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This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter Glaser by John Elder on 1994 October 4,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Some of the topics discussed include: his Jewish childhood and early education in Czechoslovakia; his family's escape from the Nazi takeover; his education as an engineer in England; fighting with the Czech army during World War II; his return to Czechoslovakia after the war; his emigration to the U.S. where he earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Columbia University; his employment as a consulting engineer at D. Little in Cambridge, Mass. where he spent his career; his resolve to obey the Hippocratic oath to "do no harm;" Cryogenic insulation; lunar surface research and experiments; von Braun rocket team; space solar power; thermal imaging; Krakatit (the book).
We will take up, at long last, the subject of Peter Glaser's long interest in solar energy and his work in the field. There is a clear line of how you got interested in what you did and how it branches out and various things you got involved in and what happened or what failed to happen. There are sides I would like to make sure get touched along the way which are things you had to learn and how you learned them, other people that got involved and what your relationships with them were as well as your connections with them. Something else, if you can remember it at various times, is interesting to me is if you can remember the evolution of how you thought about things or what you imagined would come of what you were doing at a certain point and five years later what you thought would come of what you were doing and how wrong you might have been before or how right you were and just how completely different — you were just after something completely different. All along the way besides what you did there are all these other things sort of what you thought you were doing.
I think we already covered my what I would call "interest in solar energy for terrestrial implications." The growing conviction that I have had particularly when I became first director and then president of the International Solar Energy Society, that we really have to proceed with the rest of the whole periople of applications. But even if you do this, that it will leave a major gap for several reasons.
What year are you talking about?
That was in the mid-sixties and prior to my really coming out with the first discussion of solar powered satellites.
This, a —
International Solar Energy Society.
What, at that time, was its mission? What did it think it was doing?
Its mission was primarily to find ways to apply solar energy for the benefit of mankind. The schemes that were being espoused were things like solar cookers. You know, the problem in developing countries. I learned from a good friend Dr. Maria Telkas, she was a Hungarian scientist of quite some reputation, and she worked on solar cookers. I discussed it with people. I knew a man named Leighsher [?] and he explained to me the problem that in African countries there are communal meals — you know, large extended families — but they work during the day. Therefore having a solar cooker means you ought to eat at midday when the sun is hot. Well that clashes with the kind of thing that isn't done. They don't eat a big meal at midday. You go home after work and then you gather the family, you have your fire, and then you eat. Women work in the fields, the men work in the fields — so I realized that you cannot introduce new technology without understanding the societal issues that are involved with that acknowledging. The solar cooker example was a very important learning lesson for me.
Were you involved in it or you just heard about it?
I was, to the extent that one was involved, very interested. I used to have a solar cooker in my office because I felt it would be very useful. Laying aside the solar cooker, let us look at the solar water heater. To me, those are on two opposite ends. They are relatively straight-forward devices and a very good friend of mine, Dr. Harry DeBoer at the scientific research foundation where he is today — he is a bit older than I am and a world renown authority. He is giving the Peter Glaser at the International Astronomical Federation Congress which is meeting in Jerusalem next week on wireless power transmission and solar energy. He had developed the solar water heaters. I don't know if you've ever been to Israel. Distinguishing characteristics, whether there is an Israeli living in a home or an Arab, is that the water tank has either Hebrew or Arabic letters, but it is the same stuff. Looks exactly the same. If you go to a fancy hotel in Jerusalem — which overlooks ten-story high — every house has a solar water heater because it makes sense. They have the sun, you don't have to worry about not being home during the day, and you have hot water at night when you need it. The solar water heater is very successful and yet its contribution from an energy point of view is important, but not in the terms of the scale. Yes, water heating is very energy intensive but that isn't going to take care of the problem.
Just as a piece of machinery it is the same as the solar cooker isn't it?
