Photo courtesy of NASA
A year after the last Apollo mission and, as it turned out, the end of the space age, Peter Glaser was awarded a patent for the Solar Power Satellite. This concept remains the only likely 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, but also enabling the large scale human colonization of space. The energy beamed down to Earth can also be used by launch vehicles 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 see accelerating 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 beaming down electricity to power the human race in the 21st century would have a mass of several million tons. This was Gerard K. O’Neill”s original concept but a larger number of smaller satellites in closer orbits may accomplish the same goal. 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, or in lower orbits, does seem to be an unsolvable problem. 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 due to a lack of space infrastructure. 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. In reality, the technology to enable these Solar Power Satellites has been available since the 1960’s 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 have been built using submarine hull technology in shipyards. The drawback to monolithic solid fuel boosters is the toxic byproducts of the present propellent mixes. Greener SRB’s are a possibility though and if not solid fuel, then pressure-fed options, which might have made the space shuttle more successful but were not “cheap enough”, are also available. But these super-heavy lift launch vehicles would only get us to where we can solve the problem and still not lift 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 (if no natural lava tubes are found) for underground factory space would then be used to lift the millions of tons of Solar Power Satellite components from the surface of the Moon into space. Problem solved and Jules Verne would have approved. Once this infrastructure is established and power is being beamed to Earth the next phase, using beam propulsion powered by this network of satellites, would then allow large scale migration into space. This capability would then enable the construction of miles-in-diameter hollow spinning artificial moons. This was the dream of space visionary Gerard K. O’Neill. He foresaw a space power satellite industry as a way to finance the even larger project of building such artificial worlds as the next great frontier, “The High 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 such alloy spheres can be made in space 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 humankind’s first Starships. The most amazing fact of all is there is no unobtainium or wishalloy required to make the dreams of Glaser and O’Neill a reality. All it takes is species determined to survive into the far future and the will to act. And with the example of Apollo in mind that leadership is not handwavium. A simple lack of imagination and fear of failure is stalling a new age. On the other hand, Neoliberal trillionaire fantasies do not a space age make.
Kicking the Ball
Gerard K. O’Neill was the American prophet of space colonization. He questioned whether planets were really the best place for humans to live offworld and instead proposed artificial moons as humankind’s second home. In the early decades of this 21st century we find his vision has been all but forgotten. Mars, a cold dim rock with a deep gravity well and poor solar energy resources, has become some kind of bizarre tourist destination while the Earth’s Moon and resources are ignored. It would seem good conspiracy theory material and yet this blatant Musk scam is ignored. In regards to space travel the mystery is why the single technology required for star travel, cryopreservation, has never had any serious research funding. Freezing human beings without cellular damage and reviving them makes hundred year plus voyages at some small percentage of the speed of light automatically practical. The technical challenges are not great as analogues already exist in nature with quite complex creatures surviving being frozen or partially frozen. So why is pursuing this technology not considered acceptable scientific research? Perhaps because it would completely change the nature of civilization when people no longer die and instead are frozen while the cure for their disease- the universal grim reaper being old age- is found. Reversing aging would become the number one priority of civilization once the elderly and terminally ill all start being frozen and stored. The race would begin.
Taking the long way around to the logical end of human expansion into space requires discussing how to actually travel through space. The only place chemical propulsion is worthwhile in terms of Human Space Flight is cislunar space- travel between the Earth and the Moon. No electrical type of propulsion will ever be powerful enough unless there is some form of beamed energy from a solar power space station incorporated. Because of the need for both massive cosmic ray shielding and artificial gravity a true spaceship capable of multi-year interplanetary missions must be nuclear propelled. Because nuclear systems are not appropriate in the magnetosphere due to the contamination hazard, this also means chemical propulsion is the choice for cislunar space. Exactly what kind of nuclear system useful for interplanetary flight is the next question. Nuclear thermal rockets are not worth the trouble- it is hard enough trying to keep a chemical engine from melting.
When surveying nuclear space propulsion systems there are only two candidates with the required Isp’s AND hi-thrust and one of them (fission fragment) requires Americium 242- a transuranic so rare it is unobtainium. It would require starting a whole new nuclear industry to produce this fission fragment engine fuel. Which is a shame because it IS worth the trouble and would theoretically enable a small hi-Isp/hi-thrust nuclear rocket engine that would also be able to produce electrical power. The other candidate is nuclear pulse propulsion and using H-bombs is essentially a 1st generation fusion engine. The only problem with using H-bombs to push a spaceship around the solar system is scale: the bigger the plate the more efficient, but the lower limit for the mass required is a big dumb alloy disc of several thousand tons. There is no shortage of fissionable material though and in the Launch Escape Tower and capsule concept we have existing hardware able to safely send appropriately packaged material to the Moon (where the water for necessary cosmic ray shielding is available). There are interim parachute type bomb propulsion systems (Solem’s Medusa concept) that could use very small bombs but they are less durable and efficient. An associate of Tsiolkovsky, Fyodorov, was the founder of the Russian Cosmism movement, and it is worth exploring this belief system when considering the logical end of building Bernal-type spheres as O’Neill proposed.
The logical end being kicking these spheres like soccer balls across interstellar space using beam propulsion (and H-bombs to slow them down after centuries of travel). After these first generation slow boat starships (with enough space solar power stations providing a gargantuan amount of energy to first send them on their way) the math seems to work for creating “small singularity engines.” These black hole starships are probably at the very least a century or more away. The logical end of the human race expanding into the galaxy and universe being ever larger scales of human endeavor with the final act being escaping this universe with our time-machine-resurrected-dead onto a higher plane. One way to do this has been explained by Hugo DeGaris, who envisions artificial intellects or “Artilects.” We cannot figure out how to, but they will be able to.
Anybody looking for a creative consultant for their film project- I am that guy. I have enough life experience in two different military services, had a top-secret clearance, then private investigations, military contracting, executive protection, been around the world- . I am a trouble-shooter that can pick out what works and what does not. Since I am fascinated by space, the sci-fi genre needs my expertise- badly. Someone should take what I am offering while it is available.
For instance, Joss Whedon would have done much better with Serenity if he used more believable spaceships and off world colonies; he needed me to help him explain a solar system with thousands of Bernal Spheres.
We love our Honor! That Weber’s heroine has not been adapted is indisputable proof that Hollywood producers are idiots.
Smith Makes Lucas and Cameron look like dull boys. How could Hollywood waste money trying to adapt something like Dune which does not lend itself to film when this perfect vehicle remains untouched?
One more for free:
If you want to send people into space one way to cut down on the requirements is to cut down their body mass. This is not a good example of what would be left behind in modifying a human body for space- a somewhat opposite approach would be better. A pair of thighs with the legs amputated above the knees, hips, and pelvic girdle- with the head roughly where the belly button is. The idea being that when they get wherever they are going the rest of their body would be regrown from stem cells.