Space slingshot – a good idea, but still the wrong idea

Rocketry is an expensive and risk-laden way of getting stuff into orbit. It costs more than $20,000 to launch 1kg of matter into orbit…launching people is even worse. The fuel pollutes, the technology is fault-prone. It’s time to look at other ways of doing things.Which is why it’s always gratifying to see posts like this one at DefenseTech, talking about NASA funding research into new ways of getting stuff out of the gravity well and up into orbit, and the space beyond. The method highlighted by them is a sort of giant slingshot-cannon affair; an object is accelerated through a concentric spiral, acquiring huge kinetic energy levels sufficient to break out of the pull of mother Earth.

As much as this is a great improvement on the basic idea of strapping things to the top of immense explosive fireworks and lighting the blue touchpaper, it still seems to be missing the point – a point which was brought home to me by a book I’m in the middle of reading, namely ‘Gradisil’ by Adam Roberts. Without giving the story away (full review when it’s finished, natch), one of the early characters has a real axe to grind with out current obsession with blasting things into space one way or the other. They’re in the mid 21st Century, and space exploration has made it little further than it has today. To quote the character, Miklos Gyeroffy:

‘Speed is where this all went wrong. Humanity became hypnotised by eleven kilometers per second, and all its space research was orientated towards achieving that ridiculous speed. Only rockets could do this, so rockets were what the space programme became.’

Miklos is wanting an easier way off-planet; a little later in the book they find one (no spoilers, but it’s a good little trope). But in these early chapters, he mentions a method that he and I both have a soft spot for – the space elevator – as a good alternative to rocketry. Quoting a paragraph or two along:

‘…the key to getting into space is not speed, but having something to climb up – having somewhere to stand, having what the Greeks call pou sto. That’s the key.’

His daughter (quite rightfully) argues that a space elevator would be costly to build. But the thing to remember is that once it is built, it doesn’t need to be fueled. It won’t crash or blow up. It can run payloads every day, 24/7. It’s a lift into space, for materials or people just as easily and safely (once the radiation issues are provided for). Once one is built, it becomes vastly easier to build others, as well as many other items of orbital infrastructure that humans will need if we ever want to free ourselves of this tired, broken ball of mud we fight over continually. After all, I believe the only chance we have of fixing the Earth involves us getting off it, and soon. You can’t fix a car if you’re sat in the passenger seat.

Why is the space elevator such a good idea? Because it’s simple, in essence, despite relying on advanced materials technology that has only just come on-stream for us. Because it’s low-impact, from an environmental perspective. Because it’s elegent. It just makes sense.

But am I just talking up tired science fiction ideas here? No, I am not. The space elevator is an old idea, first posited in 1895 by a Russin scientist inspired by the Eiffel Tower. But nowadays it is an idea whose development even NASA takes seriously enough to offer prizes towards achieving. And there are people working on the project already; they’ve even set a tentative date for their first lift – April 12th, 2018. The LiftPort Group are commited to this idea, and I hope to see them complete it. Hell, scratch that, I hope to be a writer of enough reknown by that date to be asked to the inaugural lift ceremony, if not to actually be on the first lift itself!

Rockets are old news. Why jump, when you can take the lift?

3 thoughts on “Space slingshot – a good idea, but still the wrong idea”

Leave a Reply