If the Spaceward Foundation is successful, Space Shuttles may become a thing of the past - Instead Astronauts and the rest of us will simply take an elevator to Space. Though initially the elevator will transport only cargo, the ultimate goal is for Space to become a tourist destination.
While the effort is being spearheaded by Japanese scientists and companies, the project is being worked on by the some of the best minds in the world and includes University professors, engineers, students, research scientists and even folks at the US Space agency NASA.
The vision of foundation is to create a 62,000-mile long cable or ribbon that will run from the ground to a satellite docking station in Space. The first design will entail using a 1/4" cable, which will have the capacity to lift 20 tons and launch once a day. Once the cable is in place, they will be able to add the elevators.
So as to make the elevators as light as possible, the design calls for no fuel or battery to power them. Instead they will use a method called 'power beaming', which involves the cars holding photo-voltaic cells facing the Earth while a laser beam is projected at them from the ground. The cells will convert the light projected from the laser to electricity, which will power the cars. Besides making the cars lighter, this method of fueling will also ensure that there is no danger of explosion.
The two biggest challenges facing the team right now is developing a cable that is thin and strong enough to sustain an elevator car and, to develop a long-range power beaming system so that the photo-voltaic cells are able to obtain enough light to fuel the car all the way to Space. To try get the best minds in the world engaged on this issue, NASA is sponsoring several contests this fall, with prizes as high as $2million USD for anyone who comes up with the right solution(s).
Researchers are hopeful that with the advent of nanotechnology and other technological advances, they will be able to overcome these hurdles fairly quickly. Once the materials have been tested thoroughly, the construction process will begin. If everything works according to the current schedule, a functioning space elevator is expected to be ready by 2020 - at an estimated cost of $10 billion USD.
Once complete, the elevator will carry the necessary infrastructure to build hotels for tourism. If that is successful, passengers will be able to hop on to the elevator just like they hop on to airplanes and zoom into space for a peaceful vacation!
Unlike today, there will be no countdown to blast-off's - passengers will be able to stand by the glass elevator doors and wave to their loved one for as long as they can see them - and since it will take a few days to get to the final destination, space elevators will be equipped with restaurants and sleeping accommodations. As far as the cost - while nothing has been determined yet, scientists believe that compared to what it will cost for food, accommodation and oxygen in Space - it will be a miniscule amount. But don't pack you bags yet - for even if everything goes according to schedule, the first passengers will not be transported until 2030! For additional information on this ambitious project, check out http://www.spaceward.org/ and http://science.howstuffwork.com/space-elevator