Space Elevators, Chameleon Suits, and Robotic Coke Cans

Five years ago, NASA quietly created its most revolutionary branch of study in a simple gray building on west 14th Street. What they’ve been working on is out of this world.

Atlanta Magazine |  February 2003

Genius,” Dr. Bob Cassanova likes to say, “is in the generalities.” A man of quiet tone but immeasurably loud ideas, Dr. Cassanova repeats this credo of generalization—of thinking huge without regard for the stifling influence of details—while sorting through a viper’s nest of wires snaking out the back of his conference-room projector. “What we’re looking for at NIAC is the Grand… uhm… uh-oh,” he says, as the room lights up and quickly goes dark again.

Big Science is like that: One minute you’re chasing around some new standard of human ingenuity, the black box of progress, and in another instant, you’re tripping over the chord. At the moment, the fact that this scholarly researcher casts no more magical sway over an unruly laptop than anyone else seems an unspoken reminder that if technology is ultimately intended for the Everyman, it is also at times intently against every man, including rocket scientists.

“I don’t know. What the… ” he says, lifting a pair of reading glasses to his nose for closer inspection. And then, “Ah! There we go!”

As order is restored to the PowerPoint universe, one wall lights up with artist renderings of what Cassanova likes to call The Grand ldea, frame after frame of a cosmic new paradigm that all those beautiful minds out there are dreaming up while the rest of us sit around watching Survivor and counting our beans. It’s the same visionary briefing he gives to grad students and grade-schoolers, the same unified theory of human possibility that the retired Georgia Tech principal research engineer emeritus offers anyone willing to listen to his hour-long primer on man in space, say, 40 years from now. Or maybe a hundred years.

Or perhaps never.

As director of the Midtown-based NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, a tiny grant-making institution that for the last five years has gained national recognition for its far-out ideas on space exploration, Bob Cassanova’s professional mandate is to bend your mind. With a $4 million annual budget from NASA, his job is to seek out and financially support some of the country’s most revolutionary thinkers and to help mold their collective creativity into a game plan for the future. Established in 1998 as a way to infuse NASA with new ideas, the institute may in the end prove to be only an exercise in wishful thinking. On the other hand, NIAC may be helping lay the groundwork for mankind’s ascent to a multi-planetary species.

As grandiose as it sounds, however, the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is, at its heart, one man with a staff of three in a flat gray building on the west side of I-75, just down the street from Midtown’s decidedly down-to-earth Silver Skillet restaurant. Cassanova spends his days sorting through the technical papers and technobabble of sci-fi junkies and would-be Einsteins, of wonderfully imaginative scientists, futurists, tinkers, and thinkers, trying along the way to winnow out a handful of legitimately earth-shattering ideas about where humanity might be headed beyond what Carl Sagan once called “the pale blue dot.” And if human beings ever do manifest any sort of intergalactic destiny, it’s possible that Bob Cassanova will have had some role in sending us there.

“It’s been a mind-expanding experience,” says Cassanova, who was tapped to lead NIAC after retiring from a 30-year career at Georgia Tech. Since then, he has analyzed hundreds of way-out and weird ideas. Some are even called wacky. But with a growing reputation for its ability to walk the fine line between science fiction and science fact, and with a 5-year contract renewal anticipated this month, NIAC’S status in the aerospace community seems to be maintaining orbit.

Nonetheless, perusing its list of funded studies is like reading the first draft of a science fiction novel. The future, according to NIAC, heralds not a sudden dawning of Jetsonian ease and convenience, but a gradual, Magellenic new age of exploration. One day, we might see swarms of formation-flying spacecraft reconnoitering the Milky Way for habitable zones, while robots with limited consciousness pave the way for human colonization of Mars and Jovian moons. Other planets, asteroids, and moons might be surveyed by solar-powered aircraft flapping like manta rays through alien atmospheres, shapeshifting to meet the demands of their flying environment. Today’s chemically propelled rockets could someday be replaced by spacecraft run on ultra-efficient hydrogen fuel cells, plasma bubbles, nuclear ram jets, or sails pushed through the cosmos by solar winds and anti-matter.

