How do we go about creating the fourth era of energy—at the moment merely a vision? How do we accomplish such an enormous task? What is the first step? The Department of Energy, the government agency responsible for developing new energy systems, abandoned the idea in 1980 and has been unwilling to reevaluate the concept since. Their position was made clear in a letter I received in February of 1995 from a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy in response to a letter I sent to the Secretary of Energy. I had urged the Department of Energy to reevaluate the solar power satellite concept in light of the major advances that have been made over the years since 1980 and to establish a program office to coordinate with other interested government and commercial organizations. The DOE’s letter stated:
For over two decades, the Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessor agencies have supported various technologies that could increase domestic contributions toward our nation’s energy needs. Among the energy concepts investigated and terminated were ocean thermal systems, wave energy systems, ocean and river current systems, solar ponds, solar heated wind towers and, as you point out, space solar systems.
All of the foregoing systems are technically feasible. However, as with most research investments, choices are necessary. Typically, options have been eliminated because energy costs were judged to be high, energy contributions were likely to be limited to only a few regions, reliability appeared to be low, estimated development costs were high, or other risks to commercial success were projected.
In line with the President’s program to reduce federal spending, the Department is developing plans to reduce program costs by more that $10 billion over the next five years. Given these commitments, opportunities for initiating new programs are limited and we are generally not able to offer encouragement for federal funding for space power. Of course, where reasons are compelling, we will strive to accommodate. However, for the most part, it will be necessary to complete or terminate programs where possible and to maximize returns from investments in continuing programs.
It is apparent that the Department of Energy is in a business-as-usual mode that does not include any effort to develop new energy sources.
On the other hand no single commercial company has sufficient resources to undertake the task, and as yet, no industrial leader has emerged to draw together a partnership of companies to do the job. Yet we cannot ignore the urgency as the cost to the environment and to our economy continues to escalate and devastate.
A recent correspondence I received from Dr. Bruce Middleton, former head of Australia’s space program and now managing director of Asia Pacific Aerospace Consultants Pty Ltd, put the potential impact in perspective. He wrote:
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that the likely increase in average temperature by the period 2030 to 2050 will be around 2.5 degrees. For the US alone, the economic impact of such a change is projected to amount to $60 billion plus per year. This cost cannot be avoided simply by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, for it is estimated that sequestering the carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuel combustion for power generation in the US would increase the cost of electricity by 30% to 100%. At 50%, this would add $85 billion per year to US energy costs. . . .
The environmentally preferred solution to this problem must be to replace coal-burning power generation capacity with orbiting arrays of solar cells delivering energy to the earth’s surface by radio frequency transmission.
The sooner we face the need for a new clean energy source, the less we will lose in money spent for ever-escalating fossil fuel costs and repair to our damaged environment. If enough people raise the issue of developing a new energy source, the politicians will be forced to pay attention. If enough people become aware there is the potential for an abundant, low-cost, clean energy source, the debate for its development will start. Public awareness will raise the issues to be explored, resulting in a free discussion of ideas, for and against.
When people become aware of the full potential of solar energy from space and what it could mean in their lives, they will demand of our leaders that they proceed. With a mandate from the people, the leadership can step forward with confidence knowing that the public is ready to support the effort. Then we can take the first steps!
There are two primary paths that can be followed to develop solar power satellites. One is a government program and the other is commercial development with some government support. In 1980 the only conceivable option was a massive government-sponsored and funded program. Today that is no longer the case. Advances in the enabling technologies along with significant infrastructure development now makes possible commercial development of the program with some government support.
There are legitimate arguments for each approach, but the many pitfalls along the path of government development makes commercial development much more desirable. However, for the sake of argument I will describe both options along with some of the advantages and pitfalls.
