Ever since it was first popularized by Arthur C. Clarke, the idea of a "space elevator" has languished in the realms of science fiction. But now a team of British scientists has taken the first step on what could be a high-tech stairway to heaven.

Spurred on by a $4 million research prize from NASA, a team at Cambridge University has created the world's strongest ribbon: a cylindrical strand of carbon that combines lightweight flexibility with incredible strength and has the potential to stretch vast distances.

The development has been seized upon by the space scientists, who believe the technology could allow astronauts to travel into space via a cable thousands of miles long — a space elevator.

They predict the breakthrough will revolutionize space travel. Such an elevator could potentially offer limitless and cheap space travel.

At a stroke, it would make everything from tourism to more ambitious expeditions to Mars commercially viable. The idea couldn't come too soon for NASA, which spends an estimated $500 million every time the shuttle blasts off, not to mention burning about 900 tons of polluting rocket fuel.

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