Exploratory Engineering and Solar Sailing

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The ‘Science’ section in today’s New York Times included an article about a space project that’s been a long time coming. Accompanied by the gorgeous graphic above, reporter Kenneth Chang describes how The Planetary Society, a not-for-profit advocacy group for space exploration, was planning to launch some small spacecraft, starting in May 2015, and test drive a solar sail.

A solar sail is an elegant idea. Light from the sun carries not just energy but momentum. This gentle but constant force, if captured by a sufficiently large sail, can propel a spacecraft until it is traveling hundreds of thousands of miles an hour. The concept of a solar sail is also an old one. Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovskii described the basic idea well before 1930. It was first picked up in the United States by science fiction writers. Then, a few weeks after the Soviets launched Sputnik I in October 1957, wunderkind physicist Richard L. Garwin added the rigor of numbers and equations.1

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Opening of Garwin’s 1958 paper; submitted for review in Nov. 1957.

It is an evocative idea – a ship, its sails “filled” by sunlight, wending its way through the solar system. Clipper ships of space…a nice blend of the past and the future. The poster below was for the 1978 Japanese film Message from Space, described by as Japan’s big-budget answer to Star Wars; notice the weird-looking craft in the upper right… (note: I’d love to hear from anyone who has seen this…the trailer is here. I’m amazed George Lucas didn’t sue.)

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Poster for Message from Space (1978)


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Anyway — as Garwin’s 1958 article notes, “the principle involved is simply to make use of the pressure of the sun’s light on a sail” in order to propel a craft.2

This diagram, from this article, explains why and how:

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But, while the principle might be simple, developing a suitable sail and the means to deploy it isn’t. So,despite the solar sail’s hypothetical potential for moving a spacecraft about the solar system, however, rockets remained the prevailing technology for space exploration during the Apollo era.

The idea of a solar sail-powered craft picked up speed again in the 1970s. In mid-1976, as NASA recovered from its post-Apollo hangover, Bruce C. Murray, the new head of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, proposed several new missions that he believed had “good technical content and popular appeal.” One idea Murray suggested was a rendezvous with Halley’s Comet, scheduled to return to the inner solar system in 1986, with a craft powered by a solar sail. If successful, the propulsion method could perhaps be adapted for other NASA missions.3

The idea of solar sailing a spaceship to meet up with Halley’s Comet captured the public’s interest. As opposed to dirty, noisy rockets, with their obvious connections to ballistic missiles, solar sails appeared as a “soft technology” akin to solar and wind energy. But, in the end, high inflation and budget deficits scuttled the entire mission and no American craft flew to intercept Halley.4  A small group of persistent NASA engineers, however, started the World Space Foundation to pursue their goal of building and testing a solar sail prototype using funds from private sources and efforts to find a gentler alternative to rockets continued into the 1980s. Solar sails became one of the projects that The Planetary Society – started in 1980 by Murray, Carl Sagan, and Louis Friedman – explored.

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Friedman and prototype, shown in image from 1981 Science News article by Jonathan Eberhart.

The revived interest in solar sails caught my attention because it reminded me of some early R&D done by engineer K. Eric Drexler. In my book The Visioneers, I describe how Drexler interest in the technological future started with a passion for space-based settlements and manufacturing in the style of Gerard O’Neill. As Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand described him, by 1977, Drexler was already“old Space Colony hand,” a true believer who once predicted that he “probably won’t die on this planet.” In time, Drexler shifted his focus to promote what he initially called “molecular engineering” i.e. a nascent form of nanotechnology.

The path to nanotechnology did not appear suddenly, however. After he finished his undergraduate degree at MIT in 1977, Drexler remained to do a master’s thesis in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. For his research topic, the young engineer decided to design a “high performance solar sail system.” This, in fact, became the title of his 1979 M.S. thesis.

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Drexler imagined this technology could be prove essential for future space exploration efforts. Funded by a graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation, Drexler investigated what the best materials would be for a solar sail and designed a machine, compact enough to fit inside NASA’s space shuttle, for fabricating ultra-thin sheets of metal films in space. Drexler’s visioneering also included a system to rig these pieces into a solar sail a few kilometers in diameter and a method for maneuvering the craft. To make the basic proof of concept more robust, Drexler even fabricated some small pieces of metal films in an MIT lab. Drexler dubbed his design concept “Lightsail,” to make it clear that it would be propelled by photons, not the solar wind or some adaptation of solar power cells. Drexler thought the research he did at MIT was innovative enough to warrant filing for a patent in 1980:

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And, of course, he promoted his ideas for solar sailing to fellow pro-space enthusiasts, particularly those in the L5 Society. An article he wrote for the February issue of Smithsonian brought the idea to an even wider audience.

