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« Spaceflight And Personal Risk | Main | S3x In Space »

Space And The Environment

Environment is very important to many people, and showing environmentalists about the potential benefits of space can build support for it. Jeff Krukin says that he asks people "where does space begin?" If you consider it only a hundred kilometers over our head, then it seems a lot closer than many perceive. Has two speakers on this subject.

Molly Macauley has done a lot of work on the economic aspects of environmental policy, and will be talking about the economics of space power. John Mankins formerly of NASA is now head of the Sunsat Energy Council.

Mankins: Talking about Sunsat, which was formed in 1978 by SPS inventor Peter Glaser. Only NGO set up to promote the provision of clean energy from space. Has long been an advocate of the types of New Space activities being highlighted at this conference. Notes that Peter Glaser doesn't travel much any more, but is still energetic in research and promoting the idea. Also notes that Bill Brown, of Raytheon, who was a pioneer in wireless power transmission, is no longer with us (and that Tesla's ideas came first, but they were omni-directional, whereas the Raytheon concept was pointable). Concept wasn't treated well in the seventies for a variety of reasons, some political, and says that it has been politically incorrect to talk about this technology for years as a result of the seventies studies. Despite this, demand for energy is growing, and continues to grow, with the dilemmas of other solutions. Showing limits of terrestrial solar power given intermittent and geographical availability of sunlight. Hydropower is perfect, but also limited. Space solar power has a very complex trade space (including not just designs, but market demand, cost to orbit, energy density for safety, etc.) The reference design solution that resulted from all these trades in the seventies was a series of very large (gigawatt class) satellites in GEO, with large antenna (order of a kilometer) that must be flat to a centimeter or two (fraction of a wavelength). This architecture has a vey high pre-power cost (hundreds of billions of dollars). There were other technical problems but the up-front cost was the biggest issue.

In the mid-1990s, NASA revisited the concept (the "Fresh Look Study") to see if tech advances through the eighties and nineties could result in new approaches. They came up with something called "intelligent modular systems). Uses skydivers as an example of such a system. Insects do it all the time. Self-assembling arrays of systems of systems could build very large structures that didn't require the high up-front infrastructure investment. In 1980, the NRC panned SPS, and recommended no further work. In 2000, they were much more positive. "Technical roadmap feasible, costs reasonable through the first round." But all work stopped within a year or two anyway.

Summary: we need energy, it's more feasible to talk about this now, and we should consider this again.

Molly Macauley of Resources for the Future. Came to space economics by accident back when Comsat was still a quasi-government agency, and proposed a dissertation on the economic value of geostationary orbit, which was accepted. Then she discovered Resources for the Future, which has thought about space as a resource in itself. She went there for a postdoc, and stayed. Saying that she's been doing work on the economic implications of third-party risk for the FAA regulation. We're still living with the effects of the Three-Mile-Island effect, and only now is the nuclear power industry recovering from false perceptions of safety on the part of the public.

She has been doing work on SPS economics at the urging of John Mankins, and has some data. Her work was funded by NSF, NASA, and by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) [note: I was unaware that EPRI was interested, and find this encouraging].

SSP is large scale, and unlikely to be a US-only system. Looking to the southwest, Midwest, Germany, and India general markets, and looking at the relative advantage of SSP compared to other energy technologies. Acknowledging difficulties of managing all the uncertainties in such studies, and are doing probabilistic analyses, and expertise in the energy industry. Can start to use known economic data like prices per ton of carbon as carbon trading markets develop.

To stack the case for SSP in an initial run, they imposed carbon penalties on other technologies as part of their studies. People think that wind power is ugly and noisy, and it kills birds and bats, precluding wind development. They looked at a host of other energy concerns for other energy technologies. They also considered the political and security implications of relying on the Middle East for hydrocarbons. Notes that electrical energy can be decoupled from these concerns (though an in-space source of power controlled by an international consortium can also have energy security concerns and notes that SSP itself may have environmental issues). Also, we will still be vulnerable to terrorism against the grid.

