Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Shafting the Space Elevator

Colleague and friend Brian Hollar commented yesterday concerning the possibility of a space elevator: a robotic machine that runs up and down a teather with one end anchored on earth and the other anchored to an object in orbit.

Brian thinks the idea is very promising, quoting Business 2.0's comparison of the idea: "The space elevator is where the PC was in the 1960s: The theory is solid, the materials exist, and people in garages are starting to tinker with the next step."

But the biggest hurdle to the space elevator is that NASA has latched on to it. The elevator is destined to be expensive (estimates start at about five billion USD) adding to the already high likelihood that it'll make a lot of headlines. This is more of a weakness than a boon. When NASA projects make headlines before they are complete, the project becomes a political pawn. The focus changes, the budget fluctuates, projects are added on and taken off, rivalries and infighting overcome the goals and, if you're lucky enough to finish what you started, it'll be a shadow of what it was supposed to be. The ISS is the first example that comes to mind.

Don't get me wrong; there are some things NASA's starting to do right. Following the X-Prize lead, it's offering annual prizes for those that solve certain technology obstacles the elevator faces. But the prize money is tiny ($50,000 for each of the two elevator-related prizes) and while one has thus far received an impressive following (19 teams this year for the tether prize), the other is proceeding lacklusterly (4 teams last year, only two so far this year).

NASA's core problem with its approach on this strategy is that it's missing the whole point of the prize system. The idea is to encourage novel solutions of achieving goals, not to simply outsource your R&D department. By stating how NASA would like to get into space (the elevator), that strategy is embodied in the rules and hampers engineers from using their own ideas. For example, the tether prize states all tethers must form a closed loop, weigh a maximum of 2 grams, have an inner circumference of 2m long, +/- 1cm, and can be no wider than 200mm.

The goal isn't to get into space with an elevator; the goal is to get into space cheaply.


Brian Dunbar said...

I'm not sure how deeply NASA has latched onto it. Prizes are a legitimate means to get to a desired goal - but they are a far cry from letting out contracts.

I'm biased - I'm from Liftport - but I don't see NASA getting involved at all unti it's seen that an SE is doable, if then.

Also note that while I have no firm idea of how many teams are in this year's prize, I'm pretty sure that more than two are competing.

David said...

Well, it looks like NASA is moving to a new strategy for space development and exploration but it's not sure what it is yet. Back in January they announced they'll going to scrap the shuttle and move to rocket and capsules. Now I see them with prizes for the space elevator. Shows they are taking an interest, at least.

You're right though; it's not a deep interest (I suspect because they are looking for the next big thing). But if the elevator turns out to be a good idea, you can bet they will go for it considering the crossroads they are at now.

As for the two teams on the 2006 Tether challenge, verify it here. (Elevator2010 is the flagship project the Spaceward Foundation, which is conducting the prizes on NASA's behalf.)

Brian Dunbar said...

Point taken about the two teams; I've mistaken the chatter about the climber / power beaming teams for tether teams.