The nuclear power and aerospace industries have quietly joined forces on Capitol Hill to push through a Star Wars style energy research project that could ultimately cost the Treasury - and bring the companies - an estimated $60 billion.
The project is called Sunsat. The idea is to send into space some giant solar energy collectors. These would beam the solar energy back to earth in the form of microwaves, from which it would be converted to electricity.
Pushing for the project is a newly created organization called the Sunsat Energy Council, whose members read like a who's who of the space and power industries. Last week, it achieved its first success as two House Science and Technology subcommittees voted a fourfold increase - to $25 million - in government spending for Sunsat.
"This is a sort of foot-in-the-door kind bill," says former Senator Frank Moss (D.-Utah). Moss, once chairman of the Senate Aeronautical and Space Science Committee, is now a Washington lawyer lobbying in favor of Sunsat.
The House subcommittee vote was not a complete surprise. Quite a few members of the two panels hail from districts where the sponsoring companies have large installations.
For example: Rep. Ronnie Flippo (D.Ala.), who introduced the added spending bill, represents a district that already gets half a billion dollars annually in National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Defense Department money.
Robert Gammage (D.-Tex.) has Lockheed and McDonnel Douglas facilities in his district.
Louis Frey Jr. (R.Fla.) has the Kennedy Space Center.
James Lloyd (D.Calif.) has General Dynamics and Lockheed.
Daniel R. Glickman (D.Kan.) has Boeing.
All in all, Flippo has lined up 22 of the 33 members of the parent Science and Technology Committee as co-sponsors.
A matching provision has been introduced in the Senate by John Melcher (D.Mont.) with the backing of Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Henry M. Jackson (D.Wash.).
Jackson warns, however, "My word of caution is that we've got a lot of cost problems."
Sunsat, in theory, would consist of a series of solar collector satellites 10 miles square and weighing up to 20,000 tons each. Once launched into lowlevel orbit, the solar collector panels would be unfolded like a carpet then towed deeper into outer space by so-called "space tugs" to a synchronous orbit 22,000 miles above the earth.
While in orbit the solar cell panels would collect sunlight, convert it to electrical current, then convert it to do microwaves which in turn would be beamed to receiver sites on earth. On earth. the microwaves would be converted into electrical current, then sold to consumers.
Sunsat backers say that once operational each satellite could provide about 10,000 megawatts, nearly twise the output of the Grand Coulee Dam.
Aerospace and nuclear power suppliers have been lobbying in favor of Sunsat on Capitol Hill since the early 1970s.
"The industry has pushed Sunsat very heavily: they think it is a viable project," says one key House aide. "Besides," he says, "It is the kind of project they like because it calls for a long-term commitment to billions of dollars in hardware."
President Carter's current Sunsat research and development request is for $15.6 million, to be spent jointly by the Energy Department and NASA over the next 4 years.
Energy Secretary James R. Schlesinger Jr. and other DOE officials have been cool to the Sunsat lobby's enthusiastic pitch in Congress for a massive increase in federal funding. "The fact that it may be feasible does not mean it is a near-term plausibility," Schlesinger said recently.
Flippo and other supporters, however, label the DOE and NASA planners as foot-draggers.
"In essence the intent of my bill is to get us to a go or no go decision," Flippo says, adding that Sunsat should be moving as NASA's space shuttle becomes operational during the 1980s. Sunsat further requires no major scientific breakthroughs, Flippo adds. He does concede, however, that the project may require some "new engineering."
"New engineering" seized on by Sunsat opponents such as Rep. Richard Ottinger (D.-N.Y.) who argue that potential, though yet unknown, health an environmental hazards resulting from massive amounts of microwave radiation rule out a major commitment to Sunsat now.
Ottinger points to scientific evidence that microwaves radiation in massive doses can cause cataracts, genetic changes, and damage to the central nervous system. Government research also suggests that microwaves radiation could interfere with citizens band radios and police communications systems.
Dr. Peter Glaser, president of the Sunsat Energy Council and originator of the concept, dismisses the suspected microwave hazards posed by the outer space energy source.
"I have a standing offer to provide the wine and the salad to anyone who promises to eat the duck that flies through the beam - cooked or not," Glaser says.
The Sunset Energy Council is made up of Boeing Aerospace Corp., Lockheed Co., McDonnell Douglas Corp., General Electric Co., Westinghouse Electric Corp., Martin Marietta Aerospace and others.
A Boeing briefing packet on Sunsat made available to some members of Congress argues that despite the billions of dollars that would be spent "with solar power satellites, these dollars would stay in the United States." The Boeing kit continues, "in this respect solar satellites are similar to hydroelectric dams."