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The Space Elevator Conference is in town this weekend. Intrigued by the concept, we talked to the general chair of the event, Bryan Laubscher, who also owns Odysseus Technologies located right here in Washington state.

Laubscher answered five quick questions on why space elevator technology matters:

What are the top three things you wish to accomplish this weekend at the Space Elevator Conference?

Certainly the goal of these conferences is to get technical people together to talk about things and to cast a broad net. We want professionals from everywhere—engineers, economists and lawyers—who like to take an interest in space elevators and take an interest in the many aspects of development challenges that are in front of us.

Secondly, it’s for the public. We have this huge family science fest … It is really important for us to inspire others, especially the younger people, but also to get older people involved as well.

The third, I guess, is that we’re always hoping for a breakthrough. We’re always hoping that someone will show up and bust out a carbon nanotube ribbon that is strong enough to build a space elevator. We’re still far from that, it turns out. (Ed note: Carbon nanotubes are the main structure they’re experimenting with to build space elevators. They are constructed of interlinking carbon atoms, rolled into a cylinder, and make incredibly lightweight, strong and flexible structures.)

Bryan Laubscher

How far are space elevators from becoming a reality?

We need a carbon nanotube revolution on Earth first. Once it’s used everywhere on Earth, of course, there will be demand that these things will be used to build a space elevator. Right now, they are laboratory-type curiosities, experiments, of what carbon nanotubes can do.

Carbon nanotubes have such properties that they could replace silicon uses in microelectronics … Carbon nanotubes also have very high-strength properties — imagine putting them in an aircraft. Or for use in ships and railroads and even buildings. Carbon nanotube buildings could be much taller, and resist storms and hurricanes much better.

It’s hard to predict. Carbon nanotubes might take 50 more years. They were invented in 1991, that would put us at 2041, or something. Hopefully, we will see carbon nanotubes coming into their own in 10 to 20 years.

What is the greatest obstacle to getting it done?

What concerns me is that in the U.S. you don’t see the kinds of real interest in large amounts of money being poured into it. One of my colleagues in Japan says that they have a secret carbon nanotube development project, and they are pouring tons of money into it and they want to be first in the world…Maybe we have a secret one, and I just haven’t heard about it [laughs].

There’s a lot of interest, but we’re talking about our government saying, “You know what? It’s time.” When the U.S. decided that we needed global communications, what did they do? They picked companies, like RCA, and said, “We’re going to pay you to develop satellites, we’re going to launch them, and you’re going to get the money from it.” That’s how we developed communication satellites…I’d like to see something like that with carbon nanotube development.

What is their potential—and will people be able to travel up?

So with space elevators, we hope to drop the cost of space access by a factor of 10, or even 100. The problem with taking people up is that elevators, as we conceive of them now, move pretty slowly, and getting through radiation belts in short periods of time would require higher-speed elevators … Hopefully, larger space elevators would not just be faster, but the larger elevator capacity would have climbers that are shielded so humans inside are shielded, so we can start to introduce people into the elevator equation.

Is it cost feasible? As long as we can realize the space elevator and build it, absolutely … We always think of the elite using space, but I think Dave [Horn, technical chair of the event] was quoted as saying that you could have a science fair in every school and the winning experiment gets launched into space…It would enable the use of space in many different ways, including the clean up of space.

What are you most looking forward to this weekend? 

I’m looking forward to Jeff Slostad’s keynote speech. He’s with local company tether technology company, Tethers Unlimited, in Bothell. It’s a small company that is experimenting with tethers in space but also using expertise for terrestrial operations, undersea operations … He is going to talk about the forum of technology, using that as stepping stone to the space elevator.

And the Family Science Fest. I’m giving the Space Elevator 201 talk this year. I always get really good questions, especially from kids because they think outside the box.

The Space Elevator Conference is this weekend, with Family Science Fest on Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., available for anyone with admission to Museum of Flight. The Space Elevator Talks start at 1 p.m., with ample time for Q&As, and end by 4 p.m.

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