The Government Development Option
A logical approach for a concept this large is for the federal government to fund the development as a national resource. This has been done often in the past and is one of the normal functions of government. However, government development of solar power satellites will only be successful if the President of the United States supports it, as did President Kennedy in sending men to the moon and President Eisenhower when he proposed the interstate highway system. For this alternative to work it must be a total commitment, made without hollow political gesture or reservation. It is an enormous and challenging task that will not succeed with half-hearted efforts. It will require long-term support with sufficient funds to carry the program through the inevitable hard times that will occur as development progresses.
The basic problem with this alternative is the fact that a solar power satellite program is a commercial energy system. People are reluctant to have the government involved in commercial ventures, as historically they nearly always become a mismanaged fiasco. Two exceptions of successful national programs are the interstate highways and the moon landing, which were truly national programs that could only be done by government. However, there are good reasons to look to government for the solar power satellite program because of its size, the fact that it needs development of multi-use high-technology infrastructure, and more importantly because of its broad international implications.
Choosing the people and organization within the government to lead such an effort becomes the critical factor in order to avoid two nearly fatal traps. One trap is assigning the responsibility to an existing agency that has developed a deep bureaucratic mindset through long routine government service, and the second would be to choose leaders who do not understand the commercial utility market.
To avoid these traps, the best solution is to establish a new agency under the leadership of an individual selected from industry with the specific responsibility for this project only, reporting to the executive branch at a very high level. The agency needs to have authority to perform all necessary functions to accomplish the goal, without other distracting responsibilities. The task is to develop an operational energy system. It is not a scientific research endeavor, but is a massive engineering effort, based on highly scientific principles to generate commercial power at low cost.
In this development option the primary function of the government is to manage the program, select industrial contractors to perform the necessary work, coordinate international agreements, and to supply the funding. A very critical part of this function is planning the program, establishing specifications for the various program elements, and selecting the contractors to perform the tasks. By far the majority of the actual work will be accomplished by contractors. Most of the problems with government-run programs start with the specifications for the tasks and selection criteria for the contractors.
Through the years government bureaucracy has developed the policy of writing specifications for government procurements that limit the flexibility of a contractor to deliver the best product because the specifications define a solution rather than a need. They also apply more specifications than required to protect the bureaucrats from any possible blame if something goes wrong. In a commercial system the purchaser specifies what he wants his product to accomplish and allows the manufacturer flexibility in how to best achieve that. The satellite program must operate in a commercially competitive environment and therefore has to be designed from the beginning for commercial use. The requirements must emphasize system performance, ease of maintenance, and low operational costs. How best to achieve the results should be left to the ingenuity and expertise of the winning contractor for each system element.
A gross comparison of the requirements specified for a commercial airliner as opposed to a government-procured airplane is likely to progress along the following lines. The commercial customer might specify: “The aircraft shall have the ability to carry XX number of passengers at YY minimum seat spacing, over a minimum distance of ZZ miles, with the fuel consumption no greater than AA pounds per mile, and the airplane shall be warranted for 60,000 flight hours and 20,000 landings. It shall be certified flight-worthy according to appropriate government requirements and delivered on or before such-and-such a date.”
The government specification is likely to say: “The aircraft shall have a wingspan of 150 feet and a maximum gross weight of 400,000 pounds, carry a payload of 100,000 pounds, and have a cargo bay 12 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 8 feet high. It shall use company XYZ engines, number 1234. It shall be built with material Unobtainium-543 and coated with Invisibilium, Specification 1000.987-123D. It shall conform to all military specifications listed in the following references and their subreferences: AA, BB, CC, DD, EE, FF, GG, HH, JJ, KK, and LL. The contractor shall report all costs down through four WBS levels. Time-keeping records shall be maintained according to procedure XA12.52 and recorded to the nearest tenth of an hour. . . .”
That is only the beginning. The government will specify the development schedule, the test program, the number of maintenance people to plan for, and anything else the specification writers can think of—I imagine you get the picture. One would think their jobs depend on the volume of paperwork generated instead of a balance sheet to measure their success or failure.
