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Old June 9th, 2013, 12:35 AM
Brainbin Brainbin is offline
Kingpin of the Cultural Cartel
Join Date: Jul 2009
Location: The British Empire
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Fight the Power

The ubiquitous “Microwave for a Brighter Future” poster, first published in 1974. [1]

The Oil Crisis of 1973 had served as a very rude awakening for the drafters of American energy policy. US oil reserves were rapidly dwindling, and the vast (and, thanks to the Manufacturing Miracle, steadily recovering) industrial sector stateside was utterly dependent on black gold, not only as a power source for their factories and machines, but also for the many direct applications of that particular resource. An increasing amount of crude was derived from foreign sources, which were controlled by powers that were increasingly hostile toward the United States and its geopolitical interests (and which could not be brought in line with such consummate ease, as had been the case in decades past). Never before had the need for new alternatives to oil been so apparent or urgent.

In the wake of the Oil Crisis, President Hubert H. Humphrey, eager to build on his space-borne legacy, had authorized the Solar Power Satellite (SPS) prototype which would collect energy in orbit from solar panels, through the photovoltaic conversion process. These would operate in peak, brilliant sunlight at all times, unencumbered by atmospheric or weather conditions, not to mention the day/night cycle – all of which would, and did, dramatically reduce the potential power output and efficiency of ground-based solar panels. The solar energy collected by the satellite would then be beamed to the Earth’s surface through the use of microwaves (hence the ubiquitous media nickname of “Microwave Power”). A “rectenna” – which is to say, a microwave antenna – on Earth would collect these beams of microwave energy and convert them into electricity (measured in watts), to be fed directly into the power grid. Given the popular understanding of microwave technology (as microwave ovens had been in use for two decades by this point), the inevitable question of what were to happen if the beam somehow missed the rectenna and instead hit the nearby area (which could, theoretically, be populated by plants, animals, or even people), soon arose. The notion of these innocent bystanders being “cooked” by the microwave energy was understandable, and insidious. [2] And it didn’t stop there; going one step beyond that, and imagining radiation poisoning as a result of wayward beams was certainly unfounded (but could easily be explained by conflation with another popular-but-controversial energy source which became prominent in the 1970s).

From beginning to end, the development process of the solar power satellite prototype had lasted for five years – from the appropriation of funds in the FY 1974 budget, to the conclusion of the final battery of tests, conducted by an actual satellite, launched to geosynchronous orbit (by the same Saturn rocket which also launched the space shuttles) in early 1979. Upon receiving the data collected from these run-throughs, President Reagan was satisfied that his initial suspicions – that microwave was simply untenable as a system for power generation – had been confirmed; the total costs of the entire process of bringing the solar energy to the rectennae on the ground were far, far in excess of any other practical source of electricity at the time, including even ground-based solar and (needless to say) nuclear, his own pet choice. [3] The number of nuclear generators had been rising steadily through the late-1970s, and the President had covered his bases by deciding to continue another research program in alternative energy that actually predated the Oil Crisis altogether: thorium-based nuclear power, known among its proponents as “clean nuclear power”, which alleviated some (though certainly not all) of the concerns held with regard to the risks involved by the vociferous anti-nuclear lobby. [4] So, as far as the government was concerned, microwave was dead; long live the nuke. However, there were some peripheral benefits to be derived from the SPS prototype; the solar panels created for use on the satellite may yet have had applications for Earth-based solar power. Each of the two sets of panels, which measured 6,000 square metres all together, was capable of converting the photovoltaic energy into 1.5 megawatts of power, which translated to approximately 17% efficiency – very high, by the standards of the era. [5]

Though Reagan had never been a friend of microwave power, he was surprisingly facilitated in his attempt to discredit it by the media; specifically, by the famed disaster movie, The Greenpoint Dilemma. Having been written and filmed in 1978, and released the following year, it assumed that microwave would be found viable and then put into commercial operation through the 1980s. [6] Therefore, the setting was near-future; this technically qualified the film as science-fiction, though this was strongly de-emphasized, to implicitly remind audiences that “this very thing could happen here and now”. The plot entailed a commercial SPS firm, Sunburst Industries, which had launched the very first commercial microwave satellite over a dozen years prior to the start of the film, and said orbiter – Sunburst Platform Alpha, known as “Platform Alpha” or just “Alpha” – was by that point approaching the end of its operational life. Alpha provides power to where else but New York City, and its gargantuan size – 4 miles long by 2 miles across – meant that it could be seen like a star in the night sky from throughout the tri-state area, despite being over 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. (Fortunately, the microwave beams that it fired were invisible.) The rectenna was located in Great Neck, Long Island, just across the bay from Queens, the most residential (and populous) of the Five Boroughs. [7] However, most of the action took place aboard the platform, where the crew complement of 120 were tasked with ensuring a smooth operation.

