My good friend Tom from Seattle has what I think many would think to be an unusual job. Elevators have been around for the better part of 150 years, and that is the field Tom works in: elevators, though the elevators that he works with are a little but more unusual than most because, give or take, his elevator hopes to reach roughly the equivalent of the one-millionth floor: an elevator that will reach space.
Tom is quoted in these two articles, so like most journalistic endeavors, keep in mind that some of his stuff is quoted out of context. Nonetheless, while it sounds very strange, the technology is well on its way to making this a reality. Tom specifically is working with a company called LaserMotive. Their aspect of the project (as I recall) is to power the robot that will construct the “cable”. To simplify, an initial satellite would trail down a carbon nanotubule ribbon to the Earth, and it would be anchored here. The robot would then travel up and down the ribbon adding more to strengthen the cable. I likely have some of this wrong, but Tom will certainly chime in with corrections.
The question people ask is why, and the reason is money. To launch satellites to orbit is extremely expensive when you account for the fuel, development, and construction of a one-time use rocket to put it into orbit. The idea behind a space shuttle was to cut down on construction, and in that sense, they have been successful: We have launched numerous satellites and space probes on the shuttle without the need to build as many rockets. Of course, the era of the space shuttle is about to end. Even then, shuttles still take tremendous amounts of fuel, and their large external tanks can only be used once. The space elevator gets around that: attach a satellite, and it gets winched into orbit. This makes getting things to orbit much less expensive. Beyond just satellites, anything can be brought to orbit cheaper …. so that construction of a space craft in orbit becomes much more feasible …. meaning that all of the fuel wasted to break free of Earth’s gravity is no longer needed. More efficient and cost effective trips to the moon or Mars would become possible.
I for one can only hope that this project stays on course to being a reality.