Elevator Man: Bradley Edwards Reaches for the Heights
Bradley C. Edwards, president and founder of Carbon Designs Inc., is the driving force behind the space elevator, a purportedly safer and cheaper form of transporting explorers and payloads into space.
Although the idea has appeared in both technical and fictional literature for decades, the drive to bring it to reality belongs to Edwards. A cable extending from the Earth's surface to outer space is kept under tension by the competing forces of gravity on Earth and the outward rotational acceleration of the planet in space. Once the cable is aloft, the elevator will be ascended by mechanical means.
Sounds impossible? That's what prompted Edwards to look further into it. While he had heard of the idea, the turning point was when he came across a web page in 1998 implying that such a device could not be built for 300 years, if ever. "It was then that I started looking into it and I just never stopped," said Edwards in a recent interview with SPACE.com.
"This was just a blanket statement with no justification as to what the issues were" he added with regards to the information on the webpage. "I just couldn't believe that it couldn't be built and started to get sucked in further and further," said Edwards, a curious physicist.
He pursued the realization of the space elevator by initially tracking grants from NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. As the proposed design further developed, the idea generated interest amongst private investors, launching Edwards' vision.
Edwards, now Director of Research for the Institute for Scientific Research (ISR), based in Fairmont, West Virginia, was always interested in the space program. As a child, he dreamt of becoming an astronaut and pursued physics in both his undergraduate and graduate studies. However, rejected by the astronaut program due to asthma, he went on to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, researching advanced space technologies for 11 years.
Edwards' work included conception and designs of the Europa and Lunar orbiter missions and construction of the first optical "cryo-cooler", an efficient cooling system using fluorescence technology. "The space elevator was just sort of the next step," he said.
The biggest challenge to the space elevator has been developing a cable tough enough to extend 62,000 miles without breaking. This, Edwards explained will be solved with carbon nanotube composites - tiny bundles of carbon weaved together to form a ribbon that will be stronger than steel. His startup company, Carbon Designs, Inc., is currently focused on developing this technology.
The space elevator is even more uplifting than it seems. Spacefarers no longer need to fear the dramatic forces and vibrations normally experienced with a rocket launch. This vehicle can adjust its speed to accommodate passengers.
Likewise, cargo and astronauts eliminate the crushing forces of re entry used by rockets for slowing down when coming back to Earth. "You can travel as slow as 10 miles per hour, making it [re entry] much safer," Edwards said.
In contrast to rockets where most of what's being launched is fuel, the space elevator moves only the payload, a set of motors, and structures needed for its operation.
With the fuel cost almost eliminated, only everyday operations and the mechanical climber expenses remain. Edwards estimates that the cost of launching into the lower earth orbit will be reduced from $10,000 per pound on Shuttle missions to $100 per pound on the space elevator.
"Once you reduce the cost to almost a Fed-Ex kind of level, it opens the doors to lots of people, lots of countries, and lots of companies to get involved in space," Edwards emphasized. No longer will space travel be limited to the United States, Europe, Russia, China, and other major players.
If a research institution wanted to build a small greenhouse on the Martian surface, this technology makes the next planet a hop, skip, and a rotational fling away.
Similarly, a hypothetical company can pursue gaming enterprises and send a thousand little rovers to the moon, renting time out to customers who want to control one with a joystick for an hour back here on Earth.
Such dramatic increase in the size and activity of the space market would boost our understanding of the universe and generate other yet-unimaginable benefits, Edwards predicts.
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