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STEWARDSHIP: Environment & Energy | February 22, 1986




An Unpublished Op-Ed Piece for Los Angeles Times

The national tragedy of the Challenger disaster and the national windfall of falling oil prices now test our national resolve -- will we retreat from the challenge of putting people into space, and will we repeat our mistake of taking energy for granted? These two questions are one: Our energy future lies in space.

As oil crises demonstrated, energy affects almost every aspect of daily life, transportation, and manufacturing. This is because "energy" is the capacity to do work. The security of our nation depends on our access to energy. However, there is but one source of energy that is clean, safe, free (once tapped into), and inexhaustible. This, the power of choice for most of the world's best scientific minds, is solar energy, sunlight! Although commercial estimates, from many of the powerful power corporations, show a weak future for solar energy, there are good reasons to believe that this is our most promising energy resource.

First, tax-credits have been extended to those citizens affluent and far-sighted enough to install rooftop, passive solar collectors, to warm water and room spaces. The system usually more than pays for itself over the life of the house, whose value is increased. My friend proudly told of the halving of his monthly gas bills.

Second, an even more ambitious approach has been taken by such companies as ARCO, in California's desert. A giant field of mirrors, computerized to follow the sun as a sunflower does, focuses tremendous amounts of sunlight, pure energy, onto a central tower, in which water is converted into superheated steam that drives electrical turbines. This technology, like using a magnifying glass to start a fire, is fairly new here (France has had profitable metallurgical solar furnaces for years); but the experimental results are promising.

Finally, we cannot afford to ignore the virtually limitless possibilities of the ultimate in solar energy research -- "photovoltaic" systems, which convert sunlight directly into useful electrical energy. Such "solar cells" are currently uneconomical, producing power about 10-times more expensively than when conventionally generated. However, given our need for alternatives to exhaustible, polluting, and dangerous present energy sources -- fossil fuels and nuclear power -- and given the enormous potential of energy from the sun -- which will shine billions of years -- let us consider how we can help ourselves.

First, all Americans should learn a lesson from Detroit's mistake: Delaying research and development of new technologies, while our international competitors take the initiative, produces economic disaster. Now, consider that a new technology for making more efficient and less expensive solar cells has been promoted by an American inventor, who was shunned by many, evidently short-sighted American companies. So, this entrepreneur went to Japan, where reasonable research and development is recognized for what it is worth -- the chance for continuing prosperity. Now, some American companies are following Japan's headstart, in this technology of spraying photovoltaic materials onto stainless steel sheets. We must remember that virtually all new technologies were experimentally promising but economically inefficient at first -- the first handheld calculators cost more than a modern desktop computer! When Benjamin Franklin was asked whether one of his new inventions was useful, he replied: "What is the use of a new born child?"

Finally, let us take stock of the potential of America, the technologically greatest nation in the history of the world. On the drawing boards of NASA engineers -- whose advice on the Challenger was disastrously unheeded -- are realistic plans for the most fantastic project ever embarked upon by humankind -- the construction of orbiting solar-energy satellites, each up to 50 square kilometers (enough photovoltaic surface to cover both sides of the Great Wall of ancient China) and each microwaving down to Earth as much power as 10 nuclear power plants! With our space shuttle fleet, which we have invested so heavily in and have sacrificed so much for and which we are committed to improving, we can deliver into orbit the men and women and prefabricated parts needed. Shuttle crews have erected the largest structures ever in space -- those gigantic "tinker toys" and a telescoping solar-energy panel many stories high (In the weightlessness of space, structures do not have to fight gravity). We stand on the brink of the greatest advance in the harnessing of nature's energy since prehistoric people succeeded in their "quest for fire" or since "Drake's Folly" turned into a gusher of petrodollars.

And because the sun ceaselessly delivers to our Earth over 20,000 times as much power as the entire industrial world uses today, even just minimal efficiencies could well give us more energy than we would know what to do with. We might even sell energy to the Middle East or desalinate seawater cheaply enough to turn drought-ridden Africa back into the Garden of Eden!

The energy from the ever-burning sun is free; but of course, tapping into it, initially, would be expensive. As the late President John F. Kennedy promised us during the infancy of our great American space program, this New Frontier will take tremendous commitment and effort from all Americans, including some of our best scientists and engineers as well as some of our best skilled and "unskilled" laborers -- millions of whom are, most regrettably and unprofitably, un- or under-employed. Although we face tremendous federal deficits, we must never forget that every dollar invested in the U.S. space program has been returned to us several-fold -- directly, in purchases and wages, and indirectly, as in the development of the miraculously useful computer microchip. J.F.K. promised us that our economic, scientific, and cultural rewards from space exploration would be many times our investments -- and he was right!

Let us remember Shakespeare's sage advice:

"There is a tide in the affairs of men [all people],

Which, when taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries."

Let us choose the challenge of prosperity.

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