Sun Power: The Global Solution

for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 15 for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 15

Sun Power

by Ralph Nansen

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission

Chapter 15: The New Frontier

It is the unique nature of humanity to try and reach beyond ourselves, to strive for knowledge we do not have, and to make our own mark on the world that has led to the incredible expansion of humankind’s dominance of this world in a time span that is but a blink of an eye in relationship to the age of creation. No other creatures on earth have these characteristics. By controlling our environment, we humans have made it possible to live nearly anyplace we desire. We do not change our ability to survive in different environments; we simply go beyond ourselves and make the environment suitable to survive. With the subjugation of energy to our will, we have been able to greatly multiply our ability and reach out to ever more distant horizons.

As we look back in history, we find that humanity is always searching for a new frontier to explore and develop. If we do not find one we become restless and try to take one from our neighbor, which often results in war.

And there are those who are not satisfied with the status quo, who have to sail beyond the horizon, climb the highest mountain, seek out the depths of the sea, search out the mystery of the atom or the magic of electrons running around inside a tiny chip of silicon. These are the explorers—whether of geography or of science—who are looking for new frontiers. Some are small and private; others change the course of the world. I believe it is worthwhile to examine some of these examples to see what might be happening to us today.

The Early Explorers

Columbus had a bizarre dream and convinced Queen Isabella that he could reach the Orient and all its great riches by sailing west. After she gave him his ships, he and his reluctant crew started out, much against the wisdom of the day that said they would fall off the edge of the world. Even though he found a new world, Columbus fell into disfavor and never did reap the benefits of his great discovery. Others followed to develop the land and to colonize—some to loot the riches, many to start new lives, others to seek freedom. They were the misfits, the mavericks, the restless, and the builders who developed new nations and reaped rich harvests of benefits undreamed of by Columbus. Eventually, in the colonies, it was the settlers who came and brought stability to the land where they would build their homes, businesses, farms, and eventually the greatest economic giant on earth.

Later, within the new nation called the United States of America, two explorers named Lewis and Clark convinced Congress to fund an expedition to the Pacific Northwest territory. Into unexplored wilderness they went, finding the glories of the Rockies, the Snake River, and the Columbia Gorge, returning with tales of wonder and excitement. In their paths followed the fur trappers, the traders, and rugged visionaries. These men could see beyond the wilderness to the day when settlers, industry, and commerce would thrive and the riches would flow. Flow they have, again far beyond the dreams of those early explorers and developers.

Wilbur and Orville Wright dreamed of flying like birds through the heavens—and they did. Once they proved it could be done, more followed, but in those early days it was difficult to imagine any way that flight could be of any practical use except for the personal thrill of flying. A few visionaries saw the day when the mail could be carried successfully, or even passengers. The military became the first to exploit the potential, however, and the skies of World War I were alive with the angry snarl of Spads and Fokkers amidst the rattle of machine guns. After the war, the airplane once again became a toy, but a much better toy. Gradually some of the early visions began to take on the semblance of reality. A few passengers were being carried and some of the mail was being delivered by air.

Then in 1927 Charles Lindberg electrified the world with his flight across the Atlantic, and aviation had come of age. Shortly thereafter, cabin stewardesses flew for the first time on the elegant three-engine Boeing 80A of the Boeing Air Transportation system (the forerunner of United Air Lines). Soon the Douglas DC-3 revolutionized air passenger service. Some even thought it was the ultimate aircraft, never to be exceeded.

The magnitude of today’s commerce in the sky boggles the mind. At any given time, there are probably more than 3,000 commercial passenger and cargo aircraft in the air somewhere in the world. Even if they only average 100 passengers each flight, that represents more than 300,000 people cruising the skies of the world at any time. What amazing progress for a frontier opened less than a century ago to the skepticism of many highly educated people who pronounced it a lot of foolishness and waste.

The lessons to be learned here are typical of the evolutionary development cycle of all new frontiers, whether geographical or technical. This cycle begins with exploration, frequently the result of one person’s dream. More often, it is the culmination of the efforts of several dedicated people striving to accomplish that which has never been done before. It is a period of excitement and thrills. Even the uninvolved are intrigued and watch in awe as spectators. They may even contribute in a monetary way. Once the goal has been reached, however, their interest wanes. The unknown is now known. It was fun while it was happening, but what good is it?

The next part of the cycle is much more difficult. This is the development phase. All the excitement of the initial exploration is gone. Very little glory is left to the second person who does anything. Not enough is known about the new frontier to be able to accomplish anything very useful, except to gain further experience and knowledge. It is hard to find anyone anxious to fund an activity whose objective is simply more experience and knowledge.