You see from a societal point of view they are miles apart. Solar cookers you have to understand the family and all the local customs. A solar water heater, societal issues only come in with do you have a strong enough roof. The Arabs living in tents, to this day, they have a sort of iron something-or-other in which they put it. They don't need a roof over their house. They live in tents. The solar water heater is very well adapted. If you go from the solar water heater to photovoltaics — photovoltaics are really an old thing. What is new in our developing are efficient, thinner, less expensive. The industry has been sort of waiting for things to grow and they have made tremendous progress, but the price is still fairly high. They have tried to get down to a dollar a peak watt, it is called, at noon and it is still two or three times that. There you have to come back to solar and photo voltaic installation on the rooftops. The problem with photo voltaic installation on the rooftops is if you have on your house you are now in your business of being electric power generation business. That means if you don't care if that thing is on your roof — keep the leaves off, get the snow off, boil the house and clean it and do things to it then you won't have electricity. If you are young and agile and can do all this — but if you're not you have to hire somebody to maintain it and so on. Having this on an individual scale is a more difficult thing to introduce. You say OK we're putting it on a grand scale. Well if you put it on a grand scale what you need is land. If you want to introduce it to the United States you do have that problem of where do you put large scale installation of photovoltaics? I think it is a very important thing to introduce because we get people thinking about conversion of solar energy. It is difficult. It is a difficult task to market them and partly that is the reason why the global industry is now at fifty megawatts and hope to go to one hundred. On the scale of things it is just not that much per year output. You really are dealing with requirement which is in the hundreds of gigawatts globally. They are nowhere near those cost-wise and it's not the technology but really the confluence of application — applicability. Not economics and if you like, it isn't pretty to look at either. So, it is difficult to introduce. Wind has a similar problem. We did a study for wind in Vermont or New Hampshire in the mountains. The minute the local people got wind of even a study they said "Hell no, we don't want to see big windmills on our beautiful hills." So in California they were able to do it because there is nobody around these big hills and they really make a contribution there. You have to be in the right place where the wind blows and you can do it when it is really out of sight. It's not easy to do. We can do a lot more with wind. The major wind regimes — those are enormous capabilities that Alaska has. There is only one problem — nobody lives there. Chile has another excellent regime but how do you get it from Chile to where you need it. The wind has some limitations. Then you have solar thermal where you concentrate sun light onto boilers on a fairly large scale. Well we'll build this thing out on the west coast and with lots of mirrors focusing and that didn't go anyplace either because it requires land, and it's a kluge[?] basically. A lot of things electronic are controlled and you have to clean — mirrors are not an easy thing to use. Then you come to OTEC. That's an old idea. What you do is find yourself a place in the ocean were the top water is warm and at the bottom cold water. If you are lucky you get about a forty degree F. temperature difference which means you have to have huge turbines and enormous flow to extract energy and a ship someplace, usually way off shore. How the hell do you get electricity to where you need it? You've got always the problem that when you have the right place to utilize the energy, either directly or indirectly, it isn't near Boston or New York, etc. Transmission of electricity is a very expensive proposition. Even at high voltage DC lines are expensive. You can't do it for a distance — I think the longest is from the Zambezi River to South Africa, five hundred miles. Well, there you have something within reasonable distance and it makes sense. Very often it isn't within reasonable distance. I have tried to very briefly give you my view that you have to do more with terrestrial. You know we've talked about this and done this now for over thirty years and I think the contribution of terrestrial is probably one percent. It's not at the stage where it's even a credible alternative. It could be much more. You'd have to make a very concerted effort — tax rebates, education, and all sorts of things. That's the problem. All of that I knew as president of the society and as then editor of the Journal of Solar Energy for thirteen years. I became aware what was happening throughout the world. I was in touch with people in just about every country working on this and participated in many meetings. Basically that was in the mid-1960s. I came to the conclusion that it ain't going to get us very far or far enough. I was, of course, aware of Nikola Tessla: very famous books, etc. I knew he had thought about this wireless power transmission stuff. I thought he was obviously eccentric and all that, but hell Westinghouse managed to get something useful by listening to Nikola Tessla. I guess they worked together and essentially Westinghouse adapted his time-crazy ideas of AC and made all the blooming machinery from transformers to motors to generators, which made him a wealthy man and put Westinghouse together. Edison's DC approach just wasn't competitive with AC. Nobody had really picked up Nikola Tessla in this wireless power transmission. I felt here's a guy who had this idea and I read a little bit about what he was doing and said to myself that this was in the — well they first talked about it in 1895 in London at the Rose Society — mid-1960s and microwave ovens were talked about, Raytheon and the radar range — so I decided that looked very promising if it really could be made to work. So I am into Raytheon. I remember to this day I called Bill Brown who was the most senior guy at the Spencer lab 128 and he was sort of the man who had done a lot of the work on micro wave generators and the transformation of micro waves into DC. I had lots of meetings with Bill and I realized that I thought he had it.
When you called him up what did you say you were?
I am from Arthur D. Little and I have the idea that we can — remember that was when satellites were working in the solar energy field and I had become interested in using the sun in outer space and the thing I really needed to have some guidance from him on how this wireless power transmission and where's the technology in it. If that is really something that we can rely on.
What was his response to that?
Had he thought about that himself?
No he was not in the space business. He was in the micro wave oven business.
Was he startled by that suggestion?
He thought I was a bit far out. He and I of course have been very close friends over these years. He is a fabulous guy.
But at this time you didn't know him at all?
I knew of him. I found out he is a guru and very well known. He understood. He worked his whole life on industrial application of micro wave heating and he knew the gadgetry and all that. His device works at 2.45 gigahertz which is exactly what one needs if you want to get a beam going through the atmosphere without any significant absorption. The minute you go to other frequencies you suffer absorption. But we want to have an efficient transfer. In 1964 he actually used this to power a helicopter. That was right here in Spencer Laboratories. There is a TV thing he made of it and pictures. You can just see the helicopter going about this size, the rotor and the receiving antenna which has [???] which I showed you and there it is. There is a beam coming up. I said that is what I was talking about. I'll take two! Remember I knew all about photovoltaics. I knew about the space aspect having worked in the space program. I knew about what we called the wireless power transmission. Now I saw that the technology has progressed to the point that we actually could put this thing — that it was on.