Their numbers show that if SSP can come on line by the 2020-2030 timeframe for on the order of $0.11/kW-hr, it can be competitive in the markets examined. However, cleaner power may come to have higher value in the future, (as long as it's as reliable as current sources). Additional model runs are asking other what-if questions. She does think that SSP looks a lot better than it did in the past, but other technologies are advancing as well, so SSP has to look over its shoulders at the competition.

Howard Bloom says that everything in Gore's film is wrong, and all of the implications of it are wrong. He's been getting convinced by Paul Werbos that ethanol and methanol are viable fuels for automobiles. Howard had also been skeptical about SSP until Paul started to convince him. He's also been convinced to some degree by Feng Shu (risk analyst at NASA, in the audience). He's now come up with a simple plan--concentrate energies for the next ten to fifteen years on biofuels (many cars could be made biofuel capable, meaning that they can automatically run either biofuels or gasoline, with automatic detection, which has resulted in a forty-percent)

Our civilization doesn't seem to see a future for itself and thinks that it deserves to die for its sins (which is what most of his friends believe). Citing Declaration of Independence, The Astonishing Rise of the Roman Empire Which Stayed On Top For About Twelve Hundred Years (he thinks the book was misnamed), and the Wealth of Nations. He thinks that the misnaming of Gibbon's book resulted in a false paradigm that our nation must fall.

Need to tell people to look up, that the sun is shining, that we have an endless supply of energy in space. Also point out that there are lots of materials up there as well, so we don't have to schlep everything up.

But none of this is what he came to talk to us about. (Getting back to Gore's book).

He's a Democrat, and voted for Gore. But he disagrees with the notion that nature is nice, or that we should buy into the Garden of Eden myth. Mother Nature has thrown eighty ice ages at her creatures, many mass extinctions, lots of space dust. There's lots of strange galactic weather out there, and that will have a much larger effect on our environment than anything we could do. The notion that if we just cut back on carbons, Mother Nature will be good to us, and Bambi's mom will live, is ludicrous.

Cell and DNA partnership is responsible for the vast majority of life. Life has been trying to find itself as many nooks and crannies as possible before the next catastrophe comes. Every pollutant turns out to be an energy source. Cyanobacteria are converting energy, excreting stuff, and one bacteria fart doesn't make any difference, and trillions don't make a difference, and trillions of trillions don't make a difference, but when you make enough, it's a massive pollutant, which resulted in a huge die off. The cells that could process this oxygen thrived, and some of those that couldn't were absorbed into larger organisms where they could survive. So stopping out industrial pollution is pointless when it comes to weather change.

What does this have to do with SSP and the Moon?

Every location that is now a coastal area will be beneath the sea or atop a mountain. We can't count on the Midwest always being a grain belt. They'll eventually be swamps, or deserts.

His notion is floating cities. Gerard O'Neill proposed this for space, but it can be applied to earth as well. Putting New York on a floating vessel will be almost impossible. But not completely impossible. Citing condominium cruise ships, and oil rigs, designed to survive almost any kind of weather that can be thrown at them. The reason we wouldn't sign Kyoto was that it would cost a fortune, and did nothing to stop India or China. It would have been a huge mistake.
We want to find nooks and crannies where life can survive, and can't afford to throw money at the wrong things, like Kyoto.

SSP is something that can grab the imagination of the public, because the public wants to be free of the constraints that the current energy system put on them. It can be a beacon in the sky, and it's an excuse to get O'Neill's colonies into space. The moon has the materials to do this as well, and to get us to Mars. A vessel the size of this hotel (the Flamingo, in Vegas) could be sent to Mars for very little propellant, with solar sails and ion drives.

We don't want Big Brother providing us with our energy source, and India doesn't want the DoD to turn off its power. Proposes decentralizing and having munipalities put up satellites on their own. Wants massively parallel processing, where everyone puts up their own system, and just like the internet, it's robust and not subject to crash. John Mankings points out that decentralization is practical for localities, but not individual house. To get the kind of precision needed for households implies lasers and a high power density.

