The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

NSRC 2020

SSP illustration
Space-based solar power requires, and may support the development of, new low-cost launch systems. (credit: © Mafic Studios Inc.)

If we build it, will they come?

There are things that, once built, will draw people and create a large market, whether or not that was the intent. The Internet is a prime example. When first created at DARPA, I don’t believe anyone involved fully understood where it would lead to by now. If they say they did, I won’t believe them (with the exception of Al Gore).

In my recent article “Space Launch Evolution and Revolution” (The Space Review, December 10, 2007) I pushed for advancing the technology in space launch to seriously reduce the cost of carrying people and cargo into orbit. I received a number of interesting responses from readers that covered a variety of opinions about the topic. Two documents were forwarded to me that back opposing positions on the issue. One is the National Security Space Launch Report that was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense by the Rand National Defense Institute. The other is the Space Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security. It is a report to the Director of the National Security Space Office.

Potential space commerce markets quite often fall into the chicken-and-egg conundrum. For orbital space tourism to grow beyond the current novelty market for the superrich, the cost of launching into orbit has to come way down. For businesses to invest billions in reusable high-use launchers there has to be a proven market.

Potential space commerce markets quite often fall into the chicken-and-egg conundrum. For businesses to invest billions in reusable high-use launchers there has to be a proven market.

The National Security Space Launch Report details the potential market for space launch through 2020. It projects a steady decline in the market through this time period. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that satellites are being designed with higher capability and longer life requiring fewer of them. Another reason is that more telecommunications traffic has moved from satellites to fiber optic cables. The report is absolutely correct that if things continue without new markets of either tourism or new technical applications, the space launch industry will wallow for decades.

The SBSP study lays out the argument for determining if a new technical application worth developing is approaching from the horizon, the so-called “killer app”. The report talks about the technical progress that has advanced the key enabling technologies that would be needed for developing solar power satellites in a commercially feasible way. The report points out that no major technical breakthrough would be required to build a working satellite that can beam power to Earth. The question is whether it can be done practically and affordably.

The advantages of a working solar power satellite system are enormous. There are no toxic chemical emissions of any kind on Earth while the system is in operation (though there may be some emissions in the production and possibly the launch of components). The land under the rectennas can remain as productive crop and pasture land. There isn’t the waste heat generated that even large solar farms produce, changing the climate in the area of the collectors. The energy can be used to produce fuels for vehicles creating carbon-neutral transportation.

There are still definite technical hurdles to overcome, one of which is the cost of transporting the components into orbit. The SBSP study addresses the need for a low-cost launcher. It points out two possible scenarios. The first is that the government will fund the development of a two stage to orbit vertical takeoff and horizontally landing vehicle that could if heavily used bring down the cost per pound to orbit significantly. The other scenario was that if space-based solar power was proved to be feasible, private industry would step up and develop the launch vehicles.

Another factor to consider is that there may be solutions to our energy problems other than space-based solar power. Dr. J. Craig Venter, the founder and president of Celera Genomics, said on the Charlie Rose show on PBS that he believes that by using biological processes it might be possible to locally produce fuels for automobiles and other purposes. He mentioned bacteria that can turn carbon dioxide into methane. Money is still being poured into nuclear fusion research that may eventually pay off. There are a number of research projects going on to turn cellulose into ethanol (although plant-based sources will continue to drive up food costs).

I do have a problem with the federal government deciding the winners and losers in technology. The most recent example is the new energy law that was just passed by Congress and signed by the President, which has a clause that requires the quadrupling of ethanol production. This choosing by the government may fly in the face of a new breakthrough. Professor James Dumesic of my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently published in the journal Nature the results of his team’s research into turning sugar from biomass (corn) into 2,5-dimethylfuran(DMF). DMF may be a seriously better fuel than ethanol. It has an energy density 40% greater than ethanol and on par with petroleum. It is not water soluble like ethanol, so it requires significantly less energy to separate from water in production than ethanol and it does not absorb moisture from the atmosphere. It is stable in storage and transportation. Unlike ethanol, it may be transportable in the existing pipeline infrastructure across the country. While not yet developed to a state where it can be commercialized, it may be seriously better than ethanol, and yet the new law has already picked a winner.

I’m a strong supporter of free markets and civilian development of technology, but there is a role for government support in developing technology that is in the strategic national interest. When the return is too far out for private industry to afford to spend what is required, it is time for the federal government to step in and help. The first step is to find out if SBSP could be a cost-effective solution to our energy problems. Then it may be time for a decision on developing a fully reusable launch system that can handle the scale of transport needs at a price point that will be required.

Recently, a group of scientists sent a letter to the President and Congress suggesting a Manhattan Project scale investment of $30 billion per year to develop alternate energy sources to reduce or even eliminate America’s and the rest of the world’s dependency on oil from unstable regions. I don’t like the idea of picking an arbitrary figure to spend because most of it may go to waste. A better solution would be look at each proposed solution and fund it at an appropriate level if, after a peer review, it stands up to scrutiny as worth the risk of the investment.

The first step is to find out if SBSP could be a cost-effective solution to our energy problems.

When the US committed to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the sixties, it led to great improvements in education and built the foundation for our current level of technological development. It’s time for our political leadership to grab hold of a vision to lead us into the future. There is hope that technology can help lift us out of what seems like an endless stream of problems. Developing space-based solar power and a lower cost reusable launch system could spawn a whole series of technological innovations and entirely new industries. The SPBS report points out that eventually it may be more cost effective to build solar power satellites from lunar materials requiring an infrastructure throughout cislunar space. It may be prudent to wait for the results of a project to test the feasibility of solar power satellites before committing to developing a fully reusable launch system. But when one is eventually built, I believe it will open up other markets, including tourism as well as others we have yet to imagine. I believe that if we build it, they will come. I also believe that space-based solar power is worth looking into to see if it could be one answer—of possibly several—to our energy and trade deficit problems.