Do you remember when you made contact with him?
I think it was in 1965 or 1966. He was a senior person at Spencer Laboratory.
I am a little curious. Was this idea of Tesslas’ something you dug up or was it well known within a certain field?
Tessla was known —
He was known — I know of him — but I don't know if —
I knew him in Prague at the school. There are some very famous people in the field whose name you will find, perhaps, in this dictionary.
Wireless power transmission — that's what he was —
Actually the guy who actually did it first was Hertz. I think he did it a few years before then. He didn't do it because he was transmitting microwaves, he was working on these tubes and stunning propagation. Just by chance he transmitted across one and a half meters micro waves. Then Nikola Tessla somehow — you know if you want to trace there is no one person who can claim that it sprang like wieners out of the waves. There is always, as somebody said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. The whole totality of science is that there is a gestation period and I feel that the gestation period for Nikola Tessla was fairly long because radar came. Nobody thought of radar for power. We've done a lot of work on radar and there are some similarities. In fact people were burned during the war when they stood in front of radar and didn't realize.
It reminds me of rocketry. It was there but nobody ever thought of doing anything heavy and powerful with it.
In fact if you will look at what I've done and what I've thought about, it's exactly what Bill Brown was doing. All I did was on a larger scale. I was able in my first paper, this 1968 paper which I presented at the Inter-Society of Energy Conversion.
Is that one of those you gave me?
I am not sure I gave it to you. I am not sure where it is now. I would have to look for it. My wife is after me organize these things. I haven't had much time to do it.
Does times mean inclination?
A lot of the stuff I have, most of these books, is I got them like from Asimov or whoever or the things that I have been contributing to. I have to put it together and see how I can manage to do things so I can find where these things are. A lot of this gestation period I can't claim to have invented anything in terms of wireless power transmission. In fact I have somewhere, in 1936 a science fiction writer — I found that out years later that an Englishman and I have that someplace — essentially talked about solar power satellites in a story.
Erick Frank Russell?
No, it was an Englishman. In 1936 this Englishman and I've forgotten the title of the story, he had a spaceship which was beaming power and then some enemy came. It was a very involved story. He knew enough to be able to write science fiction. He used Nikola Tessla’s ideas. He had no idea if you could actually do it. The idea was around. I don't know how many people wrote about things of Nikola Tessla’s. I didn't make a study of it. The thing I felt was here we now have the ingredients. I knew the space program and therefore I had no problem of visualizing that we could get things up where we wanted and I was very much involved with some people in NASA and particularly Huntsville. I knew a lot of those German scientists, even when Brown — I discussed it with them and they said there was nothing to stop me from lifting heavy things up. [???] was developed at the time and they had dreams of going to the moon, if you recall. Saturn was being worked on. Lifting heavy things didn't seem to be an obstacle at all.
When you say lifting heavy things, at that point would you have had some clear idea of how big and heavy an object you'd have to lift?
I had made some calculation. It was the biggest and heaviest object that you've have ever put in orbit. I felt there's only a matter of new technology, per say, is economics. If you want to life heavy things up we can do it, provided you figure out a way to do it cheaply. There's a guy that I knew at NASA — Houston has worked on it too — and essentially the drafts I saw is that if you do this thing right the cost of transportation into orbit approaches the cost of the fuel. The fuel isn't that expensive. I didn't, at that point, think in terms of that is the way we're going to do it. In 1968 the paper I presented was basically — fellow, when you think about energy on a global scale and base-load power you better think of doing it in space.
It's just a general consciousness that space is a place you can get to and do things.
I had enough numbers and nobody said those numbers are crazy. I checked with people and those are possibilities. The numbers were there and I knew it was a big stretch from where we were then. But so what! I also felt that I could afford to say it. Who is Peter Glaser? My friends asked me if I was writing science fiction now. I say to some extent it sounds like science fiction, but enough people with whom I have discussed it actually think we can do it. That was in 1968. The guys who knew me —
Do your colleagues even know?
They didn't know. They knew I am writing this thing and they said, well, you know. I was considered at ADL to this day a visionary. I have always — you know, going to the moon and putting things like shuttle experiments. This is not everybody's cup of tea. At the ADL I was with my group and we were considered the far out and what I call forefront technology. Most of our projects were putting things on the moon. That was not what the ADL was known for at the time. Talking about solar energy was a sort of strange animal, talking about solar powered satellites and things of that sort was even more far out. But you see I had support for it. People shook their heads but there were people who felt this was worthwhile. This guy Glaser had clients —
When you say support, is that what you mean — clients?