By that time, of course, we will have completed the Space Elevator, a long-envisioned architecture of the sci-fi and exotic-research communities that is essentially a 62,000-kilometer cable fastened to the earth’s equator at one end and to a geostationary counterweight in space at the other. Centrifugal force would keep the cable taut, creating a climbable “beanstalk” into orbit and a jumping-off point for the rest of space.

From there, an array of “momentum-exchange tethers” spinning through orbit like bolas (a primitive throwing weapon consisting of two weights at either end of a string) might use earth’s gravity to slingshot humans into deep space, where they could dock with similar tether systems and elevators stationed around other planets and moons. A network of “astrotels,” sort of a celestial chain of Super 8 motels first envisioned by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, would cycle through the solar system and shuttle humans to distant targets during periods of optimal planetary alignment.

Today’s emerging “smart materials,” says Cassanova, offer hope that tomorrow’s star traveler will enjoy the latest in cosmic comfort wear: such as the Chameleon Suit, which, according to its NIAC investigator, would synthesize oxygen from alien atmospheres and regulate human needs through biosensors built into the fabric.

Current advances in conducting polymers—plastics that change shape when an electrical charge is added—portend the possibility of self-assembling housing on outer worlds. Thousands of people might live in excavated caves on the moon, in the halls of ancient lava tubes on Mars, or on the genetically re-engineered surface of other planets.

Eventually, space will be transformed from a wilderness economy to a more developed situation of traffic and commerce. Earth will no longer be the lone celestial rock from which humans derive most of our raw materials. And come a time when some big asteroid inevitably does bear down on us and Bruce Willis is no longer available, we will have a way to deflect it, or, perhaps, somewhere else to go.

If it sounds like an Arthur C. Clark novel, every one of these scenarios and many more is under study by NIAC, whose charter is to dole out grants of from $75,000 to half a million dollars to investigators scattered around the nation’s universities, research institutes, private industry, and government labs. NIAC fellows are not required to prove anything or even perform experiments. The only stipulation is that they think “revolutionary” thoughts capable of “leapfrogging” current technology, while keeping their proposals reasonably grounded in contemporary science.

Though a few NIAC projects still raise the ire of some traditionalists who see the institute as just encouraging the flakes, as Cassanova himself points out, great thinkers don’t typically have all the fine points of their concepts filed at the patent office the same day the light goes on. And if it’s not controversial, it’s probably not revolutionary.

Cassanova, an amateur photographer who likes to make the analogy between art and science, says, “The genius physicist and the genius artist have much in common. They are both able to visualize an idea before they can create it. Einstein first visualized the world on the molecular level, and then he sat down to write the mathematics.”

Flipping through his PowerPoint screens, Cassanova pauses on a collage of history’s great thinkers—DaVinci, Galileo, Kepler, et al—pondering the possibility that he, too, might be playing some small role in giving voice to the next generation of revolutionaries, the next genius of the general.

“Three years ago, the Space Elevator was completely sci-fi. No one was even seriously researching it,” says NIAC researcher Brad Edwards. “Now the genie is out of the bottle. We’ve shown it can be built.”

NIAC associate Rob Michelson is a Renaissance man. When he’s not working in an official capacity at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the Woodstock resident and visiting technology professor to five nations enjoys little side projects—such as building and flying a gyrocopter, designing his own home, searching for Noah’s ark in the hills of eastern Turkey, or fiddling with the tiny flying robot he calls the entomopter, for which he currently holds two patents and, in 2000, won the prestigious Pirelli Prize, a top award in the world of science.

As the keynote speaker at NIAC’s annual fellows meeting last October, he’s the perfect example of the kind of person that the institute attracts: those who think not only out of the box, but out of the solar system. Though Michelson originally conceived of his moth-like robot for military reconnaissance here on earth, its patented flapping-wing design caught the eye of an aerospace researcher elsewhere, who realized that because of the mechanical bug’s highly efficient lift, it is theoretically ideal to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

If they can ever get the thing built, that is.

