Space Power Chapter 5: Synergistic Effects

by G. Harry Stine

Copyright 1981 by G. Harry Stine
Reproduced with permission of the G. Harry Stine estate

Chapter 5: Synergistic Effects

A capital investment in a Solar Power Satellite system is not the same as investing the same money to obtain the same electric generating capacity from terrestrial sources. Although the costs per kilowatt (installed) are the same, there are definite short-term and long-term worldwide benefits that accrue if the capacity is built in space as an SPS system.

The primary benefit, of course, is the use of a renewable energy source. The SPS system is solar. But it is constant solar, available day or night, and solar energy that is transformed into electricity that can be delivered via power beams to inexpensive ground rectennas which in turn can deliver the energy on electric transmission lines to the place where the demand exists. There are no fuel allocation problems to be faced years down the line as there probably will be with terrestrial power plants using fossil fuels. SPS power is clean with minimal impact upon the natural environment.

But the most important benefit to the SPS system comes from the synergistic nature of the program.

“Synergy” is a fancy word that basically means there are systems in which two plus two can equal five or seven or even fifteen. In other words, the nature of the system is such that it creates new opportunities, activities, and systems because of itself. Its mere existence permits other things to happen as well as the thing it was originally created to accomplish.

The growth of technology over the past 200 years is a prime example of synergy.

One of the social and environmental synergies has already been mentioned: As the SPS system grows in the early decades of the 21st century, it takes over more and more of the baseload electrical requirements of the United States. This permits utility firms to retire the older generating plants that are expensive to maintain, that are environmentally unacceptable, that may be getting hazardous because of their increasing age, and that are inefficient. It permits us to shut down the nukes, if we want to, without causing severe energy shortages. This in itself is a strong motivation for undertaking the difficult, expensive, and capital-intensive SPS project.

The SPS project also permits us to bring electrical energy to parts of the country where there’s room for people, towns, industry, and future growth: the western United States. The biggest problem with the western U.S. isn’t that the land is rugged and difficult to traverse or to live on. The big problem in the West is water. On any map, you can draw a line along the 100th degree of longitude. East of that line, there’s enough natural rainfall to support the heartland of America—the cities, the industries, and the farms that feed the world. West of the line, the natural rainfall is sparse, requiring water be obtained by pumping or by diversion. Farms take on a different appearance because of the requirement to irrigate them artificially with water using freeflow irrigation from canals, drip irrigation, or circular spray irrigation. The siting of towns and cities depends upon the water supply, while in the eastern part of America towns and cities were originally established because of commercial advantage or in a network where no town was more than one day’s journey from any other town. There are room and resources in the American West even today, and all that’s lacking is energy.

A prime example of the synergy of energy projects in the American West is the Boulder Canyon Project created by the Swing-Johnson Bill signed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928. This created Hoover Dam, then the largest energy and land reclamation project tackled in the United States. It was complete a mere eight years later at a cost of $165-million. It’s capable of producing an electrical energy output of 1.835 gigawatts. Hoover Dam not only made possible the farming of the lower Colorado River Valley, but also the Imperial Valley of California. Its electrical output not only permitted the growth of the Los Angeles metroplex but also transformed a small railroad town in the desert into the glittering resort of Las Vegas, Nevada. Its electrical output created the nearby town of Henderson, Nevada, which produces a large percentage of the magnesium used in the aerospace industry. The Boulder Canyon Project was originally conceived as a flood control program with hydroelectric capability. The historical spin-offs that created the intense social activity in this southwestern corner of the United States are an example of the synergism of projects similar to the SPS.

There’s room in the West for the SPS system ground rectennas. With the energy from these rectennas, water can be pumped or diverted and thus create oasis towns were nothing exists today. With this SPS energy, sea water de-salinization becomes possible, providing even more water resources for the water-scarce regions of the western U.S. The vast areas of the American West still beckon as a frontier, but it’s an energy frontier out there today.

