Via (ultimately) Electrolite, I just came across a wonderful blog dedicated to the Space Elevator. If you’ve never come across the space elevator idea before, it’s basically a giant cable that stretches vertically from the equator right up into space. Strap some powered cargo or passenger capsules to the cable, and you’ve got an express lift to geostationary orbit–and beyond.
The surprising thing about the space elevator is how damn feasible it is. It sounds insane at first, but the physics behind it is simple. And although building the cable would be expensive, once it is in place, it is vastly cheaper at lifting stuff into orbit than conventional rockets.
Yes, there are technical issues to overcome before we could actually build one in real life, but they are mostly in the realms of materials science and engineering. Primarily, it’s a question of creating a material that is strong, light, and cheap enough to make the cable. But there are no fundamental theoretical hurdles to overcome.
The blog features a great paper by Arthur C. Clarke that explains the theory of the space elevator, some of its practical issues, and the history of the idea: “The Space Elevator: ‘Thought Experiment’, or Key to the Universe?” (Note that this is a paper from 1981. The space elevator idea has been around for a long time.) Two novels that give an excellent treatment of the concept are Clarke’s The Fountains Of Paradise and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.