How did it happen that the smartest organization on the planet, that left tracks on the Moon, that by remote control digs through and analyzes strata on Mars and wings through the rings of Saturn, stands tacitly with doubters, unpersuadables and in-for-the-profit corporations regarding climate change? NASA’s energy policy is not much different from that of operators of foreign flagged and U.S. steamers that ply the oceans, powered by burning bunker oil, which paradoxically may be the richest of oils in chemical content.
Why should not America’s smartest agency be setting the bar by conducting all its operations with renewable energy?
How did it happen that NASA’s ground transport fleet is powered by internal combustion engines that have an efficiency of 30 percent when its administrators know that electric motors are 90 percent efficient? What reasoning says it is okay to throw away 60 cents of every taxpayer dollar that is spent for engine fuel?
Why are the air-conditioning systems of NASA’s major installations in the warm, humid climates of Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida powered by fossil fuels when administrators are aware that daily Earth solar energy influx, about 89 terrawatts, is there for taking? (In contrast, total Earth energy consumption is around 15 terrawatts). The same question applies to all of NASA installations around the nation — laboratories, test facilities, manufacturing, etc.
Why is NASA launching rockets that consume fossil fuels when the best rocket fuel of all, hydrogen, can be produced daily from the sun’s energy, with no drain whatever on fossil fuel resources?
And after conducting extensive study of solar power satellites that have the potential for beaming power to Earth 24 hours a day, and after acknowledging the feasibility of the concept, why did NASA stop short of at least a demonstration system, so that commercial enterprises could take over as they have with communications satellites?
That was in the 1970’s when NASA was somewhat at loose ends, trying to find a meaningful post-Apollo program. To the dismay of many, it appeared that NASA took a wrong turn in opting for a space shuttle and subsequently, for a mission for it — the international space station. This “gee whiz” voyage to discovery, which used up a third of NASA’s budget for the better part of 40 years, has yet to reveal a discovery substantive enough to merit headlines. Unlike the vast space-based communications system, in which NASA played a significant part, a healthy return on investment is elusive at best.
Climate change non-believers trivialize or deny both climate change and the reality of a limited supply of fossil fuel. A common dismissal is that there are sufficient deposits to last another hundred years. That is within the lifetimes of babies born today! And what then? Assuming a course correction is finally mandated, where will the energy come from to make the transition? And in what kind of environment will this be taking place?
Fossil fuel deposits are comparable to an inheritance. Present generations will be known as profligates, spending down the principle, oblivious to the fact that fossil fuel deposits should be conserved across millennia, a source of material for manufacture of plastics, fabrics, medicines and a variety of other consumer goods, maybe even food. The sober back-story is that the time frame may be considerably less, depending on how rapidly nations like China and India, with populations over a billion each, ramp up to consumption economies like the United States. Other issues, of course, are how severely the release of most of the sequestered carbon will affect Earth’s climate, and soaring costs of fossil fuels as the supply dwindles.
Among advanced nations, Spain, Portugal and now Germany have the most aggressive renewable energy policies. There is no Renewable Energy Act in the United States though some states have enacted their own. The U.S. energy policy is styled to hope for the transformation to find its own momentum, assisted by various grants and tax incentives. There is little sign of a curve taking off.
It is relatively easy for individuals to make the transformation to a zero or less carbon footprint, and as concerned citizens, many are doing it. Why not institutions like NASA and a host of other operating financial, service and industrial entities? Response at best has been sporadic. Some, like NASA’s Glenn Research Center, are moving in the right direction, but slowly, with a long-range perspective. For profit-based organizations it is an impersonal bottom line issue.
What would happen were NASA to edict that by 2020 all its electrical energy purchases would have to be certified renewable? This is the organization Americans look upon as capable of accomplishing stupendous deeds. Why can it not accomplish what is eminently both needed as an example for the rest of the nation as well as abroad, and as internal policy?
As for rocketry, what could be more elegant, even noble, than lofting spacecraft into orbit with rockets fueled with hydrogen generated by the sun a few days before lift-off? And finally, who better to set the example for renewable energy than the smartest organization on the planet?
Edward Hujsak is a career rocket engineer and has authored two books on rocketry: “The Future of U.S. Rocketry” and “All About Rocket Engines.”