But the most important synergism of the SPS program comes from the fact that, in buying the SPS systemto provide us with safe, clean, and abundant electrical energy from a renewable source, we are also paying for the transportation system that enables us to build, man, and maintain the SPS system.

It’s going to be a big one, the first true space transportation system we’ve possessed.

It will permit us to send large payloads and large numbers of people into LEO and GEO. It will enable us to establish and maintain very large space facilities in LEO and GSO capable of housing hundreds of people at a time.

Out of this SPS space transportation system will come explosive progress in space science, space manufacturing, and development of extraterrestrial material resouces.

Let’s look at each of these one at a time, then look at the social implications that spring from the synergism that they in turn create.

As this is being written, space scientists are engaged in the incredible attempt to appropriate the entire non-military space mission capability and schedule of the NASA space shuttle. They do not want the NASA space shuttle’s “limited” capability to be used for any space industrialization research and especially not for any development work on such programs as the SPS. Basically, a paraphrase of what they ‘re saying is as follows: “We stood aside m the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space programs and let them be conducted as engineering missions because of the national prestige involved. Now we do not intend to permit the space shuttle to be pre-empted by commercial and industrial interests. We have subordinated our own interests in doing space science long enough. We want the non-military activities of the space shuttle devoted to space science as first priority with commercial and industrial engineering development work secondary to our requirements.”

This attempt to pre-empt the space shuttle for the exclusive non-military pursuit of basic scientific research in space has some justification: We should be doing more space science research—much more of it. Basic scientific research serves to keep the cupboard of knowledge full of information which can later be used by those people developing the engineering technologies for products and profit.

But the way to get a lot more scientific research done in space isn’t to attempt to grab all the space shuttle missions.

The way to insure that there will be copious space science done in the 1990 decade is to back the use of the space shuttle for SPS development work to prove out the unknown areas of engineering and technology. This, when accomplished, can lead to lowered risk and justifiable capital investment which, in turn, leads to a commitment to the SPS program. This, in its own turn, requires the development and operation of the very large space transportation system.

The SPS space transportation system is so large and so flexible that it contains within its scope the capability to support more space scientific research than the space scientists will be able to find funds to carry out—even if the scientists are given a free ride on the coattails of the SPS space transportation system’s capabilities!

With the ability to lift a million pounds to orbit every day, there will be the inevitable volume and weight “holes” in the payload schedule that can easily accomodate “payloads of opportunity” for space science. With a passenger shuttle taking seventy-five people into space and back every two weeks, there will be inevitable open slots in the passenger manifests that space scientists can take advantage of in order to go into space themselves to conduct their work on site, rather than by remote control as they’re forced to do today. With the SPS project’s ability to sustain more than a hundred people at LEO Base and almost a thousand people at GEO Base, space scientists will be able to live out there with their experimental apparatus for months at a time.

We’ve been talking about putting a maximum of seven people into space at a time on a weekly basis with the NASA space shuttle, and only three of these “crew slots” may be available for space scientists. We have a totally different game when we’re shuttling ten times that number of people into space weekly and keeping a hundred times that number alive and working in space facilities.

The SPS program is going to provide space scientists with a Golconda of opportunities to do so much space science that they’ll have “wall to wall” data. To some extent, they’ve already achieved this on the Viking Mars mission, where there’s so much data that it will take years to reduce it to information that can be studied . . . and millions of dollars that they don’t have.

When the pie is too small to allow everybody to have a suitably-sized piece, the worst thing to do is to fight over the existing pie. The answer to giving everybody more pie is to make the pie bigger.

With all of the things that various groups of people want to do in space, the only answer to being able to accommodate the desires of all is to get a bigger space transportation system.

The one way to get a big space transportation system is to go to work as soon as possible on a big energy project in space. Then everybody will have a shot at doing what they want to do out there.