Let me give you a real example by comparing the development of the C-5A and the 747. The 747 initial design was developed by Boeing in response to an Air Force competition for a large military transport to be called the C-5A. Boeing lost the competition to Lockheed, who signed a contract for the C-5A in August of 1965. Instead of totally discarding the work they had done in preparation for the competition, Boeing decided to modify the design from a military airplane to a commercial transport of the same size. Boeing presented the preliminary design to the airlines and on April 1, 1966, received a letter of commitment from Pan Am that justified the start of commercial development. Boeing developed the 747 under commercial requirements in three years and eight months from start of development to the inaugural passenger service flight, while Lockheed developed the C-5A under restrictive government requirements that took four years and four months before the first airplane was delivered to the Air Force. The 747 flies faster, carries more cargo weight, has nearly twice the range, and costs less to buy and operate than the C-5A.
The story of the Space Shuttle is an example of how wrong a government procurement can go. The original concept was to develop a fully reusable two-stage vehicle. Each stage would be able to fly back to its launch base. The system was to be designed for minimum maintenance and rapid turnaround to achieve low per-flight cost for an operational system.
Unfortunately, the government made all the classic mistakes during its development cycle. First of all it was supposed to be an operational system to provide low-cost space access, but was developed by NASA, a research and development agency with no commercial experience. The managers placed in charge were mainly professional bureaucrats or technologists, while many of the experienced leaders of the Saturn/Apollo program had retired or returned to industry. There was serious intercenter rivalry as the various NASA centers worked to change the configuration to favor their center. Instead of using proven low-cost elements to achieve an effective operational system the technologists saw the opportunity to develop new high-technology components. The politicians holding the purse strings saw it as a huge pork barrel and shaped the design to favor contractors in their areas. Annual funding was limited (a typical practice in government procurement) and forced design decisions based on compromise. This in turn limited the development of low-cost operational systems and favored initially cheap systems with future high operational cost. The experienced bureaucrats made sure they could not be blamed for anything.
In addition, the detail specifications that evolved were oriented to using the system as a research device rather than an operational system. The final configuration was a hybrid design that incorporated the worst of all these factors. Today we have a Space Shuttle that works some of the time, in spite of everything. But we went through the tragic trauma of watching the Challenger explode, carrying her crew to their deaths. Then the gut-wrenching investigations to determine cause and blame. Finally a fix that is really only a series of splints patching things back together. The Shuttle is two orders of magnitude more expensive to operate than it should be and will never be able to meet its original operational goals.
The development of the solar power satellite system cannot be successful if it is developed in the same environment as the Space Shuttle.
With planning and specifications completed, contractors can then be selected to perform specific tasks. For a system this large and complex it will be essential to have an overall systems integration contractor to supplement the government agency management. It must be a contractor that not only has the ability to integrate large systems, but more importantly, with the experience and understanding of commercial power plant operations. There is no company in existence today with all of the necessary skills, so it will be necessary for the successful bidder to assemble a team of contractors, capable of working together, that will bring all the needed skills to the task.
Integration of a large complex program is not handled well by a government agency. Just look at the disastrous cost and schedule overruns experienced by the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) in their effort to manage the construction of a group of nuclear power plants in the state of Washington several years ago. The end result was the abandonment of the program after completion of one out of the five funded plants. WPPSS then defaulted on the billions of dollars of bonds sold to finance the rest of the project. Even the Saturn/Apollo government integration team ran into trouble. After the Apollo 4 fire the director of NASA recognized that there had been insufficient integration and control of the overall program and turned to an industrial contractor to oversee testing, integration, and evaluation to bring the program to a successful completion. Development of the Space Station was in serious trouble under the direct management of NASA, and it was not until NASA consolidated management under a prime contractor that the cost and schedule was brought under control.
