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More than 100 years ago, a Russian scientist floated the idea of a castle in space--it would be tied by a cable and hover miles above the earth in a geosynchronous orbit, so it would always be above the same spot. Scientists and science fiction fans were dazzled by the idea, especially when Arthur C. Clarke suggested a new twist in his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise, in which humans build an elevator to space. Many scientists began thinking of the space elevator as a brilliant concept, but no one could figure out a practical way to make one.
Enter the invention of carbon nanotubes, a new material so strong that a single human hair-sized string is strong enough to lift a car. By 1999, Brad Edwards--formerly a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory--came up with a working design and published The Space Elevator: A Revolutionary Earth-to-Space Transportation System.
"I had read a paper by someone saying that a space elevator couldn't be built sooner than 300 years [from now]," says Edwards, 44, of Black Line Ascension, a Seattle company he founded to work on space elevator technology. "So I worked out all the technical issues and showed that this is feasible using materials available now." Edwards' plan calls for anchoring a tether made of carbon nanotubes in the middle of the ocean. It would stretch 62,000 miles into space and attach to a platform held there by centripetal force. Lasers would drive the elevator up and down the tether. Edwards estimates the space elevator could be built in 15 years.
Since then, hundreds of people have been racing to create components for Edwards' design. For the past three years, many of them have met at the annual Elevator 2010 Games, managed by the Spaceward Foundation with prize money for breakthroughs from NASA's Centennial Challenges Program.
The games will be held in October, and more teams have already signed up to participate than last year. According to Spaceward co-founder and CEO Ben Shelef, "We want to get the concept of the space elevator out into the world. Things don't get funded until people know about them."
Visionaries like Shelef predict that when--not if--the space elevator is built, it will be the most significant structure on Earth. In the meantime, the race to develop its components is encouraging innovation among researchers and entrepreneurs alike. Another Seattle-area startup called LiftPort has joined the quest, developing related technologies.