There is a new space race. It’s a race to harvest solar energy in space, a project that could eliminate fossil fuels, could reduce energy-related greenhouse gases to zero, and, in the words of United Launch Alliance, one the biggest launchers of space payloads in North America, could lift every poor person on the planet out of poverty.
For the last eight years, the Space Military Industrial Complex has opposed space solar power. But that opposition has just changed into something remarkable: support. Whole hearted, full-fledge support. And Space Military Industrial Complex support can change things utterly. Why? Because the SMIC has one of the biggest, most powerful lobbying and publicity machines in Washington. And it has money. Two huge space military industrial complex companies have committed to space solar power. One is the firm that until recently had the American government launch business in a headlock, United Launch Alliance, a joint enterprise between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The other is Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman announced a $17.5 million space solar power development project with Caltech on April 20, 2015. And ULA has thrown its hat into the space solar power ring with a new video for a project it calls CisLunar 1000. Why are major Space Military Industrial Complex Companies suddenly interested in space solar power? United Launch Alliance may have provided the explanation in its Cislunar 1000 video, which you can find at http://blog.nss.org/united-launch-alliance-cislunar-1000/. In that video, ULA coins a revolutionary new phrase, “the gross space product.” The GSP is the total per year produced by something previously unheard of: a space economy. The space economy may be a new concept, but today that space economy, says ULA, is already worth a third of a trillion dollars. Thirty years from now, says ULA, it will be $2.7 trillion. A startling figure.
And ULA has claimed the major share of the space-economy with its video. How does ULA plan to cart away the biggest part of the space pie? With a technique it calls “smart engine reuse,” reusing some of the engines of its launch rockets and throwing the other pieces away. With fully reusable in-space vehicles. And with space-based propellant depots to refuel its reusable in-space vehicles.
But will the Gross Space Product bonanza really belong to ULA? Not if four other companies have any say in the matter. The company way out in the lead thanks to its fixation on reusable launch vehicles is, of course, SpaceX, with its one successful landing of a launch rocket on terra firma and with three failed attempts to land on an autonomous barge at sea, attempts from which SpaceX is rapidly learning lessons. Most of SpaceX failures have been successes in disguise. The SpaceX rockets have successfully launched satellites into orbit before they’ve failed to land.
At number two is Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, with a successful landing of a reusable Shepard launch rocket April 29, 2015 and with a world first—the reuse of that Shepard rocket on a second successful trip to suborbital space and a return landing on earth in November 2015. Unlike SpaceX, these have been test flights—they’ve carried no cargo and have performed no commercial missions. At number three may be Sierra Nevada with its Dream Chaser which just won a Commercial Resupply Services contract from NASA to resupply the International Space Station. The Dream Chaser looks very much like the Space Shuttle. Like the Shuttle, it lands like an airplane. And, behind Sierra Nevada may be Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Not to mention Orbital Sciences.Then there are likely to be space race entrants from Russia, Europe, India, and China.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk is not a fan of space solar power. But once his launch rocket’s reusability kicks in, he will lower the cost of building space solar power satellites dramatically. Meanwhile, The Defense Department is sponsoring a “shark tank” style competition for new technologies capable of dramatically upgrading humanity and increasing peace, a hunt for the best technological ideas that could simultaneously advance diplomacy, development and defense. It’s called the D3 competition.The D3 contest has pitted 500 teams from the State Department, the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense against each other.
One of those 500 teams advocates space solar power. That team is one of the six that has made it to the semi-finals and will enter the final competition early in February. The space solar power team includes two Professors from the US Air Force’s Center for Space Innovation at Air University, both of whom are former heads of Pentagon advanced concept shops, a space robotics expert from the Naval Research Lab, a representative from Northrop Grumman, the former head of NASA advanced concepts, an expert from the Joint Staff Logistics and Energy division, a DARPA program manager, a 3-star general, and members of the Space Development Steering Committee.
The D3 space solar power team proposes that America be the first nation to orbit a space solar power satellite prototype. If successful, that would put the US in the running in a race for national honor and for national commercial advantage, a race to be the first nation to tap solar power in space. China already has a robust space solar power program, so does Japan. Points out a member of the D3 team, “While Space Solar Power is part of the highest-level national goals of other nations, the US lags behind.” Despite the commitment of ULA and Northrop Grumman to SSP, the D3 space solar power team’s actions have produced what appear to be the highest-level discussions that space solar power has had in the government of the United States, including briefings for the science staff at the Department of State. Concludes a member of the D3 team, “Hopefully these high-level discussions won’t be the last. While the President of the world’s largest democracy, India, Dr. APJ Kalam publicly advocated Space Solar Power in multiple forums, and the UAE is looking to raise $18 billion for space solar power, the idea apparently hasn’t occurred to any of the current American Presidential Candidates.”