Alabama should lead in space solar power
Recently, a proposal that started in Alabama was crowned the top idea in diplomacy, development, and defense. From over 500 ideas, only the top 1 percent were selected to present to the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul Selva, his counterparts from the State Department, USAID, and an audience of 300 innovators. The Alabama proposal was the clear winner, taking four of seven awards. That idea – Space Solar Power – is the key to the next American Century. It will mean millions of high-tech, high paying jobs nationwide, with many in Alabama, but only if our state leaders work to bring those jobs here.
Space Solar Power is the idea of constructing orbital power stations that harvest the sun’s super-intense energy in space where it always shines and beaming it wirelessly via radio signals into the existing electrical power grids on the Earth. Being the first to establish Space Solar Power systems will establish who is the “Saudi Arabia of Green Energy.” Space Solar Power is as significant an industrial development as the airplane, the automobile, the locomotive, or the steam ship. It will determine which is the richest and most powerful nation on earth and beyond.
This isn’t some hair-brained idea. It has been reviewed by the Pentagon, the International Astronautics Association (IAA), the American Association of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), the National Research Council (NRC) and many others. It is “shovel ready” for America to get started. If we don’t, another society, another civilization will. Already China is ahead in the only space race that matters – a competition that will decide who writes the rules in the multi-hundred-of-trillions-of-dollars economy that will emerge (yes, you read that right). They have a national program in Space Solar Power. America does not. That’s a problem. At least we think it is a problem, and we have served in various positions as Chiefs of Advanced Technologies and Future Concepts for the Air Force at the Pentagon. All the while we provided strategic advice to the Chiefs of Staff and the Secretaries of the Air Force.
For about one-tenth what we spent on the International Space Station (ISS), we could orbit our first prototype PowerSat. That is about the same cost as another energy project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a fusion experiment in France. While the ITER will not give us commercial fusion, and the International Space Station delivers international goodwill and not much else, a Space Solar Power demo would lay the groundwork for American companies to supply the emerging 55 terrawatt market of green electricity (a $7 trillion/year growing to $21 trillion market), capture the resulting five-million new jobs, and capture the resulting multi-million metric ton transportation market or a burgeoning aerospace nation.
Don’t believe us? You don’t have to. Nobody would have believed the span and scale of our highway system and number of cars when oil and horseless carriages were first invented. Few could conceive that the Wright-Flyer would in a few short years give way to jet-powered intercontinental passenger aviation on aluminum airplanes taking off every two minutes from thousands of airfields globally. But some see it. Northrop-Grumman is investing $17 million in CALTECH to build this idea. The vision videos from Boeing and United Launch Alliance (ULA) both mention it – what do they know that you don’t? And last summer, the progressive Sheik Al Maktoum of Dubai was looking to raise $18 Billion to pursue the idea. He intends to light the pavilion of the World Expo being hosting in his country in 2020 with Space Solar Power, and invited US companies and experts to present their ideas.
As good as it sounds, America is behind. China’s program has real money. So does Japan’s. Both have road maps. China – the country that built the massive three gorges dam, completed its Shanghai maglev high speed rail in just three years--is planning a hundred kilowatt on-orbit demo just nine years from now, and a hundred megawatt demo five years later. They have even released a video of their already mature design.
What is Alabama doing? If Alabama moved purposefully, it has the expertise and the infrastructure to capture a large portion of this market and global investment. Near term, as the design effort on the Space Launch System (SLS) winds down at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, they are likely to lose over 1,000 jobs. A national program to design the prototype would mean millions-of-dollar influx into the Huntsville economy – first for design work, then for manufacturing.
Our winning proposal sought to spend $10 Billion on a demo over the next ten years. Using standard economic figures, the demo program would generate 171,000 new jobs, infusing about $5 billion into satellite and component manufacturers, and about $5 billion to existing launch providers.
But that kind of innovation doesn’t just happen. It takes sponsorship and legislation. It takes a hungry community with a plan to capture the market and bring jobs and companies here. It takes universities with a powerful vision of the future that want to establish themselves.
So, what needs to be done? First the Alabama office of economic development should lead a co-visioning effort with the chamber of commerce and state legislature to discover Alabama’s vision for itself in this new age of space industrialization. Second, Alabama’s universities should formalize their efforts on Space Solar Power and space industrialization as named centers of excellence to create a place where federal and commercial dollars can flow. Third, Alabama’s representatives should look to place the homegrown Alabama vision for this future space development into legislation in a way that both the nation and the state benefit. Alabama should move quickly – the future won’t wait.
Peter Garretson is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. M.V. “Coyote” Smith is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.