One of America’s great achievements is the International Space Station (“ISS”), a remarkable testimony to human ingenuity, fortitude, and prescience. Recently, the crew completed the first of three scheduled spacewalks and scientific experiments are ongoing, like studies of worms to help medicine on Earth find new methods for repairing damaged tissue.
As it happens, the International Space Station’s lifeline depends upon supplies, like foodstuff, delivered from Earth via rocket ship or shuttle. That’s how the astronauts eat and live on a life-support system that is independent of Mother Earth. The space station has electricity and modern conveniences, but no supply-ship has ever delivered a payload of coal or oil. Just imagine: A cargo bay filled with coal, blasting off to the International Space Station!
The space station’s electricity is generated by a system of solar arrays, totaling 27,000 square feet, powered by the sun. Additionally, the space station has energy storage batteries to store “excess solar array energy” during periods “of sunlight” to provide power during periods “of shade.” It works so well that it’s almost as if a magical wand, presto, generates electricity 24/7.
Accordingly, astronauts can survive the most challenging harshest of elements, no gravity and sub-sub-zero temperatures, without fossil fuels. So, why not elsewhere, like down here on Earth? Along those lines, there’s good news coming, a facsimile of the space station’s renewable energy is already available here on Earth but more on that later.
The NASA Glenn Research Center developed the fuel cells that are the primary source of power on the Space Shuttles. Additionally, Glenn is further developing and investigating fuel cells for emissions-free aircraft, reusable launch vehicles, a Mars airplane, and a Space Shuttle upgrade, as well as systems to produce electricity and store energy on the Moon and Mars. Indeed, their plate is full, and the repercussions for Earth could be stupendous, assuming somebody in Congress makes an effort to bring the advanced energy technology “back home” to their constituents.
As it happens, the renewable energy system of the space station is coming to American homeowners much sooner than expected. But, Congress has nothing to do with it.
America’s Political/Energy Tragedy
Construction on the space station began in 1998 with funds recommended by the Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which conducts oversight of NASA.
It was ten years earlier in 1988 when NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen delivered testimony to the Senate Energy Committee that, to this day, is considered a “turning point in climate science history.”
“Seated before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, 15 television cameras, and a roomful of reporters, Hansen … presented his findings. The charts of global climate all pointed upward. ‘The Earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements,’ he said. ‘There is only a 1 percent chance of an accidental warming of this magnitude…. The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,’” A Climate Hero: The Testimony, Worldwatch Institute, Feb. 21, 2015.
Over the subsequent years, Congress and the nation became fully aware of the futuristic marvels of the International Space Station at 250 miles above the planet revolving around Earth every 92.69 minutes and generating its own electrical power from the sun, but regrettably and unmindfully the ISS is a party to one of the biggest political tragedies of the 21st century. Congress did not have the foresight to bring the space station’s renewable energy technology back home to its constituents.
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, that small white speck in the evening sky is the International Space Station, a remote, self-sustaining home to astronauts that utilizes the sun to power all of its remarkable achievements. Congress should be proud; however, they cannot ignore the disgracefulness of their failure to bring its life-changing energy technology to American businesses and households. After all, Dr. James Hanson’s warning to Congress should have been a big enough clue.
As a consequence, Congress’s cold-shoulder is a stark example of human failing to recognize the obvious. And, what could be more obvious to Congress, which holds regular hearings on NASA’s accomplishments, than the success of their free-floating self-powering space station, entirely dependent upon the sun for its energy? No coal or oil has ever been shipped to the space station.
This, therefore, begs the question of why Congress has not legislated programs to bring the renewable energy system that they authorized for NASA back home to their constituents? Yes, similar to Kennedy’s “send a man to the moon,” an equally precocious Congress could “deliver the solar energy system to its constituents.” But, they have not. Not even close. Not even a whisper!
As it happens, solar energy works just fine in outer space, where, according to ISS Crew Earth Observations Experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory/Johnson Space Center: The solar wind and interstellar gas clouds are over a thousand degrees and sometimes in the millions, but also the cosmic background temperature is minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. Earthly conditions are not nearly as severe, nor as challenging. Why the abject failure of Congress to capitalize on the obvious?
After all, Dr. James Hansen gave them a ten-year head start with plenty to think about.
Nowadays, Congress’s strong overriding commitment to fossil fuels brings in its wake Dr. James Hansen’s biggest nightmare, i.e., carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere at 400 ppm, already flashing ominous signals. In the meantime, the Year 2014 ranks as the hottest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists. The ten hottest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have all occurred since 2000. The planet is heating up.
Equally disturbing, if not more so, throughout geological history, “Every time we have hit high CO2, we’ve lost the ice caps,” Peter Ward, professor, Dept. of Earth & Space Sciences, University of Washington, Our Future in a World without Ice Caps, 2013 lecture series.
Elon Musk Supplants Congress
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors, is/has become America’s surrogate “Congressional Committee on Science, Space and Technology.” Where Congress forfeits, Elon Musk capitalizes, bringing the energy technology of America’s space program to homeowners, the way forward to a better life, which is what Congress is supposed to do. It’s why they are elected in the first place.
Elon Musk’s electric car company Tesla is currently in partnership with Panasonic Corporation, building a $5 billion gigafactory in Nevada to manufacture batteries for cars and for homes. The factory will be primarily powered by solar and wind.
Ad interim, Tesla will soon, this year, hit the market with stand-alone battery systems, similar to what the space station uses when “in shadow,” thereby offering smart energy consumers a space age opportunity, both big and small alike, from households to big commercial enterprises, like Wal-Mart stores, which are already using the Tesla unique battery system, saving Wal-Mart 20-30% off energy bills. Assuredly, no business can afford to pass up that kind of dollars and cents opportunity.
Not only that, but 500 homes in California are currently part of a pilot project, using the stand-alone battery system to augment electricity generation for up to two days w/o sunlight, similar to how the International Space Station operates.
The world according to Elon Musk is changing fast, and along those lines, Edison Electric Institute was truly prophetic in 2013 when it warned utilities: “One can imagine a day when battery storage technology or micro turbines could allow customers to be electric grid independent.”
However, that event could have/ should have occurred a decade ago, before the great meltdown of ice turned deadly, threatening loss of the world’s natural water towers for over half of the world’s population and at the headwaters of major commercial rivers, as the glaciers are losing mass at an accelerating rate, turning back the hands of geological time.
Other than the Earth heating up way beyond its normalized capacity, why else would the world’s glaciers be melting away?
Mr. Musk’s stand-alone batteries could “change everything” from politics to disruption of major industries, like utilities as well as the oil and gas industry. Objectively, his remarkable farsightedness stands a good chance of upending the nation’s 200-year-old smokey industrial revolution.
As for politics, the stand-alone battery system is likely to herald a new brand of politics based upon eco economics “alongside nature,” as embraced by innovative companies like Apple, Inc., which already powers all of its data centers with renewable energy, rather than the callousness behind today’s neoliberal emphasis on profits, and only profits, joined at the hip to an old-fashioned, sluggish energy industry, “taking advantage of nature.”
Maybe, Elon Musk should run for Congress. Nah, don’t stifle creativity?
Anyway, Congress does not have a renewable energy policy and nothing is in the works. In fact, quite the opposite, rumor has it the Grand Old Party (GOP) is scheming a North American Fossil Fuel Goliath in partnership with Canada and Mexico to drill the hell out of the entire North American continent. They’ll need the presidency.
In any event, with elective office, Mr. Musk would likely live a life of complete frustration and total failure.
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org