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Staff contributor: Heather Rushworth
It sounds like a science fiction fantasy—maybe because it was originally dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke--but despite its fictional beginnings, a space elevator to the Moon may soon become reality as the greatest functional monument in history.
Advancements in the design of carbon nanotubes have turned the prospect of such a far-fetched vision into a tangible goal. The key to the epic elevator lies in the effectiveness of nanotube as a construction material. Nanotubes are basically sheets of graphite, or interwoven carbon which can be effortlessly manipulated into long tubes that can measure as little as a few nanometers in diameter. While these tubes are tough—approximately 100 times stronger than steel—they are dramatically lighter than their weighty counterparts.
So scientists have extended the potential of these tubes to include the odd but compelling dream of journeying to the moon by pressing a button. Using nanotube technology, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the substance could eventually be developed into a meter-wide cord rooted to the earth – and thrust up into the heavens.
An elevator would then be attached to this space-reaching cord, and its potential exploited to transport satellites, space station materials – even people. The trip would take approximately seven days – that is, about 75 in-flight movies starring Robin Williams, Matthew McConaughey, or Katherine Heigl in continuous succession – but come on, the journey would be so worth it if you ended up at the Sea of Tranquility weighing a fifth of what you did before.
The noble idea of a space elevator spawned from the potential of the nanotube has inspired its share of moon dreams. Most recently, Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s vision of an American Moon Colony by the next decade – where people could live together in harmony amongst moon rocks, space debris, and oxygen tanks – is being hailed as a revelation by the obviously beleaguered scientific community.
While the idea of an elevator to the Moon may be inspiring, such an enormous feat could not come about without solving some serious logistical problems. First of all, the estimated cost of the initiative is around $10 billion. While some of us may have that kind of cash lying around—Bill Gates, Oprah, Jesus— it may not pass muster with philanthropists, entertainers, and deities looking for a more practical investment to add to their portfolio. In addition, scientists cannot currently make nanotubes that stretch the necessary 62,000 miles to the moon; they are, however, working on it. But even with all those obstacles duly considered, experts say the project could become a reality as soon as fifteen years from now.
Ultimately, it seems that the elevator to the Moon is bound to become a reality sooner or later. As a modern consumer, this upsets me, because I am already disappointed by its limitations. Why not elevators to the Moon? From every driveway in America? Or elevators to Mars, the Sun, and Heaven – the part where my cat is? Escalators to the Underworld? A fireman’s pole to China?
I cannot help but think this is just another sad example of the dull imaginations found in the scientific community.