Obviously you are top management. Are they just happy as long as you have clients? If you're building a time machine and somebody is paying you for it, is that —
It has to be ethical so that we're not getting sued. If there's a client who wants to be on the forefront and he is interested in this stuff, then so be it.
What did Eva think of it?
She was interested. She isn't technical and therefore she had to take my word for it. She knew what I was trying to do.
I would think without knowing how it's done or the notion of it, is a provocative notion.
She got used to it when our technician, Ed Bedrow [???] — who built the laser ranging metal reflectors which first got onto the moon — unbeknownst to me and my wife, and he knew Eva, asked if I could initial some of the things, against all NASA rules and regulations. So I initialed on the device on the moon and god knows when we get back and say what the hell is this thing there. Everyone was interested. Some said gee that's great stuff, others said what the heck you're planning fifty years ahead. Our clients think what happens in the next three months. In our business it's a wide variety.
At this point were you doing something for a client or this sounds like all your own?
At this solar part that was my own, but all the other stuff was all for clients. ADL typically doesn't, but I did persuade a doubter in our patent — the head of our patent department — department to apply for a patent. I said look this thing is a value in two ways. It's a novel idea and furthermore, perhaps "X" years from now ADL can claim that here was this guy Glaser who actually came up with the idea. So we applied for a patent. We had a very good patent attorney — Bessie Leopard [?] was her name — and she said it was interesting and she wrote the pattern for us but never in the history of patent law had there been a patent on something you'd do beyond the earth. I said it doesn't matter what I do beyond the earth as long as the benefit is on earth. It was on that strength that I was awarded the patent. It was issued in 1971. I knew that it wouldn't have any significance economically. I was interested in having that patent indicate that this was really my idea and was done at ADL.
A patent for what exactly?
Solar power cells. It was issued. ADL essentially — that's why I stayed that long — and I did all sorts of interesting things. I didn't talk about washers, laundries for the space stations and other things. We had a hell of an interesting time, just like computer companies did.
When you say the group, did you have a sort of coherent group?
I thought the groups sort of came and went for the projects.
I had a coherent — first I was the unit manager and then I became a section manager. We had some silly people —
What was the definition of the section?
Essentially advanced technology. My title was vice-president of advanced technology. When somebody asked me what was advanced technology, I'd say whatever I say it is. Our clients had to agree, too and were willing and able to pay for our services. The aspect of it was that as far as top management, they had a president who understood what I was trying to do. His name was Gerald James Gannon [?]. I felt that Jim was probably one of the most educated intellectual people. You could discuss any subject with him from the castles of King Ludwig of Bavaria — he was a very interesting man.
You mean an American who knew where Czechoslovakia was.
Yes, a very interesting man. We understood each other. I was at his home one time in Wellesley — and then he moved to Beacon Hill — and he showed me his medals on the wall. I said "Jim, I am very impressed. If I could show you all the medals I have I could beat you any day! You only have it from one army and I have them from three!" The Czech, the British, and the American and all the ribbons and stuff. You know, the campaign ribbons and so on. Jim Gannon understood what I was trying to do. He felt it was very important in terms of national security and this was the kind of idea that would have a major impact on the United States whole energy scene. He and I went in 1970 to make a presentation to NASA. The administrator at NASA at that time was Jim Fletcher — he died about a year ago — and he was in a sort of auditorium-type place where the board meeting took place. He got his senior people there. Here I was Peter Glaser holding force on this subject. I could see some people thought it was good and others thought who the hell is this kook? Afterwards he said well Peter it is interesting but there are a lot of questions. Then he turned to the people from NASA and said well perhaps you might want to look at this and see whether it works. I had by that time —
You were in Cleveland?
No, that was in headquarters in Washington. Then Jim Fletcher — and I got to know him very well at various other times — thought it was a reasonable thing to be looking at. At that time I put together a team of companies and that consisted of Raytheon Company because of Bill Brown and all the background that had in wireless power transmission hardware, Spectra Lab which at the time was a division of Textron in Providence on the west coast in California, and Drummond. Drummond at the time was producing the lunar excursion module and stuff like that. I had a hell of a good team with lots of good people. We got the contract and looked at the feasibility study. The major concern was what kind of a structure you would have to have. We were able to complete that feasibility study for the first one sponsored by NASA. We started in 1971 and it was completed in 1972 and published in 1973. It had a very important effect because people could no longer say it was just this guy Glaser thinking, it was essentially that if you wanted to do it you could. There was no technical reason why it couldn't actually be done. There were some basic reports which were published on the subject. The next thing — and there were a lot of other things happening parallel —
Can I back up before we get too far past it? I am interested in your first and/or maybe first few meetings with Bill Brown, especially because I have heard about him as a very fascinating character —
He is a lovely guy.
Since he seems to have been a kind of catalyst in this story, I am interested in that encounter.
