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Dave Criswell lay in his grandmother's guest room, a soft breeze blowing across his body. Diagnosed with a rare kidney disease, he was bedridden. Gazing through the open window, he stared at the moon, listening to his parents discuss whether he was going to live or die. He was six years old.
Fifty-four years later, Criswell has a steamer trunk filled with science fiction novels, a Starship Enterprise collector's plate and an office covered with pictures of the moon, stars and satellites. "I'm a space cadet," he says.
While Criswell was in the first and second grades, his father worked as a security guard in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Physicists were the most important, respected people in town; Criswell decided he wanted to become one, too. In elementary school he joined an astronomy club and spent Friday nights staring at the sky. He built a model of the solar system out of horse apples, and read his school library's entire science fiction section. Collier's cover story on how man would conquer space hit the stands in March 1952; Criswell reread his copy until it disintegrated.
That's when he knew he wanted to join the space program. He debated becoming an astronaut after earning his Ph.D. in space physics and astronomy at Rice University. But he didn't want to spend 15 years working toward one day in space; he wants to live there.
Thirty years ago, Neil Armstrong took that first giant leap for mankind. But after the Apollo mission, astronauts didn't return to the moon. "As soon as we got there, we turned our backs on it," says Criswell, the director of the University of Houston's Institute for Space Systems Operations. "Why -- as the United States -- have we kept our universe so confined?"
Criswell has a plan he believes will be the last step in colonizing the final frontier. He envisions a crew of 5,000 people working six-month shifts on the moon, gathering solar energy for use on Earth. The moon, he says, is like Aspen 300 years ago. The Colorado mountains were once considered a faraway, unlivable wilderness. But then silver miners made money, told their friends, and the community grew.
Nonrenewable natural resources are running out on Earth. Criswell says his plan would solve the global energy crisis and cheaply power the planet indefinitely. Plus, his concept would create jobs, giving people a profitable reason for space travel.
"One of the key issues that tends to get overlooked in science fiction stories is 'What are they going to do?' People have to earn a living," says John C. Mankins, manager of Advanced Concept Studies for NASA. "If you're going to ultimately have space colonies where people permanently go and live in space, there has to be something for them to do and earn a living and be part of an economy."
Even Criswell's detractors say his idea has merit. But since Earth hasn't run out of fuel, scientists say his idea is 100 years too early. Without a drastic oil embargo or a global power shortage like California experienced last year, Criswell won't achieve his dream of life on the moon -- at least not in his lifetime.
Coal mines are emptying and time is running out, Criswell says. Eventually, the world will be stuck with useless electric toothbrushes and televisions that won't turn on. "If you burned our entire biosphere steadily over the next year, it could not provide all the power you need," Criswell says. "We don't have enough fuel." It took more than 200 million years for Earth to accumulate its fossil fuels, Criswell says, yet supplies will be depleted this century.
"We need enormous amounts of energy," agrees Martin Hoffert, a physics professor at New York University. "We're basically going to freeze in the dark if we don't find a new energy source in the next 100 years."
Scientists have suggested catching the wind and powering the world with gigantic pinwheels. Others have talked about saddling the sea and using the power of the tides. Most aren't keen on building new nuclear power plants, because uranium eventually will run out, and it's difficult to dispose of the waste without causing three-headed babies and Three Mile Islands.
The only clean, reliable resource that will be around for millions of years is the sun, says Criswell. "Don't bother with fossil fuels," he says. "Go to the source -- go to the sun."
In the 1970s, earth-conscious engineers designed solar-powered cars and solar-heated houses. The problem with terrestrial solar power is that the sun doesn't shine at night. Most places have only eight hours of sunlight, which gets blocked by clouds and crummy weather, not to mention smog, soot and smoke. The moon, however, is exposed to steady sunlight 24 hours a day. And aside from an occasional light rain, there's essentially no weather on the moon's surface. Plus, scientists say, sunlight is ten times stronger in space.
"We've gotta get that power," Criswell says. "There's no other way."
Criswell has designed a lunar solar power system. The basic idea is to build solar energy factories on the moon that would suck up sunlight, which would be converted to energy and beamed back to Earth. "Like a giant microwave oven," Criswell says. The waves of energy would be caught on Earth by centimeter-long antennae. "They look like bent paper clips," Criswell says. The receiving antennae would then convert the microwaves into usable power. "It'd be like having a very long electric cord, a cord that would stretch across the solar system," Criswell says.