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.
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.
"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 13 profile 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.
"It will be the high-tech equivalent of taking axes and hammers to the New World," Criswell says.
Criswell believes energy equals wealth. Americans have available energy, therefore factories and businesses abound, he says. According to his theory, third-world countries don't have inexpensive fuel to power technology, so people are poor and live in electricity-free huts. His goal is for everyone in the world to live the life of a Western European; he wants there to be enough affordable power for developing countries to prosper. With his plan, he says, power could be beamed directly to such countries without the need for complicated power lines and plants.
"One way of getting them out of poverty is cheap and available electricity," agrees Jeff Taylor, professor at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology.
NASA is working to lower the cost of space solar power from hundreds of dollars per kilowatt-hour to less than a dollar. Criswell's target price is a penny per kilowatt-hour, making the average annual power bill $200 per person.
The largest deterrent to Criswell's concept is the price tag. Criswell hopes to someday get sponsors from the private sector, and envisions power plants footing a portion of the bill, because when Earth runs out of energy, they won't have a product to sell. He imagines the receiving antennae being placed outside cities in abandoned coal mines and ruined oil fields.
Despite NASA's recent efforts, launch costs remain exorbitant. Because of that, no one has been to the moon in 30 years. We don't yet have the technology for reasonably priced large-scale moon industrialization and urbanization, says Bryan Erb, manager of the Canadian Space Power Initiative.
"Let me give you an aeronautical analogy," Erb says. "We are in space power about where the Wright brothers were when they flew in Kitty Hawk in 1903. What Dave is probably imagining is a 747. Not unreasonable, but not something in 1903 you could set out to build."
Criswell's colleagues agree that an alternate energy system must be found and that space solar power is probably the solution. Across the board, people say Criswell's idea is interesting, and many have thoughts on how to improve it. Some think power needs to be beamed from closer in, while others say his plan should be used in conjunction with standard solar power satellites.
Regardless, the majority of the scientific community believes they still have time to discuss, debate and evaluate various proposals. No one is in a rush, says UH professor Long. As long as everyone can heat and cool their houses, and the lights come on, he says, people aren't going to panic. "Nobody's too uncomfortable," Long says. "Right now we're kinda in a lull thinking we can depend on oil and coal and petroleum. Politically, that could change in two days. We could have an Arab oil embargo and something like this would get more serious consideration."
Criswell met his wife, Paula, nearly 30 years ago when they were both working at NASA's Lunar and Planetary Institute. She was editing the institute's journal, and he was conducting studies on moon dirt. When they married four years later, people gave them paintings and pictures of the moon for wedding gifts. Their simple gold bands have matching diamond stars.
Paula recently retired as the senior technical writer for Schlumberger; she says she felt like she was sleeping with the enemy, writing about where and how to drill for oil. An avid conservationist, she recycles milk jugs, uses dishcloths instead of paper towels, and never runs the dishwasher unless it's full.
"That irritates him," she says. "He thinks that's too small."
Criswell doesn't believe that switching the lights off when he leaves the room is going to make a difference in the world energy crisis. So he doesn't actively try to conserve energy.
Matter of fact, he tries to deplete it. For years he drove a gas-guzzling 1976 Oldsmobile Toronado. "I was determined to burn up as much of that petroleum so we'd have to go back to the moon and get more," he says.
Paula edits his articles and shares his madness for the moon. "He used to tease me that he married me because I could spell and I could check his work," she says.
Criswell wants to be on the first moon crew to institute his plan; Paula eagerly wants to travel and work with him. Criswell says he speaks about going to the moon so often, his grandchildren think he's already been. Leaving their eight grandkids would be the hardest thing about moving to the moon, Paula says. But they would.
The skylight in their living room perfectly frames the full moon. For now, they sit in matching green leather chairs, watch and wait.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.