In October, 1957 the U.S. suffered a crippling blow to its pride when Russia’s Sputnik soared 500 miles into space. The response from the White House was to call it “a useless hunk of iron” and “a silly bauble in the sky.” But for the first time American Cold War superiority came into question. David Halberstam called Sputnik’s success “a kind of technological Pearl Harbor.” All America was stirred up, determined to fight back, especially after Sputnik II, a month later, sent a dog into space. In a hurried effort to catch up, America fired off the Vanguard in December 1957, but after a journey of several feet it sputtered and blew up. Russia’s Premier Khrushchev mocked us, saying “the sputniks are lonely…waiting for American satellites to join them in space.” Americans mocked themselves, calling our first rocket the Flopnik.
In an important sense the failure was good for America, for in addition to humbling us it opened the floodgates to increased science funding in higher education. We weren’t runners-up for long. In February of 1958 the American Explorer I satellite took us into space.
Then the Moon, Now the Sun
The NOVA special “Treasures of the Earth: Power” tells us what we need to know. The sun supplies over 100,000 terawatts of energy to the earth on a continuous basis. We use about 17 terawatts. The greatest imaginable energy source is out there for the taking by the nation smart enough to take it.
So far it’s China, an energy paradox: the biggest polluter, but with the largest capacity of wind/solar power generation, and on track to double its solar capacity in ONE year. China thinks big. The next Great Wall is a Great Energy Network, connecting the whole world with a wind farm at the North Pole and solar stations at the equator, in a manner that will demand cooperation rather than competition among nations. For America, then, an opportunity for peacemaking as well as for profit.
In the Chinese city of Zhangbei, an extraordinary Battery Storage Project is building the world’s largest rechargeable battery. It’s like thousands of phone-like lithium batteries connected together, generating enough power for 7,000 homes, with plans for ten times that capacity. And that’s just one of China’s solar battery locations.
Magic Powers from the Sun
According to Bloomberg, solar power plant costs are falling fast, and they’re relatively easy to construct. “On the plains of West Texas, new wind farms can be built for just $22 a megawatt-hour. In the Arizona and Nevada deserts, solar projects are less than $40 a megawatt-hour. Compare those figures with the U.S. average lifetime cost of $52 for natural gas plants and about $65 for coal.”
Bloomberg adds, instructively: “Environmental rules and government subsidies are no longer the key drivers for clean power. Economics are.” So the “free market” has no more excuses for coal and oil and gas….it’s just a matter of time before the profit motive drives us toward the sun.
Trumped So Far
Donald Trump has shown his ignorance to the world with statements like “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Recently he scoffed, “It’s really cold outside…Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!”
Yet our new president will do anything to attract worshipers to the elaborate shrine inside his head. In the next four years, he has the opportunity to make something happen that will happen anyway, but he can take all the credit, with the added bonus of beating out his adversary China.
Unfortunately, Trump may not have the intelligence to recognize that he should act. And the forces behind fossil fuel make progress unlikely. But there is plenty of American ego and arrogance and exceptionalism out there. We need some of that ego now, just like 60 years ago, when the Soviet accomplishments in space drove us toward a singular world-changing goal. Then it was the moon. Now it’s the sun.