That’s the basic message of this entire book: Conservation of resources isn’t a long-range answer to our obvious energy problems now and in the near future because it leads to rationing. This means that some people will have to decide who gets the limited slices of a limited-size pie, a pie that’s already too small. By expanding capabilities, we make the pie bigger so that everybody gets a piece large enough to satisfying his hunger. When there’s plenty to go around, nobody can ration or control it except by either consent or coercion.

It’s difficult to ration soup when it’s raining soup, everybody’s got a bucket, there’s a surplus of buckets, the roof’s leaking, and everybody’s hungry.

It’s not only difficult, it’s unnecessary. It wastes time and effort that could and should be devoted to other matters.

If we go ahead with the SPS program, there’s something in it for everybody. That can’t be said for any other energy option that’s under consideration today, and it certainly isn’t true for fhe energy conservation options. Because of the space transportation system spinoff of the SPS program, nobody loses and everybody wins . . . including some people who never thought that a space program would affect them at all.

The favorable social consequences far outweigh any potential environmental problems or technical difficulties that would (and have) caused some people to tend to write-off the SPS energy option.

Another good example of this in addition to the increased space science capability is the golden opportunities the SPS space transportation system offers to space manufacturing.

As of 1980, we know that there are products that we can make in space that cannot be made here on Earth, and products that can be made better in space. This is because of two major characteristics of orbital space around the Earth: (a) weightlessness or apparent lack of gravity, and (b) the good vacuum of orbital space.

Although the latter—good vacuum—can be obtained in terrestrial laboratories at a very high cost, the weightless characteristics of space cannot be duplicated for more than a minute without going into orbit.

We know this to be so because of preliminary research and investigations that have been made by American astronauts in the Apollo and Skylab programs.

We know this to be so because the Soviet Union’s cosmonauts have already carried out the manufacture of special materials in the long-duration flights they’ve made in the 1977-1980 time period aboard the Soviet space station, Salyut-6.

The weightlessness available in orbit permits the use of many manufacturing processes that cannot be carried out with gravity pulling on them. It also permits the manufacture of many materials that can’t be produced when gravity is present.

For example, perfect crystalline materials can be produced in orbit because gravity doesn’t exert a strain on the crystalline structure and cause imperfections and dislocations between the atoms and molecules that make up the crystal. So what? Why should anybody except crystallographers be interested in the perfect crystals that can be produced in space? The answer is that modern microscopic electronic circuits are made on crystalline bases. These crystalline structures must be perfect because any imperfection leads either to a high rate of rejects of completed parts or the necessity to make microelectronic circuits in a series of small units on pieces of small, perfect crystals cut from larger crystals with the imperfect portions being discarded. Separate microelectronic circuits are more costly than circuits that are more highly integrated. Components and materials that must be rejected after long and expensive fabrication’s been completed adds to expense. General Electric has already determined that the manufacture of near-perfect crystalline materials in space could reduce the cost of microelectronic parts by a factor of ten or more. Space crystals would not only reduce price, but also reduce reject rates and permit larger and more complex electronic circuits to be made on larger crystal chips.

Microbiology will benefit from the weightlessness of space. The absence of gravity means that there are no differences in density between materials. Oil and vinegar salad dressing won’t stay mixed on Earth because the oil is less dense than the vinegar and therefore weighs less, therefore, it immediately goes to the top of the salad dressing bottle after you’ve finished shaking it. In orbit, the oil and vinegar would stay mixed because there is no gravity to separate them. Because of the total absence of density effects on materials, weightless processing means that it’s possible to mix things that won’t otherwise mix. It also means that warmer materials won’t rise because of lowered density, and therefore convection heating won’t result in separation of materials.