Now come the visionaries—those people who can see from the scant base of available knowledge into the future of practical application. They clearly see the benefits and know that an investment made in developing experience and knowledge will someday lead to large returns, even though the development period can be decades in length with only limited returns starting immediately. Sometimes military exploitation stimulates the development cycle as it did with the airplane.

As the development cycle progresses and the experience and knowledge base expands, the mists of uncertainty recede. Now there are many who can see the potential benefits. At that time the cycle can enter the next phase, which is the exploitation phase. This is exploitation in the truest sense: to turn to practical account; utilization for profit. Exploitation occurs when a new frontier is turned into a practical, solid place to conduct day-to-day commerce. Now it is time for the people to participate and benefit. Opportunity seems to occur at every turn. Benefits materialize from sources not even imagined by the original explorer. The new frontier no longer exists and in its place is an established part of a mature but growing society. It is accepted as if it had always existed. Today hasn’t air travel become the most common way to travel long distances?

The length of the cycle varies, but not as much as one might think. In modern times—let us say the last 400 years—the cycle has varied from a minimum of 30 years to a typical length of 50 years from the initial discovery to the start of the exploitation period. This necessary time period has not accelerated at the same rate as technology. The reason for this is not a function of technology capability but rather a function of human characteristics. These characteristics have not changed dramatically throughout the centuries even though the state of accumulated human knowledge has changed. The proportion of dreamers and visionaries to those who are dubious of new ideas remains the same. As a result, the course of progress is strewn with the obstacles of doubt. As the level of technological frontiers continues to rise, the decision-making time remains fairly constant. The length of time required to reach the exploitation phase of the cycle is really dependent upon how clearly and convincingly the visionaries can paint a picture of reward to those who must make the developmental investments.

The New Frontier

Through the years the peoples of the earth have explored every continent, walked the beaches of every island, climbed the highest mountains, and peered into the depths of the sea. The last great frontier for mankind to explore is the heavens above. So where is our new frontier—space—in this cycle? The term “space” may be somewhat misleading because even though it appears to be a great void, it contains many things: the earth, our moon, the other planets, asteroids, the sun, and billions and billions of stars in the heavens. This frontier is so enormous we can’t even conceive of its vast limits. Let us look at how our generation is reaching across the void to exploit this grand frontier.

The exploration of space began on October 4, 1957, with the launching of Sputnik, and reached its pinnacle on July 20, 1969, with the first manned landing on the moon. That is the recent history most of us remember. It was an extremely difficult achievement that earned the praise and respect of the world. Even though there is continuing exploration, from that moment on, space was in the development phase. In the mind of the public, however, the goal was accomplished and then the questions began. What is the moon good for? What will space do for me? What are we going to get for our investment? Were the moon rocks worth all those billions of dollars?

I knew that the romance of exploration in space was over during a moment of truth in Bastrop, Louisiana, in the fall of 1969. I had given an after-dinner talk to the Lyons Club on the Saturn/Apollo lunar landing and was answering questions when an old farmer stood up in the back of the room. His question went like this: “Now, young man, I think it’s fine that we sent men to the moon, but what I want to know is when are you fellows going to figure out how to make a good septic tank?”

Over the ensuing years, exploratory space programs have been very difficult to sell to Congress. Developmental programs have not fared much better. Compromise and funding restrictions for the Space Shuttle forced the selection of a hybrid, partially reusable configuration, that has experienced delays, a tragic accident, and high operational costs.

Funding delays and the resulting cost escalation have caused serious delays in the development and operation of the Space Station, which is so badly needed for our country to gain the experience and knowledge necessary to be able to live and work in space. What happened is what normally occurs during the development phase. The excitement is gone and there is no clear understanding of how additional investment will lead to practical benefits. Only a few dedicated and patient visionaries keep things going by looking beyond to see the benefits of more knowledge and experience. Knowledge and experience are the pathways to commercial development. A profitable commercial venture, to succeed, must be reduced to routine operations; it cannot be a high-risk adventure. The necessary experience and knowledge in space is being slowly acquired.

In some areas of our space endeavor the exploitation phase is underway, putting space to practical use. Most of us watch the Olympic games live from anywhere in the world. The fall of Communism was brought into our living rooms as it happened; the breach of the Berlin Wall occurred before our eyes. War in Kuwait was carried onto our TV screens as smart bombs found their way down ventilation shafts and Scud missiles were shot out of the sky. The instantaneous spread of news and communication around the world is primarily due to the ability of communication satellites to literally blanket the earth with their coverage. If you place an international phone call, it most likely will go via satellite. The deployment of US satellites is a private enterprise business under governmental control with the cost of space launch services paid for by the satellite owners. It is now a big and profitable industry and getting bigger. From this first big commercial exploitation of space all of us reap benefits every day.

