Sun Power: The Global Solution

for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 2 for the Coming Energy Crisis – Chapter 2

Sun Power

by Ralph Nansen

Copyright 1995 by Ralph Nansen, reproduced with permission

Chapter 2: Politics and Solar Power Satellites

I first heard of solar power satellites one day in 1973. I was back in Seattle after working in New Orleans as an engineering manager for Boeing on the Saturn/Apollo lunar landing program and Space Shuttle definition studies. When I walked into the office one morning my secretary greeted me with a big smile and said, “Congratulations on your new job.”

My only response was a surprised, “What new job? I’m working on the space task force.”

“Didn’t you hear the public address announcement this morning? You’ve been appointed manager of the new Design-to-Cost Laboratory, effective today.”

I was stunned. I was out of the space business. I stared at her without being able to say a word and headed for the office of the company’s president.

He used soothing words and appealed to my loyalty to convince me to take the job. He assured me that I was the only one with both an engineering and program-cost analysis background and it was critically important to the future business of the company to understand the Design-to-Cost discipline. The Department of Defense had announced that it was initiating the concept of planning their new programs with the idea of first establishing a cost goal and then designing the hardware to meet the goal, instead of designing the hardware and then estimating what it would cost. Ollie Boileau, who was president of Boeing Aerospace Co. at the time, wanted me to set up and manage a research group that he called the Design-to-Cost Laboratory. My job was to determine how this discipline would affect our future contract bids and how the company could integrate the concept into our new programs. After the group was organized and operating I would be able to return to the space program.

I reluctantly accepted the assignment and in that frame of mind wandered through the space engineering building to say my goodbyes.

I stopped at a young designer’s desk and saw over his shoulder a sketch he was making that looked a lot like an elongated, fat, Apollo capsule, and asked, “what’s that?”

“Oh, that’s the big onion. I’m designing it to launch solar power satellites.”

“You’d better begin at the beginning. I think I must have missed something.”

“Haven’t you heard about Peter Glaser’s idea of generating solar energy in space and then beaming it to the ground?”

“No, I guess I haven’t,” was all I could reply.

“Well, he thinks that we can build giant satellites covered with solar cells to generate electricity, then convert the energy to radio frequency energy for transmission to the ground. Here’s what they look like,” he said as he slid a colored artist’s rendering from under the pile of papers on his desk. I saw an illustration of a satellite with two flat rectangular solar arrays with a disk-shaped antenna mounted between them. There was no way to judge its size, until I noticed the note clipped to the edge: “5,000 megawatt output.” I gasped in amazement. Dan laughed. “Yeah, they are big. The problem is how to launch them. Gordy thought it was a nutty idea that he could prove to be impossible, but after he started running the numbers he wasn’t so sure. Now he’s convinced it will work, and I have to design a launch vehicle for it.”

“That thing doesn’t look like a launch vehicle, it looks like a reentry capsule.”

“It’s both,” was Dan’s jubilant reply. “The rocket engines are buried in the flat end for launch, then after it gets to orbit it turns around and comes back into the atmosphere reentering like an Apollo capsule. I’ve added some small rockets that fire when it nears the water to give it a soft landing. It will float like a cork and we can reuse the whole thing.”

In five minutes, leaning over a talented engineer’s shoulder, I learned about solar power satellites. My world has not been the same since.

The Crisis Begins

When fighting first broke out later that year in the Middle East between the Arabs and Israelis in what was to be called the October War, it seemed that it would have little direct effect on the US. That assumption proved to be very wrong when the Arab oil-producing nations moved to embargo oil shipments to the United States, western Europe, and Japan in retaliation for their support of Israel. The cutoff precipitated an energy crisis that shook the very foundations of the industrialized nations.

The United States was soon in a panic as gas shortages upset people’s daily lives and prices started to climb. People demanded that the government do something. Some recommended going to war to take the oil.

I knew what I wanted to do. I recognized this as the mission of the future for space. I had worked on the development of space as a commercial venture for years and I wanted to help develop a replacement energy system for oil. I knew that system could be solar power from space.

Here I was, manager of the Boeing Design-to-Cost Lab, but my heart longed to be with my friends on the space program. Whenever I had an opportunity I used my executive position to convince Boeing management how important it was to support the space programs that could help develop solar power satellites.