The inclusion of other nations of the world as partners in the development of solar power satellites has many potentially desirable benefits. Government interaction will be necessary for international agreements controlling satellite slot assignments in geosynchronous orbit as well as traffic control in space and radio-frequency agreements. Sharing of developmental costs would be another asset. Weighed against these benefits is the problem inherent in spreading responsibility into areas that are difficult to control. It is a serious question that needs much consideration before making a final decision. The one clearly effective way to involve international cooperation is to open the competition for design, development, and manufacture of the various elements to companies from all nations. This would provide distribution of the development without losing control.
The schedule for completion of the development program, including assembly of the first demonstration unit, is another critical decision. It is important that sufficient time be provided to accomplish the development and thorough testing of all components prior to committing them to production. However, the schedule must also be as short as possible in order to maintain a sense of urgency among all participants. The contracts should be heavily incentivized to maintain delivery schedules, using both penalties and bonuses. There are so many individual elements to fit together that a delay of any single one can seriously impact the cost and schedule of the entire program. A period of 10 years is a reasonable time schedule for development. Once a schedule is established there should be no thought of later change. It must become the one inviolate milestone.
In the government development option all the funding for the design, development, manufacture, and testing of the satellite system and all the supporting infrastructure would be funded by the government and would culminate in a full-size, operational satellite.
The funding could and should be financed by a tax on imported foreign oil and/or a tax on other current power generation systems that are causing air pollution in our atmosphere. This has two benefits. It taxes products that are used by energy consumers who will ultimately receive the benefits, and it makes the price advantage even greater for a nonpolluting energy system, thereby accelerating its development and implementation.
This option, though viable, is fraught with potential pitfalls. It requires extraordinary leadership and commitment to be successful. Similar problems face the option for commercial development, but the very nature of the competitive commercial marketplace is self-controlling. A poorly managed company soon falls by the wayside and another takes its place so that the whole operation is not damaged. This does not happen in government procurement where poor performers are allowed to continue on the team, thus impeding the whole operation.
Commercial Development Option
with Government Support
During the late 1970s as I worked to have the solar power satellite program move from studies to full-scale development, my only choice was to push for a massive government program of the type I just described. As you know it was an unsuccessful effort, but much has changed through the ensuing years. I retired from Boeing in 1987 to pursue the adventure of sailing the oceans of the world with my wife in our sailboat, setting aside the dream of bringing solar energy from space to serve the people of the earth. After several years wandering through the South Pacific we stopped to spend the hurricane season in the safety of a sheltered mooring in Brisbane, Australia. While we were in Sydney visiting friends a feature article in the Sydney Herald about international interest in solar power satellites showed me that the dream was not dead, only waiting for someone to bring it into reality.
We abandoned our plans to sail on around the world so that I could once again pick up the challenge of developing solar power satellites. I started writing this book, and in the summer of 1993 I also formed a company whose purpose is to pursue the commercial development of solar power satellites.
I assembled a team of experts, and the company’s first project was to determine the status of the required technology and plan how to develop the system as a commercial venture. It was an exciting time meeting with many of the people involved in the early studies and those who are working in related fields today. We made a survey of the photovoltaic industry, national laboratories, and representative utilities. From the resulting information we put together a plan for commercial development of solar power satellites. It will require government support in some critical areas, but the only government funding required is some seed money and some multi-use technology development. The necessary funds can be found within currently planned government expenditures by focusing their efforts on solving the problems associated with solar power satellites rather than general research.
The plan described in the following pages is the one our company developed and is presently working on. It is based on an industry/government partnership with industry taking the leading role to develop the power plants. The important role for government will be to coordinate international agreements, support the development of high-technology multi-use infrastructure, and assume the risk of buying the first operational satellite.
Only government can establish international agreements on orbit slot assignments, frequency allocations, space debris cleanup, space traffic control, and licensing. And there is still the question of whether commercial investors will be willing to finance the development of a new reusable space transportation system for solar power satellites prior to proving the system is economical. It is also still desirable to have the government assume some of the development risk on the first unit and to be the focal point for international cooperation during the development phase, but most of the financing and control can be commercial.
