Space Elevator

There's a space elevator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, at least an animated one, in the museum's newest planetarium exhibit. But as Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, local scientists say a real space elevator is closer to fact than science fiction.

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"Fifteen years ago it was science fiction, but discoveries in nanotechnology over the last 15 years have taken it away from the realm of science fiction and placed it right smack in the category of a very difficult engineering problem now."

That's Dr. Wade Adams, who heads up the Richard Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University. Adams says Rice scientists are researching uses for single-wall carbon nanotubes, including how the nanotubes might be used to create a space elevator. Rice University, along with NASA, worked with scientists at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to develop a hypothetical model of a space elevator. Museum Director of Astronomy Dr. Carolyn Sumners.

"Space is the future, not just the present and we think so much of what we show is the space station which is real right now, we're looking at going back to the moon and we've told that story. But we want to expand this, we want to make space feel like the next frontier. Which means we have to have the vehicle that takes not just an astronaut or a test pilot, but a real person."

The film is geared mainly toward children, with the idea of inspiring the next generation of engineers, scientists and space travelers. Sumners says there was a time when the idea of walking on the moon was preposterous, but that no longer seems like an adventure to many children.

"The problem with the moon is that it's 'been there, done that.' So the space elevator is actually more exciting because we haven't done it, because people look at that idea, they ride the elevator in the planetarium show and when it's over with they think that could be. More importantly, that's something my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren could actually ride."

The exhibit, called It's About Time, is an imagined snapshot of space exploration with the use of rockets. And Adams says it really won't take much imagination to get there.

"My prediction is that some time this century somebody will an elevator into space and it will be on the basic materials that have been developed at Rice and other places around the world and made of materials that are produced right here in Houston, Texas."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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