A New Space Race

Today, Obayashi Corp., a Japanese construction firm announced that it would complete a space elevator by as early as 2050. This could be one of those big announcements that people recall, just after John F. Kennedy’s famous announcement that the U.S. would travel to and from the moon in ten years.

Obayashi stated that it would rely on carbon nanotubes to construct the tether joining a base station, a terminal station 36,000 kilometers away, and a counterweight 96,000 kilometers away (that’s almost a quarter of the way to the moon). The terminal station would contain living quarters and research facilities. The planned elevator could carry up to 30 people, and it would take about a week to get from the base to the station, if magnetic linear motors are used. Solar power generation facilities would power the terminal station and transmit power to the base station.

While the idea of a space elevator has been around for years, the costs and logistics behind such a project are mind-boggling. Even Obayashi can’t put a number on the cost of building a space elevator, but if Obayashi were to dramatically advance carbon nanotube technology (and the manufacturing processes), I would have to assume they would get some return on their investment (maybe not a big enough return to justify the investment, but who knows what profitable industries might be spun off of this project?). And what will be used as a counterweight? An asteroid? Gathered space junk and junk from the assembly? A spaceport?

Regardless of how they do it, Obayashi has begun an amazing journey. Building a space elevator will be a career project, and it will be a career spent on the cutting edge of technology. It will be fascinating to watch their progress. Perhaps it is only a little while until we have our first space elevator, then spaceport, then an interplanetary ship construction facility? I don’t know. Ilike to dream big, and projects don’t come much bigger than a space elevator.

What do you think? Great idea or pipe dream? Post your comments below.