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Drexler eventually began using the term “exploratory engineering,” an expression that well describes his approach to designing solar sails. Unlike the conventional engineering, which aims to build specific things and looks to a relatively short-term horizon, exploratory engineering for Drexler meant “designing things that we can’t yet build.” Today’s NYT article drove home the point that now we can build them.

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With the launch of The Planetary Society’s LightSail craft – perhaps the name owes a debt to Drexler – planned for this coming May, decades worth of dreaming and exploratory engineering will finally get a test-flight in space.

  1. Richard L. Garwin, “Solar Sailing: A Practical Method of Propulsion within the Solar System,” Jet Propulsion, 1958, 28, 188-89; also, Colin McInnes. “On the Crest of a Sunbeam.” New Scientist, January 5 1991: 31-33. []
  2. The day this article appeared, I received a nice email from Richard Garwin. He noted that his paper on solar sailing had actually been submitted to the IBM Journal of Research and Development in November 1956, a full year before it went to Jet Propulsion. So, Garwin was even more ahead of the curve than I originally noted. []
  3. My colleague Peter J. Westwick has an excellent telling of this history in his prizewinning book Into the Black: JPL and the American Space Program, 1976-2004 []
  4. European and Soviet missions, however, did successfully study the comet in 1986; John M. Logsdon, “Missing Halley’s Comet: The Politics of Big Science,” Isis, 1989, 80, 2: 254-80. []

Lasers, Pot Smoke, and the “Visual Art of the Future”

For some readers, one of the curious by-products of the 1960s-era art & technology movement might conjure up some hazy, hopefully fond memories – a toke in the VW, some comfy seats, Pink Floyd, and…lasers. Yes — I’m talking Laserium.

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Laserium, in Marvel’s The Amazing Spider Man, 1977

This image of wide-eyed stoners gazing in awe at laser beams synched to Led Zeppelin or the Electric Light Orchestra is at least how how the Amazing Spider Man and The Simpsons presented Laserium. Just ask Ben Stiller or The New York Times. OK – so straight-arrow Peter Parker probably wasn’t indulging in reefer madness. But his girlfriend was named Mary Jane. Anyway…

Laserium was the direct result of art-engineering experiments that physicist Elsa Garmire began to do at Caltech in the late 1960s. While in Pasadena, she combined her skill with lasers to a burgeoning interest in the art & technology movement that peaked around 1970.

Garmire’s experimental live laser shows caught the attention of Ivan Dryer, a Los Angeles-based film maker. Before working in the entertainment business, Dryer was an “astronomy freak” but one more interested in the “mystiques of space…not the mechanics of it,” as he told People magazine in 1976. Before moving into the film industry, Dryer worked as a guide at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

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Ivan Dryer, n.d. but – judging from the clothes – late 1970s

After seeing Garmire’s presentation, Dryer visited her Caltech lab. He and a colleague brought a camera with the intent of filming the “marvelous shapes and forms” that Garmire’s laser system generated.1

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Filming a laser show in Garmire’s lab, likely 1970 or 1971.

Dryer soon realized that filming Garmire’s laser images was aesthetically inferior to seeing the intensity and purity of their colors in person. In the fall of 1970, he arranged for a live and – to his eyes – captivating demonstration of Garmire’s system, accompanied by classical music, for Griffith staff in the observatory’s planetarium dome. The observatory management, however, was less enchanted with what they saw as entertainment, not education. Disappointed but still motivated, Dryer and Garmire co-founded a company in February 1971 called Laser Images Inc.. Riffing on the popularity of planetarium shows, they called their product “Laserium.”2

For the next few years, Dryer and Garmire worked intermittently to perfect their laser show and attract interest. A representative from Spectra-Physics, a southern California company that made some of the first commercial lasers, loaned them a krypton laser system that could produce multiple colors. In June 1973, they invited the new director of Griffith Observatory William Kaufmann III, to see an improved demonstration at Garmire’s lab. Kauffmann, then in his early 30s, had a more liberal view of what the public might want to see at the observatory and he arranged for Dryer and McDonald to have access to the planetarium dome.

In mid-November 1973, spurred by Dryer’s appearance on a morning television show, some 700 people showed up at Griffith to see the debut of what became known simply as Laserium. Classical and art rock music – Pink Floyd’s prog rock epics would prove to be an audience fave – provided the soundtrack as multi-color laser images were projected in real-time on the planetarium’s starry background.

