"Weyland's Beanstalk"

Tristan Wolfe 12/6/04

All rights reserved by the author

 

 

            "Nanotubes are molecule-thick strands of certain elements, the most common of which is carbon, that are 'rolled up' into nanoscopic tubes," Dr. Weyland Hann monotonously explained to his nanotechnology class at the University of Halifax. He was a short man with pale skin, jet-black hair, small, dark eyes, and a scruffy goatee, which made him look perpetually evil. "Carbon nanotubes, in particular, have a tensile strength that beats spider's silk by a factor of four. They are also very light weight, making them one of the greatest technological discoveries ever made. They can--"

            "What's so great about a carbon tube? Why not just stick with steel?" interrupted one of his more annoying students with an arrogant tone of voice.

            Dr. Hann glared at the student, "Two things, Mr. Ress. First of all, if you interrupt me one more time today with that tone, I won't assign any more extra credit for the class, which I know for a fact that you, and several others will need to have in order to pass this course." John Ress lowered his head low enough in order to rolled his eyes without Dr. Hann noticing. "Second, were you not listening? Or should I repeat myself anyway? Carbon nanotubes have a tensile strength that beats spider's silk, which used to be, if you don't know, the strongest natural substance known. That makes them much stronger than steel, and they are also much lighter. As to why they are one of the greatest technological discoveries, that's because they have a tremendous range of usage. Fabrics, electronics, computers, displays, armor, architectural structures, and cable." He paused to let the facts settle into the class. A student raised her hand. "Yes, Cleo?"

            "Hasn't a space elevator which uses carbon nanotubes been proposed? How can they use such small tubes for something like that?"

            "Well, simply because a concept is big doesn't mean that all the materials have to be," replied Dr. Hann. "The nanotubes would be used as the elevator's cable, since no other materials known can withstand the tension that would be produced by the combined gravitational and centrifugal forces that would be present in such an elevator's system. The cable would not have to be very thick. In fact, the cable component could be cum posed of many small strands of nanotubes, or even meshed together as a ribbon that would not need to be thicker than a sheet of paper." Cleo raised her hand once more.

            "How would a space elevator work?"

            "There are several different elevator concepts, but all include a geosynchronous satellite orbiting within two degrees of the equator, the cable, the 'car,' and some sort of base station, which can be either stationary at a high altitude, or even mobile and floating in the ocean, also within two degrees of the equator. A common elevator concept uses a 'climber car' that scales the cable between the base and the satellite. Thanks to the breakthrough in nuclear fusion ten years ago in 2076, this is perhaps the most economical way to build the elevator, since the new, relatively 'bite-size' fusion reactors can produce enough energy cheaply for the car to travel up and down the cable without burdening it with a large amount of extra mass. The geosynchronous satellite is actually tethered into synch by the cable, and would have an orbital radius greater than 42,000 kilometers. So, since it's not in 'natural' synch, if that cable were to snap, the satellite would be flung into space."

            "Why would the elevator need to have a small power-source and be within two degrees of the equator?" asked a student.

            Weyland shot him a cold stare for speaking out of turn. He was getting tired of this. People never listening to simple little rules or having common sense or courtesy. "If the power source, or generator... whatever the hell you want to call it, were too massive, the weight might snap the cable. Also, an elevator would need to be located in a place that gets very little bad weather. Certain parts within two degrees of the equator are nicknamed "quiet zones" since the weather is usually fair in those places. The weather-factor makes mobile floaters a bit more ideal for an elevator base, since they could maneuver to a certain degree in order to avoid storms."

            Cleo asked another question. "So an elevator that goes between Earth and space could work? Its almost too hard to grasp the concept."

            "Yes and no," replied Professor Hann. "Although it can work in theory, or maybe in reality for at least a short amount of time, a space elevator would have too many problems. Physically, atomic oxygen in the upper-atmosphere would eat through the carbon nanotubes of the cable, and coating or encasing the cable would simply be too expensive, since the best anti-corrosion materials include valuable substances like platinum and gold. Micrometeorites would also eat away at the cable in space. Any encasement of the cable has the potential to break due to tension, which would leave the cable vulnerable once more. Economically, something like this is just impossible today. You kids are aware of the fact that the world's economy is failing rapidly, yes? There won't be enough money to build a space elevator."

