Attending the International Space Development Conference (ISDC), the annual conference of the National Space Society, can feel like stepping back in time. While this year’s event, held over Memorial Day weekend, celebrated recent achievements such as NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter and commercial space station development, entire runways were devoted to topics such as space solar energy, space elevators and space colonization which were the mainstays of the conference. for decades. Even the people giving the presentations haven’t changed.
These subjects went into fashion for half a century without much progress. For example, in the early 2000s, there was a resurgence of interest in space elevators when it became apparent that carbon nanotubes could enable cables tens of thousands of miles long. NASA sponsored awards for technologies related to space elevators. Interest died down, however, when it became clear that the material was not a sufficient technological breakthrough.
Now, maybe it’s time for space solar power to come back. At the ISDC, Nikolai Joseph of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy announced that the agency is conducting a new study of the concept to determine whether technological advances and reductions in launch costs make it more feasible.
“This study will assess how NASA should support space-based solar power,” he said, promising a final International Astronautical Congress report in September.
The announcement was music to the ears of space solar energy advocates at the conference who said that after decades of studies that haven’t made much headway, this time is different. “Transportation is no longer part of the cost equation,” argued John Mankins, who championed the concept for decades, including earlier in his NASA career. (He added that space solar power was “much more credible” than fusion, which isn’t exactly a high bar to cross.)
But the drivers of space solar energy are not so different from the initial revival of interest in the subject in the 1970s. Back then, it was the energy crisis that drove the demand for new energy sources and the promise of cheap access to space by shuttle. Today, it is the climate crisis that is driving the demand for clean energy sources and the promise of cheap access to space by SpaceX’s Starship.
It’s not just at ISDC that old ideas get a makeover. Just before the conference, a California startup, AstroForge, announced that it had raised $13 million to begin work on asteroid mining technologies, a concept long embraced by space advocates that has enjoyed a brief but unsuccessful resurgence of interest several years ago.
Even a business co-founder needed convincing. “You’re crazy, man,” Jose Acain recalled when his friend, Matt Gialich, pitched the idea on a long hike. At the end of the hike, he concluded, “it’s still crazy, but maybe there’s something there.” Within months, they refined the idea, launched AstroForge, and were accepted into the famed Y Combinator business accelerator.
According to them, the difference between AstroForge and previous ventures is the emphasis on platinum group metals and the use of readily available small spacecraft and low-cost launch options. However, unlike the ISDC enthusiasts, who are full of technical details about space solar power but without much funding, AstroForge is full of money but refused in an interview to discuss the technical details of how their process works. asteroid mining.
There is no guarantee that asteroid mining or space solar power will break the boom and bust cycles seen in the past. This time may be different, but it may not be different enough to make a difference.
There is, however, precedent for the change. Another long-running topic at previous ISDCs was low-cost access to space, something advocates pursued despite shuttle failures or an alphabet soup of later programs, like NASP, DC -X, X-33, X-34 and more, to reduce the cost of reaching orbit.
This gets far less attention from the ISDC today due to SpaceX’s success in reducing launch costs through repurposed boosters, a path others are following that helps rekindle visions such as the space solar energy and asteroid mining. So this time may be different. Maybe.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column originally appeared in the June 2022 issue.