NPF: TECHNOBABBLE

Posted in No Politics Friday on October 8th, 2015 by Ed

I'm not the most optimistic person. In fact I might be in the running for the least optimistic and most cynical. I've never bought into the persistent American belief that technology will solve all of our problems if only we wait long enough and believe hard enough. An honest appraisal of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath shows that while we solved a lot of problems that plagued humanity for centuries, it also created new ones that we either can't or won't solve. We tried blind faith in the power of technology and science for a long time and it has made us cocky. "Whatever, we'll figure something out" has become our excuse for refusing to do anything that isn't convenient and preferably indulgent.

One future technology that I do think deserves a lot of attention, though, is a fairly mundane one at a time when people are less enthusiastic than ever about pouring money into space. The advances in materials science in the last ten years have been staggering, and we might be inching closer to the capability to construct space elevators. Here's why I think that's more important than most of us realize.

Well. First, a quick word about the technology. A space elevator is a means of putting objects into orbit without using rockets. A long (we're talking 100+ miles long) cable connecting a point on the surface of the Earth to a geosynchronous satellite and a counterweight (like a small space station) at the opposite end. Then simple mechanical means are used to move cargo up and down it, like a vertically oriented cable car. While it wouldn't make space cheap or easy in the sense of hopping on a bus, it would be vastly cheaper, easier, and more productive than moving things into orbit via rocket launch.

People like this idea because it can increase the amount of Cool Space Shit we can do for a given amount of resources. I think it holds a ton of potential to help us stop poisoning ourselves with things like toxic and nuclear waste. We accumulate hundreds of thousands of tons of dangerous waste every year and currently it's sitting around in surface holding areas until some (inevitably southern) state or nation gets desperate and poor enough to take it and bury it. Once underground, of course, it's only a matter of time until it comes back to haunt us. So when I first heard of this idea in sci-fi fiction as a kid (the idea of a space elevator has been around since the 1890s, with theoretical papers proving that the concept is feasible starting in the 1960s) it struck me as a great way to deal with some of the more aggressively lethal ways we've messed with the planet. Nuclear waste, for example, is sealed in large metal casks and then buried…or held for burial until we find a place to bury them. Instead, we could use a space elevator as a conveyor belt to take them into an orbital facility. Then, using small rockets in the absence of gravity, we point them on a trajectory to the Sun and let 'em go. They're incinerated down to the atomic level as they approach it.

It sounds a little nuts, granted. But in practical terms, why not? Graphene, carbon nanotubes, and diamond thread filaments – all developed in the last five years – are the materials we've lacked to build a sufficiently strong tether cable. In ten or fifteen years even better, stronger materials are likely to be developed. And once the material is in orbit, it's not like we'd be polluting outer space with it. You push it on a predictable trajectory and as soon as it gets near its destination, that's that. You can't damage the Sun. Hell, you can't even get anything man made remotely close to it.

I don't think we're going to see these tomorrow, or even in 2020. But any point in the past at which we've looked at this idea and said "It can't be done", the subsequent ten years have shown exponential advancements in the necessary materials and technology. Twenty years from now this is going to be feasible. It's an expensive way to dispose of our endless garbage, but only if you consider the price we pay for keeping it on Earth to be cheap. It might not require much money, but the hidden costs are staggering.