Nothing Is Perfect

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Hank Dolben

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Sat, 2004 Feb 07

Solar Power Satellites
In my rant against the use of space colonization as an escape from environmental stewardship, I referred to The High Frontier by the late Gerard O'Neill. To be fair, I should point out that one of the justifications for colonization of space that O'Neill provided was the amelioration of humanity's impact on Earth's fragile ecosystems, most significantly by the use of Solar Power Satellites (SPS) which, by converting solar energy collected in space to microwave energy beamed to the surface of the Earth, have the potential of supplying huge amounts of renewable energy with only the impact of microwave receiver antennas on the ground and the allocation of some airspace to microwave beams. Even more important to the overall plan is that the economic benefit of manufacturing SPSs in space provides an incentive to the investment required for building orbiting space habitats. Analysis showed that it is much cheaper to mine materials from the moon and build manufacturing facilities in space than to manufacture the parts for an SPS on Earth and lift them into geosynchronous orbit for assembly.

The problem, which is not overlooked, but underestimated by O'Neill, is that before private capital could be induced to support SPS construction, the technical feasibility of the complete system, from mining and manufacturing to power generation and transmission, will have to be demonstrated in space. Environmental considerations alone should be enough to get some government to fund such a program, if only there were the long term vision and political will. Again, there's the rub. Over the last thirty years, there has been very little public support for a program to develop SPSs, even though it would give NASA a concrete purpose. Private support, through the Space Studies Institute, founded by O'Neill, has been small though enthusiastic.

The idea is by no means dead. There is still time to do it before environmental catastrophe makes any large investment untenable. It won't cure all the ills of the biosphere wreaked by the infestation of man, but it could help an enormous amount. (O'Neill's environmental naïveté is revealed in his contention that ecosystems on Earth could be restored when space colonization reduced the terrestrial human population. Well, something would grow in to replace the destroyed, unique ecosystems. Likewise, he writes of saving endangered species by providing habitat in space, as if we could create ecosystems we were unable to preserve.) Clearly the project would be larger than the practically useless International Space Station, but probably close in size to the pointless exercise of putting a man on Mars.

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