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1970s SSP concept illustration
Space solar power satellite concepts have been proposed for many decades. ĘThis artist illustration dates from the 1970s. (credit: NASA)

Knights in shining armor

The Pope! How many divisions has he got?
— Joseph Stalin

You may not have noticed, but the space activist community is all worked up about space solar power (see “A renaissance for space solar power?”, The Space Review, August 13, 2007). It is now the topic of much conversation whenever a group of space enthusiasts get together. It was recently on the cover of the National Space Society’s magazine Ad Astra. The upcoming NewSpace 2008 conference will feature a panel on it. The International Space Development Conference in Washington, DC featured no less than three—yes, three—sessions on space solar power, or SSP, to use the shorthand term, plus a dinner speaker who addressed the same subject. With all of this attention, one would suspect that there has been a fundamental technological breakthrough that now makes SSP possible, or a major private or government initiative to begin at least preliminary work on a demonstration project. But there has been none of this. In fact, from a technological standpoint, we are not much closer to space solar power today than we were when NASA conducted a big study of it in the 1970s.

With all of this attention, one would suspect that there has been a fundamental technological breakthrough that now makes SSP possible, or a major private or government initiative to begin at least preliminary work on a demonstration project. But there has been none of this.

The reason that SSP has gained nearly religious fervor in the activist community can be attributed to two things, neither having to do with technical viability. The first reason is increased public and media attention on environmentalism and energy coupled with the high price of gasoline. When even Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are advertised with a global warming message, it’s clear that the issue has reached the saturation point and everybody wants to link their pet project to the global warming discussion. SSP, its advocates point out, is “green” energy, with no emissions—other than the hundreds, or probably thousands, of rocket launches needed to build solar power satellites. The second reason is a 2007 study produced by the National Security Space Office (NSSO) on SSP. The space activist community has determined that the Department of Defense is the knight in shining armor that will deliver them to their shining castles in the sky.

Space activists, who are motivated by the desire to personally live and work in space, do not care about SSP per se. Although all of them are impacted by high gasoline prices, many of them do not believe that global climate change is occurring; or if they do believe it, they doubt that humans contribute to it. Instead, they have latched on to SSP because it is expedient. Environmental and energy issues provide the general backdrop to their new enthusiasm, and the NSSO study serves as their focal point. Many people now claim that “the Department of Defense is interested in space solar power.”

But it is not true.

The NSSO study is remarkably sensible and even-handed and states that we are nowhere near developing practical SSP and that it is not a viable solution for even the military’s limited requirements. It states that the technology to implement space solar power does not currently exist… and is unlikely to exist for the next forty years. Substantial technology development must occur before it is even feasible. Furthermore, the report makes clear that the key technology requirement is cheap access to space, which no longer seems as achievable as it did three decades ago (perhaps why SSP advocates tend to skip this part of the discussion and hope others solve it for them). The activists have ignored the message and fallen in love with the messenger.

But in this case, the activists touting the NSSO study do not understand where the NSSO fits into the larger military space bureaucracy. The National Security Space Office was created in 2004 and “facilitates the integration and coordination of defense, intelligence, civil, and commercial space activities.” But any office that “facilitates” the activities of other organizations has limited influence, especially when those other organizations are much bigger and have their own interests and connections to the senior leadership. The NSSO has a minimal staff and budget and does not command any assets—it does not fly any satellites, launch any rockets, or procure any hardware, all of which are measures of power within the military space realm. Simply put, the NSSO exists essentially as a policy shop that is readily ignored by the major military space actors such as Strategic Command, Air Force Space Command, and the National Reconnaissance Office whenever it suits them. As one former NSSO staffer explained, the office consists of many smart, hardworking people who have no discernible influence on military space at all. In fact, for several years there have been persistent rumors that the NSSO was about to be abolished as unnecessary, irrelevant, and toothless.

Add to this the way in which the NSSO’s solar power satellite study was pursued—the study itself had no budget. In Washington, studies cost money. If the Department of Defense wants advice on, say, options for space launch, they hire an organization to conduct the study such as the RAND Corporation, or they employ one of their existing advisory groups such as the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. All of this requires money to pay for the experts to perform the work. Even if the study is performed by a committee of volunteers, there are still travel, printing, staff support, overhead, and other expenses. Costs can vary widely, but at a minimum will start in the many tens of thousands of dollars and could run to a few million dollars. In contrast, the NSSO study of space solar power had no actual funding and relied entirely upon voluntary input and labor. This reflects the seriousness by which the study was viewed by the Pentagon leadership.

It is nonsensical for members of the space activist community to claim that “the military supports space solar power” based solely on a study that had no money, produced by an organization that has no clout.

If all this is true, why is the space activist community so excited about the NSSO study? That is not hard to understand. They all know that the economic case for space solar power is abysmal. The best estimates are that SSP will cost at least three times the cost per kilowatt hour of even relatively expensive nuclear power. But the military wants to dramatically lower the cost of delivering fuel to distant locations, which could possibly change the cost-benefit ratio. The military savior also theoretically solves some other problems for SSP advocates. One is the need for deep pockets to foot the immense development costs. The other is an institutional avatar—one of the persistent policy challenges for SSP has been the fact that responsibility for it supposedly “falls through the cracks” because neither NASA nor the Department of Energy wants responsibility. If the military takes on the SSP challenge, the mission will finally have a home.

But there’s also another factor at work: naïveté. Space activists tend to have little understanding of military space, coupled with an idealistic impression of its management compared to NASA, whom many space activists have come to despise. For instance, they fail to realize that the military space program is currently in no better shape, and in many cases worse shape, than NASA. The majority of large military space acquisition programs have experienced major problems, in many cases cost growth in excess of 100%. Although NASA has a bad public record for cost overruns, the DoD’s less-public record is far worse, and military space has a bad reputation in Congress, which would never allow such a big, expensive new program to be started.

Again, this is not to insult the fine work conducted by those who produced the NSSO space solar power study. They accomplished an impressive amount of work without any actual resources. But it is nonsensical for members of the space activist community to claim that “the military supports space solar power” based solely on a study that had no money, produced by an organization that has no clout.


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