A common feature of science fiction, the space elevator is now getting serious attention from academics, research institutions and private companies seeking to profit from its creation.

The First International Space Elevator Conference, held in Seattle August 12 to 13, demonstrated just how far the concept has come. Experts in fields ranging from bridge-building to aerospace law attended, and some predicted that a space elevator will exist by the end of the next decade.

Surprisingly, a space elevator uses pretty down-to-Earth concepts. A proposal by HighLift Systems, a privately held, Seattle-based firm established this year that is probably the furthest along in developing the system, doesn’t call for antimatter or any other radical technology.

The proposed elevator will essentially be a long ribbon stretching from Earth to space. On Earth, it will attach to a sea platform in the Pacific Ocean. In space, it will attach to a counterweight. With both attachments, Earth’s rotation will keep the ribbon taut the way a yo-yo swung round your head would keep its rope taut.

Robotic climbers crawling along the tether could then work their way up and down, carrying everything from construction material to passenger pods. A trip to geosynchronous orbit on the elevator would take about 7.5 days.