Buried in the news this past week was a story that NASA had announced a winner in its Power Beaming Challenge, a competition aimed at rewarding innovative designs that may lead toward a new means of getting to space: using an elevator. A space elevator is just one of dozens of projects rattling around in the brains of futurists that has not only the power to inspire people, but also the potential to change the way people live in general. If our species hopes to make the world a better place, it is essential that organizations such as NASA continue to encourage research into expansive projects for the betterment of our civilization.

The space elevator is a perfect example of a massive engineering undertaking to open up access to space by making space travel affordable. The concept was the brainchild of author Arthur Clarke as an economical means of getting into space. A cable over 20,000 kilometers long is placed between a floating offshore platform on a body of water and a space station that orbits the Earth at the same rate as the offshore platform is moving. An elevator car could move payloads between the two ends of the cable at only a fraction of the cost of current orbital rocket technologies. What’s holding the concept back is current technology. Materials strong enough for such a cable don’t yet exist outside of laboratories, and a vehicle that can move up such a cable isn’t like anything ever before built. The NASA competition aims at helping to solve this second dilemma.

There are of course, many other avenues for researching massive scale projects. International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is a fusion reactor project in France that could, in theory, solve our clean energy concerns for good through the use of a fusion reactor, that mimics the sun’s internal energy processes. A cell biologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York last week published a proposal to artificially fertilize great deserts in Africa and Australia. That would create a new ecosystem that would absorb more carbon dioxide than man produces per year, effectively removing man’s contribution to global warming. Others have proposed solar screens the size of countries that would decrease the total sunlight sent to Earth.

But these kinds of projects require billions upon billions of dollars — perhaps even trillions — and would require a level of cooperation between countries that seems unachievable today. Without the ambition to try for such lofty goals, there is less incentive for quantum leaps in innovation. The exponential rate of growth of technology should be motivation enough for ever bigger projects, and if people are given just a little push to reach for lofty goals, innovators come out of the woodwork.

The most recent noteworthy example was the Ansari X-Prize, a private group that awarded $10 million to the first team to reach space with a privately financed and built spacecraft. The group’s intention was to spark entrepreneurship and innovation to jumpstart space exploration. Within just a few years, engineer Burt Rutan’s team, Scaled Composites, created what they dubbed SpaceShipOne. The team now has a budding space tourism venture that uses an upgraded version of Rutan’s prize-winning design. Many other proposals for space hotels and spaceplanes have popped up since then. To say that there isn’t excitement over pie in the sky goals is just plain wrong — there’s no greater way to get engineers and scientists to use their talents to their fullest or for governments to cooperate better than to give them dreams.

What if these kind of endeavors fail? A project like the space elevator or massive geoengineering projects aimed at changing the very climate of Earth are perhaps too difficult for our generation to realize. Perhaps we’re fating ourselves to Daedelus’ folly by aspiring to such grand ideas. The same thing that happens when other scientific initiatives fail — the thousands of hours of work, the materials developed and tested and the small innovations designed to work around problems in a larger picture all find their way into our lives in ways their creators never intended. Even if we can’t build a cable strong enough to hold a space elevator, we might design one strong enough to make safer, stronger and more efficient bridges.

By financing and encouraging research into ambitious projects, organizations both public and private that encourage innovation are a benefit to society as a whole. Organizations like NASA and the Ansari X-Prize encourage the first steps toward research in fields that individuals might otherwise not attempt to tackle on their own. More than making a massive project possible, they give more avenues for intended and unintended advancements in beneficial technology.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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