Selling the Sun

Space Colonies

by T.A. Heppenheimer
Stackpole Books, 224 pp., $12.95 (to be published May 1)

The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space

by Gerard O’Neill
Morrow, 288 pp., $8.95

Solar Energy and America’s Future and Development Administration (ERDA) Commerce 5285 Port Royal Rd. Springfield, Virginia 22161

prepared by the Stanford Research Institute for the Energy Research
Available from National Technical Information Service US Department of, 104 pp., $5.50

In its most pessimistic rendering and to its most apocalyptic observers the energy crisis—omnipresent, irreversible—foretells the end of civilization. Slowly, but inevitably, the world will run out of natural gas, oil, uranium, coal. It is understood by all that modern man must move away from reliance on fossil fuel and toward other sources of energy. But such a move, entailing changes in the shape of Western society, seems impossible to accomplish. Instead the drive to develop more fossil and other nonrenewable fuels grows more intense. In the end this nightmare augurs a dying world.

It is scarcely coincidental that amid the oppression of this nightmare a bizarre yet tremendous vision of a renewed planet has been born. At the center of this vision stands the sun. The dreamers, in their reveries on the future of solar power, propose the ultimate technocratic solution to the energy crisis: that space colonies be established, equipped with the means to beam the sun’s energy by microwave back to Earth.

Here is how T.A. Heppenheimer, author of Space Colonies, states the argument:

…When we inquire into new energy sources, we find that they appear too costly, too unsafe, or too uncertain in their practicality to give genuine assurance that the world we seek is indeed achievable.

It is at this point that space colonization enters the picture.

The power satellites built in a space colony offer considerable promise of being the much-sought cheap, clean, and inexhaustible source of power. In space they can be built rapidly and at little cost to Earth. On the ground rectennas can be built at a cost of $1 or $2 billion for each 10-million kilowatt station—a cost considerably lower than that of any ordinary power plant. In the power industry $100 billion is only a small percentage of what will be needed to meet the growing demand of electricity in the remaining years of this century. In space colonization, $100 billion buys a complete space colony with its supporting lunar base and industrial facilities, ready to turn out powersats as desired.

Much the same sort of talk can be heard from Gerard O’Neill, author of The High Frontier. O’Neill, a professor of physics at Princeton, has been promoting the notion of space colonies and of solar power therefrom for several years. He not only adduces calculations similar to Heppenheimer’s but says that it is technically possible that the human population in space could reach the grand total of 7.3 billion in the thirtieth year of the exercise. He adds encouragingly that “once an emigrant left, the corresponding burden of his energy usage on Earth’s resources and atmosphere would be lifted, permanently except for his later brief visits to the home planet.”

Of course the great attraction of this new eschatology of solar power is very evident. As Heppenheimer puts it: “Beyond the material well-being, beyond the prerequisites for a decent world which will last a million years, lies the …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.