I vividly remember meeting Isaac Asimov when I was a teenager. My father had managed to get him as a speaker at the college he was teaching, where as part of a Festival on The Future, the Science Fiction writer was being asked to give a lecture on his advice for the future. Besides his impressive mutton-chop sideburns and lively demeanor, I also remember what he spoke about.
One of the main points of his talk was that he found himself greatly influenced by an early piece of Science Fiction himself. It was a novel called “The Man Who Awoke”, written in 1933 by Lawrence Manning. Despite some silly dialog and flat characters, I actually had read the book and really liked it. It was about a rich hermit named Norman Winters, who found a way to put himself into suspended animation in a subterranean chamber he’d constructed, for thousands of years at a time, making him a sort of one-way time traveler. When he first wakes up in the year 5000AD, all of the world’s fossil fuels have been used up, and the people alive at that point use alcohol refined from wood pulp as a fuel, and referred to the past centuries as the Great Age of Waste. The book is a compendium of popular Science Fiction plots: in later chapters, in the times that Winters awakes centuries later, the Earth is run by a tyrannical central computer (see any number of Star Trek and other Sci-Fi series plots), then he tries to intervene with a city of sleepers who can program their own dreams (see The Matrix), he then finds a world dominated by anarchists in enormous walking robots who perform Genetic Experiments, and finally, he reaches the age where Man discovers Immortality (and just in time for him, too).
It was that first episode, however, that struck Asimov as downright plausible; as we know very well today, there are only finite reserves of fossil fuels, and we now know that burning them at the rate we’ve been doing for power and transportation has led to catastrophic climate changes. After years of study and thought, Asimov (back in the 1970’s, when he gave this lecture) suggested a scheme where we launched satellites into geostationary orbit, much the way weather satellites are today. These satellites, however, would use arrays of solar cells to collect the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. To get that power back to the earth, Asimov suggested a microwave beam, that like a tower between the earth and the satellite, would never move, and allow us to continuously harvest power, without any interruptions of clouds or storms.
Much of Asimov’s proposal was dismissed in the 1970’s, mostly because it was too expensive, particularly when you factored in all of the rockets that you would need to launch and manpower you’d need to support in space to build such a structure. A lot of people were still in denial that mankind would ever really run out of oil, despite the Energy Crisis of 1973 being a clear warning shot off the US’s bow.
Today, with Manning’s 1933 prophecy coming true, and the even more serious problem of global warming from the Greenhouse Effect, Asimov’s proposal is starting to look far more attractive. In fact, if you factor in the savings we get by using robots to build the solar arrays (another Asimov creation, but oddly enough, he never discussed using them to help build his orbital constructions), improvements in photovoltaic efficiency, newer, lighter materials, and the idea starts to gain credibility.
I found that last bit out in an article on the web site for New Scientist, where the US Pentagon has suggested Space-Based Solar Power Facilities as a potential solution to our energy problems:
A report released yesterday by the National Security Space Office (NSSO) recommends that the US government sponsor projects to demonstrate solar-power-generating satellites and provide financial incentives for further private development of the technology.
Space-based solar power would use kilometer-sized solar panel arrays to gather sunlight in orbit. It would then beam power down to Earth in the form of microwaves or a laser, which would be collected in antennas on the ground and then converted to electricity. Unlike solar panels based on the ground, solar power satellites placed in geostationary orbit above the Earth could operate at night and during cloudy conditions.
“We think we can be a catalyst to make this technology advance,” said US Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Paul Damphousse of the NSSO at a press conference yesterday in Washington, DC, US.
The NSSO report recommends that the US government spend $10 billion over the next 10 years to build a test satellite capable of beaming 10 megawatts of electric power down to Earth.
My favourite part of the article comes right at the end:
…the NSSO and its supporters say that no fundamental scientific breakthroughs are necessary to proceed with the idea and that space-based solar power will be practical in the next few decades.
“There are no technology hurdles that are show stoppers right now,” said Damphousse.
So, nothing new to invent, and we could have much of the problems of the end of cheap oil and Greenhouse gas buildup fixed within, say, 15 years. That might just save the human race from extinction (even if we do lose the Polar Bear).
I am aware of the dangers of a fixed and continuous microwave beam, and we have no idea what it would do the atmosphere. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a bird (or plane) that wandered too close to the beam itself. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that if we’d only listened to Asimov, when I met him back in the 1970s, we’d be in much better shape now, but maybe it’s not too late to heed his advice 30 years later.