It was nearly two years before I was able to turn Design-to-Cost over to my deputy and return as manager of Advanced Space Programs to work on solar power satellites.

Significant progress had been made in two critical areas toward the development of solar power satellites: efficient wireless energy transmission from space and low-cost transportation of the satellite hardware to space. To help convince people that it is possible to transmit energy without wires, Bill Brown at Raytheon set up a laboratory test, using existing hardware, that achieved 54% efficiency transmitting electricity without wires. Bill Brown’s invention of a rectifying receiving antenna, which converts radio-frequency energy to electricity, makes the concept of transmitting energy from space possible.

At the same time Boeing was under contract with NASA’s Johnson Space Center to define future space transportation systems requirements. This study included the design of launch vehicles that could transport solar power satellite hardware to space. The company concluded that low-cost space freighters for solar power satellites could be built.

By that time, NASA believed that the idea of solar energy from space had promise, so they put together a blue-ribbon team from all their centers to audit the concept. They found that it was technically feasible, environmentally clean, and economically competitive. The audit team identified technical issues to be studied and made recommendations for future work. After I returned to the space program in 1975, Boeing was selected as one of the contractors to develop preliminary design concepts for a solar power satellite system for NASA.

NASA normally establishes competitive study teams when they are developing new programs to help ensure the highest technical accuracy. Two or more contracts with similar work statements are administered by different NASA centers, with competing contractors performing the work. The competitors are allowed to attend each other’s briefings on contract results. This unique situation of briefing your competitor creates a system of checks and balances in the development of new systems.

As part of the configuration design, our team studied different ways to generate electricity on the satellites. We established subteams to define several alternative concepts. Various configurations of solar cell arrangements were investigated. Other concepts were developed and reviewed. They were evaluated by size, weight, construction difficulty, maintenance requirements, life expectancy, and cost.

Of all the possibilities we were soon able to narrow our studies to two designs. One was based on Dr. Glaser’s original proposal, which was to generate electricity on the satellites in space using silicon solar cells. The second configuration used a completely different concept of electricity generation. Instead of solar cells the design used mirrors to concentrate the sunlight into a central cavity that is called a cavity absorber. The cavity absorber is a solar furnace that heats a fluid, which in turn runs turbine engines to generate electricity. We determined that this was the more efficient conversion system, and we called it Powersat.

During this time I became a public spokesman for the idea of energy from space, and Boeing’s Powersat was recognized all over the country as the energy source of the future. Even though the Powersat story created a lot of interest, the engineers were now beginning to think that silicon solar cells would be a better system. Further studies showed that solar cells with no moving parts had a higher life expectancy than the Powersat’s thermal engine system with many moving parts operating at high temperatures. In the trade-off between higher life expectancy and higher efficiency, we calculated that a longer life expectancy would ultimately result in lower energy costs.

Energy Policy . . . In Transition

When Jimmy Carter became President in 1977 he proposed the formation of the Department of Energy (DOE) to consolidate all of the government energy programs and policy administration within one agency. It looked like the country was finally going to establish a comprehensive energy development program to address the energy crisis we were experiencing. The Boeing team was looking forward to being part of the nation’s future.

In the mid-1970s most of the government energy development effort was concentrated on nuclear power. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) was the government agency responsible for commercial nuclear power development. This same agency was responsible for developing atomic bombs and nuclear power plants for navy ships and submarines. All of these activities were to be integrated into Carter’s new Department of Energy. Transition periods are often confusing, and this one turned out to be particularly difficult for us. The solar power satellite program, which under NASA was developing into a project of great promise with a bold solution, soon became entangled in bureaucracy and foggy vision.

Before the Department of Energy could be formed, the administration attempted to consolidate all non-nuclear energy development programs under an existing agency, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA did not want the solar power satellite program, which they considered to be a space program, and was upset with NASA for trying to help solve the energy problem. Because of the great public interest and growing Congressional support for the solar power satellites, it had to be included in the energy program, so the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assigned total responsibility to ERDA. Meanwhile, as ERDA tried to figure out how to spell “space,” all government contracts were stopped and the program essentially came to a halt.

