President Barack Obama says it’s a “Sputnik moment” for the U.S., but in his State of the Union speech he mentioned NASA only as part of the U.S. response to the original Soviet Sputnik.
Today the Soviet Union is gone, and NASA is in what The New York Times kindly calls a “muddle.” Clean, sustainable energy — and the jobs that go with it — is the goal Obama would like to see the U.S. tackle today, not the Moon.
There is a direct, specific way NASA could use the expertise it has gained since Sputnik to help reach that goal too. Unfortunately, it has gotten lost in the muddled attempts to refocus U.S. space policy on building a commercial space infrastructure in low Earth orbit.
Space Solar Power satellite concept/Mafic Studios, Inc.
The Sun sends a steady supply of clean, sustainable energy flowing through Earth orbit every day. The International Space Station runs on it, and so could the energy-hungry economies down here on the ground. NASA has repeatedly studied what it would take to catch some of that energy and plug it into the world’s electric grids, but the results are gathering dust. Developing space solar power (SSP) would cost more than exploring for more oil, the argument goes, and we need the energy today.
But it’s getting more expensive to find oil. Right now a bunch of wildcatters in Houston are looking for money to sink a single exploratory well into a promising undersea ridge off the coast of Angola called Gold Dust. They figure there’s only a one in three chance they’ll find oil, but if they do, it’s possible Gold Dust will hold 3 to 6 billion barrels of it. Unfortunately, there’s three miles of Atlantic Ocean over Gold Dust, which raises the cost of a single test hole to something like $100 million.
That exploration-cost curve is going to cross the SSP development-cross curve someday, not counting the environmental risks — demonstrated in the Gulf of Mexico — of deep-sea drilling, and the climate impact of burning fossil fuel.
Meanwhile, NASA and Congress are struggling to find a mission, and in times like these that makes the agency a fat target for the budget axe. Here’s a suggestion that might help. Use the space station as a platform for developing practical ways to beam solar power down to the surface. Japanese and U.S. scientists already have made a good start with terrestrial simulations, but there’s nothing like flight test to work out the bugs.
The sad fact is that about half of the U.S.-controlled space on the ISS — internal racks and external payload mounts — is going unused. NASA is trying to fill it, in part by offering it free-of-charge to potential users. That sounds like a commercial opportunity exactly in keeping with the Obama administration’s goals, and it probably would be a lot cheaper than drilling a potentially dry hole under a whole lot of water for $100 million.
Longer term, SSP would certainly offer plenty of payloads for the heavy-lift launch vehicle Congress has ordered NASA to build. Solar-collecting satellites need to be large, and a rocket able to send humans to explore asteroids and Mars would be more than powerful enough to get them into orbit. Once there, they could generate revenue as well as power for the orbiting economy Obama’s space gurus want to build.
Even with lightweight, deployable structures, SSP satellites would be huge. Concept: Mafic Studios, Inc.
Another fat target for the budget axe today is the Defense Department, which Obama highlighted again in his speech Tuesday night as a source of federal budget savings. The same U.S. aerospace skills that support the aircraft, missiles and satellites that the military uses could help build that off-planet economy, saving valuable jobs and maintaining U.S. competitiveness in the terrestrial economy.
Obama asked for innovation in meeting the energy problems of the U.S. and the rest of the world. There’s a $100 billion innovation orbiting overhead that might be a good place to start.