Being at the National Press Club, there were a number of real reporters there - we'll see what actual coverage this gets, but I think it could be the start of something very important - or at least very interesting. A full review below.
Close to 50 people filled the 13-th floor conference room at the National Press Club for the event. Included were several in uniform from NSSO, and several DoD people not in uniform including Maj. Gen. James Armor past director of NSSO, who I was introduced to later in the morning. The meeting kicked off with an introduction from George Whitesides of the National Space Society, who talked briefly about the future of energy on the planet and this particular solution, space based solar power, and its enormous potential.
Mark Hopkins of NSS then announced the formation of the new SSAFE alliance, a group of non-profit organizations that have come together to support space-based solar power; representatives from at least four of the organizations were present (NSS, the Space Power Association, the Space Frontier Foundation, and Sharespace). Hopkins expounded on the potential of SBSP: first of all it's the largest energy option, with far more power available than all the others combined. The sun puts out trillions of times more energy than the world now uses. Secondly, as the report finds, SBSP is potentially the greenest, most environmentally benign energy option. Even better in that regard than ground-based solar.
The reason for the military interest is largely strategic: we now have a dependence on foreign energy sources, many in unstable regions of the world. SBSP could turn the US into an energy exporting nation. SBSP also has the potential to greatly increase the total economic wealth of the world - with a factor of 7 or a bit more, given population growth, the whole world would have access to as much energy as the average American does now. No other energy option offers that potential for world-wide energy prosperity, and SBSP offers it in a manner that is environmentally benign.
Mankins led the "Fresh Look" study of space solar power at NASA 13 years ago. At the time, oil was $13/barrel, the internet bubble was attracting all available capital, and total solar installations worldwide were still well under 1000 MW (peak). In the last decade, all of that has changed.
Mankins reviewed the history of previous studies on SBSP in the United States. The initial excitement came in the 1970s, with industry and government studies. The technical barriers were believed not large, unlike fusion. However, the economics of the concept at the time did not work; there was a need for huge amounts of space infrastructure, 100's of billions of dollars before you could first see any useful output.
There was then a hiatus from 1980 to the mid 1990s. At that point, as the "Fresh Look" study found, there were fundamental changes in technology that made things potentially much less expensive. Improvements in robotics and electronics made new system concepts feasible. However the economic case was still not there, and there were some bureaucratic issues with whose "job" it was to go further, which led to a halt in progress again in 2001.
Since the "Fresh Look" over 10 years ago, innovation and progress have continued, in some cases at an even faster pace than they projected:
There are now new models of how space solar power can be pursued. Broader markets are available: synthetic fuel production, for example, or addressing power to remote off-grid or unstable regions. A number of challenges still remain:
But there is now an opportunity for near-term action: a large-scale demonstration is achievable within a decade, not 50 years away now.
A short video was then presented, showing a SBSP satellite system end-to-end. Video was from Kris Holland of Mafic studious; the images shown here are stills from the video provided by NSS and Mafic.
Col. Damphousse was standing in for Col. Coyote Smith who really led the project at NSSO; Smith had to be elsewhere today. It was emphasized this was a "no-funding" "phase 0" study - Col. Smith and the others involved worked on it on their own time over the past year, and all the outside advice came from volunteers using internet communications. The discussions included an open site supported by the Space Frontier Foundation at spacesolarpower.wordpress.com where anybody on the internet could provide input and see what was going on. The expert discussion was held at the same time using a closed forum hosted by Google.
Col. Smith was surprised by the level of interest. They had expected to involve only a dozen or so experts on the subject; in the end they have had 170 people involved, with past records across a wide spectrum of support for SBSP (disclosure: I was one of the "experts" in the group, for whatever that's worth...)
