Spacelift

My sojourn up the western seaboard of the United States has come to an end. It began in San Diego with the final An Event Apart of the year, which was superb as always. From there, I travelled up to San Francisco for Cindy and Matt’s wedding celebration, followed by a few days in Seattle. The whole trip was rounded out back in California at the wonderfully titled Institute For The Future in Palo Alto. For that was the location of Science Hack Day San Francisco.

It was an amazing event. Ariel did a fantastic job—she put so much effort into making sure that everything was just right. I suspected it was going to be a lot of fun, but once again, I was blown away by the levels of ingenuity, enthusiasm and sheer brilliance on display.

In just 24 hours, the ingenious science hackers had created particle wind chime which converts particle collisions into music that Brian Eno would be proud of, grassroots aerial mapping with balloons which produced astonishing results (including an iPad app), as well as robots and LEDs a-plenty. The list of hacks is on the wiki.

Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco Science Hack Day San Francisco

My own hack was modest in scope. Initially, I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner and decided to build something around my favourite piece of not-yet-existing technology: the .

The idea

Spacelift compares the cost efficiency of getting payloads into geosynchronous orbit using a space elevator compared to traditional rocketry. Basically, it’s a table. But I’ve tried to make it a pretty table with a bit of data visualisation to show at a glance how much more efficient a space elevator would be.

The payloads I’ve chosen are spacecraft. Beginning with the modest Voyager 1, it gets more and more ambitious with craft like an X-Wing or the Millennium Falcon before getting crazy with the USS Enterprise and the Battlestar Galactica.

So, for example, while you could get a TIE-fighter into the Clarke belt using a single , two , or three , it would cost considerably more than using a space elevator, where you’re basically just paying for the electricity.

If you click on the dollar amount for each transport mechanism, you’ll see the price calculated as a tower of pennies. Using a , for example, will cost you a tower of pennies 22 times larger than a space elevator, assuming a space elevator is at least 38,000 kilometres tall/long. Using a space elevator, on the other hand, requires spending a tower of pennies about the same height as itself. I don’t even bother trying to visualise the relative height differences for getting anything bigger than the Tantive IV into orbit as it would require close to infinite scrolling.

I’m fairly confident of the cost-per-kilogram values for the rockets while the is necessarily fuzzy, given that the mechanism doesn’t exist yet. But by far the trickiest info to track down was the mass of fictional spacecraft. There’s plenty of information on dimensions, speed and armaments, but very little on weight. Mathias saved the day with some diligent research that uncovered the motherlode.

Having such smart, helpful people around made the whole exercise a joy. It was quite a pleasure to walk over to a group of hackers, ask Is anyone here a rocket scientist? and have at least one person raise their hand. The constant presence of Cosmos playing on a loop just added to the atmosphere of exploration and fun.

Implementation

I’ve put the code on GitHub, ‘cause that’s what a real hacker would do. It’s my first GitHub repository. Be gentle with me.

There’s CSS3 and HTML5 a-plenty. I deliberately don’t use the IE shim to enable styling of HTML5 structural elements in lesser versions of Internet Explorer; there wouldn’t be much point delivering RGBa, opacity and text-shadow styles to a browser that can’t handle ‘em.

The background colour changes depending on the payload. I’m using a variation of the MD5 colour encoding popularised by Dopplr and documented by Brian in his excellent new book, Designing With Data.

I’m using League Gothic by The League Of Movable Type for the type—ya gotta have a condensed font for data visualisations, right?

There’s also a google-o-meter image from the Google chart API.

Needless to say, the layout is responsive and adapts to different viewing environments …including print.

Spacelift, printed

Using CSS transforms, each page of table of price comparisons becomes a handy page to print out and stick on the office wall to remind yourself why the human race needs a space elevator.

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