Today's spacecraft carry their source of power. The cost of space travel could be drastically reduced by leaving the fuel and massive components behind and beaming high-intensity laser light or microwave energy to the vehicles. Experiments sponsored over the past year by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Air Force have demonstrated what I call a lightcraft, which rides along a pulsed infrared laser beam from the ground. Reflective surfaces in the craft focus the beam into a ring, where it heats air to a temperature nearly five times hotter than the surface of the sun, causing the air to expand explosively for thrust.
Using an army 10-kilowatt carbon dioxide laser pulsing 28 times per second, Franklin B. Mead of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory and I have successfully propelled spin-stabilized miniature lightcraft measuring 10 to 15 centimeters (four to six inches) in diameter to altitudes of up to 30 meters (99 feet) in roughly three seconds. We have funding to increase the laser power to 100 kilowatts, which will enable flights up to a 30-kilometer altitude. Although today's models weigh less than 50 grams (two ounces), our five-year goal is to accelerate a one-kilogram microsatellite into low-Earth orbit with a custom-built, one-megawatt ground- based laser--using just a few hundred dollars' worth of electricity.