            Weyland was both right and wrong. There would be, miraculously, enough money to build the elevator, but it would fail. In order to save lives, Weyland would make sure of that.

           

             * * *

           

            Weyland lost his job in the Collapse that spread over the world as an economic plague five years later. Eighty percent of the world was forced into poverty or near­ poverty. Worldwide unemployment was nearly double that of the Great Depression of 1929. But, even with the world's terrible economic state, the remaining superpowers of the world (Canada, several countries of the European Union, and Japan), somehow collaborated on a space elevator project, nicknamed <i>Heavenbound</i>. It was to be like a monument. A colossal tourist trap out in the middle of nowhere to show the world that even in states of worldwide depression, great achievements can be made. For a "reasonable" fee, civilians would be able to journey up to the top of the world, and have a new glimpse of the heavens, as well as the glittering green-blue space gem called Earth, which, from the altitude of the elevator, would look more like a large ball rather than something that has a mass of 5.98x10<sup>24</sup> kilograms. The governments scraped together what little money they had, and produced enough nanotubes to make the cable. Once this was done, the governments hired thousands of workers, including Weyland Hann, to build the base and space stations, temporarily helping the unemployment rate, however slightly.

            Once Weyland lost his job as a professor, he was out of work for about a year, and lived off of the money he had managed to stockpile over the years. Although the money was no longer worth much, it was able to buy just enough food to keep him alive. After being denied admittance to each job that he applied for during that year, he finally found a job as a Nomadic Construction Worker, as a desperate choice. He didn't like the concept of the rough labor that the job called for, but he needed the money to buy food and pay for shelter. As an NCW, he was paid very little, and was forced to move with the job. That is, once the NCW Corporation was finished building what it had to build in one city, it would move to another, and, in order to keep the job, so would he. Once <i>Heavenbound</i> was announced, eyen though he knew it was an insane concept, he rushed to get a job as a construction worker for the governments that were building it since he knew it would pay more than double the salary he was receiving as an NCW. Because of his impressive scientific background, he was quickly hired to work on <i>Heavenbound</i>.

            Weyland worked on the geosynchronous space station. He was paid to maneuver pieces of the station into place so they could be assembled into a ring­shaped structure using one of hundreds of fifty year old spacecraft, which was built at the economic peak of the 21st Century, back in the 2050s. The station itself was both old and new. Some of the parts were manufactured on Earth in 2080, while other parts were already in space; useable parts of an old, run-down international space station and other, smaller satellites.

            The base station was the size of an aircraft carrier. It was built off the coast of Ecuador within an a\mospheric Hadley Cell, where the weather was usually calm. It was more of a giant boat than a base, with powerful engines that moved it about from place to place within a certain vicinity. The nanotube cable would tether the two structures to each other.

When he started working, Dr. Weyland Hann asked to look at how the cable was being made. He was shown the specs by a work supervisor by the name of Melissa Jai. Hann studied the specs for a few minutes, then said, "there's no anti-corrosion coating on the cable?

" Miss Jai furrowed her brow. "What do you mean?"

Dr. Hann rolled his dark little eyes. How could she not know what I mean? he thought She's the damn work supervisor! She's supposed to understand what the work is! Hann was, for the thousandth time in his life, sickened by ignorance. "Miss Jai, if there's no anti-corrosion coat on the nanotube cable, a portion of the cable will be eaten up by atomic oxygen in the upper atmosphere." Miss Jai merely stared, obviously not understanding anything he said. He sighed heavily, then asked, "Can you at least take me to a scientist who helped design this cable? Arrange some sort of meeting so I can discuss this with him?"

"I suppose I could. I'll see what I can do."

"You do that"

           

             * * *

           

A week later, Hann met with Dr. Joseph Tren, the project lead of the team that worked on the cable. Hann started the conversation. "Its nice to meet you, Dr. Tren."

"Likewise," was the reply.

"I have a question concerning the cable's structure. Why is there no metallic or chemical coating around the nanotubes to help prevent the corrosion caused by atomic oxygen?" asked Hann.

            "Two reasons: such a coating is an economic impossibility. You were laid off when the Collapse hit... surely you're aware of the horrible state of depression the world is in. It would be too expensive to develop a coating for the nanotubes. Secondly, it wasn't necessary. Recent tests show that the nanotubes are nearly immune to the corrosion. At least as much as gold and platinum."

