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space-based solar power
Advocates have promoted space-based solar power for half a century, with little progress. (credit: NASA)

Prophets of the High Frontier

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How long is long enough to wait for a vision to come true?

Gerard K. O’Neill, although no longer in the wider public consciousness, was at one time the most well-known advocate for a human future in space. In the 1970s, O’Neill’s vision of giant cities in space was briefly in the zeitgeist. He made television appearances and gave talks and even spawned a pro-space movement with the formation of the L-5 Society. O’Neill’s vision was tied to the concept of space-based solar power, an idea that was even evaluated by NASA and big aerospace companies around the same time. And yet here we are, half a century later, and these visions of cities in space and giant space solar power stations have not become reality. Does that mean they are false, or just premature? Is there even a way to distinguish false prophecies and those that simply have not come true?

Cycles of enthusiasm, followed by disappointment

If you’ve been around awhile and paying attention to these issues, you have seen past predictions about spaceflight, often accompanied by significant amounts of excitement and hype, that have failed to materialize, or emerged much later than predicted, and in underwhelming ways. Before the Space Shuttle began flying in 1981, there was a great deal of media coverage about its potential. Space enthusiasts were excited that the shuttle heralded the age of “space for everyone.” There was no shortage of thrilling artwork depicting shuttles in space constructing huge structures, including the giant solar power satellites that had been proposed only a few years earlier.

While these various cycles of hype rose and then faded, space-based solar power was always lurking in the background. It never died, it just didn’t go anywhere.

Then the shuttle began flying and it became obvious that it was never going to be as cheap or as easy to operate as NASA promised or anybody hoped. Within only a few years of flight, there was a noticeable dampening of space enthusiasm about the shuttle, disappointment that in this pre-internet age was readily detectable in the print publications of the time. By the time of the Challenger accident in 1986, nobody expected that the shuttle represented humanity’s future in space. Except it did—the shuttle kept flying for another quarter century. The shuttle was the future, just not the future that many people wanted. By the 1990s some space activists viewed it more as a millstone holding back progress than an asset.

Shuttle was not the first nor last time that a space dream became an illusion. There were other periods of great hype and enthusiasm that followed. In 2000, a company called MirCorp funded a mission to the Russian space station Mir, supposedly to prepare it to become a private facility in orbit (although the Russians later indicated that MirCorp neglected to pay the costs of the mission.) MirCorp failed to produce the money to keep the project going, and then MirCorp imploded, first slowly, then all at once. Soon MirCorp’s leader ended up in federal prison.

By the early 2010s, there was a new focus of space enthusiasm and prediction: asteroid mining. First Planetary Resources and then Deep Space Industries announced their plans to mine asteroids for resources. And Orbital Outfitters bragged that while these early miners went broke, they would reap the profits by selling them tools like spacesuits. You know how that has worked out as well.

It’s always sunny in space

While these various cycles of hype rose and then faded, space-based solar power was always lurking in the background. It never died, it just didn’t go anywhere: never gaining adherents, momentum, or the same amount of attention that it had for that brief period in the 1970s. Its advocates held on to each new development, no matter how tenuous, as an indication that their dreams were about to become real. In 2007, a small Pentagon office produced a report that was essentially written with volunteer labor claiming that the Department of Defense could use space solar power to provide electricity to forward operating bases in locations like Iraq. The solar power advocates heatedly claimed that this meant that the Pentagon was finally embracing solar power satellites. After a while, nothing happened. Then, after a longer while, nothing continued to happen.

A few years later there was an obscure announcement from a West Coast-based electricity company about its interest in space-based solar power. That also elicited excitement from the enthusiasts, and that also went nowhere. Then there were reports that the Japanese government was about to fund a space-based solar power project. American advocates seized upon this alleged development as an argument for why the United States needed to begin funding this important energy technology. The Japanese effort also was forgotten, although the advocates are now claiming that we have to worry about China as a competitor rather than Japan.

The solar power advocates are also somewhat discouraged by the fact that the space billionaires—Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—are uninterested in space solar power and unwilling to spend any money on it.