Sunburst Industries, as was the case for most for-profit corporations depicted in fiction, was not exactly a valued contributor to this future society. Maintenance and repair costs were kept to strict minimum standards, or perhaps even allowed to fall below them – after all, it was very difficult for government inspectors to tour the facilities, given their extreme remoteness; the station itself was chronically understaffed at any rate. The harsh realities on the ground (or, rather, in orbit) were contrasted against the sunny, optimistic advertising from Sunburst which depicted Microwave as the “wave of the future”, and touted the “clean, safe, and practically infinite” source of energy that space-based solar power could provide. [8] In fact, the film quite famously opened with an in-universe commercial for Sunburst microwave power, in one of the more avant-garde touches that dotted the otherwise fairly conventional potboiler thriller (again, to emphasize the here and now aspects of the disaster plot).

The logo used in The Greenpoint Dilemma for Sunburst Industries. Note the allusions to the “Microwave for a Brighter Future” poster (including the Sigma standing in for the pro-microwave Mu, and use of the famous “1970s font”, Cooper Black), along with visual similarities to the iconography of Soviet Russia and the Empire of Japan.

The beleaguered crew of Platform Alpha fought continuing battles to keep the hardware and exteriors in good working order, and this was depicted in part through a famous (though largely gratuitous) “spacewalk” sequence out on the station’s massive array of panels – a dramatic sequence made all the more extravagant in comparison to the more cramped interiors of the station, and which many reviewers noted was reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As was expected, the venerable Desilu Post-Production handled most of the extensive visual effects work, which included construction of the massive model satellite, and the compositing and editing. The incredible amount of money spent on effects equated to a very steep production cost, which could only have been permitted by the studios in the spendthrift New Hollywood era; sure enough, the film was directed by William Friedkin, who had helmed The French Connection at the beginning of the decade (and little else of note since). [9] Like many auteurs he was a notorious control freak, which made filming quite a bit more difficult and problematic than it otherwise might have been. If the movie were not a hit, that would have spelled the end of his career.

The on-set troubles actually seemed to echo the course of the plot. We were introduced to Platform Alpha at the beginning of a typical overworked, understaffed shift, and to the central characters, a motley crew of lowly technicians (played by Richard “Meathead” Dreyfuss, Jill Clayburgh, and newcomer John Lithgow), supervised by their typically middle-management supervisor (played by Rip Torn). [10] The “face” of Sunburst was provided by Jack Nicholson, playing against type (and for scale) as the slimy public relations officer of the company, Raymond “Call me Ray” Delsol; the highest-ranking executive who is seen onscreen. The situation on Platform Alpha – never more than barely adequate even at the very best of times – quickly aggravated over the course of the first two acts and became too much for the crew to bear. The technicians were forced to repair external damage and keep the internal systems intact, facing long hours, labour shortages, increasingly high production demands from the Sunburst headquarters on the ground despite these issues, and a decided lack of creature comforts to boot. The manager grew increasingly apathetic toward the concerns of his employees, who in turn saw tensions rise amongst their own ranks. The formerly close friendship between the Dreyfuss and Lithgow characters disintegrated as Lithgow grew increasingly unhinged; the low-key romance between Dreyfuss and Clayburgh soon evaporated. Something had to give – and indeed, something did; in the climax of the film, the beam of microwaves, having been successfully converted from the solar energy collected by the massive network of panels attached to the platform, were sent down to Earth, but went way off course from Great Neck, instead cutting through Queens, quite literally cooking thousands of people. (Those people who had lived through the catastrophe were depicted with shockingly realistic makeup jobs which lent the film something of a post-apocalyptic flavour). Sunburst Industries, which had up to this point willfully ignored rumours of strain and underfunding affecting their platforms, were now exposed. Meanwhile, on Platform Alpha itself, the situation was even worse