Having no funding may make it sound like this wasn't given much support, but NSSO officials have been quite supportive through words and actions, with acting director Rouge signing a foreword to the final (interim) report. The charter given at the start was to find out "how space-based solar power can help the United States in the first half of the 21st century". The report found it does indeed have potential to provide affordable, clean, safe, reliable, sustainable, expandable (essentially inexhaustible) energy for the people of the US, and the world.
Focus areas for the study included:
The overarching conclusions were that SBSP provides a strategic opportunity for the US by potentially advancing our security, capability, and freedom of action. SBSP merits significant further study and demonstration on the part of the United States so that the commercial sector can step in. Challenges remain, and the business case does not close with present technology. The report advocates a government-led proof-of-concept program, starting in small incremental steps to a large-scale demonstrator.
Examples of incremental steps include transmitting power on the ground across, say, 200 nautical miles. Transmitting power in space, space-craft to space-craft. Beaming power from space to a ground station. Ultimately providing 5-10 MW in GEO to spur commercial development.
There is a clear need for reusable launch vehicles to reduce the cost to orbit. It needs a coordinaed national program with high-level resources and leadership on a level with ongoing efforts to harness fusion, or the efforts to build the Interational Space Station.
There is a broad interest in the program across the commercial and entrepreneurial sectors, and in other countries too. If we move to slowly or don't pursue this at all, we may easily be passed.
The scope of the study was broad; there's a need for further study, and many further questions:
Central recommendations of the report:
The need for incremental progress is in the size of funds venture capital can make available - 10's of millions of dollars, not 100's or billions. Real returns have to be in a small number of years for private investment.
Lt. Col. Damphousse mentioned the need for beamed power in the field (Iraq!) - beamed power would be a great benefit there. Damphousse acknowledged the work of Mike Hornichek and Pete Garretson as main writers of the report.
Miller stated that the SFF believes the US government should initiate a major national project on this, at least on the level of support for fusion research. The NSSO study shows the possibility of closing the energy business case for some markets within just 10-15 years, not the 50 years people sometimes talked of. The energy market is a trillion dollar/year market (just in the US). If this takes off, the Apollo, space shuttle, and ISS will look like college science projects next to the real space age it will bring about.
The reason the business case can close so soon is the existence of near-term customers who have no other option potentially willing to pay $1-2/kWh for beamed-in power. In particular, DoD field operations that currently rely on long and deadly supply chains to bring in fuel oil. They are paying more than that for electricity at some bases in Iraq now, not even including the cost in lives lost.
This military need changes the economic equation. So there's DoD interest at a tactical level just for this reason.
There's also DoD interest at the strategic level - doing this may be key to preventing future wars and disasters.
The recommendations are for reasonable and appropriate steps taken by the federal government: become an "anchor tenant", reduce the technical risks. Take other reasonable steps to reduce risks and incentivize development. Loan guarantees for instance, the same incentive that's been given to nuclear operators for years. Extend pollution offsets and renewables subsidies to this. Investment tax credits for this and for development of reusable launch vehicles.
With these reasonable steps, within 10-15 years the case will close. And some people think it will be even sooner.
There won't be "one small step" this time, but it is a real challenge in the objective put before us today. He was pleased the military services had seen this need, in this challenge that could really pay off in the future security of the nation. Meeting this challenge stimulates so many other areas - inspiring young people, giving us real access to space, giving us the high frontier that will let us accomplish so many other human objectives. Doing this will be a major step forward.
Aldrin has a group of engineers that has been working on reusable boosters for a long time. He's hopeful that the need for space access for a program like this could be melded with the launch requirements in the vision for human exploration that's going forward at NASA. The rate of launch needed to support the lunar or Mars program is not high enough to motivate reusability, but combined with this undertaking, the case is there.
It's our responsibility to make the investments today, not to wait till the nation needs to catch up again. These technical developments will open up the space frontier; many of us want to see that. This will mean putting more and more people in space, not just suborbital, but in orbit. That means vertical launch, high flight rates. And it will open up the solar system.
