Becoming Spacefaring: America’s Path Forward in Space

I.         Introduction

America’s energy security and national prosperity is in very serious jeopardy. As everyone understands, affordable supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas are the lifeblood of America’s prosperity—providing about 85% of all the energy consumed in America. Yet, these are non-renewable energy sources, as everyone also understands. While the Earth has large amounts of these fuels, only that portion that can be recovered safely can be used. This technically recoverable portion is called the endowment—recognizing that it is a gift from nature. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has estimated the remaining technically recoverable endowment of known and yet-to-be-discovered oil, coal, and natural gas and this is far less than what is needed to sustain America through the end of this century.

This shortfall creates a serious American energy security crisis that is foolish to ignore. The era of affordable fossil fuels will end this century during the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren, placing their security and wellbeing at great risk. Despite a half-century of national political awareness of our fossil fuel insecurity, there is no rational national program underway to develop sufficient practicable sustainable energy replacements before affordable fossil fuel scarcity takes hold. This is alarming! Clearly, new sustainable energy sources must be found to replace fossil fuels. The cost will be in the tens of trillions of dollars. This is fundamentally a political issue regarding priorities, policies, and allocation of resources. America’s political leaders largely do not even understand that there is an energy security issue with unavoidable serious consequences. In short, with respect to national energy security, America is dangerously in the dark.

Our ability to harvest fossil fuels is a function of technology and market price. When our technology is no longer able to extract fossil fuels at a price and in the quantities needed for a healthy economy, serious consequences follow because affordable electricity and fuels are the lifeblood of any modern civilization. The coming end of the era of affordable fossil fuels means that serious strife is in America’s future unless we undertake significant steps to replace fossil fuels with new, sustainable energy sources and do this rapidly enough to have a smooth economic transition. Achieving this smooth transition will not be easy, quick, or inexpensive. It will take generations and will require a significant percentage of the gross domestic product throughout the remainder of this century. Most importantly, it will require that the United States become a true, commercial, human spacefaring nation, as the only practicable source of sustainable energy in sufficient quantities will be from space-based sustainable power systems.

The purpose of this article is to explain quantitatively why the era of affordable fossil fuels is ending, what the consequences will be if no effective transition plan is undertaken, why space-based power is the only real solution, and what initial policy steps should be undertaken by the next president to begin to resolve this crisis.