L5 News: L5 Speaks up to Department of Energy

by Carolyn Henson

From L5 News, June 1980

The L-5 Society is wrapping up a year-long evaluation of the Department of Energy (DOE) satellite power system (SPS) program. Funded by DOE and coordinated by former L-5 president Carolyn Meinel Henson, this project has solicited the views of the 3,000 people who were L-5 members in good standing as of May 1979.

This April, as part of the project, 3,000 people received “Some Questions and Answers About the Satellite Power System” (DOE/ER-0049/1), a document designed to answer questions concerned citizens had raised about the SPS project.

How did L-5ers respond to “Questions and Answers”?

“Personally, I’m getting mad as hell,” wrote one SPS supporter. “Let’s get this country moving again …. Fifteen years of soul searching and breast beating and vilification are enough. The road to the stars lies before us and we would be fools to turn aside from the journey.” Exclaimed another, “People need frontiers and dreams.” But not all L-5 members were sold on SPS. One respondent warned that “a little more research might show that space R&D [research and development] efforts should focus elsewhere.”

Getting down to specifics, people were concerned by the way the DOE refused to study the use of extraterrestrial materials for building SPS. DOE’s avoidance of this issue was so strong that “Some Questions and Answers About the SPS” completely evaded the issue of extraterrestrial resources. This was despite the fact that 70% of L-5 respondents called for the use of asteroidal resources to build SPS, and 53% called for lunar resource utilization in L-5’s October 1979 report to DOE.

L-5er’s unrest showed up, for example, in people’s responses to DOE’s handling of the question, “Will development of the SPS seriously deplete any of the Earth’s resources?” These comments universally lambasted DOE for ignoring extraterrestrial resources. “With all the studies showing the advantage of the space resources option, the DOE’s continued refusal to give it serious consideration is highly irresponsible. They didn’t answer a single question on space resources,” complained one reader. “This fact is more indicative of DOE’s attitude than all the questions they answered. I had little disagreement with their answers, but Nixon could have smelled like a rose in interviews if he got to choose the questions.”

Many people — about 40% — felt that the questions and answers glossed over environmental impacts, especially siting problems. While SPS development looks like a “good project to foster rapid space R&D, I am not sure that it represents a practical answer to our ground level energy dilemma,” observed one respondent. “Transmission to Earth antennas for ground level use seems to involve significant problems.” The Venus-level brightness, as seen from Earth, of the reference design SPS also drew fire. Besides the possible biological impact of a chain of new bright “stars,” one respondent lamented that this would be “quite disturbing to an amateur star gazer,” since the extra light would interfere with the viewing of dimmer objects. However, another astronomy enthusiast countered, “The single X-ray telescope in the orbiting Einstein laboratory — a far cry from an accessible space telescope, optical, X-ray or other — has almost revolutionized astronomy. Mourn the astronomers not!”

Ten percent of L-5ers simply did not believe DOE’s contention that “The SPS holds promise only for the long term, and could not make a significant contribution to electric supply for the next 25 years.” “I do not believe that a country that could go from steam to nuclear power in 50 years or that could develop an A-bomb in five years or put a man on the Moon in less than 10 years would have to wait 25 years for an SPS to come on line. If it does take that long it is a sad commentary on the leadership and inertia of the government,” fumed one reader. “Of course, considering the reports and red tape, perhaps 100 years would be a more reasonable estimate.” Another respondent agreed, adding, “Any price will increase one magnitude level if government is allowed to enter the program.”

Issues of safety and military impacts inspired many comments. One L-5er observed that, “The apparent redirection of a beam can raise the fear level of a poorly informed populace, as the fear of radiation did at Three Mile Island. The fact of safety (however safety is defined or measured) is often more important than the perception of safety, both for the actual populace and the manipulators of the same populace.”

Another pointed out that SPS would improve national security because “It will free the US and other countries from dependency on foreign energy sources in times of strategic necessity. This is especially important since the USSR appaently intends to gain control of the Middle East oil supplies.”

Hitting the extraterrestrial resources issue again, one observer noted that the “use of lunar materials is important in face of the fact that the USSR has control of 90% of the major raw materials needed for high technology development.”

Not surprisingly, L-5 members took a vivid interest in how to gain public and governmental backing for the SPS. “Most politicians will only fund the program if it helps them get reelected.” “The Skylab crash was due to failure of political, not technical support.” “I do not believe we are ever going to get this project off the ground until we can get people from all walks of life involved. The plumbers, welders, nurses and stock clerks … must be shown … there is something in it for them (either in space or on the ground) NOW! (that is, within the next five or 10 years) … Believe me I know. This is one question that continually arises when I discuss any space related concepts with people here in Honolulu.” “I don’t believe that the DOE would be interested at all if it were not for the fact that enough people put pressure on the agency.”

DOE’s “Questions and Answers” concludes with:

Does the DOE believe that SPS development will reinvigorate the U.S. internally and give it a renewed position of leadership abroad?

The DOE’s current interest is in determining the practicality of the SPS concept as an energy source. It is premature, and probably wrong, to assume that the development of the SPS alone would provide the lasting and profound impact on society that the question suggests. This is especially so when one considers the array of technical, environmental and societal problems which must be solved prior to assuming such a vast undertaking. However, the SPS, if it is to be built at all, may well be just one part of a reinvigorated program of space application and research that would enhance U.S. prestige on a worldwide basis.

Developments associated with transportation to space, space manufacturing and assembly and construction of large space structures are areas where technological leadership would he developed. The broad spectrum of technological challenges to implementing the SPS program might well keep the U.S. on the cutting edge of the technological advance for many years. SPS development would also provide an opportunity for significant international cooperation in exploring and exploiting the benefits of outer space and its resources. More importantly, perhaps, SPS development would provide badly needed energy to many countries of the globe with consequences that must on balance be beneficial, but largely unpredictable in terms of impact on the U.S.

Pretty brave words from DOE, huh? But not strong enough for one L-5er, who complained, “It is precisely hypercautious words like these which will bury the last of America. I agree that a ‘gung-ho!’ is currently premature — but when the decision is finally made (and it had better be soon!) somebody had better be shouting ‘gung-ho!’ not mumbling ‘feasible.’”

Carolyn Henson is a former president and founder of the L5 Society.