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The annals of entrepreneurship are full of world-changing ideas, pipe dreams and visionary projects plagued by missteps and skepticism. Then there's the space elevator, which is all of the above on steroids.
If you don't know what the heck a space elevator is, you're not alone. In a Fortune Small Business/Zogby International survey of U.S. entrepreneurs, 69% were unfamiliar with the term. Here's how I usually explain it: Imagine spinning around while holding a piece of string attached to a tennis ball. The string goes taut; that's centrifugal force. The same holds true for the rotating Earth. Put a counterweight in geosynchronous orbit, drop down a superstrong equivalent of that string and attach it at the equator. Voila! You have an elevator tether, up which you could run a freight car the size of a 747. (The car would be propelled by a laser beam -- that implausible technology is a column all its own.)
Because it would reduce the cost of getting people and materials to space by roughly 90%, a space elevator would disrupt the $5 billion satellite-launching industry and kick-start the space tourism business. And that's just the beginning. Lift hundreds of tons of stuff into orbit every day, and suddenly all sorts of science fiction ideas become feasible: powering the entire planet with energy from orbital solar power farms, mining the asteroid belt, building zero-G hotels, sailing the solar winds to the moon or Mars, disposing of our radioactive waste by shooting it into the sun -- you name it.