The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Are advocates of space solar power so blinded by the promise of the concept they don’t notice the lack of attention it gets in the mainstream solar power industry? (credit: ESA/NASA)

Blinded by the light

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Mama always told me not to look into the eyes of the sun. But mama, that’s where the fun is!
--Manfred Mann’s Earth Band

Fortunately for us, there aren’t too many lasting cultural legacies of the 1970s. The seventies, well, sucked. The music—save for Led Zeppelin and Floyd—was generally lousy. And other cultural artifacts, such as the clothes, made brief reappearances before vanishing into the pit of evil from which they first emerged. However, in the past few years another cultural echo of the 1970s has arisen once again, the concept of space solar power.

space solar power remains an unfunded fringe idea to this day. But like flare pants and wide ties, it has made a bit of a comeback.

The idea of building vast solar power satellites and beaming the energy to Earth predates the 1970s, but it developed its following in that decade. There were several factors contributing to this, most of them directly or indirectly linked to each other. They included the environmental movement, the Oil Crisis, and a government study. But at the time, space solar power seemed to answer a cultural, ideological, even spiritual need among a small segment of people. The early 1970s was a period of gloom and doom, with some prominent academics rather stupidly claiming that humanity would soon exhaust most of its energy and mineral resources and virtually destroy itself. Such defeatism annoyed a small group of people who had also been impressed by the Apollo program and who believed that space offered infinite resources and infinite energy.

But space solar power also had an appeal to people who saw the exploits of the Apollo astronauts and thought that they would like to do that too. Gerard K. O’Neill provided a justification for ordinary people to live and work in space—they would build and operate solar power satellites. Thousands of people were taken in by this idea. And then over the next decade or so they saw no progress towards making it happen. The Space Shuttle did not provide the cheap access to space that was required, and so the concept of solar power satellites lost what little support it had and became just another unfunded fringe idea.

It remains an unfunded fringe idea to this day. But like flare pants and wide ties, it has made a bit of a comeback. The specific reasons are eerily similar to the ones that made it briefly popular in the1970s: a renewed environmental movement thanks in part to Al Gore, high gasoline prices—over $4 a gallon in 2008—and a government-sponsored study. That study, produced by the National Security Space Office in 2007, seems to have been the spark that reignited the fumes of this long-dormant community. But the community failed to recognize that an unfunded study produced by an office that has zero clout within the national security space field in no way represented Pentagon endorsement of the idea of space solar power. (Proof: DoD isn’t building solar powersats.)

The more general reason that space solar power has reemerged is that just like in the 1970s, space solar power fills a cultural, ideological, and yes, spiritual need among a certain type of person. It has nothing to do with the concept suddenly becoming technically or economically feasible, or gaining any credibility within the energy sector.

If you went to SOLAR 2010 a week earlier, you would have noticed something rather striking: there were no presentations on space solar power.

Last month two groups held solar energy conferences separated by one week, 1700 miles, and a million light years. The first was SOLAR 2010, the annual conference of the American Solar Energy Society held in Phoenix, Arizona. The second was the “First National Space Society Space Solar Power Symposium” held at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago, Illinois.

The Space Solar Power Symposium featured approximately three dozen presentations on the subject, including individuals from Japan and India. The presentation topics ranged from the mundane (“Prospects for microwave wireless power transmission”) to the polemic (“Why Space Solar Power is the Answer and the ONLY Answer to Our Long Term Energy Needs”).

But if you went to SOLAR 2010 a week earlier, you would have noticed something rather striking. Despite the attendance of hundreds of people, numerous companies, and the presentation of hundreds of technical papers; despite the presence of the United States’ best experts on energy policy, energy transmission, energy generation, and solar power technology—there were no presentations on space solar power.

Think about that for a moment. What does it say about space solar power?

What it says is that space solar power is a fringe idea that is not even taken seriously within the niche field of solar power generation. What it also says is that the space solar power community doesn’t play with the big boys. It’s a community that talks to itself, that seeks the comfort of like-minded individuals, and doesn’t even try to sell its message to the audience most likely to give it a fair hearing.

If the space solar power community wants to be taken seriously, there is a good way it can start. Instead of holding the “Second NSS Space Solar Power Symposium” at the International Space Development Conference next year, they should try to hold it at SOLAR 2011. They should see if they can face the members of the American Solar Energy Society directly and hear what they think of the idea of space solar power. It’s time for the space solar power advocates to decide if they want to be a social organization, no different from a knitting circle or a model train club, or if they want to be an industry.