NASA, Other

Is the new administration charged up about space solar power?

The Wall Street Journal notes something that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention outside the space community: the apparent interest in Obama’s NASA transition team in space solar power (SSP). The transition web site, Change.gov, has been posting materials it has received and soliciting comments; one of those documents posted late last month was a position paper on SSP. That document was prepared and submitted by the Space Frontier Foundation and based on the 2007 National Security Space Office report on the issue. The document has, as of Friday morning, generated 287 comments, perhaps in part because it was one of the first such position papers published on Change.gov. It was also the only space-related one that turned up in a search [warning: may be only a temporary link] until Thursday, when several other briefings, from groups and companies ranging from the Association of Space Explorers to the X PRIZE Foundation, were posted.

While SSP advocates are pleased with the buzz they’re getting, the question remains open about how much real interest in SSP there is among the NASA transition team, as well as the overall transition team. One of the key issues with SSP over the years has been finding it a home: should it be in NASA, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, or someplace else? On that front, one thing to keep in mind is President-elect Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu, a Nobel laureate physicist and director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As LBL director he has pushed alternative energy research, including Helios, a project to study “storing” solar power in the form of renewable fuels; Science described him last year as “on a crusade to make solar power work” [subscription required]. However, it appears that Chu has been silent, in public at least, on space-based solar power.

15 comments to Is the new administration charged up about space solar power?

  • sc220

    The following email was sent out to participants in NASA’s recent study of a Space Station-based Space-to-Earth power beaming experiment. The effort was unfortunately terminated.

    The current attitude at NASA appears to be very opposed to this and any other activity that doesn’t tote the ESAS/Constellation line. If the new Administration wants to get NASA engaged in efforts that are relevant to the Nation’s needs, it needs to replace Griffin and much of NASA management.

    _____________________________________________
    From: Henderson, Edward M. (JSC-MG)
    Sent: Thursday, December 11, 2008 4:57 PM
    Subject: SBSP Demo Team Termination

    Dear Team Members,

    It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that we have been asked to terminate all NASA’s support on the SBSP demo activity. This direction was just received from management and I wanted to pass it along to you as soon as possible to avoid wasting any more additional work that you have most graciously been volunteering. Management provided the following explanation:

    “The SBSP team has done some excellent work to identify options for an early demo of low TRL SBSP capabilities to support exploration. Currently, SOMD needs to focus on the tasks associated with near term operations of our current space transportation system and the ISS, as well as planning to transition existing capabilities to the constellation program. As a result, SOMD has determined that it does not have resources available to support a proposed demo for SBSP.

    I appreciate the team’s work and your individual efforts.”

    I would like to add my personal thanks for your professional support on this project, most of which was late hours on your own time not to interfere with your primary work on meeting the vision for exploration. I have led many projects during my tenure of more than 48 years and this has been one of the most rewarding. I thank you all again for your excellent support and I hope I have an opportunity to work with you in the future.

    Very Sincerely, Mack Henderson

  • Charles in Houston

    Now that The Obama Century has begun, and we are discarding that old thinking – the Administration is planning to repeal several laws of physics (you know, that stuff that is as old as dirt!) to make space solar power practical.
    There will also be an Executive Order, early in the Obama Administration, eliminating at least one law of Thermodynamics – and putting more progressive thinkers in charge of the principles of orbital dynamics. We need to move fast and we cannot allow a bunch of Old Dead Europeans to tell us what we can and cannot do!

  • You Lie

    the Administration is planning to repeal several laws of physics (you know, that stuff that is as old as dirt!) to make space solar power practical.

    Please feel free to give us references where anyone in the Obama administration has issued any exective order repealing any laws of physics. The names of individuals and the specific laws of physics repealed will do.

    You Texans sure like to lie. It must be a Bush thing.

  • It must be in the news. There is well written and generally positive feature in this week’s Economist magazine,

    Let the Sun Shine In

    – Donald

  • Kevin Parkin

    There was a debate on SSP this week at NASA Ames between Pete Worden and Gary Barnhard:

    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewsr.html?pid=30065

    Worden comprehensively debunked it as a credible policy option at this time.

  • SpaceMan

    Worden comprehensively debunked it as a credible policy option at this time.

    Do you know of any transcript, video etc available to the “unwashed rabble” out here or is it simply “insiders” only at this point ?

  • Gary Barnhard

    The debate on Space Based Solar Power held this week at Moffett Field between Pete Worden and myself did not comprehensively debunk anything, nor I must add, did it conclusively prove the contrary across all areas of application. The debate was intended to provide an entry point into the broader system engineering discussion that is absolutely essential for discerning the potential value of such endeavors.
    In this case “Value” is defined as as “a relative assessment of potential to produce a positive future situation”.