It took them a while to get organized, and after several months’ delay, the ERDA evaluation people reached the same conclusions as the NASA audit team, which was to go ahead with further development of solar power satelites. Recognizing their lack of technical expertise in the field of space, they recommended a joint program with NASA. However, before the program could begin, ERDA was absorbed into the Department of Energy.

The Atomic Energy Commission was also destined to become part of the Department of Energy and brought with it all their nuclear programs. When all the different agencies and bureaucrats were swept together into the DOE, its charter included the responsibility for the development of atomic weapons for the military, fusion and breeder reactor development, as well as the development of a civil energy plan. The AEC had a huge budget for nuclear activities and research which they brought into the new DOE. With this large infusion of AEC funds, it was only natural that the primary interest of the new department would be nuclear research and building atomic bombs. The solar power satellite program was assigned a low priority within the civilian energy segment of the department. Fred Koomanoff was assigned to run the program, and since DOE had very little interest in energy from space, they let him run it without interference, as long as it did not threaten the other programs.

Koomanoff’s group established evaluation criteria for the program that concentrated on four areas: 1) technical feasibility, 2) environmental impact, 3) societal impact, and 4) cost comparison. NASA was responsible for the technical studies, and DOE retained responsibility for the others as well as for overall program management. DOE funding for three years was $15.5 million, with NASA contributing about $4 million more for space-related technology.

At last we had an opportunity to develop the energy system of the future. Solar power satellites could provide the energy to fuel the world for as long as man existed and now the government wanted us to prove it. It was the chance of a lifetime.

DOE/NASA would select two system contractors to design and develop the overall concept of the satellites and all of the necessary supporting infrastructure, including space transportation, space assembly, and the ground-based receiving antenna. There would also be supporting technology contracts and studies to consider environmental impacts and sociological impacts. All contracts were scheduled to be completed in 1980.

This was an exciting time. I was working for the largest aerospace company in the world as program manager for solar power satellites, the world’s future energy system. Now all I had to do was win the contract and prove the system would work.

I was also caught in a trap. NASA is a government agency with multiple centers that had developed over the years. The largest centers in Huntsville, Alabama, and Houston, Texas, were both created to develop the Saturn/Apollo lunar landing program. The Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville was formed as an off-shoot from the Army’s Redstone Arsenal under the leadership of the legendary Wernher Von Braun. Von Braun and his team of scientists and engineers developed the V-2 rocket for Germany during World War II and at the end of the war surrendered to US troops. They were brought to this country to help develop ballistic missiles for the Army and were later transferred to NASA to develop the Saturn launch vehicles. The Johnson Space Center in Houston was formed to develop the Apollo spacecraft. Even though there was no longer a need for two major centers after the Saturn/Apollo program, government bureaucracies never shrink once they are created, so Marshall and Johnson had to compete for tasks to justify their existence.

My organization was completing a heavy-lift launch vehicle contract with the Johnson Space Center (normally the spacecraft center) and a solar power satellite contract with the Marshall Space Flight Center (normally the launch vehicle center). There would be two contracts awarded for the new Department of Energy-funded satellite studies, and each would include both the satellite and the launch vehicles. The two NASA centers were very jealous of each other, and when they offered competing contracts, each wanted our team to bid.

Boeing was caught in the middle. All of the company’s major contracts for NASA programs had been with the Marshall Space Flight Center, and the Marshall people expected our loyalty. I saw two major problems with bidding on the Marshall contract. First, it was primarily a launch vehicle center and did not have a lot of expertise in space craft. Second, their overall technical and leadership capability was not as good as the Johnson Center due to the retirement of most of Von Braun’s German team after the completion of the Saturn/Apollo program. The German group had run the center with iron control and had not developed effective replacements.

