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NASA Nurtures Inventors to Produce Space Wonders of the Future

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page A01

When Tony Bennett sings about "little cable cars" that "climb halfway to the stars," he's talking about San Francisco on a clear night. But when Jerome Pearson thinks about cables, cars and stars, he means the real thing.

Pearson is a proponent of "space elevators": Put a satellite in geostationary orbit so it stays in the same spot in the sky, drop thousands of miles of cable down to the surface, and run little carts full of stuff up and down. "We'll be developing a lunar base," Pearson said, "and the space elevator can be a part of it."

Jerome Pearson, an engineer in Mount Pleasant, S.C., shows rendering of the lunar space elevator for which he received a $75,000 grant from NASA. (Wade Spees For The Washington Post)

Sound crazy? Maybe, but the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts last year awarded Pearson a $75,000 grant to design his lunar space elevator, one of 12 far-out projects aimed at translating science-fiction hype into practical science reality in the next 10 to 40 years. The theme: Don't let today's facts get in the way of a good theory.

"Sometimes people who have cool ideas don't know NASA people who are interested in them," said the institute's senior science adviser, Ron Turner. "We wanted to reach out into the scientific community to nurture these revolutionary concepts."

Besides the space elevator, the 2004 awards included projects to alter plants genetically so they can prosper on Mars; to use sunlight to power a space-based laser that lunar explorers and passing spaceships can use as a power source; to make a superconducting magnetic field to shield astronauts from radiation; and to build a buoyancy-driven glider to fly in thick, "extreme" atmospheres such as those of Venus or Saturn's moon, Titan.

Some institute projects have already taken on a life of their own. NASA became interested in the "Entomopter" after an earlier grant showed how a larger version of a flying microrobot that mimics insects rather than birds could be adapted for aerial reconnaissance in the thin Martian atmosphere, where conventional aerodynamics work poorly.

The institute is also an enthusiastic promoter of "space tethers" -- cables that would dangle from satellites, grapple spacecraft in low Earth orbit and fling them into higher orbit or toss them toward the moon or distant planets.

The institute has helped pioneer space elevators for several years, awarding early grants to explore how they might be used to lift payloads from Earth, potentially reducing the cost of getting into space from $10,000 per pound with rockets to a modest $100 per pound.

Pearson, an independent aerospace engineer from Mount Pleasant, S.C., says building an elevator could be even easier on the moon, which has less gravity than Earth and no unguided space junk that could slam into the cable and break it.

"We can build them right now, and if we can develop the vehicle, you wouldn't have to have people," Pearson explained in a telephone interview. "They'd be like the Mars rovers, doing their own thing."

The basic idea would be for the elevator to lift carts full of lunar "regolith" -- the coarse lunar sand in which Neil Armstrong left his footprints 35 years ago -- upward to be ferried into Earth orbit for use as cheap radiation insulation in spaceships, space hotels and space stations.

The institute started in 1997 as a NASA effort to seek out far-sighted concepts that might not pay off for decades, but which could be priceless when they do.

"NASA recognized it suffered from 'not invented here' syndrome," Turner said in a telephone interview. "If it wasn't invented by NASA, then NASA didn't want to hear about it."

The institute, based in Atlanta, is run as an independent organization under the supervision of the Universities Space Research Association, a group of about 95 colleges and universities involved in space-related research.

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