On a windy expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, the gangly 22-pound contraption began to climb up a thin carbon-fiber belt hung from a crane.
Directed toward the craft from the ground was an array of 135 mirrors that concentrated the New Mexico light to an intensity equal to 300 suns. The beam shined on the climber's high-efficiency solar cells. With a muffled whirring, it rose 35 feet.
Only 22,000 miles to go.
The solar-powered elevator car, dubbed the Jolly Roger, is one of a dozen prototypes from around the world for a device that could lift humans and cargo into geostationary orbit aboard a futuristic space elevator.
It's an admittedly bizarre idea, but NASA has taken it seriously enough to host a global competition here this week, offering $150,000 to the team that can lift the most weight to the top of a 200-foot tether in the shortest time.
Instead of carrying heavy fuel, the machines must get their energy beamed onboard from sources such as sunlight, microwaves or lasers. That energy is then converted to electricity to drive the crafts' motors.
NASA is also backing a related contest to find a material strong enough to support an elevator whose top floor is marked "S" for "space."
Aerospace giants like Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. haven't taken the idea seriously, but NASA is seeking inspiration from the general public through its Centennial Challenge program.
The origin of the space elevator seems to trace back to 1960, when Russian Yuri Artsutanov proposed hanging a ribbon from space to transport material into orbit, said Roger Gilbertson of the Spaceward Foundation, which is coordinating the elevator competition for NASA.
The idea took off when science-fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke used it as the basis for his 1979 novel, "The Fountains of Paradise."
Clarke described an umbilical built out of "a continuous pseudo-one dimensional diamond crystal" a few microns thick. The tether stretched from the fictional equatorial island of Taprobane to a satellite in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above Earth. In this type of orbit, an object will stay fixed above the equator.
The space elevator quickly ascended into the pantheon of far-out sci-fi ideas, right up there with warp speed and teleportation.
But in the late 1990s, scientists began taking the idea seriously, after some experts said carbon nano-tubes might be strong enough to serve as the space elevator tether.
The idea has stoked the field. The first space elevator contest took place in 2001. The winner made his device out of Legos. It traveled 10 feet, Gilbertson said.
NASA sponsored its first elevator games last year. NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin is expected to observe the competition today.
There are as many ideas on display as there are teams.
Brian Turner, designer of Jolly Roger, has sunk about $30,000 into his creation.
His design is a variation on the fabled Archimedes death ray, which the ancient Greek mathematician allegedly devised to set enemy ships ablaze by bombarding them with concentrated rays of sunlight.
The Jolly Roger generates 40,000 watts of power, and its solar cells get so hot they have to be cooled by water.
"It's a ridiculous distance that a space elevator has to go," said Turner, who has named his team the Kansas City Space Pirates. "But even if it's only a one-in-a-million chance" he said, sounding a note of zero-gravity optimism common among the tinkerers and Discovery Channel addicts competing here, "it's worth it."
The Punkworks team, made up of a group of techie friends from Toronto, have built a device that converts microwaves beamed from a ground generator into electrical power.
Their climber, named Jack after "Jack and the Beanstalk," is made out of hockey sticks, said team member Aman Dhanoa, 27.
"Putting all these technologies together is the biggest challenge," said Dhanoa, who like the rest of the team was sporting a mohawk.
So far, the team has spent $30,000. "But that's Canadian," team member Erwin Lin, 30, said with a laugh.
On the other end of the scale, both in team size and complexity, is Matthew Abrams, the lone member of the StarClimber team.
Abrams, a 29-year-old technician at the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Md., has spent just $7,000 on his climber, which is shaped like a giant kite with flexible solar cells stretched across it.
"I'll be happy if I finish the race," he said.
The youngest team, and one of the first to qualify, is a group of Northern California students from Westmont High School in Campbell.
Team leader Larry Grattan, 50, a real estate broker, said he was inspired to put a team together after he attended last year's games.
"I thought, 'We can make something that goes up better than that,' " he said.
The team put together a solar-cell-powered device with two solar wings over the central electric motor.
A father-son team from Auburn in Northern California have been working in a warehouse on the fairgrounds outside Las Cruces. Michael Fischer, a 51-year-old software engineer, and his 27-year-old son, Adam, are building a climber based on the concept of a Stirling engine, which drives a piston by exploiting small temperature differences.
The concept is solid, Michael Fischer said. "I think I've got a chance," he said as he tightened a bolt on a coffee can used to hold the engine's cooling fluid.
Asked how his testing went, he shook his head: "I never got to that part."
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Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Born: Dec. 16, 1917, in Somerset, England
Education: Degree in physics and mathematics, 1948, King's College, London
Home: Sri Lanka
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, trained as a scientist, is recognized for his science fiction novels trumpeting the promise of space exploration. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000 for his contributions to literature.
One of his most popular ideas was the space elevator, introduced in his 1979 novel, "The Fountains of Paradise."
Set in the 22nd century, the novel describes the efforts of engineer Vannevar Morgan to build an elevator extending from the fictional equatorial island of Taprobane to a satellite in geostationary orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth.
The elevator was built of "a continuous pseudo-one dimensional diamond crystal" a few microns thick.
* "Childhood's End," 1953
* "2001: A Space Odyssey," 1968
* "Rendezvous With Rama," 1973
* "The Fountains of Paradise," 1979
Source: Times research