Here's Why Experts Say The Real Space Age Will Start When We No Longer Need Rockets

It took just over a decade for the bulk of the space race to unfold, from the firing pistol of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to the finish line of Tranquility Base in 1969. Perhaps it was the rivalry-centric mentality that led our forays into the final frontier to fizzle, or maybe we as a species just find long-term thinking difficult (looking at you, climate change).

There were probably a number of factors at play, but whatever the reasons, more than 50 years after the last crewed moon landing there have still been well under 1,000 people to ever go to space (via The New York Times). That's a far cry from the massive orbital space cities NASA once envisioned. As a society we might enjoy the benefits of space-based research and constellations of satellites, but when are we — meaning people — finally going to enter the Space Age?

In an interview with Bloomberg Quicktake: Originals, physicist Dr. Bradley Edwards explained that somewhat paradoxically, it's rockets that keep us grounded. Even with all the advances in private space flight over the last two decades, launching people and cargo into space using rockets is incredibly expensive. With current technology, it costs $10,000 to put a single pound of payload into orbit (via NASA). Rockets lift their payloads by burning onboard fuel. But the fuel itself has weight, which then requires more fuel, which also has weight, and on and on. So what's a scalable solution? According to Edwards, it's time to build a space elevator.

Going up!

Edwards — who literally wrote the book on the space elevators for NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts — made the bold assertion, "When historians look back at this time 500 years from now, they will put a breaking point right where we build a space elevator: this is pre-space, and this was post." So what exactly is a space elevator, and what would make it better than a rocket?

A space elevator is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: get onto an elevator car, press the "up" button, and then exit when you've reached the top floor somewhere around 26,098 miles above the Earth (via MIT Technology Review). Rather than using pulleys, a space elevator would consist of a ribbon-like cable extending from Earth's surface to an anchoring asteroid or other large mass in geosynchronous orbit. The elevator car would climb the cable up and down without the need for all that heavy fuel. "With the space elevator, we reduce the cost of getting into space to dollars per pound," Edwards told Bloomberg.

While the possibility of the space elevator is revolutionary and the concept is simple, the challenges are astronomical. It would require technological leaps in materials science or manufacturing — or, at the very least, a mindboggling capital investment that no nation, company, or individual has seriously committed to as of yet.