In the public service area, the Landsat program provides so much information on our land and crops that we cannot analyze all of the data. Weather satellites give us a continuous view of the goings on in our atmosphere. The military depends on space for earth observation, weather, communications, navigation, and who knows what else.

The achievement in 1991 of worldwide, 24-hour-a-day coverage of the Global Positioning System (GPS) has revolutionized navigation for those who travel the oceans of the world. During the war with Iraq many of these units were rushed into production for the troops serving in Desert Storm. With GPS our troops knew precisely where they were at all times as they moved across the limitless, featureless desert.

The early investment in exploration and development of our new frontier is now starting to return solid dividends. This is just the beginning. The potential of space is as large as space itself. Let us close our eyes to the mundane moment-to-moment problems that continuously surround us and let our minds wander freely into this new high frontier. Where is it going? What can we do there? How can we use it to enhance our lives? How can we use it to benefit us as individuals, businesses, and nations? Can we use this new frontier to solve some of our current problems? The time is ripe; the cycle has run its course and is ready for massive utilization for practical account. What visions do we see unfolding before us?

Easy Access to Space

One of the greatest benefits of developing solar power satellites is the fact that they require the development of a complete space infrastructure, including new low-cost space transportation systems, habitats, and robotic assembly equipment. This infrastructure in turn will make it possible to open space to even more commercial development. Fully reusable heavy-lift space freighters will bring the cost of hauling cargo to orbit down to about one-hundredth to one-thousandth of what it is today using expendable boosters and the Space Shuttle.

During the satellite construction periods, there will be several flights a day. Most of the flights will be dedicated to hauling cargo, but there will also be a need for personnel transportation as well. Passengers could be carried on the freight flights, or there may be separate vehicles just for passengers. In either case transportation costs to space will be within the grasp of nearly any business wanting to haul cargo to space or to an individual desiring to make the trip. Travel to space and back will no longer be restricted to professional astronauts.

In order for the space freighters to load and unload rapidly they must be designed to stow their cargo in containers or on pallets. Each space freighter would be able to carry a number of these containers. They would not need to be as heavy as those made of steel we see on ships, railroads, and trucks, but they would be the same size and have the same type of mounting provisions. Designing the satellite hardware to fit this standard-size shipping container would greatly simplify cargo handling and help reduce cost. It is uncertain at this time how much cargo each space freighter will be designed to carry, but generally speaking the larger the capacity the lower the per-pound cost.

The approach to designing space hardware in the future will be much different from what is done today. Satellites are currently reduced to the minimum size and weight possible because of high transportation costs, and as a result, they themselves become very expensive. With routine, easy, and low-cost access to space, much of that can change. Standard cost-efficient design practices can be used since weight saving will not be as important and size would not be limited. Space freighters could be operated like a cargo or passenger airline operation. If a delivery schedule was missed, there would be another flight the next day with some space available. Like today’s air-cargo carriers, a schedule would be maintained even if there wasn’t a full load.

Initially there would be only one space line, but as the pace of satellite construction increased it is very likely that other companies would join the industry and establish competition. Competition would bring costs down as technology improved and the industry became mature. If you wanted to take a trip to space, it would not only be possible, but relatively easy. After all, with the early development flights and after the construction of a few satellites, space transports would be well proven for safe routine operation. It should not be unreasonably expensive, probably about the same as a first-class round-the-world ticket on an airline, except that you would be going around the world many times! Passenger compartments would be designed for a comfortable shirt-sleeve environment, with no more need for space suits than for parachutes on passenger airlines today. Flight preparation would be a briefing on emergency procedures and safety precautions such as with today’s air travel. There would be no special medical or age restrictions as long as you were in good health. Launch acceleration would be a sensation never before experienced, but laying back in your comfortable, contoured seat, you would probably find the eight-minute trip to the weightlessness of space quite pleasant.

Switchboards in the Sky

Telephones are as common to us as our shoes. We take them for granted. Through the years, they have evolved from black squawky boxes on the kitchen wall to decorator-styled wonders with push-button dialing, automatic dialing, lights, message recorders, and computer control, with even more to come. But with the exception of cellular phones, they are tied to immobile wires leading to switching stations, which then interconnect with other switching stations. These in turn are interconnected with cables, fiberoptics, microwave links, or relay satellites to form the great worldwide spider web of our present-day telephone system. This system is very densely packed in the developed nations but has only spotty coverage in underdeveloped countries, which are unable to afford the massive amounts of capital required for the wire network, switching stations, and telephones.