The first sophisticated version of the entomopter had wings made from a Coca-Cola can. Now, it’s evolved into wings created from a composite material modeled on the hawk moth. At the very least, however, it is one of the more talked-about NIAC-related projects, a homegrown innovation with perhaps as good a chance as any of finding a seat on an upcoming mission. “One of the basic metrics of our success is that we hand some of these things off to NASA for development,” says Cassanova, who believes that even if most NIAC concepts never get off the ground, the realization of just one or two could remake society as we know it.

It’s a brand of optimism pervasive in the world of advanced research, where some of the most controversial ideas are initially exchanged in private for fear of being laughed out of school. NIAC investigator Dr. Steve Howe, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist whose sideline is the development of anti-matter-driven sails for deep space exploration, says: “You get to know what you can bring up with whom, and NIAC has helped legitimize and become a nexus for this kind of work. They do a good job of walking that fine line between the flaky and the credible.”

Anti-matter, incidentally, is what powers the Starship Enterprise. It was first mathematically predicted back in the 1920s, but to date has only been created in a couple of labs in precious quantities.

Yet, anti-matter does exist, and for those who see giant leaps in such small steps, there is no more welcoming environment than NIAC’s annual fellows conference, a workshop on the far-out.

Held this past fall in an executive-style amphitheater at one end of NIAC’S Midtown offices, the two-day event is a polymath’s fantasy. There’s talk of nuclear ramjet flyers and blacklight rocket engines. There’s solid-state aircraft, where the plane itself is the fuel, along with laser beams and lunar landers; telescopes that could read newsprint on Mars; machines made from virus proteins, and computers made from DNA. A presentation on zero-gravity stem cell research, which involves something called a “magnetic goat anti-rat,” left even many of the NIAC fellows scratching their heads.

Other NIAC ideas are less esoteric. The Space Elevator, for instance, was popularized in the 1978 Arthur C. Clarke novel Fountains of Paradise, but it has engineering roots in 19th-century interpretations of the Eiffel Tower and a mythic basis as far back as Jacob’s ladder in the Bible.

Today, it is envisioned as a wildly high-tech project that, ever since receiving NIAC funding three years ago, has been gaining limited worldwide acceptance. To date, Cassanova and his peer-review panel have awarded more than half a million NIAC dollars to a 39-year-old Seattle-based physicist named Bradley Edwards, who, if the elevator is ever built, will likely have fathered its design.

“Three years ago, this was completely sci-fi. No one was even seriously researching it,” says Edwards, speaking via cell phone last November from Reno, Nevada, where he was courting several congressmen for follow-on funding to the NIAC grant. “Now the genie is out of the bottle. We’ve shown it can be built.”

Traditionally, Space Elevator schemes have ranged from actually building structures up from the earth, to dragging in an asteroid for use as the counterweight and building downward. Edwards, however, focused on the cable system itself. If a conventional spacecraft could be placed in orbit to lower the first strand down to earth, “climbers” could be sent back up the initial cable to build it in layers, each spent climber becoming part of the needed counterweight in space. The key will be developing sufficiently strong cable material, which in the past has sarcastically been referred to as “unobtanium.”

Edwards, however, has introduced into Space Elevator chatter the nascent, real-world development of carbon nanotube composite, a state-of-the-art fiber with 30 times the strength of steel and one-fifth the weight. “If we can figure out how to make composites out of carbon nanotubes, that’s the last hurdle for the Space Elevator,” says Edwards. In a perfect world, he estimates a cost of $10 billion and operation in about 15 years.

Though Cassanova personally believes there will be other NIAC proposals to reach completion before the Space Elevator, he acknowledges Edwards’ plan as one of NIAC’S most promising “architectures.” If successful, it would render chemical rockets obsolete by cheaply conveying everything from mission payloads to paying tourists into orbit. Propulsion costs would drop from the current $40,000 per kilogram to about $100. And because it’s easier to grasp than, say, the mini-magnetospheric plasma propulsion bubble (which already has follow-on funding derived from its original NIAC study), the Space Elevator is more likely to spark popular imagination, an element woefully lacking in today’s space program. And popular appeal could trigger private investment.

