ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Serious worries about global warming and dependence on foreign oil are making policymakers take another look at old ideas. This week in Science Out of the Box, we examine one far-out proposal for clean, inexhaustible energy.
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SEABROOK: If you're environmentally minded, you may have solar panels on your roof or in the yard. Well, what about launching solar panels into outer space and then beaming the power back to Earth? Surprisingly, one office at the Pentagon thinks this could be the solution to the world's energy needs.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: At the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a room full of about 50 people are watching a movie. It shows the Earth, then an orbiting satellite with light-catching solar panels. As the music soars, a big round transmitter aims pulses of energy to the ground.
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GREENFIELDBOYCE: The pulses look like blue smoke rings. They land on a flat receiver set out in a desert. Electric lines carry the power to a city. At the end of the movie, night falls and the city lights up.
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GREENFIELDBOYCE: This is just a computer stimulation, of course. But many people in this room want to see this become reality.
Mr. CHARLES MILLER (Director, Space Frontier Foundation): This is huge.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Charles Miller is director of the Space Frontier Foundation. He suggests that power-generating satellites could be the biggest thing done in space, well, ever.
Mr. MILLER: The energy market is a trillion-dollar-a-year market. If space-based solar power takes off, Apollo, the Shuttle and the Space Station combined will look like a college science project.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's quite a statement especially when you consider that Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, is sitting just a few feet away. But Aldrin seems to like this idea too.
Mr. BUZZ ALDRIN (Former Astronaut, Apollo): Just as we went to the moon, we came with peace for all mankind, I think we have a great challenge to us - to look for the energy that we need for all mankind.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Sunlight in space is intense and nonstop. There's no clouds, night never falls. Solar panels would constantly get tons and tons of clean energy that could be beams to Earth as lasers or microwaves.
This idea has been around for 40 years. NASA and the National Research Council have both looked at it, but it's never gotten off the ground. Now, though, tshe technology has a new fan, the Pentagon. The National Security Space Office has just released a new report saying that this technology could be a national security asset.
Mr. JOHN MANKINS (President, Space Solar Power Association): The fact that it was the Department of Defense, I think it gives a tremendous impact.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: John Mankins is president of the Space Power Association.
Mr. MANKINS: It has gravitas. It gives it a lot of weight that otherwise would not be evident.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The report basically says, look, oil prices are up, the nation is engaged in a costly war in the Middle East, and there's growing concern about global warming. Meanwhile, the technologies for solar panels and wireless power transmissions have improved dramatically.
The report says that the U.S. government should fund demonstration projects to get private industry interested. But even though the military has influence, its involvement also raises certain questions about death rays from space.
Lieutenant Colonel Paul Damphousse worked on the report for the National Security Space Office.
Lieutenant Colonel PAUL DAMPHOUSSE (National Security Space Office): The question comes up, I mean, when we start talking about beaming power from space: Is this is going to be a space weapon. And that's - they are really valid questions and it's something that we're very transparent on. And the answer is no, not at all.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the beam would be coming back at very low power - less than the intensity of sunlight at noon so it couldn't incinerate things. The report says the biological effect would be similar to the heat you feel sitting some distance from a campfire. Still, the report recommends developing the technology openly.
Lt. Col. DAMPHOUSSE: We actually want to share this technology. We want this to be not only for American security and our allies but for the world.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Theresa Hitchens is an expert on space security at the Center for Defense Information. She says the way the report was written with a Web site and public participation will help reassure people about the weapons question.
Ms. THERESA HITCHENS (Director, Center for Defense Information): But the fact remains, if there are going to be those kinds of concerns and legitimately so.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the military has historically been interested in the weapons potential of high-powered lasers or microwave beams. And she says in the popular imagination, ray guns are already linked to power satellites. She points to a science fiction book called, "Power Sat."
Ms. HITCHENS: The (unintelligible) is that the satellite is hijacked by terrorists and used to try to assassinate the president of the United States using a very high-powered beam that actually fries people in the process across great swathes of Washington, D.C. so.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: At the press conference, one official did sort of jokingly suggest aiming an energy beam at the White House. But in his vision, it would be a demo project to get the public excited by lighting up the national Christmas tree.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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