It is instructive to contemplate the history of space technology when one is attempting to imagine the potential of its future. Still vivid are Images of the early space vehicles of the late 1950’s climbing into the Florida sky, all too often ending in a brilliant display of flames, fragments, failure, and frustrations. And just a decade later, the ponderous Saturns rose slowly into the same sky on Earth-shaking thunder carrying men to leave ageless footprints in the sterile dust of another world.
The history of “modern” space technology really goes back to Goddard’s early experiments, beginning with his first liquid-rocket flight in 1926. The stage was quickly set for development, over the next 15 years, of the basic liquid rocket, which culminated in the 10.9-megagram (12 ton) German V-2 war rocket of 1942 to 1945. The next 15 years saw performance improvements, increases in size, and implementation of staging, all of which resulted in vehicles that could attain orbit. Early Russian spectaculars in space led to the American Apollo program. Steady improvements in reliability and safety, increases in size and complexity, and use of high-energy fuels put man on the Moon only 12 years after Sputnik I was launched.
Costs, as well as the achievements of space flight, became spectacular. The current thrust of space technology is toward lower costs through reusable hardware and cost-optimized design. This trend is on the path to economic practicality of the powersat. But a powersat program cannot be moved up to in one big all-encompassing step. A series of steps are needed, beginning with studies, concepts, and technology experiments (see technik news). Space tests onboard the shuttle pertaining to fold-out structure, deployment devices, microwave experiments, and the like (see fig. 7) will proceed through pilot-plant prototype hardware ground tests and design studies of a space freighter. An orbiting subscale pilot-plant powersat will prove out the technical features and capabilities needed to make the full-size powersat an economically practical reality. Then we will be ready for the big step to an operational powersat program.