Never mind flying cars — whatever happened to the space elevator?
Angelenos: it could happen to you. This week Uber announced that it would be working alongside NASA to develop flying cars, and that LA could enjoy airborne taxi rides as early as 2020.
“The city is the perfect testing ground for this new technology,” clucked LA mayor Eric Garcetti. Which translates as, “LA’s got streets more clogged than Donald Trump’s Twitter DM inbox, I’ll back anything that takes cars off its streets, and into the sky.”
As much as Mayor Garcetti craves Uber and NASA swooping in — literally — to save his city from perpetual gridlock, I can’t quite seeing the idea taking off. It would require a revolution in air traffic management and city planning that even Uber’s head of product Jeff Holden admitted could prove a Sisyphean task.
Others have been even less enthusiastic. “High costs, safety concerns and regulatory burdens are likely to limit the use of this overhyped technology,” Gartner wonks told The Guardian. I’m inclined to agree.
But, flying cars, right? One of the best sci-fi tropes of the past hundred years getting made is exciting — even if it’s been tried before about half a million times.
I want to know — apologies, Uber — whatever happened to the space elevator? We’ve had Jeff Bezos’ interstellar adventures, Elon Musk’s underground mail tubes and, now, Uber’s attempt to make what Luc Besson could only lovingly turn into fiction.
But I always thought the space elevator was a great idea. A little barmy-sounding, perhaps: but compared to Hyperloop it’s practically as common-or-garden way of getting about as a used Hyundai.
It works like this: You take a ride about 12 miles upwards in an elevator that’s counterweighted outside the atmosphere. Then you chill out for a bit — drink some cheap wine, eat Bombay mix — before heading off to the edge of the universe in a spaceship.
Easy. I mean, not easy at all but if Elon Musk wants to send us from LA to San Francisco in 35 minutes, something to consider?
According to the man himself, no. “This is extremely complicated,” he said three years back. “I don’t think it’s really realistic to have a space elevator,” adding that it’s easier to “have a bridge from LA to Tokyo.” (Musk then set about building a giant battery in the desert.)
But space elevator advocates think it is our answer to the massive amounts of pollution created, and energy used, by conventional space travel. The International Academy of Astronautics reckons such a magical device could carry loads for about $500 per kilo, as opposed to rockets’ price tag of $20,000.
“In the late 2030s, we envision seeing our Space Elevator space access transportation system coming to its first operational standard; Initial Operational Capability (IOC),” read a recent International Space Elevator Consortium statement. “We see each segment of the Elevator coming to its own first operations status, ready to join with the other segments, and forming a revolutionary transportation system.
“The segments join. A system is built. An enterprise is birthed.”
The 2030s may as well be in another part of the multiverse, such is the breakneck speed of modern technology. It barely feels like a week passes without another moonshot being sniped at. But if Uber is telling us it can have flying taxis buzzing around the rooftops of DTLA within three years, why not go for the space elevator?
I mean, neither is likely to be made. And most likely the flying car is an attempt by Uber to paper over years of allegations of gender-based discrimination, worker rights abuses and a bullying culture so entrenched it took investors to throw out the CEO.
But if we can dream, let’s dream of the space elevator. At least — as far as I can tell — none of the International Space Elevator Consortium’s hierarchy has been accused of screaming at employees or naming their organization after tits.
If that’s not reason enough to get behind the project, I don’t know what is.