    Value = {Summation of Returns} -{Summation of Risks}

    Both Dr. Worden and I have agreed to review the material brought forward in our presentations in detail. After that is accomplished, the material from the debate will be annotated as appropriate with the supporting analysis and corresponding references and will be made available in one or more forums.

    The debate was part of the Advanced Technology Working Group (ATWG) fall workshop program held at Moffett Field this week. http://www.atwg.org/

  • chance

    the Administration is planning to repeal several laws of physics (you know, that stuff that is as old as dirt!) to make space solar power practical.

    What law of physics would need to be broken? Everything I’ve ever read says that SBSP may be impractical for engineering and/or cost reasons, but I’ve never heard any fundamental reasons why it couldn’t work.

  • SBSP Supporter

    KEVIN PARKIN: Worden comprehensively debunked it as a credible policy option at this time.

    Kevin,

    Gen. Worden won the debate for two reasons.

    1) Worden was the MUCH better debater. Worden was more knowledgeable, more skilled and more prepared for this debate than Barnhard. Mr. Barnhard was in way over his head, and did not seem to know it. It was if he was a kid playing in a man’s game and against somebody at the top of his game.

    To illustrate the mismatch, note that in Barnhard’s post above he wrote an equation in an attempt to persuade us. This is not effective communication. Kevin, you have a PhD from Caltech, but I doubt that you use equations to try persuade general audiences on your argument. Nuff said on this point.

    2) Dr. Worden attacked the basic arguments of those who are WAY-overselling SBSP … specifically, those who say “the business case closes”. In other words, Worden picked an easy debate to win.

    Why was the debate issue so tilted to Worden?

    Because the business case does NOT close at this time. The NSSO study report clearly reports it does not close.

    More relevantly ….

    Even though the NSSO study report acknowledges that the business case does not close, it still recommends that we invest in SBSP.

    We can support long-term research and development program in SBSP. It is the job of the federal government to pursue societal goods like SBSP.

    Yes, Dr. Worden was absolutely right to take away the kool-aid of the SBSP fanatics.

    But SBSP is still a credible policy option. There are credible and reasonable approaches to SBSP.

    - SBSP Supporter

  • SpaceMan

    the business case does NOT close at this time

    I would suggest that it DEPENDS on which business case you are trying to close as to the case closing or not. Different cases for different folks.

    Many miles to go yet.

  • If the business case closed, there would be no need for government money. What’s the problem here?

  • Gary Barnhard

    Curiously enough the “case” Dr. Worden was riling against was not the one I was making. I asserted that SBSP was not a panacea, and that while the business did not close in a traditional sense there was a case to be made for further work. More specifically, there were space-to-space and space-to-lunar applications, and the potential for space-to-Earth applications that held the promise of sufficient value to warrant the investment in the technology development and demonstration necessary to bring them forward.

    SBSP has great potential but is a very significant systems engineering challenge regardless of the venue of application.

    Enough said for now.

  • Vladislaw

    Gary, could a demonstrator program be large enough to power the ISS?

  • John Strickland

    To “Charles in Houston”: Please do not put space solar in the same category as ground solar. Ground solar is not only intermittent and very diffuse but requires non-existent cheap and efficient storage to make it usable for base load demand. (This is not knocking it, just the truth.) Space Solar Power is there “24/7″ and needs no storage. It is also 30% stronger than on the ground. In the past, green groups have been opposed to it just because it is a large, powerful and centralized energy source. We would and should be pitching SSP to whichever administration had taken power. I also know of no engineering “showstoppers”.

    The big current showstopper is still economics. There are a very few who say the business case for SSP closes (works) now. This is not true, since it is based on paper rockets that do not exist. The government has not helped very much with this, with its failed X-33 and National Aerospace Plane programs. Only private industry can realistically do it, since the government has no strong motive to reduce operating costs.

    What the government should NOT do is to fund a “demonstrator” that would try to transmit actual power. The media would then jump in and point out that each watt-hour cost millions of dollars, showing that SSP is a boondoggle. The government should fund critical engineering studies that are needed to prove that the SSP concepts would work, and that do NOT involve transmitting any power to the ground as a public demo.

  • Yair Barniv

    In the last sentence, John Strickland said “The government should fund critical engineering studies that are needed to prove that the SSP concepts would work, and that do NOT involve transmitting any power to the ground as a public demo.”

    To me, transmitting power to the ground constitutes 99.9% of the overall scheme; we already know that a solar panel exposed to the sun, whether on earth or in space, WILL produce electrical power.

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