When I first met him, remember he wasn't in the space business at all. He was incredulous. He said "Well, jeepers, what did you say you want to do?" Remember he was used to being in power this kind of distance.
The length of a micro wave oven.
Industrial oven! I convinced him that we probably could do it across 23,000 miles and probably further. He said to let him think about it. He went back and did his own numbers and said I was right, that we probably could do it. I think I showed you the two gadgets. Here is the generator, here is the device… the only two pieces of equipment we needed and we've got them. The rest were sort of calculations and design and no breakthroughs.
Was that to indicate that he could care less whether you did it or not?
No, he was very interested.
He could just say if you wanted to do it you could do it and that he didn't care if you did it.
He started to work with me. I've known him to take the technology that was in existence at the time and make sure that technology is applicable to the concept that it was…
At that point, this is just taking his own time to do this because he likes the idea?
Raytheon is a huge company and Bill Brown — the more he thought about it the more he realized that this could be a very important new business for Raytheon.
In the first meeting or maybe few meetings or conversations with him, did you find out anything important that you hadn't known at all or something that really threw a monkey wrench into your idea of things?
No, everything that he was telling me — the way I said it, well I only suspected that was what we could do. Bill made it, essentially saying "Of course we can do that. I've done it with the helicopter experiment." How should I say the secret of the atom bomb was that it exploded? Once it was done anybody could build atom bombs.
That's what they always say at work, too. Once you know somebody can do something you can figure out how they do it.
Exactly. Once Bill Brown — he said yes, you can do that. I talked to the Drummond guys and they said let's build a structure and yeah we can do that. Then I talked with the Spectra Lab guys — do you want to build photovoltaics and yeah, sure we can do it. In other words we were at that point in 1973 we had arrived at the stage that we did not see any show stoppers technically. Certain things happened in 1973. The most important thing that happened was the oil embargo.
By the way, before you get to that, when you say you didn't see any show stoppers you mean —
This would not be remotely economical or anything.
No. We didn't worry about economics. I did my first sort of look at it and then we did a bit more, how should I say we knew what a Saturn launch cost.
I mean even the photovoltaics.
The photovoltaics are not that we don't know how to do it cheaply, the problem is there isn't a market. If you would have a Boeing 747 flying across the Atlantic once a week those seats would cost you $150,000 a piece or whatever. If you had photovoltaics and you produced a megawatt a year the cost is horrendous. It is a ridiculous number. We were talking about covering areas of perhaps thirty square miles. The minute you say that now you can talk about mass production, automation, and a whole panoply of things. If Macintosh would make ten Macintosh a year you can imagine what that would cost or IBM. I think we were not so concerned so much about economics because the economics is related to the market size. We knew — I knew — that dealing from my point of view I could corner an infinite market. The market has grown. Today if you look at the population of essentially ten or eleven billion people — an infinite market! The only question is how would you build it so that it becomes cheap enough so you can —
Own the rest of it!
And then the question is who will be on forefront. Nobody says now you can't do it anymore — the question is can you do it. Economically can you do it, the health and safety requirements, international frameworks — those are the real issues. You've essentially won the game. Those aren't the issues that are concerning the fusion community. Those are the issues which shut down nuclear power. You see the difference. In other words we knew the economics would come because you're not talking about a small market. You're talking about an enormous market. Then I proposed the idea of the terraces. I said I don't want to build solar powered satellites to start with. I want to go step-by-step and when we are ready to build solar powered satellites we've done a lot of other things. And that now comes to NASA. In 1974 or 1975 they had visions that they wanted to be the agency which would build solar powered satellites. There were hearings in Congress. I think I mentioned that I testified. I testified before Senator Goldwater and I don't know how many hearings, but it's all in the Congressional record. You know, big fat Congressional record books on this subject. We had a number of hearings and NASA essentially was trying to get the responsibility for trying to build this stuff, whether from Brown — everybody said let's go and do it, we know we can do it. Now at that point after this oil embargo, Congress established the Federal Energy Agency and out of that came energy research and development agency, and it begat DOE. Congress said this is a big program NASA, but they're a space agency — we've just established this energy agency and that's the one which should really be the one carrying the ball. NASA was told "Well you NASA — we love you dearly — you're going to support them with this space stuff, but the lead agency will be different." NASA was terribly upset by that and that would explain why they wanted a space station, a shuttle and essentially we've spent now fourteen billion dollars on a space station and we don't have one. The reason is we don't know what it's to be doing. I had a clear idea of what the space station has to do. So did the Russians because they were working on it in parallel with us, I found out. So did the Japanese. The space station has to teach us how to build large structures — enable us to build large structures in space. That's science. You do science once you got the space station. But if all you want to do is science it has to be industrial, commercial and has to have its own investment. The present space station they've spent all that money and nothing to show for it because a premise was missing — what the hell do you do with a space station. The Russians knew it because the designer of the Mir spacecraft was quoted in the New Scientist in 1978 that he was building the Mir space