- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

Fear spurred by the Soviet Union’s alarming strides in the conquest of space — Sputnik in October 1957, Laika the female dog in orbit a month later, then the first orbit around the moon, followed by Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space in April 1961 — prompted then Sen. Lyndon Johnson to declare: “Control of space means control of the world.” Hand-wringing by nervous nellies in the West gradually gave communism the edge as the wave of the future over laissez-faire capitalism.

America’s own space efforts were plagued by bad luck and dwarfed by the mighty Soviet Union. The U.S. answer to Sputnik exploded on the pad. It was quickly dubbed Stayputnik. Alan Shepard became America’s first man in “space” with a 15-minute suborbital ride. But when John Glenn orbited the Earth three times in 1963, the Soviets were already launching 48-orbit missions — and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, 20 years before Sally Ride.

Humiliated in space, President Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, challenged Americans to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two to walk on the moon in July 1969 — with five months to spare. Kennedy’s visionary decision sorely needs a counterpart in 2005.

Fear spurred by soaring oil prices; Hurricane Katrina shutting down 12 percent of total U.S. crude oil production and 10 percent of U.S. oil refining capacity; a dependency on foreign oil that has gone from less than 50 percent to more than 60 percent; China and India muscling their way into finite world production; an unpredictable political future for the oil states of the Persian Gulf; a threatened tipping point in Iraq in favor of Iran; and wholesale bunkering or smuggling of massive quantities of oil in Nigeria, all should prompt President Bush to challenge Americans to produce cost-effective solar energy — by the end of the decade.

New solar-electric technology is now available. Nanotechnology will pulverize most assumptions about the future. Nanotubes (CNTs), lighter and stronger than steel, can be spun into sheets so thin an acre of it would weigh as little as 4 ounces.

There are about 12 billion square meters of rooftops in the United States — enough to make solar electricity cheap and plentiful. A square meter of silicon solar cells cost approximately $300. Nano sheets are based on much thinner cells and cost about $30 for the same surface. Unlike natural gas, coal or nuclear power, solar energy requires no fuel. The sun produces in a single second enough energy to meet the needs of all humanity for 2,000 years. Applications for converting solar energy into electricity are made possible by the special properties of semiconducting materials.

But there is no national emergency for energy efficiency and independence, no real challenge to American ingenuity. The latest anemic energy bill does nothing to reduce a 62 percent dependency on foreign oil. One risible provision calls for cutting U.S. consumption of 20.4 million barrels a day by 1 million barrels — by 2015.

From Hummers to sport-utility vehicles, gas-guzzlers are now 54 percent of the U.S. fleet and make navigating narrow city streets hazardous to normal size cars. If SUVs are parked on either side of the street, trying to pass another SUV means backing to the next crossroads. If you don’t execute this maneuver, the offending SUV won’t budge until you concede and go into reverse. SUV drivers tailgate with reckless abandon, knowing they will be given a wide berth. On top of $3 gasoline, they should be taxed into oblivion.

Fear of the automobile industry and the big oil companies has hushed the otherwise exciting prospect of electricity generated directly from the sun’s energy. Today, burning coal produces more than half of U.S. power. Global warming and its irreparable effects are no longer heresy in conservative circles. Dangerous mercury levels in fish are nonpartisan, as are large quantities of carcinogenic particles in the air we breathe. Nine Northeastern states, led by New York’s Republican Gov. George Pataki, have agreed to curb power plant emissions in line with the Kyoto Protocol, thus defying the Bush administration.

The giant transformation required to reduce America’s dependence on the whims of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, or a potential caliphate engineered by Osama bin Laden in Saudi Arabia and an Abdul Qadeer Khan, the nuclear black marketer, in Pakistan, is very similar to the migration of telecommunications onto an Internet infrastructure.

A major problem, of course, is how to store significant electric power when the sun isn’t shining. But that’s what a presidential challenge would be designed to achieve. The uncertainty of oil supplies today and still more upheavals anticipated in the coming years, make a presidential clarion call a matter of high statesmanship. The scientific and engineering communities must be incentivized to find the holy grail of ultimate energy.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.


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