Back in the 1960s, we were both rookie engineers working for government organizations in India with just a few years of experience behind us—I worked in electronics and he specialized in aeronautics. Both of us had passed out from the Madras Institute of Technology in southern India, although he was older than me and graduated a few years ahead.
But the first time I met A.P.J. Abdul Kalam—or Kalam, as I always knew him—was in a foreign country: the U.S. I’d gone there in December, 1962, and he followed in March, 1963. We were part of a seven-member team dispatched by Vikram Sarabhai, the father of India’s space program, to train with NASA and learn the art of assembling and launching small rockets for collecting scientific data.
I’d already spent a few months training at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, when Kalam arrived from India. Soon, we were working side by side at NASA’s launch facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Our lodgings were called the B.O.Q., or the Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, and we’d lunch together at the cafeteria where, because we were both vegetarians, we survived mainly on mashed potatoes, boiled beans, peas, bread and milk. Weekends in Wallops Island were lonely affairs, as the nearest town of Pocomoke City was an hour’s drive away. Thankfully for us, NASA put on a free flight to Washington D.C. for its recruits, so we would head up the to American capital on Friday nights and return to Wallops on the Monday morning shuttle.
It was a memorable experience. I remember one training session where Kalam had to fire a dummy rocket when the countdown hit zero. It was only after half a dozen attempts when he kept firing the rocket either a few seconds too early or too late that the man who went on to become one of India’s best known rocket scientists managed to get it right.
Our American sojourn ended in December, 1963, when we returned to India to help set up a domestic rocket launching facility on the outskirts of Trivandrum, the capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala. It was very different world from NASA. India’s space program was still in its early years and we had to swap our weekend shuttles to Washington for bicycles, our sole mode of transportation in those days.
Quite apart from the change, this presented a practical problem for Kalam: he didn’t know how to ride a bike! He was forced to depend on me or one of the other engineers to ferry him to and from work. When it came to food, if we’d lacked options at the canteen in Wallops Island, in Kerala we had to fend entirely for ourselves: there was no canteen at the nascent launch facility, and we had purchase our lunch at the Trivandrum railway station on the way to work.
Over the next decade and a half, Kalam and I worked closely on building India’s space program. Kalam eventually became the director of the project to develop the country’s first satellite launch vehicle, a task he pursued with single-minded devotion. He made his team work hard and set the benchmark for them by working twice as hard himself. He had a knack for getting things done and did not let initial failures deter his team. He pushed and pushed until eventually, in 1980, he succeeded with the launch of SLV3, India’s first experimental satellite vehicle which took off from Sriharikota on the country’s southeastern coast.
The same year, Kalam moved to India’s Defense Research and Development Organization and took on the task of building the country’s missiles. He injected a new sense of urgency and energy in the organization, and in 1998, led the team behind the country’s nuclear tests at Pokhran in northwestern India.
His unexpected election in 2002 as India’s President took him to a different plane, transforming him into a statesman and, rightly, a national legend. But he never forgot his early friendships. In 2007, when he was about step down from the presidency, he invited my wife Gita and me to stay with him at Rashtrapati Bhawan, the grand presidential residence in New Delhi.
He never allowed his high office to come in the way of his natural informality, a quality that so endeared to so many across India and the world. One evening during our stay, he invited me and my wife to attend a national awards ceremony that he was hosting in his capacity as President. The ceremony was followed by a reception for the guests, among whom were many dignitaries. Suddenly, Gita and I found that our host had disappeared. I was looking around trying to find him when an aide came up to me and whispered a message from India’s head of state: the President wanted us to leave the other guests behind and join him in the building’s magnificent gardens. It turned out that the great man needed a break from the formality of the awards function and wanted to get some fresh air. For more than an hour, we walked up and down the beautiful gardens, reminiscing about the old days in Trivandrum and the badminton games we used to play at the Rocket Recreation Club.
He returned to his Presidential duties quite recharged.
Aravamudan is a former Director of the Indian Space Research Organization’s Satellite Centre in Bengaluru, India
Inspired partly by science fiction, NASA scientists are seriously considering space elevators as a mass-transit system for the next century.
Sept. 7, 2000
Does this sound like the Sci-Fi Channel or a chapter out of Arthur C. Clarke's, Fountains of Paradise? Well, it's not. It is a real possibility -- a "space elevator" -- that researchers are considering today as a far-out space transportation system for the next century.
Above: Artist Pat Rawling's concept of a space elevator viewed from the geostationary transfer station looking down along the length of the elevator toward Earth. [more information]
David Smitherman of NASA/Marshall's Advanced Projects Office has compiled plans for such an elevator that could turn science fiction into reality. His publication, Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium, is based on findings from a space infrastructure conference held at the Marshall Space Flight Center last year. The workshop included scientists and engineers from government and industry representing various fields such as structures, space tethers, materials, and Earth/space environments.
"This is no longer science fiction," said Smitherman. "We came out of the workshop saying, 'We may very well be able to do this.'"
Current plans call for a base tower approximately 50 km tall -- the cable would be tethered to the top. To keep the cable structure from tumbling to Earth, it would be attached to a large counterbalance mass beyond geostationary orbit, perhaps an asteroid moved into place for that purpose.