station. When asked why he was building a space station he replied that we have to learn how to assemble large structures in space. And why do you want to do that? Because they wanted to build a solar powered satellite. The Russians understood it clearly. Now the Japanese understood and that's why they're working with the Russians today. NASA was told you can't do this because that's DOE. The minute DOE had it they put it in their research department. They did an outstanding job. There was a man there was Fred Koomanoff — program manager and a good friend of mine — did an outstanding job managing this nineteen million dollar program. I think it's a four year program. He did the right thing. He did not go and spend all of his money on the technical stuff. I told him I was convinced that technology was not the issue. The issue is how can we do it to be competitive economically, how can we do it so that it meets health and safety criteria and all the other societal issues, and how can we do it so that we meet the legal framework internationally — the International Telecommunications Union, Committee for Peaceful Uses and all the United Nations bodies — and then frequency assignments up. Those are the real issues because you have to get all the rest of the world to buy into it. I proposed that the way to do it was internationally. Remember there was [?] and I thought that was the right example. That's when [?] said "Well, let's call it International Sun Sap [?]." I set up the energy council in 1978 and that group to this day has been published in the Journal of Space Power, published in newsletters and it's an international group interested in this. The United States could have been essentially in the forefront. Unfortunately for Fred Koomanoff and the rest of NASA and us, that project was in the research division of DOE. The research division of DOE was primarily looking towards fusion. They had five million dollars a year — small potatoes. They got so concerned that this stuff we're doing could really have an effect on their budget and therefore they started to do whatever they could to essentially cut us off.
The research division of DOE. The fusion community, the various physics — remember the whole physics community to this day is working on things like fusion cold or hot. I never said don't do it, for god's sake go and do your fusion stuff but that shouldn't be the only answer. In 1980 I know the top guy said the solar powered satellite doesn't make sense because it's a long-term project and we have nuclear power and in ten years we will have controlled fusion. I called ten years of fusion constance because every ten years we'll have controlled fusion. I am sure eventually we will have it and I never said don't let’s do fusion research. I said there should be another option and the option is power from space. Essentially it was in DOE they stopped the program because it became too much of a competitor and there is nothing in Washington more deadly than if the top program manager in an agency feels there is something happening that might affect the funding of that project. It became a political issue, not technical. If you go back now there are excellent reports on all these subjects. I don't have it here because I don't have the room for all these reports. There are many unanswered questions. OTA did a very good job on a report for Congress that was published in 1981. In fact the foreword was written by Dr. Gibbons who is the president's science advisor today. He is Clinton's advisor. It just succumbed because it was, you know, new fellow on the block to the competitor pressures within the agency. That was an internal matter which none of us had any input in.
How did you know about it?
Fred Koomanoff told me. He was the program manager. He was madder than hell. He is still at DOE.
Program manager for solar power, but not of the whole research department?
No, he was in the research department. That is a story in itself. If somebody wants to go and search and interview the various people who were in the top level and interview Fred Koomanoff you might get some interesting insights how the very powerful fusion community — and nuclear people — tried their best to stop this program because it was a threat to their funding.
I don't need to research that except in as much as you knew about it or found out about it.
I don't know all the details. I have forgotten the names of the various characters. They've disappeared from the scene and were never heard from again; you know the bureaucrats who made all these decisions. One man I know actually was quite nice — Bob Hirsch. He wasn't totally opposed. There were various people who just felt, and I think I valued their judgment, that fusion has a much better chance to succeed. I really felt that when it will be looked at by historian that decision of 1980 to stop the program will probably be seen as a very major policy mistake, primarily because I knew at the time that the Japanese were working on it. They invited me to come to Japan back in 1976. We were working on a very big multi-client study, solar climate control for heating buildings. We had some one hundred twenty nine clients sponsoring it and we had sessions in Europe, the United States and in Japan. I was invited to go and meet with the Japanese clients. They asked me to give a seminar on solar satellites in the Imperial Hotel. My great-uncle Raymond was a partner of Frank Lloyd Wright who built the first Imperial Hotel. He was a well-known architect. Anyway, there I was in this big conference room with an enormous table and all the major Japanese companies were there and I spoke about what we had done on the solar powered satellites. It was all open literature. They listened intently. That was 1976 before the DOE program really started. I could see that they were absolutely fascinated. They had in 1973, in the Sunshine Plan, the solar powered satellite as a long-term project. They had gotten to that point. So in 1976 they already had some people working on it.
What's the Sunshine Plan?
That was after the oil shock. It wasn't just sunshine, but geothermal and all of the renewables so that they would not depend on oil because all of Japan's economy depends on oil imports. As one Japanese explained, if you stood at one point in the ocean anchored there and all the tankers going to Japan with oil would go past you there is one passing every ten minutes — super tanker. That would give you some idea why they're looking —
I wonder if that is true.
I think it's probably not far off. I didn't check for numbers.
That's a lot.