Shown below is a 12-year schedule for commercial development of the satellite system [graph updated from original edition].
The primary focus of the early part of the program is to develop and validate the system on the ground with a small-scale engineering prototype. The ground test program brings together the solar cell technology currently being developed for terrestrial photovoltaics with the evolving technology of wireless power transmission.
The approach of using a ground-based prototype to do the major development testing has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the projected development cost and is one of the key elements making commercial development possible. The program consists of a small-scale terrestrial-based solar cell array (in the range of 50 to 250 kilowatts peak output) coupled to a phased-array wireless power transmitter, which would transmit the energy over a short distance (one to five kilometers) to a receiving antenna (rectenna), then feed the DC power output through an inverter/power controller into a commercial AC utility power grid.
Each element of the system will be designed to incorporate several different technology approaches to be tested in the complete end-to-end test installation. The installation will duplicate all aspects of the power generating systems for the solar power satellite concept except for the space environment and the range and size of the energy beam.
Testing for the space-oriented aspects of the concept is a logical mission for Space Station. The Space Station is a major piece of the infrastructure needed to develop solar power satellites and is currently being developed as a national investment. By focusing the research conducted on the Space Station to solve the problems of developing the space aspects of solar power satellites, NASA would still be able to accomplish their space research objectives with very little increase in cost. Most of the space research needed for the solar power satellites is also needed for any other space program. The economic benefits of using the Space Station for developing technology for solar power satellites will give it a clear mission that will more than justify the cost of its development.
The most expensive part of the program will be the development of a new reusable space transportation system. The need for a low-cost space transport is not unique to the solar power satellite program. NASA is currently working with industry on the early phases of a program to demonstrate a small-scale prototype of a new low-cost reusable system to replace the Space Shuttle. There are several space programs planned that would benefit from a new low-cost launch vehicle. One example is Teledesic’s plan to launch 840 satellites for telephone communication. However, none of the planned programs are large enough to justify the cost of a new system. What is unique about the solar power satellite program is that it is large enough to justify the development of a new low-cost system by itself. The potential space transportation market is huge. For example, if solar power satellites were only used to replace worn-out power plants the annual revenue for transporting them to space would be over $15 billion per year. This only addresses the US replacement market. If the total world market is considered, the space transportation revenues would be closer to $100 billion a year. It is certainly a large enough market to entice competitive commercial operations. To be successful, however, it is very important that the requirements for transporting the solar power satellite hardware be incorporated into its development.
The final part of the development plan is a full-size operational solar power satellite that proves the validity of all facets of the concept, including the most important—cost.
The question is, who pays for all of this? Funding can come from many sources, but the following is what I see happening.
The basic premise is an industry/government partnership. In this scenario the government establishes program offices in its major affected agencies: Department of Energy, NASA, Department of Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, State Department, Department of Defense, and the Federal Communications Commission. These offices are formed to act as focal points within their area of responsibility and to coordinate international participation where applicable. Their funding responsibilities would be limited primarily to providing seed money for program planning and definition, multi-use technology development, conducting environmental impact testing, and funding space testing.
The primary source of funding for the ground test program should be supplied by the utility companies, either directly or through the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). However, the Department of Energy should also provide some of the funding with seed money to initiate the program. Industrial hardware manufacturers who will benefit from the enormous market being developed should also contribute. I estimate the total cost of this part of the program would be in the neighborhood of $50 million dollars over a three-year period.
Establishing the requirements for a low-cost space transportation system should be funded by NASA but developed by a commercial company outside the aerospace industry in order to avoid institutional bias and bureaucratic bungling. The question of who should fund the cost of developing the space transportation system is the toughest question to answer. By far the best answer is for it to be a purely commercial development. However, the problem lies in the fact that it needs to be developed in parallel with the development of the satellite and before the system has proven to be economical. As a result there is not the guaranteed market that is so essential to entice financial sources to commit the required risk capital—particularly since it is very expensive. There are some mitigating circumstances that may make it possible to obtain commercial financing. First of all, the ground test program will be complete and the confidence level in the solar power satellite system will be quite high for both cost and efficiency, therefore reducing the risk that it will not be cost competitive. Second, there are several other potential market requirements for low-cost space transportation that can justify developing a new system. As a result the overall risk may be acceptable for commercial development.
