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5.12.7 Political History of the SPS

The SPS concept was first introduced by Dr. Peter Glaser of Arthur D. Little, Inc., in 1968. However, the concept was a bit premature for its time due to the abundance of cheap energy in the 1960s and the newness of the space program.

Most significantly, SPS was beyond the willingness of the private sector for investment, since considerable research and development was needed up front, the payback time was well beyond a few years, and the risk was high.

It would be preferable for the private sector to develop SPS independent of government support, but purely private sector funding of SPS is still unrealistic at this time without much existing space infrastructure.

At the end of the Apollo program in 1972, the U.S. political leadership had changed in character, and other problems were consuming the current leaders. Despite support for the space program by the American people, lack of vision and ineffective leadership resulted in the government-led U.S. space program shrinking dramatically rather than moving on to a major next step towards space development.

In 1973-74, the Arab Oil Embargo, due to Western countries supporting Israel and an Israel-Arab war, caused an energy shortage, skyrocketing energy prices, and a worldwide economic recession. Contrary to traditional economics, economic stagnation and price inflation occurred at the same time, and the term "stagflation" was invented in these oil embargo months.

When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, he created the U.S. Department of Energy to address ways of dealing with overdependence on Middle East oil and other energy problems. One project was a $20 million set of high profile studies to analyze the feasibility of launching SPSs up from Earth, called the Solar Power Satellite (SPS) Concept Development and Evaluation Program (CDEP). Eventually, the study involved the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), NASA, and the Department of Commerce, who in turn contracted out to a large number of corporations, universities, and research labs. It was a major effort, producing shelves of reports on technical analyses, specifications and alternatives, as well as a fairly thorough environmental assessment.

The SPS study began with the assumption that the SPS would be manufactured on Earth and launched from Earth, including all infrastructure and fuel propellants. There was initially no analysis of using asteroidal or lunar materials.

After a few years of analyses, the eventual conclusion was that it was technically feasible and environmentally safe, but the economics and risk looked very bad because too much material needed to be blasted up from Earth to make the SPSs and establish the necessary infrastructure in space.

However, the option of using materials already in space -- asteroidal and/or lunar materials -- was not considered until after reports on the 100% Earth-launched concept were pretty much complete and being submitted to Congress, and the bad press was out on SPS before asteroidal and lunar materials had really been considered. Indeed, there were stinging criticisms about how much money was spent on SPS research and development relative to other alternative energy research proposals.

Nevertheless, the volumes of analyses and research reports will eventually prove to be one of the best investments in history, as it provided solid groundwork for what will become our biggest power source in the 21st century.

The asteroidal and lunar materials utilization concepts were in their infancy at that time, but Ed Bock of the General Dynamics Corporation's Convair Division in San Diego, California led a study into using lunar materials, which showed an improvement in the overall economics for making SPSs. Without redesigning the SPS, only substituting parts readily producible from lunar materials, General Dynamics came out with a 90% lunar-derived SPS. The 3-volume report that eventually came out in 1980 was remarkably detailed.

The SPS from lunar material design is shown in the figure below.

PowerSat from Lunar Materials

Likewise, a report from the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, headed by Dr. Rene H. Miller, provided a detailed design of a space manufacturing facility totally dedicated to making solar power satellites from lunar materials, assessing alternative techniques in a massive three volume report.