Hann almost laughed at this reply. "Bullshit. I performed many tests on this myself years ago when I was working in nanotech. A carbon nanotube cable will not last more than a few years in the upper atmosphere. Less than that due to micrometeorites! If we set this thing up, people will die when that c'able snaps!"

With an arrogant smirk, Tren said, "Your tests are old and most likely obsolete. I've checked and rechecked the corrosion factor. The cable will last a century, at least"

            Hann saw that he wouldn't be able to get any further in this conversation. Tren's arrogance was a potent wall which no argument would penetrate. Hann shook his head, got up, and walked towards the door. Before he got to it, he turned and said, "I'd better be wrong. I honestly hope I'm wrong."

            Unfortunately for the countries who built <i>Heavenbound</i>, he wasn't

           

             * * *

           

The elevator to space was finished in 2087. Hann had spent months at a time in the microgravity of space, which he had gotten used to due to the training he had received before he actually started working on the space station, and through the job experience. The silence, weightlessness, and openness of space comforted him. While actually on the job, and not in a space-bound cafeteria full of people, or back on Earth which was inhabited by even more people, he was able to think, and be at peace with his mind, instead of his usual pseudo-claustrophobic state.

Weyland Hann didn't hate people. In fact, he had a large amount of empathy for people that he didn't even know. But it was this empathy that bothered him. He didn't want to deal with feeling bad for others that he sometimes didn't even know. It was a nuisance that put his mind in turmoil. He was sickened by humanity's general stupidity and selfishness, but didn't want anything bad to happen to anyone, and he knew that people would die if the space elevator's cable snapped. Those on-board the orbital space station would be flung off into infinity due to the centrifugal force generated by the circular orbit of the artificial satellite. This is why he decided to send the <i>Heavenbound</i> Project straight to hell.

            Hann was currently on the base station. He was supposed to get on the boat which would take all workers to Ecuador, where they could then use whatever means of transportation they had the money for in order to get home. The only other people on base station were personnel. Half the personnel were going to use the elevator to go to the space station and get things running for the grand-opening the following week.

Weyland finished attaching the small plastic explosive, which he bought many months ago off the Ecuadorian black market, to the place where the carbon nanotube cable connected to the base station. He then connected the small far-infrared beam receiver to the explosive, which was half of the trigger that would set it off. The other half was attached to the belt around his waist.

All of the personnel were in the cafeteria eating supper, leaving the elevator car open for the taking. Hann stepped in, hit the ignition, and heard the mini fusion reactor start up with a small whine, turning the car's wheels, which worked in-synch to grasp the cable and accelerate the car upward. Hann felt his stomach lurch as he accelerated. He stared out the small viewing window, watching the few clouds as they seemed to fall from the sky due to his upward movement. When he reached the weightlessness of space, he experienced a flutter of vertigo which passed as quickly as it had come.

The car came to a halt, over 35,500 kilometers above the surface of the earth, and he heard the door-clamps attach to the station, then the hiss of atmosphere being pumped into the airlock. When the hissing stopped, Hann opened the car's door, and floated into the station. Since the station was ring-shaped and rotating (save the center section, where the car docks to the station), Hann was soon able to walk along the inner "surface" of the ring, thanks to centrifugal force. He stepped to a window which presented a magnificent view of Earth. He grasped the infrared mechanism on his belt, and pressed the button on it. This sent an infrared signal back to the receiver attached to the explosives, which destroyed the lower portion of the cable, disconnecting both his physical and mental tether to Earth and humanity.

A few hours later, Weyland noticed that Earth was now much smaller in the distance, about the size of a marble. His plan was a success. Wh'en the cable had snapped, there was no longer anything present to keep the station in geosynch, and the centrifugal force of his orbit flung him out of Earth's gravity well, sending him and the station rotating majestically into the vastness of space. Hann breathed a sigh of relief, as if a great weight was just lifted from his shoulders. Still staring at Earth, he spoke to himself, "I regret nothing."

Hann spent the following hours wandering the station, lost in thought, traversing between the rotating and non-rotating sections of the lonely place. After eating some food that was stored in the station's kitchen, he went back to the sleeping quarters, and lay down. He fell asleep with a smile upon his face.

Dr. Hann never woke up. He no longer had any reason to.

           

 

© Copyright 2005 by the author

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