Edwards, who left his job at Los Alamos soon after his first of two NIAC grants, is also banking on the possibility that other cosmically ambitious nations will make overtures toward their own elevator. That could ignite another space race, this time for dominance of everything from space-based solar power to the ultimate military high ground. However, Edwards, Cassanova, and others know that private investment in such long-term projects will only come from their near-term promise. Potential Space Elevator backers (which at this point range from multinational venture capitalists to people who contact Edwards and offer to sink their personal savings into his project) are more interested in the manufacturing revolution inherent in carbon nanotube composite than the elevator itself. Carbon nanotube composite could be used in everything from car bodies to airplanes and buildings.

It’s a commercial spin-off strategy that underpins many NIAC ideas. Anti-matter propulsion research, for example, has implications for cancer detection and treatment. Deploying circumnavigating robots and climate probes in the greenhouse-choked atmosphere of Venus could help us understand our own climatological woes. “Or imagine a bulletproof vest that would automatically thicken in a certain area when it senses a high-velocity object,” says Cassanova in a discussion of the ancillary value of research into the Chameleon Suit.

When the extraterrestrial possibilities of Rob Michelson’s entomopter became apparent, he proposed outright sponsorship to Coca-Cola, but he says they did not see the value of such high-flying marketing. “I think they were kind of turned off by the fact that some people were calling it the “Coke Roach'” he says, with a laugh. “But hey, there are all kinds of possibilities. The Coke Roach. The Bud Bug.”

Asked to identify which NIAC proposal he believes has the best chance of not collecting dust, Cassanova calls up NIAC’s Web site on his Macintosh PowerBook (wirelessly connected to the Internet throughout his office building, of course). “Let’s see, micro-scale laser sails. I suppose that’s doable, although I’m not sure why you’d want to. Space Elevator… Astrotels… That’s kinda neat. But look, there’s a whole array of other things that have to happen first. We’re not going to be sending people way out there until we’ve sent up a lot of robots. If we sent up a man to Mars and he died, it would be disastrous.”

He pauses for a moment, wondering aloud which would be worse: a man dying on the way to Mars, or actually getting a human there and then having him stuck on the way back, rolling through space like some eternal artifact of hope.

NIAC’s brand of optimism is pervasive in the world of advanced research, where many of the most controversial ideas are initially exchanged in private for fear of being laughed out of school.

Notwithstanding the braking effect of human tragedy, from which it might be argued that NASA has never fully recovered after the Challenger explosion, the real “showstoppers” in NIAC-type work lie in the realm of physics, both real and imagined.

As public information officer for the American Physical Society and author of the book Voodoo Science, Bob Park does not share the NIAC brand of technological optimism. “Of course, you always need to push the envelope and keep an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out,” says Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland who sees NIAC as essentially picking up where prior incarnations of advanced-concept work have left off.

In the past, NASA has had its own internal “blue-sky thinkers,” the most controversial work coming out of NASA Glenn’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Laboratory, which, until losing funding in 2002, conducted research into things such as warp-drive spacecraft, intergalactic wormholes, and anti-gravity fields, winning it a reputation for flake physics. Though NASA, a famously exclusive ideocracy, created NIAC to purposefully seek outside influences and jar the agency out of its institutional torpor, Park still sees the seeds of magic in some NIAC proposals.

“It astounds me that NIAC would give the time of day to something like blacklight power. You couldn’t make a pocket warmer with this stuff,” he says. Blacklight power is a theoretical process akin to cold fusion, the once ballyhooed source of limitless, non-polluting energy that arose out of Georgia Tech and The University of Utah in 1989. It briefly caused a vigorous scientific controversy and has since been largely discredited. “People should look at these advanced-concept ideas, but when you start putting magic in, well, there is no magic,” says Park.

To others, however, NIAC is more of an invitation to think on the grandest scale, an opportunity otherwise lacking within NASA proper. With constant pressure from Congress to justify its existence, NASA responds to a more near-term planning horizon and might not ever consider some of the ideas forwarded by NIAC, whose charter is to think 10 to 40 years in the future.

