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1Jul 2009

Space Shaft: Or, the story that would have been a bit finer, if only one had known....

Charlie Petit
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  How many times has every reporter thought, upon publishing a piece of apparently new news and then getting a few phone calls or letters with additional info: This is great! But too late! Wish I'd known this before deadline.? It comes to mind upon getting an email the other day, shortly after having posted on a clever-sounding idea for a buoyant, free-standing elevator tower of immense height. Built from pressurized sleeves of hydrogen or helium, it might plausibly hoist heavy payloads to the stratosphere or even to low earth orbital altitude. The CBC's Quirks and Quarks had that story (earlier post here), attributing the idea to a group at Canada's York University. A few other outlets had also recently covered that team's progress.

A fellow named Nelson Semino wrote to us, "...I believe you like some other have been a bit late with this news ... please visit http://spaceshaft.org.  The first publication of the theory was the 2nd Space Elevator conference in Luxumbourg, December 2008, prior to that I planned to participate at the 2007 Space Elevator games but financial shortcomings made it impossible for me to do so."

One surmises that Mr. Semino had not the resources to develop the idea as fully in some regards as have the Canadian researchers highlighted at Quirks and Quarks. Perhaps - almost surely when one thinks about it - others previously have mused or even calculated upon the idea that building, in essence, a vertical airship fastened at one end to the ground might, if large enough, support a platform on its nose protruding into orbital space. And just maybe one could have lifts in its core to put big heavy things up there without the noise, fuss, bother, pollution, and cost of rocket propulsion (except of course to go sideways from the top and achieve orbit). His website is rather detailed, and is gracious in acknowledging that the Canadian professors have in some ways advanced the ball. There appear to be differences, such as whether to use a lighter-than-air gas in the thing or to have rigid chambers at lower internal pressure, hence less density, than surrounding atmosphere.

He also, it must be noted, claims a patent. Now, would not any reporter covering the new and seemingly singular idea for a giant buoyant tower want to have been able to point to a history of similar ideas? All of a sudden, the story would have depth, dimension, and a lot more personal interest. I don't even know where Mr. Semino and the rest of this collaborators live, but his email appears to have come via Amsterdam. I am glad that he wrote.

(The other thing one would like to know: has somebody with the proper credential made a few calculations and concluded that such ideas just won't work? That'd be interesting too)

-CP

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