Howard proposes a conference on the four-step program he just laid out (space settlement, SSP, biofuels, and not sure what the last one is). [Sorry, this stuff is coming out like a firehose, so I'm not necessarily doing justice to it.]

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 23, 2006 10:37 AM
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No need for the "sorry". In my case --space tech noob-- you're providing an enormously interesting, otherwise hidden view into these technologies and their possibilities. I think I might just take up that highschool project about alternative energy again.
Complaints about style should be the last thing on your reader's minds right now. Thanks much for the inspiration and your time!

Posted by Flex Flint at July 23, 2006 12:09 PM

Mankins is still drinking the space-solar-power Kool-Aid...oh well, you can run the numbers, but you can't make folks accept them. Keep wasting your career, John.

Posted by spacefantasies at July 23, 2006 06:45 PM

Whilst shopping for "good ideas," I ran across this biofuel at higher energy density than ethanol, less water-absorbing than ethanol or methanol, and *no mods to IC engines*. And it's another fermentation product which gets more energy out of the feedstock than ethanol....

Oh. Simon says, "Bite me," spacefantasies...

Posted by Simon Jester at July 23, 2006 07:21 PM

I recall a paper or web link recently posted somewhere about sending water to the Moon in giant bags that are simply allowed to go splat during the lunar night with machines to vacuum up the water that operate much like the machines intended for He3 mining.

If we remove the "soft landing" component of a LEO to Luna flight profile then the fuel needed is very significantly reduced. Use momentum exchange tethers and a "splatter landing" and the fuel needed for LEO to Luna is essentually eliminated. Start with a 5 to 1 ratio for chemical propulsion to soft land and that means Proton plus a tether can splatter land water on the Moon at $1000/$1500 per pound. Recover more than 20% of the original mass in LEO and you are money ahead.

Harvesting that may be cheaper than digging ice out of those lunar cold traps.

Anyway, why only water? Are there alcohols or hydrocarbons that could be packaged in tough synthetic bags and sent to splatter on the Moon?

Impact just after nightfall and vacuum the stuff up over the next 14 days. Heck send gasoline or RP-1 and combust with lunar LOX.

Posted by Bill White at July 23, 2006 08:49 PM

Thanks for the excellent summary.

I'd really like to believe in a convergence (or reconciliation) of environmentalism and space enthusiasm -- but their relationship has been so thoroughly swept up into the culture wars that it won't be easy.

It would require an environmentalism that disavows the Bruce Gagnons, the we-deserve-a-die-off deep greens, and the belief that appropriate technology is always and only small, cheap technology.

And it would require a space movement that makes an effort to understand exactly why environmentalism has been incomparably more successful as a social and political force over the last 35 years -- in numbers of citizens engaged, in fundraising and lobbying and legislation and mindshare.

Posted by Monte Davis at July 24, 2006 05:03 AM

$0.11/kW-hr is terribly noncompetitive for baseload power, by a factor of 3 or more. Nuclear, or coal with carbon sequestration, would both be considerably cheaper.

Posted by Paul Dietz at July 24, 2006 10:37 AM

$0.11/kW-hr is terribly noncompetitive for baseload power, by a factor of 3 or more. Nuclear, or coal with carbon sequestration, would both be considerably cheaper.


So then, what is the business case for people in space? Is there one? Or is our collective desire to either go ourselves (or like Elon Musk to facilitate others going) fundamentally non-rational?

I say non-rational rather than irrational as the "human heart has [legitimate] reasons, Reason can never know" to quote Blaise Pascal.

Posted by Bill White at July 25, 2006 06:22 AM

How about this for a simplified economic argument: This solar system alone can support in excess of a thousand times the population of Earth. The economic benefit of going into space is therefore in excess of a thousand times greater than remaining on Earth.

Of course this is greatly understating the case. One effect which I suspect is rarely contemplated is the economy of scale of R&D. R&D is an absolute not per capita investment, a thousand times the population means a thousand times the R&D – this would necessarily result in more than just a minor technological advancement.

