Top Floor: Space

You know what I love most about the space industry? Its propensity to think in Star Trek-like proportions. It even sometimes talks in Trekkie parlance.

Take this past weekend, for example. Early Saturday morning, NASA teamed with the nonprofit Spaceward Foundation to fund two competitions worth $50,000 each to build what's called a space elevator, one of which really was named the "Beam Power Challenge."

Beam me up, Scottie. Bring me a tricorder, Mr. Spock. Set phasers on stun, Sulu.

And pay attention. I mean, really, this all may sound silly, but the science involved is entirely serious and incredibly cutting edge. Moreover, space elevators are already in development. It's just that the details are still to be fully determined. Theories abound, of course. For NASA, the idea is to create a ribbon stronger than steel upon which solar-powered robots can climb into space, carrying payloads as they go. But that's an incredibly difficult job hindered by the unknown. Which is probably why NASA sought the help.

It's not the only area in which this is occurring, either. The competitions were part of "centennial challenges" -- a NASA program designed to spur private investment in space. During this go-round, the seven teams participating were tasked with either creating the robots to climb the elevator, or to develop a new super-high-strength ribbon. Breaking through existing scientific benchmarks in either area would earn the moola. Yet no one did.

Which I find incredibly encouraging. After all, the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition was first launched in 1996, according to Space.com. It took the better part of eight years for its vision of suborbital success to be fulfilled by SpaceShipOne and Scaled Composites. (A little help from SpaceDev didn't hurt, either.)

Similarly, companies, such as privately held LiftPort, are only now coming to the fore to make hitching a ride on a modern day transporter possible. Expect more to join the effort. Next year's competition is already on the books and the prize pool could be tripled to $150,000.

But you needn't wait for investing opportunities. News.com reports that scientists expect space elevators to be made from carbon nanotubes, super-thin sub-atomic materials that can be 100 times stronger than steel. That's good news for small pure-play nano firms, such as Motley Fool Rule Breaker selection Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY  ) and Arrowhead Research (Nasdaq: ARWR  ) , but also for giants with substantial nano interests, including General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) and IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) .

And maybe for your portfolio, too. After all, the best stock market returns come from daring to go where others won't. The Feds are challenging some of America's brightest entrepreneurs to do just that when it comes to space. You might want to go along for the ride.

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Fool contributorTim Beyerscan't remember the last time he rode an elevator. Tim owns shares of SpaceDev. You can find out what else is in his portfolio by checking Tim's Foolprofile. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.


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