Many single-cell products such as blood-fraction leukocytes are used today in the pharmaceutical industry to produce drugs. There are great problems maintaining a suitable suspension of microbes, blood fractions, or single-cell materials in a nutrient solution that will also carry off the drug element being produced by the cells. The cells will settle to the bottom of the processing chamber. As a result, some of the cells will not get any nutrient because they’re buried on the bottom of the pile, and these cells die. This reduces the efficiency of the process and also adds impurities created by the suffocating and dead cells. The obvious answer is to keep the cells stirred up so that they stay in suspension. But the cells usually aren’t tolerant of being battered by any sort of mixing device that will keep them stirred up; if they don’t die from the physical beating they take, they often just quit working or work in a manner that doesn’t produce the end product the pharmaceutical engineer is looking for. But by putting this microbiological process in the weightlessness of orbit, the cells will stay in suspension and cannot settle to the bottom of the processing vat. Furthermore, they aren’t being battered by a mixing machine, they can work surrounded by nutrient solution that feeds them and carries away their precious end product which may be an important pharmaceutical.

These examples are but two of the products of space manufacturing that have been carefully researched by myself and others over the past decade. The initial research led to my book, The Third Industrial Revolution (Ace Books, 1978) which goes into considerable detail concerning the various industrial processes that could be carried out in space. The interest in space industrialization sparked by this book resulted in a funded study by NASA in 1977-1978 to Rockwell International and Science Applications, Inc. (SAI).

As a member of the latter team, I helped identify 147 possible space products. Careful marketing research was carried out by the SAI team on ten of the most promising products whose production might be realized in the 1980 time period. Total revenues for these ten examples were forecast to be as much as $10-billion by the year 2000. This NASA study identified other areas of space utilization such as the Solar Power Satellite system as being a viable space goal in this century.

The results of the SAI and Rockwell International studies, performed independently, were part of the data I used for the follow-up book, The Space Enterprise (Ace Books, 1980).

The technical and economic potentials of space industrialization are discussed in detail in these two prior books which should be consulted for additional information on space manufacturing processes and products.

A major problem was identified by these studies and through contacts with individuals in managerial and planning positions in a variety of non-aerospace industrial firms.

In order for space manufacturing to become a truly viable economic part of the American industrial scene, it’s necessary to reduce the cost of space transportation to $20 per kilogram placed in LEO. Otherwise, there were some terrestrial options that appeared to be more economical, and it would be difficult for any corporation to justify the combination of high risks and high transportation costs. Nearly everyone with any input to these studies agreed that low-cost, reliable and available space transportation was the important key to opening up Earth orbital space to American private enterprise for new industrial operations.

The SPS space transportation system offers the solution to this dilemma as one consequence of its development and operation as part of the SPS prdgram.

Inexpensive space transportation will be immediately perceived as a competitive opportunity by people in domestic industry already aware of the potentials of space manufacturing. Thus, the SPS space transportation system satisfies a market need that currently exists. Once the opportunity has been grasped by only a few companies, and once profitable operations have been established by these pioneer firms, the need will grow.

This is confirmed by the fact that many of the more conservative industrialists and managers who provided inputs to the space industry studies said that they “‘wanted to be kept informed of what was going on,” and that they “would probably get involved” if their competition did.

In the world of private enterprise, nobody wants to be left behind in the competitive race but almost everyone is reluctant to start running hard immediately after the gun goes off. It’s only after a couple of the more venturesome runners look like they’re going to win the whole race that the reluctant ones begin to run hard.

Once the SPS transportation system makes it possible for a few companies to show a profit on products manufactured in space, the market will expand immensely. The SPS transportation system then ceases to become merely a part of the SPS program; it becomes an integral part of the entire space enterprise.

The U. S. airlines may have started out as the response of a few hardy souls to the possibility of making money hauling the United States air mail, but it wasn’t very long before the market grew. And it was a device offering low-cost air transportation which finally broke the airlines free of the mail-hauling business and put them into the passenger-hauling business: the legendary Douglas DC-3, the first airplane that could make money for its owners by flying just passengers.

History may not repeat itself, but the patterns of history often do, as I have said.

And the synergism continues to grow once the SPS space transportation system enables private enterprise to become established in orbit.

A well-established SPS space transportation system that allows inexpensive, reliable, and available transportation from LEO to GEO contains within itself the capability to travel further into space than geosynchronous Earth orbit.