This is a solution that's not just next week, next year, not just for us; this is a solution for all mankind. Just as we went to the Moon and came in peace for all, the challenge now is to look for energy for all mankind.
Question: What's the timeline?
Lt.Col. Damphousse: we can start work on the demonstration projects I outlined immediately. It's not a stretch to prepare equipment to put on the space station to demonstrate beaming, to test other components.
Charles Miller: with government support this could take off in less than 10 years with very large amounts of power starting in about that time frame. This would bring in billions of dollars of private industry investment.
Followup question: Can private industry do it on its own, or is government needed?
Charles Miller: the report goes into detail on that: there's a need for public-private partnership. Nothing is going to happen without government because you can't close the business case. If the government does the things we recommend: risk reduction, technology demo, etc. then the business case is there.
Followup question: it cannot be done without government help?
Charles Miller: that is the conclusion of the report. The business case cannot close yet without that partnership. We need government to make the reasonable steps in the report.
Question [Aviation Week]: How could the space station be used to demonstrate this?
John Mankins: the station is a tremendous infrastructure; "a new national laboratory" in space. It provides the capability to test a wide variety of devices and component technologies far more rapidly than you could anywhere else in space right now. We could use it to validate key concepts of operations: automated assembly, repair, maintenance; it could be a staging point for larger-scale demonstrations.
Followup Question: The station is in a low orbit, how would you use it to demonstrate power beaming?
Mankins: the station has about 150 kW; a few kW could be used, but it would be a low-power demo.
Damphousse: at a recent workshop on ISS this is exactly what they're looking for to put on it.
Question [Space News]: You would use the solar arrays on the ISS and tie in some sort of transmitter?
Followup question: Does a low-power demonstration like that really show that you can scale it up?
Mankins: some of the technology can be demonstrated that way. With some of the modular concepts you could visualize having a full module scalable once you've worked out the issues with a single one, and take it directly to the next step in the cycle. If it's not so modular, there are still subsystems that can be validated that way.
Followup question: what programs does NASA have now that would accept this?
Damphousse: the National Lab workshop was collecting ideas, but he's not sure how they're delivering them to NASA leadership.
Question [LA Times]: there is skepticism in the public about space issues given the Columbia accident etc. How will you be able to sell this to the public, and convince government this is not simply a risky space endeavor?
Damphousse: the key is the demonstrators. If you can show this can work, people will rapidly believe it's viable.
A lot of supporting technologies are part of this as well. There's the importance of some cheap way of accessing space. We've had a lot of starts and stops on that. A reusable launch vehicle makes this and a lot of other projects much more reasonable. That includes this project, what NASA is doing in exploration, needs within DOD, space tourism, and more.
One way to convince the public that they have at least jokingly about: beam power from orbit to the White House lawn to light up the national Christmas tree.
Charles Miller: another element of building public confidence will be timely and meaningful progress. Design of the programmatic pursuit/partnership has to involve regular accomplishments making progress toward the ultimate objectives. Every year, or year and a half, there should be a new milestone reached. The modular systems notion should allow staged and aggressive progress toward the ultimate objectives.
Followup question: How would you explain to the public how much energy this is, how cost effective it will be?
John Mankins: you have to look at costs in terms of the markets it's displacing. The initial markets will be early adopters with high costs. The first large-scale system will be on the scale of the Hoover Dam, enough power to light a city, but it may be directed to more than one ground location where the markets are. It will be a matter of identifying the new opportunities project by project.
Question [NPR]: Why is this report recommending it be done by another agency and not by the Defense Department? Why not DARPA? Who are you expecting to read this report and take action?
Damphousse: we're looking at security in the 21st century, but we don't see it as the military's role to build it. There is definitely a military role as an early adopter, and to help retire some of the risk. We'd like to enable whatever agency takes the lead to then take it forward.
It could be DARPA should take the lead. But the Department of Energy also has a new DARPA-like component that could take this on.