The Beam is the Dream

By Gary Michael Church

A year after the last Apollo mission and, which, as it turned out, was the end of the space age, Peter Glaser was awarded a patent for the Solar Power Satellite. This concept remains the only path to satisfying the energy demands of humankind without wrecking the fragile ecosystem that same humankind depends on for survival. As climate change becomes more disruptive year by year the Solar Power Satellite (SPS) is fast becoming the last hope of avoiding catastrophic damage to the environment. It is not only the promise of cheap electricity that space solar energy holds the key to. The energy beamed down to Earth can also be beamed to launch vehicles and used to super-heat hydrogen for propulsion. Beam propulsion would provide twice the efficiency of chemical rockets and allow for single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) commercial spaceflight. Beyond powering civilization and enabling migration into space, building on ever larger scales could eventually accelerate city sized Starships out of the solar system at a percentage of the speed of light. Of course if the SPS is such a miracle machine one must ask why we do not have any.

The hundred or so immense Solar Power Satellites in Geostationary Earth Orbit to beam down electricity to power the human race in the 21st century would have a mass of several million tons. In terms of the fleets of ships that travel the oceans this tonnage is miniscule but placing such mass 22,236 miles above the Earth does not seem a problem that can be solved with a shipyard. Interestingly, the problem may indeed be solved with shipyards. The Space Power Satellite concept was first described by Glaser in 1968 and a half century later it would appear that no technology has yet been devised to make the miracle of energy from space a reality. Space solar energy has never had a very good reputation and is generally not considered any more credible than Jack-in-the-beanstalk space elevator schemes. But in fact, the technology to place these Solar Power Satellites in orbit has been available from the start and originates in the before-mentioned shipyards. Solid fuel rocket boosters in the 15 million pound thrust range were studied in the early 60’s and would be built using submarine hull technology in shipyards. But these super-heavy lift launch vehicles would still not be effective at lifting the necessary millions of tons of mass. The answer to the lift problem is to build the Space Power Satellites in underground factories on the Moon.

The super-heavy lifters can transport factory components from the Earth to the Moon. The same H-bombs used to create artificial lunar caves for underground factory space can also be used to lift the millions of tons of Solar Power Satellite from the surface into space. Problem solved and Jules Verne would have approved. Once this infrastructure is established and power is being beamed to Earth then the next phase using beam propulsion will allow large scale migration into space and enable the construction of artificial moons. This was the dream of another space visionary; Gerard K. O’Neill. He foresaw a space power satellite industry as a way to finance the even larger project of building artificial worlds as the next great frontier. Beam propulsion could indeed enable a constant flow of millions of people every year to these cities in space until eventually the population of Earth would dwindle to a fraction of the present billions. O’Neill believed in the end of poverty and overpopulation and the Earth returned to a pristine state, existing more as a natural park to be visited than a place to live. Zero gravity and microwave energy facilitate the manufacture of immense metal spheres that can be formed much like molten glass is blown to make bottles. Exactly how large these spheres can be made is a fascinating engineering question. These spheres would spin and thus provide artificial gravity on the inner surface at the equator. If these artificial worlds can be built large enough and strong enough they could be humankinds first Starships. The most amazing fact of all is there is no new technology required to make the dreams of Glaser and O’Neill a reality. All it takes is the leadership and will to act. A lack of imagination and the risk of failure is stalling the new age. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

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