If commercial development is too much of a risk, there are other alternatives. One is for the government to guarantee paying for a minimum number of flights per year to support military and NASA launches. This would significantly reduce the risk for a developer and still save the government money. Another option is to have the government develop the system as a national resource. The best solution, however, will result from commercial development, rather than government.
In the past, launch vehicles have been developed by the aerospace industry for the government or to launch commercial satellites, but in either case the launch of the vehicles was usually supported by the company that designed and built them. This is not the approach that would be used for launching solar power satellites. The space transportation industry needs to adopt the pattern used by other transportation industries. In all cases the manufacturers of the vehicles, whether they are trucks, ships, airplanes, or railroad locomotives, sell their products to an operating company. The operating company then uses the vehicles to haul cargo or people.
A space transportation company, similar to an air-cargo airline, is the logical purchaser of new reusable space freighters. Financing could be handled in the same way an airline finances the purchase of their airplanes. The aerospace company that developed the spaceliner would face a situation similar to developing a new airplane. They would have to finance the development cost and sell the vehicles for a price that would allow them to recover their investment over a reasonable number of deliveries. The key issue is having a large enough market to recover all expenses and make a profit.
The situation is similar for the satellite, with some variations. Most of the technology development will have been accomplished by the ground test program with space testing supported by NASA on the Space Shuttle and Space Station. Testing on the Shuttle and Space Station should be funded as part of NASA’s basic budget. The key to financing the remainder of the satellite development is also the market. In this case the critical step is placing the order for the first operational satellite and a commitment that if it meets its cost and efficiency goals there will be more orders. A government-owned utility such as Bonneville Power Administration is the logical buyer of the first unit. Bonneville, with more than 20,000 megawatts of generating capacity and a large distribution system, is large enough to readily absorb the power from a 1,000 megawatt power plant. In addition, there are sites within their service area where the receiving antenna could be built. The cost will be repaid by the revenue generated by the satellite. The main reason a government utility should buy the first unit is so the government would accept the risk.
The price of the first unit would cover the cost of the satellite and a portion of the design and development cost. The developing contractors would be expected to recover the remainder of the development cost over the sale of some reasonable number of follow-on orders.
In a commercial development scenario there will be a single overall prime contractor who will manage the development of the satellite system. Supporting the prime contractor will be numerous companies from all over the world. It is very likely that many of these companies will be sharing in the financial risk of developing a new large system in a manner similar to the way commercial aircraft manufacturers share the risks with their major subcontractors when they develop a new airplane. The magnitude of the risk will likely be too large for a single company to undertake.
During all of this development cycle there would be major participation by both foreign governments and international companies. Individual hardware development can be done by companies that have experience in the design and development of similar systems. Several aerospace companies exist in the US, Europe, Asia, and Russia with experience building rocket-powered vehicles and airplanes. Some have extensive experience in building numerous large commercial transports as well.
In the case of the satellite hardware there are several worldwide companies that are manufacturing solar cells. The transmitter design is very similar in concept to the large phased-array radars manufactured by many companies.
The ground rectenna requires the experience of large construction companies rather than the aerospace industry. They would have to be familiar with the handling of electrical power and its processing, as well as capable of manufacturing the vast number of individual rectifying antenna elements.
Site surveying and selection for the ground receiver will be a major task requiring great tact. As discussed earlier it will require a good deal of persuasion to displace people who are located on potential sites without creating animosity. The task required for the development phase is to find one site for the initial full-size demonstration unit, but it cannot stop there. Sites must be identified and commitments made for their eventual development to make sure that follow-on units can be built. The most likely location for the initial unit is on one of the remote United States government-owned sites in the desert area of the Southwest or the Pacific Northwest.