This fantastic system has two basic drawbacks: it is primarily limited to fixed locations and it is too expensive for more than half the people of the world. The new frontier of space will change that. When large payloads can be transported to space economically and with the ability to assemble large systems in space, a new breed of communications satellites or space platforms can emerge. Most of today’s satellites are relay satellites. They receive a signal from the earth and retransmit it to another place on earth. In the case of telephones, the large equipment, antennas, and switching stations are on the ground. If we were to turn these around and put the switching gear, the large sensitive antennas, and powerful transmitters in space on large satellites, that could provide a very different kind of telephone system. The telephone would then become a low-power radio transmitter-receiver requiring no wires. The telephone itself would be the only thing the user would have to buy, and with this small investment, anyone in the world who owned a telephone could use the system simply by paying for the cost of the call.

The first step in this process is already underway. By the late 1990s the first space-based cellular system is scheduled to be in operation. It will soon be followed by others. These low-earth-orbit satellite systems are based on the same concept used in ground-based cellular telephones. Some of them will allow a telephone owner communication access from anyplace on earth. These systems will be launched with our current stable of launch vehicles and are expected to be profitable commercial enterprises. Imagine the potential reductions in cost and increased profits if the satellites could be launched by low-cost space freighters.

Orbiting Vacation Resorts

Up to this point most of what I have talked about is commercial use of space. Another major aspect of space that will open to us will be recreation. The space infrastructure developed to support satellite assembly in space will provide the model for the design of hotels, vacation resorts, restaurants, and hospitals. Can you imagine a more exciting vacation than a week in space, watching the changing panorama of the earth turning beneath you? Spending a couple of hours each day playing that exciting new game called “spaceball?” Relaxing with a good book floating in front of you? Taking a break to look at the stars and other planets through a telescope with no atmospheric interference? Looking down on earth, seeing the Great Wall of China as it wanders along the mountain tops, or looking into the beautiful coral lagoons of the South Pacific, or following the course of the Nile River as it meanders its way from the heart of Africa, or seeing the glint of sunshine reflected from the snow-covered Alps, or seeing the town where you live from a completely different perspective?

Imagine having dinner in a revolving restaurant where the rotation provides a small amount of artificial gravity to keep everything in place on the table and allows the chef’s finest concoctions to be served in an elegant manner. As you are seated, it is mid-afternoon on the earth below. When cocktails arrive, you will be passing into the evening shadows watching the glories of a sunset from three hundred miles above the earth’s surface. Below you is the darkness of night, and as you look ahead you see first the deep dusk, then the reds and golds and yellows weaving in and out through the great cloud formations. Over to the left is the towering, swirling crown of a large storm with its top still in sunlight. Straight ahead is the brilliant crescent of the earth as the sun dips beneath. Over appetizers the glow of candlelight does not obscure the view of the stars nor a glimpse of the lights of the cities below. After the salad and before the entree, the magnificence of dawn will leave you in awed silence. During dinner you will probably be planning a return trip to this paradise in space. Finally when you reach the end of a perfect dinner, you dawdle over coffee and brandy as another sunset puts your mind at rest. During your leisurely two and a half hour dinner, you have circled the earth one and a half times.

Mining the Cosmos

As we look into the future of a world of ever-expanding population and shrinking natural resources, it is only logical to turn to the new frontier to find new sources. One doesn’t think of the emptiness of space as having natural resources, but it is filled with vast quantities of them. Closest to us is the moon and beyond that are the asteroids, the other planets of our solar system, and their moons. Beyond these our imagination fails us—the distances are too great to contemplate. We need not worry, however; our own solar system has an ample supply to satisfy our needs. Our problem is how to gather them for our use.

With space transportation vehicles able to take us above low-earth orbit, we will have access to geosynchronous orbit and beyond. We will be able to return to the moon on a routine basis and utilize the raw materials that it promises. Many dream of building permanent bases and mining the moon. They visualize manufacturing plants to fabricate solar cells and structures to build solar power satellites with materials that do not have to be lifted out of the gravity of earth.

The asteroids are even richer in iron, nickel, and other minerals. They come in many sizes, with new ones being found on a regular basis. They could be mined where they are or they could be moved into orbit around the earth or moon. Bringing larger ones back might be a little dangerous, but the day will likely come when it can be done. I recently listened to a proposal made by a Russian scientist who suggested that one good way to destroy the stock of nuclear missiles left over from the cold war was to use them to move asteroids into earth orbit so they could be used as a source of space-based material. He was very serious about it and had worked out many of the details on how to accomplish the task.