Posted by Pete Lynn at July 25, 2006 07:17 AM

How about this for a simplified economic argument: This solar system alone can support in excess of a thousand times the population of Earth. The economic benefit of going into space is therefore in excess of a thousand times greater than remaining on Earth.

I'll buy that.

Now, how do we to turn that into something Wall Street will invest in? Or do we need tax dollars?

Posted by Bill White at July 25, 2006 08:52 AM

Well that is the tricky part… Any ideas?

Sure tax dollars would be nice but they do not come cheap and of late they seem to be doing more harm than good. A robust space program really needs to be tax dollar independent – privately funded.

As that argument suggests, space settlement is the core/critical market, many other markets can branch out from there. Another ten Bigelow type space settlement programs would I think do the trick. Also creating the desired low cost launch vehicle market, etcetera. But how to get another ten Bigelows? Wait?

We need to get engineering workshops up there – that is when industry starts setting up shop and things get really interesting. A satellite service hanger with a tow truck would be a nice start. LEO wants to become the new Mojave.

Posted by Pete Lynn at July 25, 2006 07:51 PM

So then, what is the business case for people in space? Is there one?

People have been looking and looking, and I get the impression they've had a hard time finding one (I am defining suborbital to not be 'in space' for the purpose of this response; I do not know if suborbital entertainment excursions will be profitable.)

I suspect in the long term there will be business cases, but also that that long term is rather farther away than most here would like.

I wish those investing in now the best of luck, but I am not investing there myself.

Or is our collective desire to either go ourselves (or like Elon Musk to facilitate others going) fundamentally non-rational?

It's clearly not motivated by a desire to maximize economic return. There's a reason most hardnosed business people avoid space investiments, and it's not government conspiracy.

Posted by Paul Dietz at July 26, 2006 09:10 AM

PD: I suspect... that long term is rather farther away than most here would like.

Exsactly. It doesn't matter how many zeros you string together for the eventual payoff from space solar power or He-3 or asteroid resources: the universal (and eminently rational) practice of discounting future vs. present value makes them less attractive than smaller enterprises that pay off sooner and more predictably.

[The desire for space is] clearly not motivated by a desire to maximize economic return...

It's important that space enthusiasts acknowledge -- to themselves as well as to those they hope to recruit to the cause -- that it's a transcendent goal, one that breaks the frame of the usual calculus of cost and benefit. For a long time to come it will be more like building cathedrals or particle accelerators, or creating national parks, or endowing foundations (or remaking the Middle East, for those who prefer that) than like establishing a tobacco plantation on the Rappahannock.

It's important not just because clarity is preferable to muddle, but because the more Big Bucks in Space is oversold, the worse the backlash -- making it harder to gain support for Smaller But Sustainable Bucks on the Way.

Posted by Monte Davis at July 27, 2006 06:09 AM

The argument still stands, a thousand times the population off planet infers a thousand times the economic return. Currently Earth based rate of returns tend to be greater, due to the Earth based growth rate being so high, but this can not be expected to last forever. Economic expansion on Earth has limits, when those limits are reached space settlement will become directly short term economically viable.

While commercial payback periods are required to be short, there is considerable investment that runs on much longer payback periods. Science funding, education spending, retirement saving, home loans, etcetera. It is a mistake to assume that all economically viable projects today must have short payback periods – the global economy is far more diverse and complicated than that. Many of these investments have long term payback periods within the realm of some space settlement options.

The problem we really have is that space settlement resides in the investment gap between long term public good investments, (government funds, charities, etcetera), and short term commercial investments. What is required is a financial tool, currently non existent, for bridging this gap, (this would greatly help many other R&D fields besides). An example of such a financial tool might be a long term savings plan for a second home in space, a prize company that exchanged financial prizes for stock, a space settlement Kibbutz, etcetera.

Rich angels are the primary current investors in this gap – often starting their own foundations or charities, and investing many billions of dollars. Space is attracting increasing amounts of rich angel investment – for sound economic reasons, perhaps they will be enough.

Posted by Pete Lynn at July 27, 2006 09:28 PM


Posted by JOHN MANKINS at September 21, 2006 09:35 PM

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