That's an enormous amount of energy. They have no sources themselves and have a huge industrial complex. The Japanese were, at that time, already looking at alternatives and they were looking at fusion hot and cold and all the other things — solar energy. In fact I had a young man working with me in 1956, at ADL, on a solar furnace who went back to Japan and built a solar furnace at the Nagoya Research Institute. [???] Nagoochi [?] was his name. The Japanese were very well acquainted with all of that stuff. I felt that the fact that here I'm a fairly young guy — engineer — all these guys from all those big Mitsubishi, Sanyo and you name it were there. These people weren't there because of my eminence as a speaker! I realized that they are now seriously looking at it. That was the Japanese. I knew about the Russians also because there were indications that they had been working on it. I knew they were interested in working on solar energy because there was a Russian scientist by the name of Baum [?] from Tushkin [?] who came to the International Solar Energy Society. The Russians were looking at it. We essentially bowed out in 1980.
You said in a certain way you could understand why the fusion and atomic people thought that they had the goods.
Number one they felt it was a real threat in terms of budget allocations. They felt at the time, remember there was no Chernobyl. The problem of the Cold War and all these national labs were full of good physicists who had to do something. Fusion at the time looked like it was just another little effort and they would have reached the Holy Grail!
Did you also think they would — you know now they say every ten years every ten years?
I thought at the time there was a likelihood that they may in ten years show that controlled fusion could be achieved by reaching over this limit the temperature. I also knew — I am an engineer — that after they demonstrated in the laboratory at Princeton that they could reach it, it would probably be in the early 1960s when President Kennedy said we'd get to the moon. They had no idea how to engineer it, what the thing would cost, what the objection to health and safety things, and societal issues internationally — I didn't think they had any of that really under their belt. Today they recognize that. They say "Well, we probably won't have operating fusion reactors before 2020 or 2027." Today they admit it. They didn't say that in 1980. The reason is that what we're talking about is engineering, but what the fusion community talks about is physics. I was invited to talk about solar powered satellites two years ago at Brookhaven on Long Island. I was shown what they're doing there in terms of their fusion experiment. They have this enormous room filled and you can barely walk past all the machinery, laser beams — and I said "My god these guys are going basic physics." The whole physics community around the United States, which is what their livelihood is. No wonder they don't want anything to do with solar powered satellite. We've not at the laboratory experiment stage. That was done decades ago. We're at the stage of asking how do we construct it, how do we assemble it, how much does it cost. That's a totally different issue. That's the issue they're going to be facing when they have learned how to control fusion in the laboratory. They are nowhere near it. Clean fusion — that is also misleading. Cochinski [?] at the University of Wisconsin is a man I have known and he talks about planning helium III from the lunar surface. It is no mean trick but I assume he can do it. The reason why Cochinski [?] wants to get helium III is because it's a superior fuel to tritium. Helium III is cleaner. It doesn't generate neutrons. The stuff that they're now doing in fusion is nearly as dirty as nuclear waste. What the hell do you do with it after you are through? Where do you put it? They have lots of the basic problems of de-commissioning the power plants except putting a big concrete around it and praying for the next one hundred thousand years or whatever the half-life. I think they have not faced up to the real problem which are engineering. I don't see many engineering schools teaching how to build fusion reactors. That's basically the issue that we have abandoned solar power satellites in 1980 for. Russia and Japan have progressed, and in some sense Europe, have progressed towards this objective in the meantime. They have had twenty years of taking what we've done and all our reports and they kept working at it. It doesn't take huge amount of sums of money. The Japanese have a tremendous incentive. I think from my viewpoint that was a political mistake in 1980 to let this program essentially stop. It was done by DOE.
If I remember this — because Gordon Woodcock talked a lot about that also — wasn't the conclusion to kind of let the researchers go for ten years and see where they were?
That was a sham.
Which was four years ago.
That was a sham.
Nobody ever intended to do that?