But NIAC investigators are dogged if nothing else. “In the world of physics, you never really admit you’ve found a showstopper,” says Steve Howe, whose anti-matter sail would theoretically blast through space at nearly 30,000 kilometers per second, reaching the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, in a mere 40 years. Our most well-traveled probe thus far, Voyager I, has taken 30 years just to get to Pluto’s neighborhood. “lf a concept doesn’t violate the fundamental laws of physics, there is always the assumption that you can find your way through, if you are clever enough.”

But even if NASA does eventually embrace NIAC’S enthusiasm for ramped-up space development, with all the problems here on Earth, what really would be the point? “Every time we send a probe into deep space, we learn something we didn’t expect. Every time we go there, we learn something we didn’t predict,” says Howe. “To go out and have a look around is clearly needed.”

Other reasons for such lofty research are more down-to-earth. “From the 1950s to the present, all of our core industries have been replaced by the direct children of Apollo,” says NIAC fellow Ed Hodgson, investigator of the Chameleon Suit, who believes that NIAC projects represent a potentially new generation of unexpected benefits. And for still others, the intrinsic worth of NIAC research is that it is simply more interesting than that of its parent bureaucracy, NASA.

“Every time I get bored, I go to the NIAC website,” says Leonard David, senior space writer for who has covered NASA for years. “The real point of NIAC is having a light on somewhere so that people can come and pitch their ideas and receive some sort of sanity check, which is sort of what NASA should be doing anyway. NIAC is the last presence of what NASA was originally chartered to do.”

There are signs, however, of a gathering will to move beyond the legacy of a few moon walks and an aging, budget-strapped space station. Consider that this year NASA will launch its latest missions to Mars—two separate rover expeditions in May and June—bootstrapping discoveries of Mars rocks with alleged signs of life and, more recently, evidence of potentially vast quantities of water on the red planet, into enthusiasm for an eventual manned mission there. The emerging field of astrobiology, a coming together of cosmology and life sciences, has many in the scientific community convinced that life is not unique to earth.

Internationally, China is solidifying plans for its own manned missions into space. While Russia hawks orbital joyrides to the likes of pop star Lance Bass, the European Space Agency has asked NIAC investigator Bradley Edwards to relocate his Space Elevator program to Austria. Private sector appeal in space development is evident in programs such as “The X Prize,” a $10 million award to the first group able to send three civilians into brief sub-orbital flight, return them safely to earth, and repeat the stunt within two weeks to prove that space tourism can be made a reality. The next logical goal would be some sort of colonization.

Narayanan Komerath, a Georgia Tech professor who has a NIAC grant to study infrastructures for a space-based economy, says, “I like to use Atlanta as an analogy, for as hard as I think, I cannot determine what Atlanta produces. We have no uranium fields or anything like that. We are here because everyone else is here.”

Komerath, whose grant focuses on the use of radio waves to fabricate radiation shelters out of, say, pulverized asteroid dust, says, “You don’t go to investors and say, ‘I want to build a giant spinning cylinder in space that would house 10,000 people.’ You go and say I want to build a space-based economy.’ It’s a business model that will work only if there are a lot of people who will go broke at the same time if it fails.”

But the reality is that mining camps and mini-malls on Mars are probably as unlikely—or at least as far off—as they sound. We’ve yet to find a good reason to go back to the moon. We haven’t even been to the deepest part of the world’s oceans but once, and that was more than 40 years ago. As for something like the Space Elevator, which no doubt could be a keystone structure in any extraterrestrial economy, we’re just now able to manipulate carbon nanotubes in the lab. Going from that to a 62,000-mile cable in space is, well, a stretch.

So far, NIAC is mostly just pencil sharpening and “air-brush vehicles.” The only entomopter to get off the ground has been a paper-and-rubber band model cobbled together in Rob Michelson’s lab.

But then again, it did fly.

And besides, for NIAC director Cassanova, arguments for or against NIAC-type work are overshadowed purely by a love of grand ideas. In a time when so many bad ideas scab the pale blue dot as never before, NIAC at least has symbolic virtue, reminding us to occasionally look above the horizon and not worry too much about the details of today, while embracing the ultimately general notion of tomorrow.

“It reminds us,” says Cassanova, “that there will be a future.” ✦