If you can recall tying a toy to a string and hoisting it up to a playmate stationed in a treehouse, this will sound familiar.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is testing a cargo system that would do much the same thing. Known as a "space elevator," the concept involves shipping a loaded container into space by ferrying it along a cable thousands of miles long.
The plan calls for a ribbon of super-strong material to be tethered at one end to a base station on Earth and at the other end, to a counterweight in space to keep the tether taut. Photovoltaic cells on the tether would absorb laser light beamed from the base station; the laser's energy would then be converted to electricity to propel the cargo container.
Pure science fiction? Maybe not. According to an article in the July 2011 issue of National Geographic, a demonstration back in 2009 succeeded in sending a laser-powered robotic device up a cable that stretched more than a half mile above California's Mojave Desert. Carbon nanotubes, molecular strands of carbon that are the strongest known material today, may be light and strong enough to form a tether that could extend tens of thousands of miles.
NASA is so anxious to build a viable cargo carrying system that it sponsors an annual Space Elevator Conference, where engineers discuss potential designs. Earthbound logisticians can relate to NASA's main reason for sponsoring space elevator research: After the initial expense of construction is recouped, it would enable high-volume shipping at a much lower cost.