A Lesson from Galileo on the Space Elevator Concept

Four hundred years ago on this day Galileo Galilei, considered by some to be the Father of Modern Science, demonstrated his first telescope to the merchants of Venice. In building his first telescope and with his subsequent observations of the moons of Jupiter he set the stage to later argue in favour of the sun-centered Copernican theory of the universe. Unfortunately for Galileo his work and support of the the sun-centered theory would be considered close to heresy by the Catholic church which would eventually try him and place him under house arrest.

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On August 13th some 50 to 60 engineers, scientists, teachers, businessmen, entrepreneurs, students and believers gathered in Redmond, Washington to open the annual Space Elevator conference. They came from Canada, Europe, Japan and all corners of the states.

The concept of a Space Elevator is considered by some as heresy. Ok, perhaps heresy is the wrong word, after all this is 2009 and not 1609. In today's society some might just say crazy. After all, if you walk up to the average person on the street and ask them if they've heard of the space elevator, you would most likely get a blank stare with a quick no. You then explain to them that it's a ribbon that would be tethered to a platform in the ocean on the equator off the coast of Chile and that it would be anchored 100,000 kilometers from the Earth and that we're going to use it to move cargo and people into space. Their reaction would be? "That's crazy".

If you then ask a cross section of engineers and scientists what they think of the concept of the Space Elevator you would get more than a stare and no, but the outcome would still be the same. A majority of them would still think the idea preposterous.

So why then are these people gathering year in and year out to discuss this concept? And why is NASA supporting two Centennial Challenges that involve technology that could be fundamental to building a space elevator?

It's really quite simple. Innovation.

While to some the concept is as crazy as Galileo challenging the beliefs of the Catholic church at the time, it is a concept that requires us to make a leap in thought, if not in faith, and in turn to innovate and create new technologies. For Galileo a new technology was created in the form of the telescope which in turn enabled him to make his observations which fundamentally changed our view of the universe and furthered our knowledge.

Most certainly the ultimate goal of many of the attendees is cheaper access to space and to turn a concept, a far out idea, into reality. And yes, there are, and will continue to be many detractors. But while trying to make the concept into reality, many an engineer, scientist, student and entrepreneur will innovate new technologies that while being ultimately meant for the construction of the space elevator, may provide significant spinoffs to our every day lives and have no connection to the space elevator itself.

The lesson here as it has been time and again through the course of human history is that ideas, even the most outrageous ones, may have their day in the sun. Galileo was tried for heresy for his ideas, today the worst that might happen to believers is that people might laugh at the concept. But that won't stop them from trying to innovate.

Editor's note: This is the first of a three part special from the 2009 Space Elevator Conference. In part two I'll talk more about innovation and provide a synopsis of the conference. In part three I'll talk about collaboration and the future.

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