The name of the film, The Greenpoint Dilemma, was an allusion to what was then the recently-discovered Greenpoint Oil Spill in Brooklyn, in which, over a period of several decades, millions of gallons of oil seeped into the ground and destroyed the environment of that neighbourhood. [11] In the film itself, Lithgow’s character (at the very height of his hysterical ravings) drew this comparison, of how the people in the area around that rectenna had expected to live their lives unmolested before they had been irrevocably violated by the terror of that which had theoretically been intended to help them. Shortly after his speech, Lithgow’s character committed suicide, clearly despondent from failing to prevent this horrific disaster. In a less subtle example of just deserts, Torn’s character was killed in his attempt to escape from the riots that ensued on the platform once the consequences of the misfire were revealed. The combination of disaster film and message movie produced an obvious moral: the insatiable thirst for energy to accommodate the growth of industry and technology, followed by negligence and disregard for the health and safety of others to maximize profits, would inevitably produce catastrophic results. The preachiness and pretentiousness that characterized The Greenpoint Dilemma made it a critical favourite, and proved to spur ample discussion on talk shows, and around water coolers and coffee tables all through 1979. In fact, the timing couldn’t have been more ideal; Greenpoint was released in the late spring, just weeks before the SPS project was officially cancelled by the Reagan administration. Rumours would persist from then on that Greenpoint had something to do with the Gipper’s decision. [12] The film finished in the #10 slot for the year, grossing over $60 million in the United States. However, because of the very high budget (estimated at $30 million), profits were minimal. The film, however, did very well come awards season, receiving several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Lithgow. However, it only won two Oscars, both in technical categories: for Best Makeup and Best Visual Effects. It was a vindication for Desilu, whose technicians received the latter award, as the studio which continued to employ Marcia Lucas (though only for in-house television projects) despite her having been blackballed by the motion picture industry. [13] But Greenpoint had another, more curious effect; an anti-nuclear film released later the same year, based on a number of incidents taking place at plants throughout the earlier 1970s, was a flop, largely as it was deemed to be a “ripoff” of The Greenpoint Dilemma (and it did not help that film’s case that it contained the word Syndrome in its title). [14] Lightning never did seem to strike the same place twice. The message was clear as the 1970s drew to a close: microwave bad, and nukes, if not good, were at least better. It helped that the sizeable contingent of members of Congress (in both Houses) between the Democrats, moderate Republicans, and the more pork-minded Americans, did their best to force through extremely strict safety regulations for new nuclear generators; each faction had its own reasons for doing so, but it was certainly enough, when coupled with the promise of “clean” nuclear research, given investment into thorium, to keep fission on the table and allowing it to dominate energy policy going forward.

Another lasting impact of the film was on the not-insignificant environmentalist movement of the time – many of whom were former (or particularly stubborn current) Moonie Loonies, and thus firm space advocates, and (in general) supporters of microwave power over nuclear (the perpetual bête noire of virtually all environmentalists). Greenpoint would precipitate a schism between what would emerge as the pro-SPS and anti-SPS factions of the broader movement, and those who were anti-SPS soon found themselves adrift without a remotely viable option in the near-term. Even the advances in ground-based solar power that could be derived from the failed SPS experiment were years, if not decades, away from competitiveness with nuclear in terms of efficiency and cost. New, alternative energy sources also seemed a pipe-dream, although science-fiction certainly came one step closer to reality when a team at the University of Sheffield, led by the wunderkind Dr. Thomas W. Anderson (only 32 years old), made the landmark discovery of the buckminsterfullerene molecule, also in 1979. [15] “Buckyballs”, as they quickly came to be known, were named for architect Buckminster Fuller, whose famed geodesic domes resemble the structure of the molecule. Buckyballs possessed a number of intriguing properties: for one, they could be used to demonstrate wave-particle duality. But more importantly, for the sake of energy policy, Dr. Anderson revealed that derivatives of buckyballs might prove useful in facilitating the productive economic use of hydrogen in providing electrical energy – the holy grail of energy sources (easily derived from the water, or H2O, which covered 70% of the Earth’s surface). The media referred to this as “fuel cell” technology, though hydrogen was not technically a “fuel” in the traditional sense of the word. Hydrogen-derived fuel cell technology in the United States dated back to the Apollo program, where it had been remarkably successful. This new discovery, coupled with this crucial past connection, galvanized environmentalists, and even more strongly tied their fates to that of the pro-space lobby; both groups became well-accustomed to rooting for long shots (both literally and metaphorically, as the case might be).

