Gene Meyers is a retired, non-aerospace industrial engineer and production manager now living near Pasadena, CA. He spent his working career improving production efficiencies at major corporate divisions which made paper, plastic, metal, medical and electronic products. Meade-Westvaco, Baxter, Rainbird and TRW (automotive) were a few of the firms. Meyers also worked with their sales groups to find new products they could manufacture by slightly modifying their current equipment.
In 1981 he attended an L-5 conference on space development ideas at USC. One presentation was on the engineering work that had been done on leaving the space shuttles’ external fuel tanks (ETs) in orbit when empty, and converting their 747-sized interiors into habitats. It was an offshoot of 1973’s Skylab program. He thought selling these habitable, orbiting ETs to commercial operators for, say, $500 million each could have the same economic impact on shuttle operating costs as an airline selling its worn out jetliner tires for $2 million each.
Meyers promoted the idea through op-ed articles and interviews as a sideline until he took early retirement in the late-90s, then set up the Space Island Group to explore it in more detail. Among other things, he pointed out that commercial ET-station crews could assemble solar power satellites in LEO, then use small shuttle-derived engines to boost them up to their operational GEO orbit.
He found that no market existed for space manufacturing or solar sats back then. But last year the 700,000 member Machinists Union (IAM) asked him to write a 29-page white paper on how the political and economic benefits of solar sats and space stations built from the SLS rocket’s empty fuel tanks could meet the goals of the Green New Deal and the multi-trillion infrastructure bills being promoted by Democrats. (SLS first stage tanks are carried virtually all the way to orbit, just as the shuttle’s ETs were.)
Meyers and the IAM have been quietly sharing the paper with key legislators of both parties in recent months. Republicans like the role that (IAM-represented) defense contractors will play if a commercial market develops. Because of worldwide climate change commitments, the annual market for clean electricity is now $6 trillion annually. That’s nearly 10 times the current worldwide air travel market served by Boeing and Airbus. The paper explains why SLS-stations will lower the launch costs of solar sats to a greater extent than the reusable first stages of SpaceX and Blue Origin rockets. He thinks it may even beat the Starship’s costs.
The paper is not being distributed to the public at this time, since the idea can only be implemented by legislators. Leaders of the 700,000 IAM members provide the political support needed for now, and solar sat proponents and retired shuttle astronauts provide engineering verification to the legislators.
A year ago Meyers thought the premise had a 5-10% chance of being added to the infrastructure bills. He recently raised that to 40-50%.