China plans a solar power play in space that NASA abandoned decades ago

John Mankins has spent his professional life working on novel ideas that could transform the way humans use technology in space, solar power among them. But Mankins‘ interplanetary musings went beyond the way solar is already used to power satellites and the International Space Station. During a 25-year career at NASA and CalTech‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he devised multiple concepts to extend the use of solar in space, among them a solar-powered interplanetary transport vehicle and a space-based power system.

It‘s that second idea, in particular, that had Mankins‘ attention while holding top research positions at NASA during the 1990s and 2000s, including overseeing the $800 million Exploration Systems Research and Technology group. Mankins — who now runs his own private aerospace firm, Artemis Innovation Management Solutions — had the task of figuring out whether there was a way to deliver electricity to the planet by beaming it from space. It‘s an idea that could fundamentally reshape the idea of the utility business — and give control over it, on a global scale, to whichever world power gets there first.

“If you can dramatically lower the cost of solar, you can take over most of the energy market of the world,” said Mark Hopkins, a member of the National Space Society board of directors and former RAND Corp. executive.

Mankins got close to seeing the idea make it into reality, with support from the Bush White House and Congress in the 2000s, and positive reviews from the National Academy of Sciences and a national security unit within the Department of Defense. But the program never took flight, for a variety of reasons. So when the news recently broke that the idea — abandoned decades ago by — was coming back to life with a big push from government, it was cause for excitement. But it isn‘t NASA finally backing the idea. It‘s the Chinese government.