On the other side was the Johnson Space Center. We would have to bid in competition with their favorite contractor, Rockwell International, but the chances were much higher that Johnson and their contractor would be the big winners if the system went into full-scale development. As only government bureaucracies can, they created a no-win situation. Our dilemma was that there were two contracts offered by two different centers for the same job. We were competing for the job with other aerospace contractors. We could win the contract but choose the losing center or choose the winning center and lose the contract. If I made the wrong choice Boeing would be out of the game.
I decided to cast our lot with the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Our team bid and won. Ironically, when Boeing announced we were going to bid on the Johnson contract, Rockwell International decided not to compete with Boeing and switched centers and won the Marshall contract. We all breathed a sigh of relief and thought nothing could stop us now. We believed we would provide the earth with nondepletable energy that would stop the pollution of our atmosphere, eliminate the need for nuclear power, and reduce the cost of electricity.

Reaching for the Sun

Everything was falling into place. Our study would be based on satellites located at geosynchronous orbit, each having an output of 5,000 megawatts of electricity — the equivalent of five nuclear power plants. These huge satellites, covered with 20 square miles of solar cells, would be placed in geosynchronous orbit — 22,300 miles above the equator. A satellite in geosynchronous orbit remains over one specific place on earth. At that altitude the orbital rotational speed of the satellite is exactly the same as the speed of the earth as it rotates on its axis. In twenty-four hours the satellite makes one orbit around the earth, the same time it takes the earth to make one revolution. As a result, the satellite will always be over a fixed location on the earth. All our communications satellites are placed in geosynchronous orbits in order to service one part of the world at all times.

A satellite in geosynchronous orbit spends over 99% of the time in sunlight. This is the case because the earth’s axis is tilted 23 degrees from the path it follows around the sun. As a result, the satellite passes above the shadow of the earth during summer in the northern hemisphere and below the shadow in the winter. It is this tilt of the earth’s axis that causes the change of seasons. As the earth progresses on its yearly trip around the sun, summer turns to autumn. While autumn leaves are falling, the days become shorter. The earth, in its flight around the sun, is starting to lean its axis away from the sun. During the autumnal equinox period, the earth’s axis is no longer tilted towards the sun, but rather forward in its path around the sun. During this time, day and night are the same length. For twenty days before and after the equinox, a geosynchronous satellite passes through the earth’s shadow each night. The first night the satellite will be in shadow for a minute or two. The next night it will be in shadow a couple of minutes longer, and so on until the equinox, when the maximum amount of time in shadow is 72 minutes. Then the next twenty nights follow the same schedule, but in reverse. Within twenty days of the first day of fall, the satellite will pass south of the earth’s shadow and will not reenter until spring when the same phenomenon will repeat itself.

Sun Power Global Solution SPS

The great advantage of space solar power over land-based solar power is this continuous flow of sunlight with very little interruption. In a year it adds up to five times more energy for each solar cell in space than if that same cell was placed in the Mojave Desert — and fifteen times more than if it was placed in an average location in the United States.

The solar cells we selected for our studies were similar to the ones that have powered our communications satellites for more than three decades. They would be assembled in a giant solar array that would intercept the sunlight normally streaming past the earth.

The unique part of the concept is the transmission of power to the earth — 22,300 miles away. In order to accomplish this miracle the transmitter must first convert the electrical energy gathered in space into high-frequency radio waves, which are then transmitted to the ground. The possibility of transmitting electricity without wires was actually suggested nearly a century ago by Nikola Tesla, a pioneer of the modern electrical industry. However, Guglielmo Marconi certainly did not have this in mind when he invented the first wireless telegraph in 1895, but the fundamentals are the same. Raytheon’s Bill Brown finally made wireless transmission of energy work for the first time in 1964, when he flew a model helicopter powered by a radio-frequency energy beam.

Energy gathered by the satellite would be beamed to a receiver on earth. When the radio waves reach the earth they need to be captured and reconverted into electricity by a receiving antenna on the ground, called a rectenna. Electric power then flows into existing power grids in the same way as from power plants being used today. The electrical output from each satellite will be enough to power a city of millions of people.

Our task encompassed not only the preliminary design of the satellites and the energy receiver on the earth, but also space transportation systems, assembly bases, and habitats. For the hundreds of flights required to launch and build the satellites, we needed to develop a space freighter that was fully reusable and able to fly very often like today’s air-cargo planes. The cost of throwing away hardware after each flight would be unacceptable.

