Review of “The Case for Space Solar Power” by John Mankins
Paul J. Werbos*
Executive Vice President for Policy, NSS
If you, like me, are one of those people who really want to do the most you can “to make the dream real,” you need to have a copy of this book on your shelves so that you can read it, reread it, and go back for all the important details. If you could only afford to have one book on your shelves, this should be it.
Decades ago, Gerard O’Neill did a magnificent job of conveying a new vision, where humans settle space in an economically sustainable way, beaming energy to earth in order to pay for the imports they still need from earth even after they begin to exploit materials from beyond the earth. In his vision, space would not be just a billion dollar welfare program, or an irrelevant playground for millionaires. It would be a growing economy, like a growing nation, with economic force and momentum and value to earth in a sector (energy) where the needs of earth are very serious.
Mankins’ book is a major milestone in doing the work which is required to translate that general vision into a concrete reality with a viable business case. The author, John Mankins, was the leader at NASA of virtually all the useful successful work on space solar power (SSP) by the US government. This book is a unique source of information on everything NASA knew and had access to, not only in SSP, but in other areas crucial to the future of space. In the first round of Bush’s “return to the moon” program, Mankins led the efforts in human and robotic technology all across the board; this book also tells you a lot about what has been really going on in those areas as well. Most important, the book offers a whole new basis for solid, realistic hope that we might succeed after all in the kind of vision which O’Neill inspired.
A year ago, when NSS asked me to take over the duties of Executive Vice President (EVP) for policy, I didn’t think of the job as a chance to dance in the cameras as a cheerleader for powerful forces of nature pushing us ahead to the inevitable promised land. It’s pleasant to think that the human settlement of space is inevitable – and even if it is, on some level, it doesn’t help to take it for granted. I don’t take it for granted. Some good things are happening here and there, as they have for more than 50 years, but there are major obstacles and challenges we need to face up to. I still think of that sad expression in the eyes of a top NASA engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, walking through monuments to past glory, saying “No, we’re not just withering away to nothing, the way people think. Not really. Mars can save us. We hope.”
Mankins is offering us a better, more realistic hope, with lots of really solid room for further growth.
When I took the job of EVP, it reminded me a lot of the Star Trek movie of 2009, where Kirk comes up with a plan to save the earth. Spock responded: “Captain, the probability of success is only 5%, and if it fails, all humans die.” Kirk replies: “If you have a better plan, please tell me right now. If not, let’s just do all we can to make this one work.” To maximize whatever probability we have to achieve the goal.
But right now, the chances of ultimate success look a lot better than they did just a year ago. John Mankins’ book (and the NIAC report it expands on) is one of the key reasons for hope. Back in the 1970’s, when there was a lot of hope for SSP, but the designs were unproven and questionable, many energy experts walked away and never looked back. In the 1990’s, Mankins led the Fresh Look work which exposed what was wrong with the old designs, and found new designs that would work, but were still too expensive. When John and I worked together, in the last open US funding competition for SSP, the most serious life-cycle cost estimates for the best available designs were still about 20 cents per kwh for the electricity. That was still more expensive than the average of what we pay for electricity generation today (about ten cents), and it required improvements in launch technology which were not on the horizon.
But now, in this book, Mankins presents a new design concept, SPS-ALPHA, for which the best guess on cost is only 9 cents per kwh. This year there is also new hope for launch costs, which is a necessary complement to better design and more realistic costs. Mankins is not providing us with a complete blueprint which we can go out and deploy tomorrow – but he is offering us a very detailed and serious game plan, with all of the details and leads known to NASA needed to make it work.
Many times in Washington, I have seen policy makers and lobbyists get very excited by some kind of new technology, put in lots of money – and totally screw it up because they didn’t have a workable game plan for the technology to start from. That has happened again and again in the area of space launch, where unrealistic hopes go into orbit with a lot less effort than real spacecraft. Mankins’ game plan is really essential to getting it right this time, and getting us to the watershed of affordable electricity actually coming down to the earth.
Many people would object that Mankins’ plan for SSP does not fulfill the full vision of O’Neill, and does not even provide for many humans in space. I remember many people saying “Why don’t we just spend $50 billion to set up a permanent full-time self-sufficient human base on the moon, build mass drivers on the moon, and get to SSP that way instead?” The problem is that you can’t do all that for just $50 billion. To do it at all requires lots of infrastructure and enabling technology. If we settle for nothing less than a full moon base (or a Mars base) first, we may simply end up with nothing but dreams, forever. The Mankins plan is a vital opportunity to build up the infrastructure we need in space before we can have a realistic chance to expand the human settlement further. If we fulfill that plan, there will be ever more opportunity and need to bring more and more humans along, step by step, perhaps starting out with a kind of swarm city more like a giant expansion of ISS than like the habitats we will build eventually.
The great beauty of SPS-ALPHA is that it relies on a “Lego” kind of approach, building up a huge structure from modules which all weigh less than a ton. This gets rid of the need for heavy lift vehicles; we can afford to use whatever gets us to space most cheaply, even if it looks more like a DOD vehicle with wings and lift than a NASA rocket with thrust greater than the weight of the vehicle. It also lets us do a lot of the critical RD&D right here on earth. We can explore designs and prove out the key concepts right here on earth, even in the laboratories of independent universities and small businesses, perhaps all over the world. Mankins’ book is a crucial guide to the kind of work which can be done today, all over the world, to take us closer to making the dream real.
As a matter of honesty, I have to say that the book does not tell us everything we need to know to make the dream a reality. The book tells us a huge amount about competing designs for SSP, some of which might work out better after ALPHA paves the way. But there are other possibilities in the same design space. There is new work on winged reusable launch vehicles, all over the world, including the new DARPA program XS-1 and new work not widely publicized in Sichuan province in China, and crucial new technology which goes with that. Nevertheless, Mankins’ book is the game plan for bringing SSP itself to reality. To make a positive difference in the game, we need to have that game plan close at hand, not just on our shelves but in all of our strategic thinking for all of things we can do to help.
Re authorship: it should only refer to me as EVCP of NSS. If any squib refers to NSF, perhaps it should say: “The view herein are the official views of NSS, with no relation implied to any official views of NSF.”
* The views herein are those of the author and of NSS, and do not reflect the official views of any other organization; however, the review was written on government time, and is thus in the government public domain.