"The system requires the center of mass be in geostationary orbit," said Smitherman. "The cable is basically in orbit around the Earth."
Four to six "elevator tracks" would extend up the sides of the tower and cable structure going to platforms at different levels. These tracks would allow electromagnetic vehicles to travel at speeds reaching thousands of kilometers-per-hour.
Conceptual designs place the tower construction at an equatorial site. The extreme height of the lower tower section makes it vulnerable to high winds. An equatorial location is ideal for a tower of such enormous height because the area is practically devoid of hurricanes and tornadoes and it aligns properly with geostationary orbits (which are directly overhead).
Above: Equatorial base sites are essential for space elevators because they align properly with geostationary orbits. In Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Fountains of Paradise, engineers built a space elevator on the mythical island of Taprobane, which was closely based on Sri Lanka, a real island near the southern tip of India. Clarke made one important change to the geography of Sri Lanka/Taprobane: he moved the island 800 km south so that it straddles the equator. At the moment, Sri Lanka lies between 6 and 10 degrees north.
According to Smitherman, construction is not feasible today but it could be toward the end of the 21st century. "First we'll develop the technology," said Smitherman. "In 50 years or so, we'll be there. Then, if the need is there, we'll be able to do this. That's the gist of the report."
Smitherman's paper credits Arthur C. Clarke with introducing the concept to a broader audience. In his 1978 novel, Fountains of Paradise, engineers construct a space elevator on top of a mountain peak in the mythical island of Taprobane (closely based on Sri Lanka, the country where Clarke now resides). The builders use advanced materials such as the carbon nanofibers now in laboratory study.
"His book brought the idea to the general public through the science fiction community," said Smitherman. But Clarke wasn't the first.
Left: In 1895 Konstantin Tsiolkovsky looked at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and imagined it attached to a "celestial castle" at the end of a spindle shaped cable, with the "castle" orbiting the earth in a geosynchronous orbit. The modern vision of a 50 km space tower -- the necessary anchor for any space elevator -- is far taller than the Eiffel Tower. [more information]
Pearson, who participated in the 1999 workshop, envisions the space elevator as a cost-cutting device for NASA. "One of the fundamental problems we face right now is that it's so unbelievably expensive to get things into orbit," said Pearson. "The space elevator may be the answer."
The workshop's findings determined the energy required to move a payload by space elevator from the ground to geostationary orbit could remain relatively low. Using today's energy costs, researchers figured a 12,000-kg Space Shuttle payload would cost no more than $17,700 for an elevator trip to GEO. A passenger with baggage at 150 kg might cost only $222! "Compare that to today's cost of around $10,000 per pound ($22,000 per kg)," said Smitherman. "Potentially, we're talking about just a few dollars per kg with the elevator."
During the workshop, issues pertinent to transforming the concept from science fiction to reality were discussed in detail. "What the workshop found was there are real materials in laboratories today that may be strong enough to construct this type of system," said Smitherman.
Smitherman listed five primary technology thrusts as critical to the development of the elevator. First was the development of high-strength materials for both the cables (tethers) and the tower.
Above: Carbon nanotube (CNT) is a new form of carbon, equivalent to a flat graphene sheet rolled into a tube. CNT exhibits extraordinary mechanical properties: the Young's modulus is over 1 Tera-Pascal and the estimated tensile strength is 200 Giga-Pascals. [more information]
Fiber materials such as graphite, alumina, and quartz have exhibited tensile strengths greater than 20 GPa (Giga-Pascals, a unit of measurement for tensile strength) during laboratory testing for cable tethers. The desired strength for the space elevator is about 62 GPa. Carbon nanotubes have exceeded all other materials and appear to have a theoretical strength far above the desired range for space elevator structures. "The development of carbon nanotubes shows real promise," said Smitherman. "They're lightweight materials that are 100 times stronger than steel."
The second technology thrust was the continuation of tether technology development to gain experience in the deployment and control of such long structures in space.
Third was the introduction of lightweight, composite structural materials to the general construction industry for the development of taller towers and buildings. "Buildings and towers can be constructed many kilometers high today using conventional construction materials and methods," said Smitherman. "There simply has not been a demonstrated need to do this that justifies the expense." Better materials may reduce the costs and make larger structures economical.
Left: A computer model of a maglev -- or magnetically levitated -- launch vehicle. Maglev technologies are essential for future space elevators. [more information]
Fifth was the development of transportation, utility and facility infrastructures to support space construction and industrial development from Earth out to GEO. The high cost of constructing a space elevator can only be justified by high usage, by both passengers and payload, tourists and space dwellers.
During a speech he once gave, someone in the audience asked Arthur C. Clarke when the space elevator would become a reality.
"Clarke answered, 'Probably about 50 years after everybody quits laughing,'" related Pearson. "He's got a point. Once you stop dismissing something as unattainable, then you start working on its development. This is exciting!"
Highway2Space.com - NASA/Marshall web site about space transportation research
Space Towers -- from NASA/Marshall's "Liftoff" web site
Space Elevator Concept -- from NASA/Marshall's Flight Projects Directorate
NASA applications of molecular nanotechnology- learn more about carbon nanfibers and how they may be used with space elevators.
Nanotechnology Gallery - more information about carbon nanfibers.
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