Solipsism Gradient

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Browsing Posts in Science

Wired has an article about building a beanstalk. This means a structure reaching from someplace on the Equator right into geosynchronous orbit and beyond; depending on your point of view, this can be considered a tower, an elevator, or a cable. There are several proposals. Placing an asteroid into orbit and spinning out two cables – one inwards, one outwards – seems to be the most practical way. Elevators would go along the cable and lower the cost of getting stuff into and out of orbit to less than 1% of current levels.

The only material theoretically able to resist the enormous stresses and support its own weight is made of carbon nanotubes. Only in the past few weeks some researchers have been able to make longer strands of nanotubes (20 centimeters) in larger quantities, but a beanstalk would need billions of tons of meter-long nanotubes bound into a light but strong matrix. This kind of manufacturing may become possible over the next few decades.

As any SF reader knows, this sort of thing has been featured in several books. Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise” is the first I recall offhand. I’ll post a more comprehensive list later.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Red Mars”, “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” go into much more detail about the technical and political aspects of building such a thing. But he also discusses the scary aspects: who will control the elevator? What if it’s brought down by terrorists?

Time.com has comments on the possible cause of the accident. They say that most probably the International Space Station will be evacuated somehow and then abandoned for a few years at least. Dave Winer’s Scripting News pointed at that link and posted many others.

Ernie the Attorney quotes Richard Feynman‘s thoughts on the Challenger accident:

…For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Doc Searlscomments on Challenger are also worth rereading. Jim Flowers is yet another weblogger setting up a collection of links and comments on the accident.

Only days after the 17th anniversary of the Challenger accident, the Columbia breaks up while landing after an otherwise successful two-week mission. All 7 astronauts are presumed dead. There were reports of a piece of thermal tile or insulation breaking up during lift-off and hitting one of the wings, but technicians concluded that this didn’t do significant damage – seems to have been a mistake. But then, they couldn’t stay up indefinitely, either…

All principal news sources and weblogs are tracking the news. Scott Adams is building a list here.

By a coincidence, today I started rereading “Shuttle Down” written in 1980 by G. Harry Stine under his pen name “Lee Correy”. This book has the shuttle Atlantis making an emergency landing on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Of course, in the book there’s a happy ending… Stine, who died in 1997, was active in the early US rocket experiments and was co-founder of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy.

BTW David Brin‘s “Earth”, one of my favorite books, also features a shuttle stranded on Rapa Nui.

Update: another coincidence: the third major disaster for NASA, the fire which killed three astronauts inside the Apollo-1 capsule (on the launch pad) happened Jan. 27, 1967. The Challenger accident was proven to be related to low launch temperatures… the Apollo accident seems to have no such connection. However, both showed a lethal combination of design failures, mechanical failures and administrative screw-ups. No doubt this happened again.

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