Space Tower: Could We Build a Stratosphere Scraper?
NEAL STEPHENSON has a big idea. He imagines a 20-kilometre-high steel tower that reaches into the stratosphere. From that height, weather patterns would be distant swirls. Planes could save fuel by docking at the tower rather than landing, and space missions could do the same by launching from it.
A science-fiction novelist, Stephenson is not just using his idea as the basis for a story. The author of the critically acclaimed Snow Crash is taking the unusual step of teaming up with a structural engineer, Keith Hjelmstad at Arizona State University (ASU) in Phoenix, to work out how to actually build the tower.
The project is not a one-off. This month will see the launch of the Center for Science and the Imagination, an ASU project that will bring together scientists, engineers, artists and writers and encourage them to think big. The idea is to team artists and authors with ASU researchers to turn science fiction into reality.
In the first half of the 20th century, pulp science fiction, with its focus on intergalactic exploration, helped inspire a generation of children who grew up wanting to be astronauts and rocket engineers. By contrast, contemporary sci-fi is often far more dystopian.
This project aims to find that inspiration again, not only for future scientists, but also for those who already have the skills to carry out such projects. “A well-written sci-fi story can obviate a lot of PowerPoint presentations and meetings,” says Stephenson.
Hjelmstad is now analysing the feasibility of Stephenson’s tower. Preliminary modelling suggests that it could support its own weight, but many questions remain. Hjelmstad must determine, for instance, whether the tower can support the payload associated with each of the uses that Stephenson imagines.
“The tower pushes well beyond anything anyone has ever done in structural engineering,” says Hjelmstad. “Building [it] would be the biggest project ever undertaken by humans.”