How Neal Stephenson's 20-Kilometer Space Tower Could Change Everything

Novelist Neal Stephenson wants to create a 20-kilometer space tower, which could inspire people to believe in innovation again — but also transform the way we travel in the air and into space.

To this end, Stephenson has teamed up with structural engineer Keith Hjelmstad of Arizona State University in an effort to design and build the incredible space tower. The project is an extension of Stephenson's Hieroglyph story, and the Center for Science and the Imagination — an initiative that's working to bring artists and technologists together and "turn science fiction into reality."

Stephenson, like so many others these days, is frustrated with modern society's lack of ambition when it comes to embarking upon really big projects. He calls it "innovation starvation." And in addition to attributing much of it to the pessimistic trend that has largely taken over science fiction, he also blames it on modern information technologies. As he told Stephen Cass of Technology Review, "Everything got put on hold for a generation," while civilization busied itself with figuring out the Internet.

And not inclined to wait for radically futuristic technologies to arrive, Stephenson has argued that we should make do with what we have, and start working on megascale projects anyway. To that end, along with Hjelmstad, he has outlined a proposal for their epic space tower.

Once complete, the structure would reach up into the stratosphere and be capable of refueling docked planes. It could also serve as a jumping-off point to launch missions into space. Writing in New Scientist, Jim Giles explains some of the challenges:

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."

And as Giles notes, Stephenson is not the only person thinking along these lines. A similar sentiment has been expressed by writer Cory Doctorow who is hoping to see his story of 3D printers on the moon come into reality.

The idea of having sci-fi writers team up with scientists is definitely an interesting one. Perhaps we'd already be working on a space elevator if Arthur C. Clarke was given the same opportunity.

Image Max Photography, James Reeve/Photolibrary/Getty).