Which floor please?

Going...up? I'm guilty of taking the gems of my city for granted. Until a few weeks ago, I may not have visited Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry since my last school field trip. My family and I were innocently playing tour guides (and tourists, ourselves) to a 10-year-old cousin, checking out the Henry Crown Space Center and artifacts of the Space Race.

But along one wall, a small exhibit about the future of space exploration caught my attention. Specifically, a Space Elevator, once the stuff of science fiction, a possible reality in the next decade or two.

Excuse me? Apparently the science community has been abuzz for the last several years; where have I been?

Travel to space—and the transport of tons of cargo—becomes safer and cheaper than rocket launches, and makes a space-based economy a possibility with payload costs at maybe $10 per pound.

The Space Elevator would operate on a stationary track, a cable or tether extending from the surface of Earth to a mass in space. Much like swinging a rock-on-a-string over your head (don't try this at home, or at least don't blame me), Earth's rotation throws the mass outward, and keeps the tether taut. The trick is designing and manufacturing the tether: because Earth rotates only once every 24 hours, the tether has to be in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 60,000 miles long.

Bridging what seems like a chasm between fantasy and reality are carbon nanotubes (CNTs), the relatively new discovery of Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima. CNTs are the necessary component of the earth-to-space tether that provides incredible strength in a macroscopic package. With technology like the space shuttle and space stations under our collective belt, once the tether is perfected the rest is considered straightforward.

While we mind our own business, research continues with engineering competitions (going on this month and next). Current estimates project a strong-enough tether will be identified around 2015, which will follow with design and construction while my now 2- and 6-year-old kids are in college.

Maybe melding future occupations of astronaut and train engineer is more realistic than I give them credit...