Moonstruck

Dave Criswell dreams of living on the moon. He has a plan for colonization. Other scientists say his idea is 100 years too early. But he's ready now.

His plan could generate 100 times more electricity than is currently used on Earth. Designing the plan, Criswell sought out other scientists to work with him and make sure it's feasible. Stuart Long, a professor in UH's department of electrical and computer engineering, and graduate student Shuhua Jiang helped Criswell perfect the electromagnetics involved in beaming power from the moon. Jiang wrote her 1992 electrical engineering master's thesis on the subject.

"It would be totally ecologically inert," Long says. "It almost sounds science fiction-y, but when you look at it from a scientific point of view, it seems to have a lot of merit."

Since the moon revolves around Earth, terrestrial power-receivers won't face the moon every second of the day and night, so Criswell envisions Earth-orbiting satellites and mirrors to redirect beams as the world turns.

Like from a giant microwave oven, energy would be beamed back to Earth.
Diagrams courtesy of Dave Criswell
Like from a giant microwave oven, energy would be beamed back to Earth.
Diagram of the moon surface demo base: 1 - solar converters, 2 - microwave reflectors, 3 - microwave transmitters, 4 - mobile factory, 5 - assembly unit, 6 - habitat facility.
Diagrams courtesy of Dave Criswell
Diagram of the moon surface demo base: 1 - solar converters, 2 - microwave reflectors, 3 - microwave transmitters, 4 - mobile factory, 5 - assembly unit, 6 - habitat facility.

"It's a very innovative and imaginative idea," says NYU physics professor Hoffert.

Criswell is a well-known, respected researcher. Among astrophysicists, he's considered a credible, solid scientist, yet his space power proposals have consistently been rejected by NASA.

Criswell speaks at conferences and colleges worldwide pitching the idea of a two-planet economy. "Mostly they just ignore me," he says. He's published nearly 200 articles on the subject, spoken on CNN and even appeared in the London Guardian's pre-Apollo 13profile of Tom Hanks.

In December, he gave his standard lunar solar power lecture at the American Geophysical Union's conference. Since then, more than 100 people have contacted Criswell; he's conducted interviews with The Boston Globe, Voice of America, and radio stations in Toronto and New Zealand.

"This should have happened 20 years ago," he says.

Criswell looks like a well-groomed Santa wearing gold-rimmed square glasses and matching shirts and ties. He enjoys opera, forgets to stop at red lights and thinks his wife's potted plants take up scientific journal space.

Criswell has been a UH professor for 11 years, but he's taught only one semester of introductory physics. He spends his time perfecting and pitching his power plan, and helping other scientists network and get grants. The space institute he chairs is a small windowless room in the back of the physics department. "I don't have a lab," Criswell says. "Just an office with two computer screens."

Aside from twin 21-inch monitors, his office houses a pair of battered filing cabinets coated in sticky spilled coffee. Three art deco Captain Kirk chairs sit around a glass table; on the bookshelf is a photo of a harvest moon.

Although Criswell has been included in several NASA-related projects and workshops, when NASA re-examined space solar power seven years ago, officials discarded his proposal and ruled out using the moon.

"We could not get past the giggle factor," says Mankins, program executive for NASA's space solar power research and technology activities. "When engineers look at something, if it's got too many miracles in a row, they don't take it seriously…It might be possible in terms of the physics, but if it requires too many things all at once, it's very unlikely ever to happen."

Mankins considers Criswell's concept a "very far-term visionary one." The coal in Earth's crust should last through the century, he says, so Criswell's proposal to power the entire planet isn't necessary yet. He says NASA plans to study various components of Criswell's plan, instead of launching the entire project at once.

"It's not that it's intractable -- there's nothing in the physics that's wrong with the idea -- it's just that it's hard," Mankins says.

And expensive. Criswell says his proposed budget for the first ten years is the same as the Apollo mission to the moon. Translated into today's dollars, that's about $50 billion.

The idea of gathering solar energy in space isn't new or entirely Criswell's. In the 1960s, Peter Glaser conceived of launching giant satellites into space to soak up sunlight, which would be shipped back to Earth.

Fascinated physicists, funded by aerospace contractors, NASA and the Department of Energy, explored Glaser's concept. The original satellites each weighed about 333,000 pounds. Aerospace engineers designed bigger and bigger satellites weighing up to two million pounds each. Since it can cost $10,000 to launch a single pound into space, the power plan wasn't a cost-effective, viable option.

In 1984, oil prices plummeted and people stopped panicking about finding alternate energy sources. President Ronald Reagan was more interested in using satellites for "Star Wars" than for solar power, so NASA shelved the project for a decade. "The idea, essentially, became dormant," he says.

To save shipping costs, Criswell argues, NASA doesn't need to send satellites into space. "We've got a perfectly good satellite up there," Criswell says. "The moon."

Based on research he and Bob Waldron did in the 1970s on moon dirt brought back from the Apollo mission, Criswell determined that 90 percent of the aluminum, silicon and glass needed to build solar power plants can be found on the moon.

"With a lot of work, you can make almost everything you see around you on Earth," Criswell says. "You don't make coal, or oil -- but you don't need to."

Still, scientists would have to carry computers, tools and some relatively lightweight equipment to the moon; Criswell says moon workers would need items such as bulldozers to dig holes and trenches, and torches to melt ceramics and glass.

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