At this point the reader might well ask, “Why couldn’t you use the Space Shuttle?” And that is a good question. When Space Shuttle was first proposed, it was to be a fully reusable, winged vehicle to provide low-cost space transportation for all space programs, military and commercial. Lack of funding, congressional pork-barreling, and jealous rivalry between the NASA centers at Huntsville and Houston lead NASA to abandon their original requirements. Instead of a fully reusable, fly-back first stage, they selected the solid rocket booster, throw-away external tank concept, which resulted in only a partially reusable system. Their decision to save developmental costs resulted in a shuttle that is now prohibitively expensive to use for most of the programs for which it was designed.

I had two teams working on the space freighter design. One advocated a two-stage winged system that would fly back like an airplane and the other was a ballistic system with reentry like a space capsule. Both could provide low-cost transportation to space and were fully reusable. We finally chose the winged version over the ballistic. The big advantage was the flexibility to land on any runway and the ability to fly from place to place. They could be launched within hours of returning from their previous flight.

In the 1970s there were not many examples of robotics in use, but the engineers and scientists working on the satellites recognized that they were ideal for use in space. So we designed a system for automated assembly. All required hardware could be assembled in space by automated equipment or assembled with remotely controlled manipulators, operated by workers in the shirtsleeve environment of a control capsule. Workers in space suits would only be required in an emergency situation requiring repairs that could not be done any other way.

The contract effort was going beautifully. Boeing provided me with company funds matching the amount of contract funds. These research and development funds would help us be prepared for the follow-on development phase. I was able to spend company money to probe deeper into the areas where we could not justify spending government study money. As the studies progressed, we could see that the technology was available to do everything that needed to be done.

I had an incredible team working on the job. It was such an exciting challenge that people were beating on my office door looking for a chance to join the program. Applications poured into the company from engineers and scientists who wanted to work on solar power satellites. I could choose from the best. It was hard to turn down some of the eager young men and women who begged to be brought on board. I was pleased to hire some of the young engineers just out of school. I learned on the moon landing program that some of the best ideas came from those who had not yet learned that the impossible could not be done. I could have had an organization of ten thousand qualified engineers and scientists within a few months, if I’d had the funding.

With such a qualified group, my management job was easy. I only needed to point them in the right direction and get out of their way. This made it possible for me to become the public spokesman for the program to bring it before the American people and Congress. I received invitations to speak to various interested organizations who were anxious to find a way to solve the energy crisis. This gave me an opportunity to find out how the public felt about the idea of generating solar energy in space. The response was astounding. At the end of a presentation, audiences understood the idea and there was always a great deal of enthusiasm as they asked, “Why don’t we get on with it?” and “What can we do to help?”

Congress Tries to Help

With the studies going so well, and the enthusiastic response of the public, it was only natural to think it was time to expand the development effort. However, the DOE administration was not interested in continuing the solar power satellite studies beyond the original contract. NASA could not give any follow-on contracts since their funding was controlled by DOE. The contractors appealed directly to the government for additional funding for continued development, so Washington DC was added to my travel itinerary. The first step was to brief the executive branch on the progress being made and outline how increased funding could accelerate the development. It was a discouraging effort as I found the leaders of the Department of Energy were much more interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting the nuclear industry than in supporting development of a giant competing energy source. When I talked to the leaders of the new alternative energy development organization, also in DOE, I found that their primary interest was in developing distributed energy systems, so they were also openly antagonistic to any large-scale central power concept. Distributed systems included solar heating, wind mills, and solar cells for individual homes. To further their goal of individual energy independence, they established a single criterion for measuring the worth of any new energy system: the minimum investment cost to achieve the first kilowatt-hour of electricity delivered. This would automatically eliminate large-scale systems from serious consideration because of the high investment in infrastructure and hardware.

After getting the cold-shoulder treatment from the executive branch it was a real pleasure to brief congressmen. Usually they were much more responsive when they learned about the program. In addition to congressmen and senators, I worked with their staff members as well as the staffs of key committees. It was not long before hearings were scheduled and a bill was drafted to significantly expand the research and development effort.

During the hearings, the president of the Boeing Aerospace Company presented the formal testimony and I answered the questions. Shortly after that the solar power satellite development bill was passed by the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, the session ended before the bill came up for a vote in the Senate.