Factories in Space

Putting factories in space is the goal of many visionaries trying to bridge the gap in the development cycle between development and exploitation. They have begged for a Space Station to research the benefits of manufacturing products in zero gravity and the vacuum of space. They have struggled with small experiments on Skylab, Space Shuttle, Russia’s space stations, and on unmanned rockets. Several interesting phenomena have been discovered. Two examples are the ability to separate medical drugs in the absence of gravity and the ability to eliminate the convection currents that affect the formation of crystal structures as they cool and solidify.

Progress has been slow, however. The knowledge base is insufficient to paint a clear picture of where the opportunities for space manufacturing will lead. Today it is only feasible to think about space processing for very high-value materials intended for small niche markets. Space Station will be a tremendous help, but it will not be enough to open the door to broad-based manufacturing. That can only happen when access to space is low cost and routine and there is ample power to run the factories. At that time industry can afford to transport large quantities of materials to and from space, and ideas will blossom as industry moves into space.

Manufacturing in space may not reach full maturity until the raw materials it uses actually come from space, thereby avoiding the problems of overcoming gravity. Then space can become the great new industrial center of mankind.

The High Frontier

With the new frontier being the width and breath and magnitude of space itself, it will not only be able to absorb commercial development, but also the migration of people who are looking for a new life, people who are restless, people looking for adventure. Mavericks, explorers, and builders will push on to overcome all obstacles to colonize this new frontier. As our ancestors braved the unknown to follow their dreams, so today there are groups forming to pursue their dreams of totally self-supporting space colonies. These huge colonies would mine raw materials on the moon, grow their own food in a closed ecological cycle, and depend on solar power for energy. They look to space as the escape valve from the spaceship called earth. A place to grow and experience new things, a place to take the next step up the ladder of mankind’s development.

Dollars from Space

It was not until 1968 that the concept of solar power satellites providing energy to the earth was proposed. Now as we look about us it is difficult to imagine anything that could provide a more practical benefit to this earth than bringing abundant, low-cost, clean energy from outside our finite world to solve our most fundamental problems. This would be utilization of a frontier in a way that brings enormous good for all mankind. We have already explored the concept in some detail, but let us finally consider the magnitude of the revenue stream that will be pouring from space.

If we assume that electricity will sell for eight cents a kilowatt hour and that the satellites will operate at full capacity as baseload systems, each 1,000 megawatt satellite will generate $675 million a year in revenue. This adds up to $20 billion over a thirty-year period for each satellite. If each satellite lasts one hundred years we will be able to reduce the price of electricity after thirty years when its capital cost has been paid off and the cost of generating electricity drops below two cents a kilowatt hour. If we replaced only half of the current United States generating capacity with solar power satellites, they would generate about $150 billion in revenue per year. If solar power satellites were also used to power half of the current United States transportation market that number would nearly double. If they are used to supply energy to the developing nations of the world the revenue generated by the stream of energy pouring down from the sky could be over $1 trillion a year. The magnitude of the numbers is staggering. These satellites will produce enough revenue to pay off the original investment, including the support systems, and return a very handsome profit. After return of the initial investment, the cost of energy from the satellites will drop to the cost of operating and maintaining them. There is no fuel to buy and no more debt to pay. The benefits will come to all of us in the form of very low-cost energy.

As we approach the end of the twentieth century there is no single thing we can do that will have as large an impact on the people of the world during the new century than the development of solar power satellites. They will bring prosperity, an opportunity for the poor nations of the earth to achieve true freedom from want, healing of our environment, and open the vast new frontier of space to all of us.

With the development of solar power satellites we will tap directly into the power of the sun and save the world from impending chaos. There will be hope for the future as we enter the twenty-first century.

The sun. Source of our energy from the beginning of time. Throughout the ages the light of the sun has fueled photosynthesis, freeing oxygen and providing food for the animal kingdom. It supplies the light to grow trees—bringing us wood. Its heat evaporates the oceans to bring the rains that form our rivers and lakes. It causes the winds to blow and brings us warmth and comfort. It took uncounted millions of years for the sun working with the earth to create the coal, oil, and gas we are burning so recklessly today. It is the only fusion reactor in our solar system, yet we turn our backs to it as we huddle in our laboratories fruitlessly trying to duplicate its magnificant power.

The sun. There from the beginning of time, bathing our planet with its life-giving force. We only need to reach out and harness a bit more of that force to create a future for ourselves and our children that is brighter, warmer, cleaner, and more peaceful than any we’ve yet experienced in our brief time on earth.