|Laser scan of Beauvais Cathedral, Columbia University Robotics Group, 2001 (source)
||Space Elevator (source)
The tallest man made structures in the world from 1311 until 1880, were Cathedrals (prior to this date the record was held by the pyramids in Egypt). Unlike commercial skyscrapers, where designing tall buildings translates into increased profits, in the case of cathedrals the motivation was more symbolic: to communicate the power of the church, and to reach closer to heaven. In order to reach these ever greater heights, advancements in construction techniques were required, including the pointed arch and the flying buttress. Relying on trial and error, these technologies were pushed to their limits and beyond, resulting at times in collapse, such as at the Cathedral of St Pierre de Bauvais in the North of France.
Beauvais Cathedral, which started construction in 1225, was designed to have the highest vault of any church in Europe, at 154 feet. The extreme height, however, led to structural vulnerabilities, and in 1284 (two years after its completion) a portion of the vault collapsed. While the vault was repaired and construction on the remainder of the cathedral resumed, an even greater calamity befell the church in the 1570′s when its 500 foot tower toppled to the ground with parishioners still inside (they survived). To this day, Beauvais remains structurally deficient, with temporary vaults propping up its buckling piers. The above laser scans of the Cathedral were taken in 2001 by the Media Center for Art History and the Robotics Lab at Columbia University in an effort to analyze the structural forces at play.
E. Sean Bailey
Inspired by the Eiffel Tower, the Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky imagined an earth-anchored structure reaching out into space. Thus, the concept of the space elevator was born in 1895. Tsiolkovsky described a ‘celestial castle’ fastened to the Earth by a multi-stranded cable. The ‘castle’ would be locked into a geostationary orbit, meaning it would revolve with the Earth, remaining parallel to the same location. As evinced by Tsiolkovsky’s evocative drawings, notions of space elevators began as romantic, faraway visions.
As the understanding of physics has expanded since Tsiolkovsky’s time, it is possible to tangibly anticipate the reality of the space elevator, as Arthur C. Clarke did in his novel Fountains of Paradise. In this piece of science fiction, Tsiolkovsky’s romanticism gives way to a modern, rational imagining of the space elevator. In the book, Clarke describes a thin but strong ‘hyperfilament’ that makes the elevator possible. Although the ‘hyperfilament’ is constructed from a fictional diamond crystal in the novel, Clarke later expressed his belief that another type of carbon—Buckminsterfullerene—would be a suitable substitute in a real space elevator. Recent innovations in carbon nanotube technology further increase the chances of an actual elevator.
Although it was not possible to realize the space elevator at the time of Fountains of Paradise’s publication, the strength of the book’s ideas motivated scientists to pursue research on the subject. The early 1980s saw the publication of papers on orbital rings, space fountains and launch loops. These studies aimed to find a solution for building a space elevator that did not depend on the strength of a particular material.
Today we are looking at a Space Elevator Challenge which seeks to resolve the basic building blocks of such a device’s design by the end of 2010. While there have been numerous iterations of the space elevator, this quest for the ultimate cosmic high is becoming increasingly grounded in a tangible scientific reality that may one day see people rising into the stars.
Erandi de Silva
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