Foust Forward | This time is different. Maybe.
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 accomplishments like NASA’s Ingenuity Mars helicopter and commercial space station development, entire tracks were devoted to topics like space-based solar power, space elevators and space settlement that have been mainstays of the conference for decades. Even the people giving the presentations haven’t changed.
Those topics have cycled in and out of 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 appeared carbon nanotubes could enable cables tens of thousands of kilometers long. NASA sponsored prizes for technologies related to space elevators. Interest subsided, though, when it became clear the material wasn’t a sufficient technological breakthrough.
Now it may be space-based solar power’s time for a comeback. At ISDC, Nikolai Joseph of NASA’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy announced the agency was doing a new study of the concept to examine if technological advances and reductions in launch costs made it more feasible.
“This study is going to assess the degree to which NASA should support space-based solar power,” he said, promising a final report by the International Astronautical Congress in September.
The announcement was music to the ears of space-based solar power advocates at the conference who say that, after decades of studies that failed to make much progress, this time is different. “Transportation is no longer a part of the cost equation,” argued John Mankins, who has championed the concept for decades, including earlier in his career at NASA. (He added that space-based solar power was “far more credible” than fusion, which is not exactly a high bar to clear.)
But the drivers of space-based solar power are not that different from the initial surge of interest in the subject in the 1970s. Back then, it was the energy crisis driving demand for new power sources and the promise of cheap access to space by the shuttle. Now, it is the climate crisis driving demand for clean power sources and the promise of cheap access to space by SpaceX’s Starship.
It’s not just at ISDC where old ideas are getting fresh looks. Just before the conference, a California startup, AstroForge, announced it raised $13 million to start work on technologies for asteroid mining, a concept long embraced by space advocates that enjoyed a brief but unsuccessful surge of interest several years ago.
Even a company co-founder needed convincing. “You’re crazy, man,” Jose Acain recalled when his friend, Matt Gialich, pitched the idea during a long hike. By the end of the hike, he concluded, “it’s still crazy, but maybe there’s something there.” Within months, they refined the idea, started AstroForge and were accepted to the famous Y Combinator business accelerator.
The difference between AstroForge and previous ventures, they argue, is a focus on platinum group metals and the use of readily available small spacecraft and low-cost launch options. However, unlike the enthusiasts at ISDC, full of technical details on space-based solar power but without much funding, AstroForge is flush with cash but declined in an interview to discuss technical details about how their asteroid mining process will work.
There is no guarantee that asteroid mining or space-based solar power will break the boom-bust cycles of interest seen in the past. This time may be different, but it may not be different enough to make a difference.
There is, though, precedent for change. Another long-running topic at past ISDCs was low-cost access to space, something advocates pursued despite the failures of the shuttle or an alphabet soup of later programs, like NASP, DC-X, X-33, X-34 and more, to lower the cost of reaching orbit.
That gets far less attention at ISDC today because of the success of SpaceX in lowering launch costs through reused boosters, a path that others are following and which enables the revival of visions like space-based solar power 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 ran in the June 2022 issue.