In 2020, some senior members of the National Space Society, an organization descended in part from the L-5 Society, held a discussion about the possibility of space-based solar power (or “space solar power” for short). This is a possibility that they consider very real. According to them, the technology is being tested today and is entirely feasible within the near-term. A year and a half ago they saw significant cause for optimism, but also warned that if the United States did not act quickly, China clearly would, and would gain “first-mover advantage” in the development of this new resource.

History doesn’t repeat, it echoes. It’s echoing again. Right now, orbiting overhead is a small experiment to demonstrate the collection and beaming of energy, a proof-of-concept experiment for space-based solar power. Somehow, a Naval Research Laboratory engineer managed to get funding to build the experiment and have it carried aboard the Air Force’s secretive X-37B spaceplane, which launched in May 2020. This event resulted in some muted cheers among the tiny space solar power advocacy community.

The NRL experiment represents less of a new step in space solar power than a slow shuffle, or maybe a zombie-like shamble. For decades, satellites have converted solar power to electricity and then used some of that electricity to send radio waves to a receiver either in space or on the ground, a conversion and transmission of energy on a very small scale. The NRL experiment is not much of a step beyond that. The solar power advocates are also somewhat discouraged by the fact that the space billionaires—Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—are uninterested in space solar power and unwilling to spend any money on it. They may still develop the necessary rockets, but they’re clearly not fans, and they are not about to start spending the money and building the hardware necessary to demonstrate larger-scale feasibility of space-based solar power. But if they don’t, who will?

In 2013, Caltech established the Space-Based Solar Power Project with a $100 million donation from real estate investor Donald Bren. In 2018, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded Northrop Grumman a $100 million contract to develop a payload named Arachne for the Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) project. Late last year the company demonstrated progress. The Stanford donation and now the AFRL contract represent significantly more money than has been spent on space solar power research in previous decades combined. Some of the people behind Arachne have expressed their hope that a successful government demonstration will lead to further private investment.

The satellite demonstration is scheduled for 2025, seven years after the initial contract award, and 18 years after the Pentagon study suggesting that the DoD should invest in the technology. And as an Aerospace Corporation study recently noted “Proponents have portrayed it [space solar power] as the smartest, most comprehensive energy solution available, while detractors have seen it as an insanely expensive scheme that will never work.” How long is long enough to conclude which group is right?

The future is hard to predict, and that’s the problem with the future

We’ve been waiting a long time. The vision for space solar power goes back much further than you may think. In 1941, Isaac Asimov wrote a short story, “Reason,” in which humans used space solar power to support cities on Earth. Thirty-five years later, in 1976, Asimov wrote a story for National Geographic magazine depicting giant space cities, lunar mining facilities complete with a mass driver to launch the materials out of the lunar gravity well, and space solar power satellites (see “The god that failed,” The Space Review, May 18, 2009). Asimov set his story in the far distant future of 2026, America’s sestercentennial (a real word, you can look it up.) He was not necessarily trying to predict the future, but we’re currently living in the time period he wrote about almost half a century ago, and it looks a lot different. Is it better, worse, or the same?

If Gerard K. O’Neill’s space cities finally start to happen in 2575, will people then consider him a prophet? Will they even remember him?

Space-based solar power has long been intricately entwined with the concept of space settlements. It has often served as the justification for those settlements, to provide an economic rationale for them. Predictions of space settlements have waxed and waned over the decades (see “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” The Space Review, May 1, 2017.) There are still advocates for both space solar power and cities in space, but they are tiny minorities who seem to mostly talk to themselves. They are not a movement, or even much of a community, and certainly not an industry.

Recently, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, opened a new exhibit in the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. Titled “Futures,” the exhibit is intended to offer glimpses of possible futures as well as to explore how people in the past viewed their future. It encourages visitors to envision their own future and what they want it to be. Space settlements and space solar power are not among the displays, although solar sails and flying cars are.

At what point does advocacy for space become prophecy? And when does prophecy merely slide into being only (merely?) fiction? If Gerard K. O’Neill’s space cities finally start to happen in 2575, will people then consider him a prophet? Will they even remember him? And if these things never happen, then what are he and his acolytes? Are they prophets, or something else?

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