Sunday, November 23, 2008

Beef with Space Solar

You've heard of it: Space Solar Power. It's the Next Big Thing; the solution to all of our energy needs. It's going to jump start the economy and get us off of foreign oil. At least that's the story in the space advocate community.

The plan is to launch all of the hardware needed to build giant solar arrays in space, and then beam all of that energy back down to Earth. It's a beautiful idea, and in theory it works. The basic technologies exist and the numbers are sound.

The key word here is “theory,” which in normal language doesn't always translate to reality. In theory any six people can hop on a rocket and fly to Mars in six months, but then the questions set in. We have the people, but does a rocket that big exist? If it exists, can we get one? If we do decide to get one, who's going to pay for it?

It's a great idea until you think about hardware and who's going to foot the bill. At this point the people who advocate these kinds ideas invariably decide that the government should fork out the cash. After all, government money grows on trees and there's no possible way that the people who run our beloved country could possibly screw anything up. Right?

And advocates wonder why space has a “giggle factor.”

It's at this same place that Space Solar comes crashing into reality. Remember the last big, government rocket that was supposed to reduce launch costs and finally make space-based industry economical? We all know how that worked out, and many of us are still groaning about it. Does anyone else remember what was supposed to be our next big break-out into space manufacturing? It was called Space Station Freedom, and the plan was to revolutionize medicine with micro-gravity research and build ships that would colonize the solar system. Then the politicians got involved and we all know how that turned out.

Twenty-three years later and we have a research lab that produces almost no research to the tune of two-billion dollars per year, and it isn't even finished yet. Only now are plans in the works to contract out space-station cargo services to private ventures that can accomplish them far more cheaply than NASA ever could. Only now is on-board manufacturing even being considered.

The simple fact is that we have neither the launch vehicles or the orbital infrastructure in place to build a solar power satellite at this point in time. Trying to get one built is like trying to masturbate when you don't have any hands. It's nice to think about, but at the end of the day you've got nothing to show for it. Right now we can't even get the government to build or pay for a power plant right here on earth, so even if we can invoke government funding, we're not likely to get any orbital hardware for many decades and it will be nowhere as capable as originally planned. This means we wont be building any power sats.

Instead we should be focusing our efforts on enabling technologies and launch vehicles that either currently exist or are on the drawing board so that we can build a Commercial Space Industry. An industry that can be expanded upon and will actually be capable of building solar power satellites; one that will expand our economy beyond Low Earth Orbit and be a new and sustainable step towards the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.

This article is a commentary by James Rogers and does not represent the views or opinions of any of the organizations or individuals with which he is involved. He is an advocate of space solar, but will be severely beaten anyways when his friends read this post.


Ian O'Neill said...

You're right on many of those points... and although I love it (and by that I mean REALLY LOVE IT), the ISS isn't doing any ground-breaking science. I'd love to see more educational experiments, like the recent spider and butterfly research. Great for kids, its inspirational, plus we get some great value research out of it. And then there's some hardcore, cutting edge science we could be doing. Send up a couple of scientists with their kit, do 3-months worth of biology/chemistry/physics and write papers at their institution. Although this is being done at a low-level, we need to make it routine, especially once the refit is complete.

As for space solar... I think our only hope is a big commercial effort. Lobby the oil companies - they seem to be getting a little bored of promoting their "green energy solutions" (i.e. buy our fuel, we'll save the Earth). Perhaps the megabucks needed will be in the purses of the international oil corps... This would be especially good if we are looking a couple of decades down the line, space solar stations might be the oil rigs of the future...

Just a thought :-)

Cheers, Ian

James Rogers said...

I fully agree with you on the ISS needing to be primed for Real Science! If COTS-D ever gets funded, or if SpaceX can pull of a manned Dragon capsule, it's going to be Game On.

Add in the Bigelow modules and we'll be living in space science and manufacturing heaven.

I recently heard an idea of using the arrays of the ISS to pump most of the power through a directional antenna, and beam it to the surface for a short period of time. This could be an excellent way to leverage something we already have.

Alexander DeClama said...

Tell 'em how your REALLY feel. I like the new blog and welcome to yet another time sucking vortex.