Reaping powerful ideas from a luminary
Business and politics
Dinkin: If your project is as over budget as other space programs, how much will we need to spend to achieve parity with Earth sources?
Criswell: All projects have to start somewhere. Jim Webb, on his way to Congress to present the first detailed cost plan for Apollo, doubled the estimate from $12.5 billion to $25 billion. The LSP payoff is so enormous, very high leverage, that an aggressive approach is reasonable.
The United States did achieve the Moon, starting from scratch, within 10 years. The cost of LSP can increase by a factor of 10 and still deliver energy that is competitive with conventional Earth systems.
The $400–500 billion expenditure seems a reasonable estimate for achieving an industrial demonstration. The LSP system, the production systems, and the transportation between the Earth and the Moon will all steadily improve and drop in unit cost as energy production and industrial learning occur and are enabled by increasing profits.
We do need to make sure that the early phases of the LSP development focus like a laser on the goal: expeditious supply of adequate, clean, affordable, and sustainable electric power for Earth. Then expand to the creation of a wealth generating economy on the Moon, Earth orbit, and beyond.
Dinkin: Is there a way to do the research on a shoestring?
Criswell: The research that is critical to LSP is occurring worldwide in electronics, radio astronomy, automated manufacturing, and so on. The challenge is to use this growing bounty. LSP requires industrial engineering and not a prolonged research and development program. This basic knowledge and operating experience of related systems already exists and is growing daily in consumer and defense electronics, radio astronomy, automation of manufacturing, etc.
Dinkin: If the company operating the solar goes broke because it cannot make the debt payments, how much will it cost to operate the solar array without paying any capital costs?
Criswell: The operation and maintenance expenditures are very small per unit of delivered energy compared to installation. Continuing sales of energy would bring the LSP system back to profitability.
Dinkin: Will it take a government to do this investment because of its perceived risk?
Criswell: I think US government action is needed in the early phase. The needed actions are analogous to those required for the US Interstate Highway System. Even President Eisenhower could not have organized enough car dealers in 1958 to fund the Interstate. However, once the federal government committed it became possible for car dealers, even used car dealers and many other businesses and developers, to invest along side the new roads. This is similar to arguments for canals, railroads, etc.
Dinkin: Let’s explore some of the alternatives to LSP and how the transition would occur. What would happen to the price of oil, uranium, and coal if LSP undercut the current electricity prices?
Criswell: They likely all decrease in value. Their primary uses would likely change. For example, most petroleum and coal would likely go into the production of petrochemicals.
Dinkin: If it would be cheaper to burn uranium in a nuclear reactor, why wouldn’t we just do that for power generation?
Criswell: The energy content of available uranium/thorium for once-through (conventional) reactors is somewhat less than for the remaining oil and natural gas (about 400 terawatt thermal years (TWt-y) or about 110 TWe-y). A prosperous world will consume about 2,000 TWe-y each century. Thus, why invest in power systems that have a much more limited life time and return on investment?
The nuclear industry must convert to breeder reactions for much larger energy output. Every attempt to make affordable breeder reactors has failed. I think the four demonstration breeder reactors (US, Japan, Russia, France) are closed or closing. Breeder reactors also generate enormous quantities of weapons grade plutonium. A 20-TWe world would require the opening one and disposal of another “one-GWe” reactor unit every day (given the approximately 30 year lifetime) and 20,000 reactors total. The world now has only approximately 330 conventional reactors.
Dinkin: Why is LSP more credible than Earth nuclear fusion generation for $400–500 billion?
Criswell: All the components of the proposed LSP system exist and have operated for many years to decades. Stable contained fusion with a net energy output has yet to be demonstrated. The demonstration is not expected for several decades. Commercialization will take many more years.
Dinkin: You mention a 25-year ramp-up period starting in 15 years. In a similar transition, water wheels were no longer built when steam engines came online. But they continued to operate for 70 more years until they all wore out. So the number for you to beat to replace carbon electricity sources (and not just stop the production of new power plants) is the marginal cost of the fuel and operations rather than the fully loaded capital costs since all the capital costs are sunk, right?
Criswell: No. If the new technology can provide greater payoff and less risk, then the shift to the new technology can be swift and the move from the old technology can be equally swift. The production of new nuclear plants in the US stopped quickly after Three Mile Island. Conversely, the installation of new combined-cycle natural gas plants increased rapidly during the time of low-priced gas.
The number to beat is the need of the poor for adequate power, greater than 2 kWe/person, and the need of the world for sustainable clean power. My analyses indicate that no other technologically understandable option exists.
Spending the dividends
Dinkin: To aid the poor as you describe would require tremendous wealth transfer. Why will the first world owner do more than the US government is doing for foreign aid? That is, spend about 1% of its budget supporting third world growth rather than the 80-90% that you anticipate?
Criswell: LSP can operate like the Marshall Plan or other international government and corporate programs that invest in other nations to enable greater production, consumption, and wealth generation. This is far better than aid. Each rectenna becomes a power source for the local generation of sustainable net new wealth. The new wealth contributes to far larger global markets that help both the developed and developing world. The investments would be primarily in existing technologies that are known to work and provide high return.
Dinkin: The NASA budget is as big as the foreign aid budget at 1% of government spending. Why wouldn’t the first world use broadcast power for rich country pursuits like interplanetary and interstellar exploration?
Criswell: Energy absorbs about 10% to 15% of the US gross domestic product per person. LSP could significantly reduce that fraction and [thereby] accelerate the growth of American wealth. The LSP commercial infrastructure will vastly accelerate US ability to conduct missions beyond the Earth and the Moon. This is a far better option than using government discretionary income to fund space sciences versus social security and Medicare.
Dinkin: Could a microwave grid power a fast interplanetary flight?
Criswell: Yes. I believe that is how deep space transportation will be enabled.
Dinkin: What do you say to those who think we have failed as a species to have high enough moral character to leave the Earth and would spoil the solar system and the galaxy with our presence?
Criswell: The galaxy is large enough to accommodate the most generous of human moral achievements and failures. The universe will kill us if we don’t move outward from the galactic core. Of course, nowhere is completely safe. We must keep learning.
However, what I am talking about now is the establishment of commodities manufacturing on the Moon. Useful commodities are good. A small fraction of the human race is pretty good at commodities manufacturing. We need to first provide a few of the components to collect solar power on the Moon and then enable very long electromagnetic extension cords to Earth and elsewhere (ethereal power lines).
Dinkin: What compels you to devote your life to helping humanity become spacefaring?
Criswell: It has been a fulfilling intellectually intense activity. I’ve made my money in other space-related activities. Hopefully, LSP will be a profitable activity in a reasonable time.
Dinkin: Is it hard to be a visionary who knows a better way?
Criswell: Until LSP is successfully operating I will not know.