The idea of a “space elevator” sounds like something ripped from the pages of science fiction. In fact, it was the 1979 sci-fi novel Fountains of Paradise that introduced the concept to the mainstream. (Nearly a century before, in 1895, the Russian scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky was the first to propose a space elevator.) But scientists and tech companies are starting to consider it as a serious option for space travel—one that could actually be more practical than the technology we use today.
Canadian space firm Thoth Technology was just granted a U.S. patent for a space elevator that would pierce the stratosphere at 12.4 miles high. The soaring structure would be supported by pressurized segments rather than massive cables. The inflatable chambers and flywheels would give it dynamic stability. As for getting to the top, the patent suggests it would use either a railway that runs along the outside of the shaft or pressurized cars that would function like the pneumatic tubes you might find inside a mail room.
Securing a patent is one thing, but actually constructing an elevator of this height would be a monumental breakthrough. Today we rely on rockets to launch our spaceships past the atmosphere, but that takes a lot of fuel. A space elevator would allow spacecraft to launch in a single stage to orbit as well as give the craft a convenient spot to refuel. It would also make space flight feel similar to riding a passenger jet—an attractive feature for any hypothetical space tourists Thoth may one day hope to serve … as long as they can stomach the 12-mile ride to the top.