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The Sky’s Not the Limit
Written by Ken Kingery
Three University of Idaho students walk into a classroom; one from public relations, another in architecture and the third from mechanical engineering.

No, seriously, they get together every Wednesday afternoon to build a ladder to space.

The project dubbed SkyHook was started two years ago by team captain Jason Stirpe – a fourth-year mechanical engineering student – and several of his friends who have since graduated. It has ballooned to more than 20 eager participants from a variety of majors – some well outside the realm of engineering. The team’s current progress can be seen at this year’s Engineering Design EXPO when their robot climbs a 30-foot cable suspended by a crane in the Student Union Building’s parking lot.

“It’s designed to be powered by a laser beam, but the EXPO robot will be powered by ultra capacitors,” says Stirpe. “Unfortunately, we don’t have an eight kilowatt laser on hand. It’s the size of a semi, so we have to make do.”

The Idaho team is one of only a couple of dozen in a worldwide competition to create technology capable of building a ladder to space. The gist of the project is to tether a cable from the Earth to a large satellite in geosynchronous orbit. The climber would be powered by a giant laser and solar cells and be able to carry objects up the cable and into orbit.

The team currently has a working climber but is still shopping around for solar cells. Though they’ve been funded over the past few years through grants, state-of-the-art solar cells would easily cost the team $100,000.

And that price is at a 90 percent discount.

“The costs to compete truly are astronomical,” says Stirpe. “What we really need is a solar cell company to sponsor us. That’s about nine-tenths of our cost right there.”

Luckily, the team does not also have to supply its own eight kilowatt laser. Trumph Industries, one of the sponsors of the competition, provides the laser and each team can practice with it. Provided they can get to its location on the East Coast.

To date, the project has been funded by the recently deceased Ray Hanson, who embodied the innovative spirit of a true engineer, and his wife Lois. The couple made a significant contribution to the College of Engineering Space Elevator Challenge because they believed in the hands-on learning opportunity that it provides for students.

Despite the obstacles of funding and geography, Stirpe is convinced the team will produce a competitive robot by next year’s competition capable of climbing the required one kilometer cable. In fact, he’s spacing out his classes and delaying his graduation to ensure that they do.

But as in any grand endeavor, it’s not the final outcome; it’s the journey that matters more than the destination.

“It’s been a really good project for the students to work on,” says project adviser Brian Johnson, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “It’s a good experience for getting beyond what they do in the classroom and actually applying what they’re learning in ways that are a little different than in their labs.”

Stirpe echoes his adviser’s sentiments.

“I really want to get into management but I’ve learned it doesn’t come easy,” says Stirpe. “This is why you come to school. Being in a project like this, you actually apply and build on the skills you have, and the ones you didn’t know you had. It really brings out your true colors and makes you want to learn.”

This project and 55 others will be featured at Engineering Design Expo 2009 held at the Student Union Building on Friday, May 1 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The event is the culmination of an entire year’s work for student participants and one of the region’s largest interdisciplinary showcases for engineering and technological innovation.