Mankins said this view is becoming quickly outdated due to a dramatic lowering of rocket launch costs through efforts funded by billionaires including Tesla founder Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin. Meanwhile, developments in robotics and modular-manufacturing — being able to produce many small modular pieces to make a whole rather than one huge piece of equipment — could lead to cost-effective ways to construct these projects in orbit without having to build a multi-billion-dollar factory in space. He referenced a major review conducted by the federal government in 1981 that when looked at in today's dollars would have cost up to $1 trillion to deliver the first kilowatt/hour of solar from space. "The whole program was killed in the U.S.," he said.
Now the studies conducted on feasibility are decades old and simply no longer relevant to the discussion, Mankins said. "Whenever a gray-haired senior scientist tells you something can be done, they are almost certainly right. When they tell you it can't be done, he or she may very well be wrong," he said, referencing an adage by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke from his famous "three laws."
"We have had a revolution in robotics, drones and warehouse robots that didn't exist. Previously, the whole thing had to be built as one huge system, an enormous thing like a aircraft carrier shipyard in space to fabricate one enormous object weighing 10,000 tonnes rather than 10 million small units each weighing a few pounds that can use mass production," he said. "We no longer need a stupendously huge factory in space and hundreds of astronauts to put it together. The whole world, other than the space program, has moved forward to mass-produced modular network devices. That's the way you would do it, and it was unthinkable 40 years ago, but suddenly it is physically, technically and economically doable."
American scientists are tinkering with the idea to this day. A group at the California Institute of Technology claims to have created a prototype that is able to capture and transmit solar energy from space, using light weight tiles, work sponsored by a $17.5 million research agreement with Northrop Grumman. Weight has always been a key issue to resolve because of the cost of rocket launches being based on weight of cargo. Thin film solar panels are lightweight, which reduces launch cost. Though as launch costs come down it may be less of a make-or-break issue. Thin film may also have a structural advantage in space — the lighter weight is no issue in the zero-gravity environment.
Other nations are exploring the concept. In India and in Europe scientists are working on additional concepts for solar based power in space. Japan's JAXA, an aerospace exploration agency, has been researching how to overcome technological barriers, such as microwave wireless power transmission tech and robotic assembly tech.