The fates of energy policy and the space program seemed inextricably intertwined, both in practical terms as a result of the (failed) SPS prototype, and in metaphorical ones, given the media connection, and the impact on environmentalists and Moonie Loonies that each successive revelation and decision brought with it. But “microwave” was dead, though solar might yet have caught a second wind from what it had left behind. In the future, beyond the pragmatic and immediate realities of nuclear (generator) proliferation, and the continuing (though weaning) reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas, whole new avenues were available for exploration and investment: hydrogen fuel cells, through the use of the newly-discovered buckyballs; and nuclear fission, giving way to fusion, which (once viable) would be a dramatic improvement thereupon, along virtually any conceivable metric. But these technologies were decades into the future; certainly, far beyond even the newly-dawning 1980s which beckoned…


[1] This image was created by e of pi, based (very) loosely on a (terrible) rough drawing by myself, modeled on a (far more professional) instructive diagram.

[2] Being “cooked” by microwave beams (in much the same way that a microwave oven “cooks” food) becomes more possible with the rising intensity of the beam in question. Higher beam intensity generally means more efficient energy transfer, allows a smaller receiver dish, and also slightly higher efficiencies of transmission – all beneficial. Presumably, then, Sunburst is using extremely high intensity microwaves. Of course, given the great distances involved, accuracy is a perennial concern.

[3] Even today, IOTL, microwave power is a prohibitively expensive prospect, as can be seen by the increasing prominence (and use) of simple ground-based solar power (despite the many restrictions imposed upon it which are already listed above). The greatest strike against microwave is the prohibitive initial cost from the launch of equipment into a geocentric orbit – 22,000 miles is not exactly a trip to the corner store, after all.

[4] IOTL, thorium-based nuclear research was cancelled in 1973, under the auspices of (who else?) President Nixon.

[5] Estimates for the efficiency of solar panels in the early 1970s – under ideal conditions – are 10 to 15 percent.

[6] This film has no OTL analogue, largely because microwave remained a pipe-dream IOTL. Given the 2001 influences in the piece, the film probably would be set in around 2001, which would give Sunburst Industries one whole decade to design, assemble, and launch their titanic platform before the 12 years of operation are due to begin.

[7] Yes, Staten Island is even more residential than Queens (if you don’t count the garbage dumps for which Richmond County was best-known in this era), but it doesn’t have the same prestige as Queens (well, by non-Manhattan standards, anyway). Recall that Archie Bunker lived in Astoria, Queens, along with his son-in-law, Meathead…

[8] Most of these “commercials” and “press releases” are thinly-veiled satires of actual commercials and press releases from the pro-microwave lobby in that era ITTL.

[9] Recall that Peter Bogdanovich directed The Exorcist ITTL – which means that Friedkin never acquired the necessary cachet to direct The Sorcerer.

[10] This is the first film in which Dreyfuss appears after the conclusion of Those Were the Days, it having been filmed in 1978.

[11] IOTL, the Greenpoint oil spill was discovered by the Coast Guard in September, 1978; ITTL, it is discovered in 1976 in preparation for the bicentennial celebrations.

[12] Greenpoint had nothing to do with Reagan’s decision, although it certainly provided very handy cover for him to enact it.

[13] Desilu Post-Production has become so venerable an effects house by this point that even the continued employment of Marcia Lucas by that studio has not prevented them from continuing to get steady work – though, of course, she has nothing to do with it.

[14] This was, of course, The China Syndrome IOTL, the anti-nuclear film that preceded (by mere days) the Three Mile Island incident (which does not take place ITTL).

[15] Buckminsterfullerene was discovered in 1985, IOTL, though also by a team at the University of Sheffield (what a shocking coincidence, wouldn’t you say?).


Special thanks to e of pi, who is effectively the co-writer of this update, having actively contributed to the development of every topic covered herein to some degree or another: going back well over a year in the case of the microwave prototype; and less than 48 hours, in the case of The Greenpoint Dilemma – in which case he proved himself the Lawrence Kasdan to my George Lucas, taking my kernel of an idea for a “microwave China Syndrome” and helping to flesh out the titular Dilemma far better than I could ever have done on my own. For those of you familiar with his prodigious penchant for puns, it will not surprise you to learn that the title was his doing as well.

Yes, alas, microwave is dead; and what’s worse (in the eyes of some) is that nuclear seems very much here to stay. And I’ve butterflied Three Mile Island, too – only to unleash something much worse down the line, or will these tighter safety regulations stick, and truly work to prevent catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl or Fukushima?
The Turtledove Award-Winning That Wacky Redhead: Big Dreams Have Big Consequences!

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Last edited by Brainbin; June 11th, 2013 at 12:35 AM..
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