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Laserium program, c. 1977 (courtesy Ron Hipschman)

Word of mouth helped expand the audience and, by the time the initial four week engagement at Griffith ended, hundreds of people were being turned away for laser shows. Other observatory directors in cities like Denver and New York City were intrigued.

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Promotional flyer for early Laserium shows, after the technique had caught on and spread beyond southern California, c. 1975 (Image courtesy of Laserium)

By 1977, Dryer’s growing team of live laser performers were putting on shows in more than 15 cities in the U.S. and abroad and Laserium was a registered trademark.3

Beginning with custom equipment, eventually Laserium was based around a standard system, details of which are preserved in the patent application Dryer and two colleagues filed in July 1975 for a “laser light image generator” that can create a “plurality of light images in different colors from a single laser light.”4

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1977 patent for the techniques behind Laserium.

The projection unit was rectangular in shape, about 2’ by 6’ by 3’. The heart of the system was a one-watt krypton gas laser which would be split by prisms into four colors. Other optics, scanners, and oscillators allowed for extremely rapid play of images, closed linear shapes, Lissajous figures, and so on. An operator sat at a console where she could access a variety of switches and joysticks to play the “instrument.”

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Laserium console from 1980s. (Source)

A four-track tape deck had music in stereo as well as audio for the show’s introduction and narration. For new laserists, a “teach track” helped them learn the system and the best timing for performances. The basic format of each show was preprogrammed by the “laserist” who had considerable opportunity to vary and change the tempo and image sequences. Laserium shows were performed live and the quality of them, as well as the audience’s response, depended on the skill and imagination of the system operator.

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Laserium operator, 1974 (image thanks to Ron Hipschman)

Laserium had a broad appeal – stoners, geeks, and planetarium junkies all turned out to see shows. Its popularity was no doubt enhanced by the relative novelty of lasers for the general public in the mid-1970s. The 1977 film Star Wars added to people’s interest in all things laser. A sense of the excitement can be seen in this 1976 program.

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Cover of 1976 program for Laserium. (Image courtesy of Laserium)

Just as planetarium shows have helped popularize astronomy, Laserium can be seen as a public display of laser technology, its roots traceable back to 19th century displays of electricity and electrical effects.

It was not without its aesthetic admirers. One art writer, for example, referred to experiments with laser projection as the “seeds of what will become the high, universally acclaimed visual art of the future.”5 Given Laserium’s penchant for attracting attendees whose appreciation of choreographed laser light was chemically enhanced, “high” visual art takes on another meaning as well.

After peaking in the late 1970s when some 70 people worked for the company, Laserium slowly faded in popularity. Often lampooned as the preferred entertainment of pot heads and LSD trippers, we can also see Laserium as the somewhat disreputable cousin of the venerable planetarium show. Nonetheless, by 2002, some 20 million people around the world had seen a Laserium show – its run at Griffith lasted some 28 years – and its idiosyncratic blend of music and spectacle had become part of popular culture.

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Laserium on cover of a 1980 comic. I’m pretty sure I owned this at one point.

One of the goals of formal artist-engineer collaborations was to generate technical “fallout” – ideas that could benefit corporate patrons – as well as spinoffs of new companies. Laserium was one of the most commercially successful results from the fecund artist-engineer collaborations of the late 1960s.

More importantly, Laserium offers another data point that says we can no longer think of the late 1960s and early 1970s as an “anti-science” or “anti-technology” period. A more informed and nuanced reading tells us that engineers, artists, and society in general sought and found alternative forms of science and technology. Laserium was a colorful off-shoot of this search for a different, groovier, science.

  1. Recounted in “Applications Pioneer Interview: Ivan Dryer,” Laser and Applications, October 1986, 53-58. []
  2. The idea of doing live laser shows did not originate with Dryer, et al. It was an idea, certainly, already in the air in the late 1960s. Lowell Cross, a multi-media artist, claims to have performed the first “public multi-color laser light show” in May 1969 at Mills College. Cross would go on to collaborate with Berkeley physicist Carson D. Jeffries and composer David Tudor to create a laser light show for the Pepsi Pavilion at Osaka Expo ’70. []
  3. Garmire’s involvement with Laserium was the end of her collaboration with artists. She left the company amicably in 1974 and she pursued a successful scientific career in laser science and physics at the University of Southern California (1974) and then Dartmouth College (1995), eventually becoming a dean of engineering at Dartmouth. []
  4. Dan Slater, Ivan M. Dryer, and Charles W. McDonald. “Laser Light Image Generator.” U.S. Patent 4,006,970 , filed 14 July 1975, issued 8 February 1977. []
  5. Andrew Kagan, “Laserium: New Light on an Ancient Vision,” Arts Magazine, March 1978. []