Opinion — 06 November 2015

By: Glenn Wohltmann

Student Assistant

This is an open letter to Sergey Brin, the head of Google[x], the division of Google aimed (seriously) at making science fiction, what are described as “moonshot projects,” a reality.

Google is responsible for building the self-driving car, which may catch on, and for Google Glass, which seems destined to obscurity. It’s pioneering Project Loon, which would use a network of balloons to deliver the Internet to the two-thirds of the world for whom “logging in” may have more to do with lumber than with technology. When (or if) you start getting deliveries by drones, Google[x] gets the credit. The folks there are planning for deliveries to start in 2017.

It’s the projects that Google[x] has opted out of – and one in particular – that are more concerning.

It’s understandable that the division might opt out of building a jetpack, one of its original concepts. One person having a jetpack would be cool; a million people with jetpacks would be an air-traffic controller’s nightmare. And as cool as Marty McFly looked riding a hoverboard in “Back to the Future II,” Google[x] has nixed it; its magnet-based technology worked in small scale, but a rideable hoverboard just never got off the ground.

The biggest disappointment is that Google[x] has ruled out building a space elevator, which is exactly what it sounds like. A super-strong cable or tether running from the ground to space, counterweighted by a mass, which would allow a platform to run from the Earth to a satellite at zero gravity.

Rockets are about as inefficient as they can be: they use parts that aren’t recoverable or recyclable, and it takes a huge amount of energy to escape the gravity well. According to NASA, it costs about $10,000 per pound to reach space. NASA, meanwhile, has devolved into a typical government bureaucracy, the effort to get men living and working in space is on the back burner. NASA is more concerned with non-manned flight than with the “space … the final frontier.”

NASA did put men on the moon nearly 50 years ago and in the process created whole new technologies and literally generated thousands of patents. Imagine, Mr. Brin, how lucrative new patents could be from the tech created in building a space elevator, even if it never actually works.

Las Positas and at least a dozen other community colleges in the area all have engineering programs with hundreds of students. And while many want to go into the lucrative field of information technology there’s a dedicated core of would-be engineers who would love to work in aerospace technology. Wouldn’t it be great if they could find employment right here in the heart of innovative technologies?

It’s unlikely that Mr. Brin will ever read this. But if this does somehow cross your desk, please reconsider a space elevator.

Oh, and where’s my robot butler?

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