The maintenance of a thousand people in GEO Base to build the SPS units means that many of the problems of living in space will have been tranferred over into that technological ledger column entitled, “State of the Art.” This means that suitable life support systems will have been developed and proven in GEO Base, systems that can recycle carbon dioxide and organic wastes into oxygen and potable water. The only thing that can’t theoretically be recycled is the nitrogen that will inevitably be lost in continuing small amounts from LEO Base and GEO Base. But cost requirements alone will demand that life support engineers working for the SPS project companies come up with the partly-closed life support system that can recycle oxygen and water; it’s expensive to continue hauling life support consumables up from Earth. It becomes more economical to recycle them.

With the partially-closed life support system technology of GEO Base, it becomes possible for a modified deep space passenger ship to go anywhere in the Inner Solar System, including the planetoid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

It is also possible for the electric-powered deep space freighter modules to do the same and to bring things back economically from the planetoid belt.

There are two very simple reasons for this. The principles go back to the science of celestial mechanics started by Johannes Kepler: (a) it isn’t the distance that’s important, it’s the energy required to traverse that distance that counts, and (b) the time required to traverse the distances in the Solar System isn’t important for non-living cargo as long as there’s a load arriving at the terminal end with regularity. Insofar as people go, once even the partially-closed life support system becomes available, the time required isn’t as important any more because things that were formerly consumed by the life support system operation are now recycled, meaning there’s considerably less mass that’s required to be carried along to keep people alive.

Travel to the Moon and the planetoid belt can begin to take place in the opening decades of the 21st Century because the capability will exist within the SPS transportation system.

But why bother to go out to the planetoid belt when all the action’s taking place in LEO and GSO around the Earth?

Answer: To obtain more economical materials for building more SPS units at a lower cost.

Reason: Until the SPS space transportation system builds itself to the “takeoff” point where it can “boot strap” itself into a Solar System transportation system, it has to lift every pound of every 42,000 ton SPS unit up from the Earth’s surface through a very powerful gravitational field to orbit. It takes energy to do this. Energy costs money.

It takes less energy to go the planetoid belt, set up mining operations there, and send SPS construction materials back to Earth orbit than it does to haul those same materials up from the Earth’s surface to GEO.

It even takes less energy to get the SPS materials from the surface of the Moon, in spite of the Moon’s gravity field that’s one-sixth as strong as Earth’s.

The cost of a Solar Power Satellite can be reduced by a factor of four when extraterrestrial materials from the Moon or the planetoid belt can be used instead of materials hauled up from Earth.

This is an important consequence because we cannot continue to strip the Earth of its raw materials to support our operations in space. Sooner or later, we will have to shift to using raw materials from elsewhere in the Solar System.

And abundant materials exist out there, waiting for us to come and get them and use them. See The Third Industrial Revolution and The Space Enterprise for details of what— and how much of it—is likely to be there.

The use of extraterrestrial materials will become mandatory for several reasons. First of all, it will reduce the cost of an SPS. It will also permit more SPS units to be built. It will permit SPS units to be built at a greater rate than two per year because the raw materials are no longer coming from Earth, but coming from extraterrestrial sources at one-fourth the cost.

The rate of construction of SPS units in GEO will probably increase from the programmed two 10-gigawatt units per year to as many as eight per year.

This increase rate of construction permits us then to do one or both of two things:

It permits us to transfer even more of the U.S. electrical baseload over to SPS power as more rectennas are built to accommodate the increased satellite capacity. This means we really shut down all the nukes. And that we begin dismantling some of the fossil fuel plants as well, including some that were built in the late 20th Century.

It permits the United States and the private enterprise companies who design, build, and operate the SPS units to begin selling either the output of an SPS or the entire SPS to organizations in other countries, thus making the United States an energy exporter in the early 21st Century.

This can have a profound effect on world affairs.

And that’s probably the understatement of this book.

But there are other things that are affected by the availability of low-cost space transportation, the ready availability of extraterrestrial raw materials, and the abundance of low-cost space power.