The Russians don’t do countdowns. For the final few seconds before launch those of us watching just hold our breath and stand well back. I find several thousand kilometres back at the European Space Agency’s mission control in Germany to be safest.
When ignition comes, the launcher is engulfed in clouds of toxic orange smoke before it rises through the inferno and accelerates into the clouds. Many of these Russian rockets, such as the Cosmos and Rockot launchers, are converted from missiles designed to deliver nuclear warheads. Given that their launch would originally have signalled the end of the world, I don’t suppose the toxicity of the smoke was a major design consideration.
Rockets are dangerous, complicated and relatively unreliable. No-one has yet built a launcher that is guaranteed to work every time. A misaligned switch, loose bolt or programming error can lead to disaster or, with a human crew, a potential tragedy.
Rockets are also incredibly expensive - even the cheapest launch will set you back some $12 million, meaning the cost of any cargo costs a staggering $16,700 per kilogram. Although the funky new space planes being developed, such as Britain’s Skylon or Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, will slash the costs of getting into space, they are still based on rocket technology – using sheer brute force to escape the clutches of gravity.
But there is a radical alternative. Science fiction fans have long been familiar with space elevators. Popularised by Arthur C Clarke, the concept of an elevator from the Earth to orbit has been around for more than a century. In the space operas of Iain M Banks or Alastair Reynolds, space elevators are pretty much taken for granted – they’re what advanced civilisations use to leave their planets.
These futuristic engineering feats consist of a cable – also known as a ribbon or tether - of material stretching from the Earth’s surface into orbit. An anchor and Earth’s gravity at the lower end, and a counterweight and centrifugal force at the top end keep the elevator’s “cable” taut and stationary over ground station. Robotic ‘climbers’ would then pull themselves up the ribbon from the surface, through the stratosphere and out into space, potentially powered by lasers. The climbers could carry satellites up and bring minerals from the moon, or asteroids, back. They could take tourists into orbit or convey astronauts on the first part of their journey to the stars. No longer would space exploration be held back by gravity or rely on smelly, dangerous and expensive rockets.
“You could take a ride for the cost of a first class airline ticket,” exclaims David Horn, the Conferences Chair of the International Space Elevator Consortium (ISEC). Estimates suggest that the cost of sending cargo into space could plummet to around $100 per kilogram. “A primary school could have a bake sale to cover the costs of sending a class science experiment into space.” Or, by selling enough cakes, even the entire class.
ISEC has been organising space elevator conferences for the past ten years – the latest will be held in Seattle later this month. They are attended by scientists, engineers and students from around the world, including those from various national space agencies like Nasa. There are also annual conferences in Europe and Japan and technical papers on various aspects of space elevators are published every year.
"There’s global interest,” says Horn. “Reducing the cost to access space will change the global economy.” Which would be wonderful, but how much of this interest is just wishful thinking?