One potential site outside of the United States is on the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. A few years ago as we drove from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, on the tip of the Baja, we passed through a vast desert area. Between villages we came upon a perfect site located near the Pacific Ocean. It was flat as a table, stretching as far into the distance as I could see, with very little vegetation and no visible houses, people, or grazing stock. I envisioned a glass-encased rectenna in the form of row after row of greenhouses. Inside were farmers tending their crops. Energy would be flowing from space to turn this desert into a garden spot. Water to grow the food would come from the nearby Pacific. Ocean water, made pure and sweet by desalination plants using some of the electricity captured by the rectenna. Nearby a community, where today there is nothing, transformed by energy and water, bringing jobs and prosperity to a poor region.
The selection of a launch site for the space freighters will be another interesting challenge for the space transportation company. The site that comes to mind immediately is the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Nearly all of our civilian and commercial launches in the US have occurred there. It could be modified for launching the satellite hardware. However, it may not be the best location.
Since several launches a day would be required to transport all of the satellite hardware to space during the construction period, one of the problems with this site would be the noise. The problem would become worse as the years went by and greater numbers of satellites were built.
The ideal launch location for a space freighter transporting hardware to geosynchronous orbit is on the equator since geosynchronous orbit is directly over the equator. Since Kennedy Space Center in Florida is located at 28 degrees of latitude, any launch from that site starts with an orbit inclination of at least 28 degrees from the equator. It requires extra energy to make the orbit angle change to arrive at geosynchronous orbit, which has no inclination. If the launch is made from near the equator, the total amount of energy required is reduced.
One practical solution to these problems is to establish a launch base on a remote island near the equator. There are several candidates, such as Johnston or Jarvis Islands that are United States possessions in the Pacific Ocean. Another potential candidate is Clipperton, which belongs to France and is located off the west coast of Central America.
My favorite is Canton Atoll in the Phoenix Group of Kiribati in the South Pacific Ocean. It was once a tracking base for the US manned space flights and later a secret Air Force base for tracking ballistic missile tests in the Pacific. It was turned over to Kiribati in 1979 and is uninhabited except for a few people placed there by the Kiribati government as caretakers. It has all the requirements of an ideal launch base and is located within three degrees of the equator, with the nearest inhabited islands about 600 miles away. It is a desert atoll out of the hurricane belt, with consistently good weather and little rain. It has an existing runway in good condition that can easily be extended to a length of 15,000 feet. The protected lagoon has a dredged entrance and a turning basin 35 feet deep with ample room to expand. The atoll itself is large enough to be able to place the housing area a reasonable distance from the launch pads and runway. It could be a virtual paradise for people living and working there, with fabulous fishing and beautiful white sandy beaches.
I spent four months on Canton in 1991, and as I looked out across the lagoon each morning, I imagined I could hear the body-shaking roar of rocket engines coming to life mingled with the high-pitched whine of jet engines bringing the boosters home. There over the end of the runway were the orbiters as they swooped to earth, silent as ghosts, still shimmering from reentry heat. The lagoon was filled with cargo ships awaiting their turn at the loading dock, and lying offshore, moored in the lee of the island, a liquid hydrogen tanker discharging its load of fuel through the underwater line to storage tanks on shore.
Canton has known many pioneering activities in the past as a refueling base for Pan Am transpacific clippers in the early days of air travel, as a large military outpost in the second World War, and as a refueling base for DC-6s and Stratocruisers after the war. It was one of the space-watching outposts that tracked John Glenn’s historical orbit around the world. It could once again rise like a phoenix from abandonment to become the center of space-produced energy.
Construction of a remote launch base would add to the transportation cost of materials to the base, but the reduced cost of launching and isolating the noise problem would probably more than make up the difference. I would be first in line to lead the relocation of a work force to this tropical island paradise.