The next year we began again. We still had the support of the committee chairmen and the bill once again passed in the House. The difficulty was the Senate.

The key man was Senator Henry Jackson, the senator from Washington State, who was chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. I often talked to him about solar power satellites and he supported the concept, but told me very frankly, “Ralph, I just can’t support you publicly. I am already known as the senator from Boeing and I can’t add another Boeing program to the list. You have to find someone else to sponsor the bill. I’ll help however I can, without going public.”

A senator from Montana agreed to sponsor the bill. The real problem was getting the bill scheduled for a vote. We felt we had the votes for it to pass, if it could be brought to the floor of the Senate. Hearings were held, and the extent of our problem became evident when the Department of Energy representative testified against its passage and indicated a Presidential veto if it was passed. Since the largest part of the budget for DOE was for breeder reactor development, fusion development, and atomic weapons development and manufacture, they effectively protected their interests by opposing any further funding for the solar power satellites.

In the meantime, public interest was building. I was now spending most of my time on the road giving speeches or briefing interested organizations. Orlando Johnson, a Boeing economist, joined the program to analyze our cost data comparisons of the future cost of electric power from the satellites to other conventional sources. The results of his analysis were startling.

During the studies, our group used cost comparisons that followed the guidelines established by NASA to compare the energy costs of various systems. It was a simplistic approach that did not take into consideration inflation costs for fuel, regulatory costs, safety and environmental escalation costs, or power plant operating time. Using these guidelines, we determined that energy from the satellites would be less expensive than any other source.

When I saw the results of Orlando’s comparison, I realized that we had grossly underestimated the magnitude of the potential cost savings from energy generated by solar power satellites. He showed that with only 3% inflation and the regulatory cost escalations we had been experiencing for the last several years, the cost of energy generated by coal in the year 2040 would be 70 cents a kilowatt-hour. The cost of electricity from a solar power satellite in the same year would be less that two cents a kilowatt-hour. He went on to tell me that if we only replaced half of the United States’ generating capacity by the middle of the next century the country would save $22 trillion with an investment of $2 trillion. The numbers were so huge they were hard to comprehend. The economic impact of solar power satellites on the future of the nation was going to be incredible.

The Ax Falls

It was now 1979. I was in a hotel room near the Los Angeles airport when I received a telephone call. I had just delivered a paper on our new energy cost comparisons to a national conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). My suitcase was packed and I was preparing to catch a flight to Washington DC after which I was scheduled to fly to Cairo, Egypt, to address the first Arab Space Conference. When I answered the phone it was Ollie Boileau, president of Boeing Aerospace, calling to tell me my trip to Egypt was canceled. I was to make no more public statements and to return immediately to Seattle. I asked why. “I had a call from Washington, and they want you to shut up,” was his reply.

I went on to Washington anyway and met with one of the company’s senior marketing executives and told him what was happening. His response was “you have to go, the company made a commitment to participate, let me talk to the boss, and I’ll get back with you.” Five hours later I was on my way to Cairo, but that was the beginning of the end.

The time finally arrived when the DOE/NASA contracts were completed and we all assembled in Lincoln, Nebraska, in April of 1980 to report on the results of the numerous studies. Represented were over 200 different organizations: the major aerospace companies and their subcontractor teams, the Environmental Protection Agency and their research scientists from universities and research institutes, concerned citizen groups representing organizations supporting the concept and groups opposing its development, research scientists from technology development companies, and economists. All had been included in the $19.5 million evaluation studies. The conclusion of the conference was that there was no technical reason why the satellite system should not be developed and that the potential benefits were very promising.

There should have been a great festive atmosphere of triumph, for the results of the studies radiated success and optimism. Instead it was like a funeral. The ax of doom hung over the proceedings. There would be no follow-on work. The contract reports were to be submitted to the Department of Energy, and at their direction, there would to be no release of the reports to the public. A new energy system was a serious threat to ongoing funding for nuclear research. The administration and the DOE wanted us out of the picture. I had been very naive to believe we could develop a new energy system that would displace coal and oil and eliminate the need for nuclear power, just because it was the best system and it would be good for the country. The opposition lined up against us was overwhelming. They were too powerful. The forces of greed had won. America and the world would suffer the consequences for years to come.