Neal Stephenson is best known as the author of science fiction novels such as SnowCrash and Anathem. But he does other things as well. Among them: He's assembled a team of scientists and engineers to figure out how to build a 20-kilometer-tall tower to use as a platform for launching rockets into space.
Speaking at the Starship Century symposium in San Diego on Tuesday, Stephenson said he was inspired by several research papers by NASA researcher Geoffrey Landis proposing construction of a tower 15 to 20 kilometers tall out of "mundane materials" such as steel. Launching rockets from that altitude -- giving them a headstart, so to speak -- would result in significant savings for spaceflight. And the audacity of the project could attract support, Stephenson said.
"I spent a lot of time looking at alternative space launch technologies, and they're pretty far out. They require exotic materials and technologies," Stephenson said. "Another way of saying that is they're hard to explain to Senators, whereas people get a 20 kilometer tower. It's inspiring."
Stephenson said his championing of the tower is related to his career as a science fiction writer. Science fiction inspires people, he said. It inspires engineers and scientists. But the current generation of science fiction is gloomy, pessimistic, and dystopian, which reflects a dispiriting societal outlook.
"Our tendency toward gloomy styles of science fiction might just be a passing literary trend except that it's catnip to the film industry," Stephenson said. "You can't have a conversation about science fiction with directors without it coming back to Blade Runner. They want to get out the hoses and make the streets wet."
Stephenson edited an anthology, Hieroglyph, designed to inspire future engineers and scientists with optimistic visions of an attainable future, and his own contribution to the anthology was about the Tall Tower.
The author brought a team of four researchers with him to speak at the conference, including CAD/CAM programmers who showed an illustration of the tower dwarfing the city of Flagstaff, Ariz., and nearby 12,000-foot Humphreys Peak, the tallest mountain in the state.
The tower would be 20 times taller than the current tallest building in the world, said Keith Hjelmstad, a professor of structural engineering at Arizona State University.
The highest levels would be subjected to powerful winds, as well as air thinning out to a fifth of the pressure of ground level. Construction robots would be needed to build the tower, and human builders would require breathing apparatus.
Could the tower be built? "It's on the outskirts of feasablity," Hjelmstad said. Every innovation needed to build the tower adds weight to the structure, which paradoxically makes it more difficult. "I fear we're always going to be one good idea from making it impossible."
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