The first application area to be discussed for a new NASA effort is energy. With high gas prices, oil exporters that in many cases do not view or treat the United States as an ally, strategic vulnerability of oil to supply interruptions, balance of trade issues, and energy impacts on climate, efficient and cost-effective energy in various forms is becoming more and more of a national priority. The thought exercise that this section proposes is to imagine the kinds of contributions that NASA could make to our national energy needs, while at the same time continuing its role in space and aeronautics, if roughly $500M (in the scenario where this much funding is available for the new program because the Constellation program is downsized) or $900M (in the scenario where this much funding is available because the Constellation program is cancelled). The same type of thought exercise is suggested for all of the other application areas in later sections.
One point to remember is that not just one, but all of these eight $500M per year or $900M per year application efforts could be made if Constellation is replaced or downsized.
For energy, as with all of the other application areas, we need to stretch the budget so we can afford several projects. Large, expensive projects will unfortunately have to be postponed. The following efforts are mentioned as concepts to consider when building a program that will fit in a $500M or $1900M per year NASA energy application budget. It is well beyond the scope of this document to propose budgets or details for these ideas; budget, policy and application area experts would need to fill in the details to allow policy makers to select and define the most appropriate energy program. The purpose here is to show a few of many ways that NASA could contribute to this application and problem area while at the same time fulfilling its space and aeronautics mission.
1. Power Subsystem Improvements – NASA could perform research, development, and demonstration activities for improved satellite, spacecraft, or space station power systems like solar panels, batteries, fuel cells. The purpose would be not only to make the space components more efficient or cost effective, but to also spin off the improved technology for application in Earth energy production scenarios.
2. Power Use Improvements – NASA could perform research, development, and demonstration activities for improved satellite, spacecraft, or space station subsystems that use power more efficiently. This could include satellite instruments, computers, life support systems, and many other modules. The purpose would be not only to make the space components more efficient or cost effective, but to also spin off the improved technology for application in Earth energy efficiency scenarios.
3. Improved Earth Observation for Energy – NASA could perform additional Earth observation research and missions with the goal of better mapping characteristics of the Earth related to energy. The purpose would be to hand off these demonstrated capabilities to the private sector or to operational agencies like NOAA and the USGS. These missions could be done by Earth orbiting satellites, suborbital rockets, or both with suborbital rockets testing components meant for Earth orbit, or complementing orbital measurements. Many of these ideas have already started; in these cases, the efforts could be to improve temporal, spatial, or spectral coverage. Examples include mapping winds to help wind turbine placement, searching for oil, mapping tides, mapping potential dams, mapping subsurface water or geothermal temperature gradients, and designing efficient urban transportation networks.
4. Improved Airplane Fuel Efficiency – NASA’s aeronautics expertise could be used to strengthen research, development, and deployment of air fuel efficiency technology. This could range from more fuel efficient fighter aircraft, passenger and cargo jet liners, and even electric General Aviation planes. NASA already has a “General Aviation” Centennial Challenge for small aircraft fuel efficiency; this prize could be expanded considerably. NASA aeronautics could also help in designing more efficient airport operations and air traffic management systems. These efforts might even include demonstrating lighter than air ships for efficient transport for circumstances where quick delivery and large payload mass aren’t important business parameters.
5. Cheap Access to Space – Communication and GPS satellites are used for many energy-saving applications, like making surface and air transportation more efficient, telecommuting, and remote metering. NASA could perform research and X plane demonstrations of CATS vehicles to help bring lower launch costs to these communications and GPS satellites, thereby enabling the universe of these energy-saving applications to expand.
6. Space Weather Monitoring – NASA could improve its monitoring of the Sun and space weather using suborbital, Earth orbiting, and Lagrange point platforms. These are helpful in providing warnings for Earth power grids. NASA Solar and Space Weather research applications would ultimately be moved to the private sector, NOAA, or the Defense Department.
7. Solar Power Satellite or Power Relay Satellite Demonstration – A full-fledged Solar Power Satellite or Power Relay Satellite is probably beyond the scope of NASA, and at any rate would be difficult and expensive. This proposal is simply to retire some of the technical and perceived risk of such large-scale ventures by performing a small scale demonstration of power beaming or relay technologies in space. A variety of potential demonstrations could be done: beaming power from one space vehicle to another, beaming power on a small scale to Earth (perhaps simulating power for emergency disaster response applications rather than powering the national energy grid), or SPS/PRS subsystem demonstrations.
8. Helium 3 extraction Demonstration – As with Solar Power/Relay Satellites, fusion power using Helium 3 from the Moon is probably not a near-term possibility. However, a small lunar regolith processing demonstration to extract Helium 3, on Earth or possibly even a small robotic demonstration on the Moon itself, would retire risk for such a venture. It could also be useful as a demonstration for other regolith processing activities.
Each of these areas can be broken down into smaller sub-problems. In many cases it’s a matter of complementing existing NASA efforts that are not funded adequately considering the importance of the energy challenge our nation faces. There are many opportunities here for NASA to be a customer of, to work with, and to pass along technology to the private sector or operational agencies, and thereby provide important help to our economy and to the important work of other Federal agencies.