Both the General Dynamics and MIT studies showed the feasibility of making SPSs from lunar materials. Both were extremely conservative studies, not considering asteroidal material, based largely on Apollo-era technology, assuming all industry in space was dedicated to SPS production and paid for 100% by SPS revenues, assuming no bootstrapping but instead suddenly launching up all industry and fuel propellants, and not redesigning the SPS for lunar materials optimization. Nonetheless, the feasibility and economics of making the baseline SPSs using lunar materials was clear. This work came out too late to make a difference for the SPS concept in the political arena; nonetheless, it was one of the first analyses showing the economic attractiveness of using materials already in space over blasting everything up from Earth.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President, largely due to the effects of the second oil shock of 1978-79 due to the Iranian Revolution, in which oil exports from Iran were disrupted. The resultant shortfalls in oil supply caused a 250% increase in oil prices which rocked the world economy and sent the USA into another recession. (Carter was also hurt by his inability to get a release of Americans taken hostage in Iran, amidst extraordinary covert political events in the election year.) Reagan's team, in addition to capitalizing on the situation in Iran and most of all the resultant worldwide economic recession, created an election platform which emphasized improving the economy and raising military spending.

Incredibly, one part of the Reagan Administration's platform to cut government spending was to eliminate the Carter-created Dept. of Energy, rationalizing that complete deregulation of the oil industry and energy tax incentives would solve the energy crisis without a need for long range government R&D. Indeed, the Reagan Administration tried to follow through on its election pledge. However, there was still enough political resistance to keep the Department of Energy from being closed down, though practically no new research and development into alternative energy was instituted and existing programs into alternative energy were cut dramatically. The vast majority of work by the changed Department of Energy was on nuclear materials and related to the Dept. of Defense's interests (being that the old Department of Energy operated nuclear materials facilities that were useful to the Department of Defense, and didn't show up in the Defense Department budget per se).

Nobody made a significant push for getting support for follow-on SPS R&D, including from lunar or asteroidal materials.

As soon as there was an oil glut in 1981 (thanks to recession and the coming on-line of major new oil production capacity in Saudi Arabia), attention on the political landscape quickly shifted away from energy issues and on to other issues. SPS faded further into the background.

Significantly, the SPS offered no quick solution to the energy crisis in particular, only a longtime solution, especially given the need to establish asteroidal or lunar mining infrastructure first.

The Reagan Administration did succeed in making history by creating the highest U.S. government budget deficits in history, mostly due to the tax cuts as promised in the election campaign combined with increased military spending. The historic deficits created a government debt and political tight money situation so severe that it was difficult to attain further government investments in long range research and development in many fields. Indeed, the most significant spending on PERMANENT-related items came from the Defense Department as part of SDI (aka "Star Wars"), e.g., the Clementine mission.

The private sector did not pick up the slack on SPS, as the private sector rarely invests in anything which has a payback time of more than a few years, especially large scale projects.

Most of the SPS data given in this chapter comes from Dept. of Energy reports from the late 1970s and the beginning of 1980s when the Carter Administration budgets were implemented.

A small study in the mid-1980s, funded privately by SSI, improved upon the baseline General Dynamics/MIT SPS scenario, including redesigning the SPS for lunar materials, resulting in a 99% lunar-derived SPS instead of the 90% lunar parts substitution within an Earth-launched design.

Research into the lunar and asteroidal materials utilization concepts in general picked up in the early 1980s, partly as a result of the SPS studies, but also due to other interests, e.g., space colonies, shielding for defense satellites, fuel propellants for use in orbit, materials for a variety of space structures and industry, and various other concepts which appear economically viable. However, SPS is the largest application proposed to date for economic utilization of lunar and asteroidal materials.

SPS will re-emerge as a leading alternative energy concept sooner or later. Another energy shortage could arise due to an escalating conflict somewhere in the volatile Middle East. Even if the Persian Gulf were to stay peaceful, the growth in energy needs of the less developed countries and the exhaustable oil resources on Earth will combine to make sure that there will be an oil shortage not long into the 21st century.

Even though the USA is one of the world's largest oil producers, it still imports more than 50% of its oil, mostly for transportation, and mostly from the Middle East. Europe is about 40% dependent on imported oil for its total energy consumption, and Japan about 70% for its total energy, the latter two using more oil for electricity generation.

The Reagan tax incentives for the private sector to develop alternative energy did not produce significant results, and deregulation of the oil industry did not lower oil imports. In fact, oil imports have increased steadily since the Reagan Adminstration's policy took effect.