That was never intended. They said once a year NASA should write a report on what the advances were — that was strictly politics and I recognized what the hell they were talking about. If there's no money why would anyone be engaged in doing research on it? Is Peter Glaser going to go in my lab — there's nothing I can do in my lab. The thing I have to do is on launch pads. That was strictly —
Nothing was ever done. No report was ever written by NASA or anybody. The National Academy actually did a critique, actually Fred Koomonoff asked the academy to do it. They had the people they gathered who really didn't know much about the other camp. The one concern about the photovoltaics was that they cost too much. Of course it will cost too much as long as there is no market for it. We would create the market. Historians should look at these reports and reconstruct how inept we were as a country and abandoning our lead at the time in an area which will, in my guess, become a very important option for global energy production. These are consequences which are very profound. If you look at what our industry does, we are now employing people all over the world to make most of the things we use — whether it's in Mexico — have you looked lately where your shirts are made? Clothing, shoes, electronics — so what are we going to be doing if we're not on the forefront? I think that will come to haunt us later on, particularly when it comes to such a large-scale energy production method as power from space. I don't care whether the satellites are in low earth orbit, polar orbit, geo-synch orbit, on the moon, an asteroid — those are what I would call the options we'd have to explore which make the most sense. But that's not [?]. My friend Dave Chrisom[?] wants to put those things on the moon and provide… I think that's great. At the right time, but in the meantime I say you have to start doing step-by-step, high altitude, long endurance aircraft, power airway satellites — whatever as applications we can do it. I think the whole aspect here is this is not a technical issue. It is really a national security issue. It is an issue of major economic significance that abandoning created a new set of competitors. We are not in a position now to lead very easily this particular set. They have had a lot of time to do work. You still can if you do the right things to put it together, to manage it. I am not sure if you don't do anything how long you can do that because if the Japanese — as the SPS 2000 report showed how many Japanese companies are involved, how many researchers are involved, and they've got the Russians working with them: Professor Vanke [?] of Moscow State University, Professor [?] of P.[?] University, Dr. [?] from [?] and among the supporting companies is none other than the [???]. For crying out loud how much more evidence do we need as a country to see that the Japanese essentially are doing the right thing for their national interest? I am not making these things up. It's all in the public records. The significance of power from space is recognized throughout the world. Whether it's in Japan who wants to of course supply China and India — they're not interested in supplying power to the United States. They can do it. They're going to build all this themselves. They'll have the Indians and the Chinese do it and whoever they can and subcontractors. They will manage the process.
They'll launch them.
And they'll launch them.
And the H2.
Not with the H2, but whatever they have. They have the [???], they don't need an H2 for that. They have all the Russian stuff they can buy — the whole kitten-caboodle. I think the implications are that… at national security have not been understood. True when you talk, the Japanese say thirty percent of global base load power by 2040 — that sounds, my god! We can't even manage to plan six months ahead in industry. I don't know of any group who can talk about what they're going to do over the next fifty years but the Japanese can. When you come to global projects that is the time-scale you have to have. You have to know who will be your customers, how many they are, and we can tell. In Congress is there anybody who understands that? Show me. In the administration? Yes, there are people. Gore knows about it, but he doesn't want to talk about solar power satellites because he has to be re-elected. People say what the hell you're talking about "X" decades away — what are you going to do for me tomorrow? The politicians in our system can't do too much. Is the science advisor who knows all about it, Dr. Gibbons, going to say this?
He doesn't have to be re-elected?
No, he likes his job I guess and he doesn't want to fight with the fusion and other interests.
This might be large question so you can choose to answer it or postpone it if you want. Do you find yourself being forced to move away from engineering into all these other realms? As you keep saying this isn't really an engineering problem.
I recognize the engineering problem is a challenging problem, but one we can if I would go to Boeing and say I need to deliver "X" million kilograms to space over a period of "Y" years, they'd say well here's a bill and we'll do it for you. They don't have enough good engineers — whether it's at Boeing or Lockheed.
What I'm getting out of this is that this is not at the forefront of engineering, exactly where you've said you'd like to be. It's at the forefront in another way. How do you like it at that forefront?
I am realistic to know that I need a lot of help at the forefront. It's a matter of getting various people who are forward-looking. There are various places where they're beginning to recognize we have reached the peak production of oil in 1984, gas in 1990 and coal in 1994. The guy who started all this work was King Hubbard in 1956. He was at the Department of Interior and he essentially said this fossil fuel stuff was a very limited resource. Then came the Club of Rome, if you recall, and the finite resources of the planet. I talked about Club of Rome and said fellas you're absolutely right and that is why we have to go after infinite resources, in our terms. The sun may go down a billion years from now but that isn't my time frame yet. I think the more recent data by Richard Duncan in Seattle shows that we are indeed now in the downslope of fossil fuels. If that is the case, what are the implications for economies, for individuals — there is a hell of a lot of stuff. Then you've got the global warming. If I set aside the solar powered satellite as one of the options, all I am saying is that they should come up with better ones. I am not saying that is the only one. I haven't seen many on a global scale. There is minimal environmental degradation which can be economically affordable. Tell me. Educate me. Nobody has stood up and said they've got the answer. It's not going to be one thing. How are we going to increase living standards of people in the world so that the population will not grow exponentially? That is basically it. The only you can increase living standards is by providing more energy. There are some very basic issues. Yes, I am an engineer but I have learned a bit. I cannot just stop this engineering. I have to look at the totality of the issues that people have to solve.
I am curious what it's like to be drawn. It could be that you just feel this is so important that you are willing to move out of your sort of favorite place to be into some other realm of activity.
I haven't much changed. All I am saying —
Or maybe you like what —
I have a broader perspective.
It doesn't seem that different to you, just bigger?
Yes. I am a little bit older and hopefully wiser. I see a more complete picture. That may be perhaps as good a place as any to stop here and continue next time.