The final goal of the development program is the successful delivery of electric power from the first demonstration satellite into a commercial earth-based energy grid. From this demonstration it will be possible to project the cost of power from the follow-on production units.
In all likelihood, early tests would indicate a successful conclusion with a very high confidence level long before the demonstration unit was completed. The costs of the major elements, like space transportation and solar cells, would also have been proven before completion. It is quite likely that follow-on orders would be placed by utilities, even before the final demonstration.
Normal market pressures will determine the rate of expansion of the system. The first orders will probably be motivated by the need to replace old nuclear and fossil fuel plants that are wearing out. There have been few new electric power generating plants built since the 1973 oil embargo, so nearly all of the existing fossil fuel plants and more than half of the nuclear plants will soon be in need of replacement due to age. In addition, cost of electricity will also become a major influence as inflation raises the cost of fuel to exorbitant levels. As we convert from fossil-fuel–burning systems to electric systems, the demand for electric power will require many more satellites to fill the demand.
One of the changes that will certainly occur is the growth in the electric utility business. This will place a high demand on financial institutions to help finance the growth. The rate of growth will accelerate as the cost of energy from solar power satellites decreases in comparison to other sources.
The foreign sales market could take some interesting twists. With the technology developed and the concept proven, other countries will want to build their own satellites. This would be well within the capability of several nations. One way they could do this is to purchase the necessary support systems from the United States companies, as well as many of the critical components, and do the assembly themselves. It would not be much different for them to buy a reusable space freighter from the US than it is to buy an airplane for their airlines. The rectenna, which represents about 30% of the total cost, could easily be constructed by anyone. They would probably need a license to manufacture the individual antenna elements, or they could purchase them separately. It is also very likely that some countries could manufacture their own solar cells. The number of potential variations is infinite, the degree of involvement being determined by each country’s technical and manufacturing ability.
The Fourth Era — The Era of Solar Power
As more satellites are placed in service the United States will experience a sustained period of economic growth. Employment levels directly engaged in the industry will remain high, and the multiplying effect in support businesses will be a significant part of total United States employment.
Infrastructure is one of the catch words of modern society, but it accurately defines the vast array of industries and support systems that must be developed to be able to manufacture and deploy solar power satellites. Space transportation systems that move beyond the Space Shuttle to fully reusable systems capable of being flown daily like an airliner. Habitats in space that can house hundreds of workers. Robotic machines to assemble the satellites in space. Factories designed to manufacture billions of component parts. Construction companies that understand how to cover uneven ground with glass-paned structures manufactured in vast quantities.
The word infrastructure for solar power satellites is really a synonym for wealth, because the money spent for energy delivered from solar power satellites goes into the infrastructure that will create it and distribute it. There is no cost for fuel. Payments for the cost of energy will go to the people who build and operate the system. None of it goes to a foreign land for fuel that is pumped out of the ground, burned, and is gone forever. When the satellites start delivering energy from space it will be a stream of wealth pouring from the sky. Wealth that will come to everyone in the form of low-cost energy. Wealth that will enable America to provide a prosperous home for all her people and to overcome the debt she has accumulated. High-technology spin-offs will create other new businesses and elevate industry in the United States to new levels of capability. In a developed nation such as ours high technology is our competitive edge.
At some subtle point in the future, oil will lose its dominant grip on world energy use and its role as the price setter. That will be the dawn of the fourth energy era—energy from space.
Sun power will be the global solution for the coming energy crisis. Atmospheric pollution will be eliminated and once again we will be able to see the horizon in sharp brilliant colors. There will be no more excessive accumulation of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, and we will cease heating the earth. There will be energy for the developing nations to emerge from the shroud of poverty. We will be able to look forward to a future economy based on abundant energy with no built-in inflation driver. We will not be at the mercy of an unpredictable foreign government; we will have finally achieved energy independence.
We will be able to look to the future with confidence as we expand into the high frontier of space.
Sun Power Chapter 15 Table of Contents