts: cables stronger and lighter than any fiber yet woven, tethered to the ground and disappearing beyond the atmosphere to a satellite docking station in geosynchronous orbit above Earth.

The space elevator was explained in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 book The Fountains of Paradise.  As the earth spins, centrifugal force tends to make us float off the earth.  At the earth's surface, this effect is a lot weaker than the force of gravity, so we stay put.

Suppose, however, that you ran a string from the surface of the earth out to a rock far enough away that centrifugal force would be stronger than gravity and would tend to pull the rock away from earth.  The "string" would run from the surface of the earth out to regions where satellites orbit.

That's a long string.  Once you have the string in place, however, you can use it like an elevator to climb to and from orbit:

Up and down the 22,000 mile-long (36,000km) cables - or flat ribbons - will run the elevator carriages, themselves requiring huge breakthroughs in engineering to which the biggest Japanese companies and universities have turned their collective attention. [emphasis added]

The article refers to breakthroughs in engineering.  The raw science is already done, in that we know in principle how to make ribbons strong enough for the space elevator.  What remains is the engineering problem of manufacturing ribbons in huge quantities and unimaginable lengths at low cost and then running trains up and down a 22,000 mile ribbon.  That's like wrapping a ribbon all the way around the earth and running a freight train on it - only this would be straight up.

Political Innovation

Although the project has aroused the interest of government agencies such as NASA, the leadership is using unconventional management approaches to encourage the many technological innovations that will be needed:

Several competing space elevator projects are gathering pace as various groups vie to build practical carriages, tethers and the hundreds of other parts required to carry out the plan.  There are prizes offered by space elevator-related scientific organizations for breakthroughs and competitions for the best and fastest design of carriage.

Instead of relying on a single contractor, many organizations are competing to supply the best solutions.  Instead of awarding research contracts, the organization is offering prizes for the best solution to specified problems, a policy that Sen. McCain has proposed to encourage innovation in the US.

The Times explained that there's really only one scientific issue involved; most of the science is already done.  Once we learn how to make a strong cable, the rest is engineering, which is recognized as a core Japanese competency:

Japan is renowned as a global leader in the precision engineering and high-quality material production without which the idea could never be possible.

The biggest obstacle lies in the cables. To extend the elevator to a stationary satellite from the Earth's surface would require twice that length of cable to reach a counterweight, ensuring that the cable maintains its tension.

The cable must be exceptionally light, staggeringly strong and able to withstand all projectiles thrown at it inside and outside the atmosphere.  The answer, according to the groups working on designs, will lie in carbon nanotubes - microscopic particles that can be formed into fibers and whose mass production is now a focus of Japan's big textile companies.

The bottom line is that once we know how to manufacture the cable, everything else boils down to finding engineering solutions so that we can apply the technology.  No more scientific breakthroughs are needed.

As people who recognize that outer space contains huge quantities of raw materials which are in short supply on earth, we celebrate the advent of the space elevator as good news beyond belief.

What's more, solar energy collectors work vastly better and more reliably in space than on the ground.  Carbon nanotubes are excellent conductors of electricity; as elevators go up and down the cable, electricity can flow down from space.

Imagine really huge orbiting solar collectors sending electricity down the cable, generating no carbon footprint at all.  We'll need transmission lines to get electricity from the base of the elevator to the cities, but we know how to build those, assuming the environmentalists will let us.

But now comes the bad news:

The Bad News

Along with the link to the article, our reader said:

Dunno if they're serious, but if anyone can do it, it's them. Not us anymore. [emphasis added]

We've written about a few of the many obstacles that the American government has put in place to make it more and more difficult to deploy American innovations.  Our scientists remain first-rate, for now, but we're no longer training the vast numbers of engineers we'll need to turn scientific discoveries into practical devices we can use. Our schools are filled with foreign students to take what they've learned here and go home to innovate.

We mourn our reader's realization that when the space elevator is built, it won't be an American device.  We'll need a passport and we'll have to jump through foreign hoops to visit space despite our having pioneered travel to the moon back in 1969.  Imagine having to get a visa from the Japanese to visit space!

Oh, well, maybe our Navy can get a job protecting the lower end of the elevator, wherever the Japanese decide to put it.  We'll have to just hope that we won't need to buy a ticket on a Chinese spaceship up at the top end; at least the Japanese are as close friends as America has in this world.

The Stars are No Longer Ours

It's not that we can't do the engineering.  Our scientists have worked with carbon nanotubes, we know how it's done, but can you imagine any American company building anything as ambitious as the space elevator?

Our FAA can't rearrange the flight patterns around New York City.  The current air routes were put in place back in the 1930's.  Modernizing the flight pattern would cut delays in and out of New York airspace.  This would benefit the entire country because New York accounts for most of the aircraft delays all across America - but the new routing plan is tied up in lawsuits, has been for decades, and no doubt will be still when we're all dead.

If we can't even rearrange our flight paths, a change that requires no construction and no engineering, merely the printing of new maps, how could we build a space elevator?  A cable to the stars might inconvenience a duck or two; we can't have that.

Americans aren't even talking about a space elevator, and with good reason.  Although American universities still do world-class scientific research, the American regulatory and legal environment has become entirely hostile to applying their discoveries.

The reason why the US can't build it anymore is obvious: government regulation at every level.  From our local towns to the federal government we are burdened by regulations and laws that smother progress.  The markets are not free and unfettered.

When we went to the moon, government not only got out of the way, but took a bulldozer to anything that would get in the way.  What's even more insane about the situation is that on a federal level, there's little constitutional authority for most of the regulations.  It is our bureaucracies that stand in the way.

They've stood in the way of progress so long, we can't even do the things we've already done.  Americans went to the Moon before most people alive today were even born and haven't been back since.  When Bush talked about a return visit, NASA said that it would take longer for them to do it now than it took the first time.

This week, Chinese astronauts enjoyed a spacewalk in a Chinese spacesuit from a Chinese spaceship; their government is talking, not just about visiting the moon, but establishing a base there.  Does anyone seriously believe they can't do it?

Doing it is more a matter of desire than technology.  When we went to the moon, the goal was set and obstacles were overcome one by one.  The mission wasn't limited by engineering.  It was pushed by effective leadership in the political, business, and scientific community all across the fruited plain.

As a practical matter, does anyone believe we still can?