Yet, for a small fraction of the money the US government spends preparing to try to militarily protect oil supplies to the world economy, we could be developing an alternative energy source which would dramatically reduce the world's consumption of oil whereby the effects of oil cutoffs would not be severe. As a spinoff, we would have additional space industries and space colonies, as well as environmental preservation and peace.

Some by-gones

If you find yourself dealing with the topic of SPS, there are two things you need to be aware of: two reports written to summarize for Congressmen and policymakers the findings of the technical "SPS" reports.

The first report was by the National Research Council (NRC) and received the greatest press coverage by far. It said the SPS was probably technically feasible and environmentally acceptable, but was much too expensive. However, it was published before the NRC had read lunar material utilization reports, and the NRC authors dodged that field by stating in passing that a program to utilize lunar & asteroidal materials would just add costs to the project. After professionals responsible for the lunar materials utilization effort protested that conclusion as made without basis or justification, the NRC panelists reconsidered and reached the "consensus that indeed the NRC study had not addressed the lunar materials alternative and could really make no responsible statement about that alternative". However, the initial published report had already out been out for more than a year, the issue was forgone with the general public and policymakers, and the above was recorded only as a note in esoteric newsletters.

A second report written for Congress and policymakers was by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), released after the NRC report. Its evaluation of the SPS issue was much the same as the NRC's but with the exception of the lunar and asteroidal materials issue, which the OTA portrayed as a new idea which could hold substantial merit and should be evaluated in further study.

The OTA report was late in coming, however, as by then the SPS concept had been put aside, an energy glut existed, and the Dept. of Energy's budget on true energy R&D had been slashed by the Reagan Administration.

There has been recent (as of 1998) interest and funding for SPS studies, but again they are on making solar power satellites on Earth and blasting them up to orbit. Some of that is wasteful spending because launching it all up from Earth is unrealistic. If we're going to build them largely from asteroidal and/or lunar materials, then we need to design them accourdingly. It is lazy to want to narrow the scope of the study by not wanting to do work on considering asteroidal and lunar materials for building solar power satellites. We don't just need more money into established beltway bandits' pockets. We need realistic, wholistic solutions.

The Solares concept

Another concept that comes up from time to time is "Solares", the concept of locating simple mirrors in space to reflect sunlight to ground-based solar cell arrays. The case for Solares is that only simple mirrors need be put into space. Unfortunately, there are several problems with Solares -- economic, engineering and environmental.

Environmentally, it would produce a lot of waste heat in the environment. Good solar cells are only about 15-30% efficient. That's 70% to 85% waste heat. In the SPS concept, that waste heat is left in space. Only the 85% efficient (15% waste heat) rectenna produces heat. Also, in Solares, you get considerable night glow which can disrupt wildlife and people.

Solares would also be unable to provide power when there were clouds, unlike the SPS beam. Utilities, factories and homes can't shut down just because of passing clouds, and the need for sufficient electrical storage (still a gamble...) adds costs.

Finally, the laws of physics quickly show the engineering and economic infeasibility as well. A mirror high enough to avoid Earth's shadow does not produce a spot on Earth of the same size, due to the size of the Sun and the distances involved. It makes a spot much larger, e.g., 330 kilometers (200 miles). The ground-based power plant would be need to be enormous, which goes against the practical preferences of utilities.

To provide noontime power intensity would require a mirror about the same size in space as the solar cell array on Earth. Multiple mirrors in lower orbits coordinated together would help, but their size is still immense. Solares does not offer the advantages of the SPS's focussed, phased array radio beam. Reflecting unprocessed solar energy is just too crude.

However, a small Solares capacity in a lower orbit would be able to protect crops from unseasonable freezing temperatures and light up disaster areas at nighttime for relief efforts. > Products and Services > Solar Power Satellites (PowerSats) > Politics

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