March 28, 2012
While celebrating the 25th anniversary of the merger of the National Space Institute (NSI) and the L5 Society, the National Space Society (NSS) salutes its founding fathers: Wernher von Braun was the founding President of NSI in 1974, and the L5 Society was founded in 1975 on the ideas of Princeton physics professor Gerard K. O'Neill.
WERNHER VON BRAUN (1912-1977) would celebrate his 100th birthday this year. Von Braun is considered the father of the U.S. space program and was the principal designer of the Saturn V rocket. He was also responsible for firing up the public imagination in the 1950s with a series of articles in Collier's magazine and a follow-on series of three books (Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon, and The Exploration of Mars) and three Walt Disney TV shows about the conquest of space. Von Braun's expansive vision included three-stage fully reusable rockets, a 250-foot diameter rotating space station with three decks and a crew of 80, a 50-person lunar expedition, and a 12-person expedition to Mars.
Von Braun was the National Space Institute's first President, but shortly became Chairman, with journalist and former ABC-TV 20/20 host Hugh Downs as President. Charles C. Hewitt was the first Executive Director.
Downs later recalled the beginning of the organization:
Long before the launch of Apollo 17, the last [Apollo] Moon mission, Wernher von Braun recognized that something had to be done to keep the importance of ongoing space activity before the public mind. The sort of organization that could do such a job would need to be independent enough to view critically all aspects of NASA policy and implementation.
At the first annual meeting of the organization, in July 1975, von Braun said:
The main role of the National Space Institute will be that of a catalyst between the space techonologist and the user. It will attempt to bring to the attention of people the new opportunities offered by advances made in space experiments and space techniques. It will study the feasibility of the application, and the potential uses of space technology as it relates to other human activities.
Initial members serving on the NSI board of directors and governors were a veritable "Who's Who" list that included comedian and entertainer Bob Hope, singer/songwriter John Denver, oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, "Original 7" Project Mercury astronaut and Senator John H. Glenn, Jr., Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, Dr. Michael De-Bakey, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, and actress Nichelle Nichols. Except for those who are deceased, all are still on the NSS Board of Governors.
GERARD K. O'NEILL (1927-1992), a physics professor at Princeton, first published his ideas in the paper "The Colonization of Space" in Physics Today in September, 1974 [complete online copy], and later in the book The High Frontier in 1977.
When thinking about space settlement, most people think in terms of cities on the Moon or Mars. However, O'Neill came up with a detailed plan for a very interesting alternative: cities in free space, in orbit around the Earth or other bodies. These kilometer-scale spacecraft have a number of advantages relative to settlements on the Moon or Mars. These advantages including artificial Earth-normal gravity (induced by rotation), continuous solar energy, larger sizes, weightless recreation, and an enormous potential for growth in numbers. The primary disadvantage of orbital settlements compared to those on the Moon or Mars is access to materials. Dr. O'Neill resolved this issue with a system of linear electric accellerators ("mass drivers") to deliver lunar materials to carefully chosen orbits, such as the Lagrangian libration point L5, where he proposed the first settlements could reside. In addition, the orbital space settlement materials problem is elegantly solved by either co-orbiting with a near Earth object (NEO), or moving small NEOs (again with mass drivers) into high Earth orbit as a source of materials.
Although O'Neill himself was never a part of the L5 Society, the Society was founded to promote his ideas.
Before his work on space settlements, O'Neill had established a solid reputation in physics. While already a faculty member at Princeton University in the 1950s, he invented a device called the particle storage ring for high-energy physics experiments, which is still in use in over 50 particle accellerators today. In 1977 he established the Space Studies Institute to promote research to "open the energy and material resources of space for human benefit within our lifetime." Unfortunately, his lifetime ended in 1992 after a long battle with leukemia.
KEITH HENSON, L5 Society co-founder, will be turning 70 this July. In 1974, Henson's occasional rock climbing partner, physicist Dr. Dan Jones, introduced him to O'Neill's Physics Today paper on the colonization of space. He immediately recognized the paper's huge significance. To promote these ideas, Henson and his then wife, Carolyn Meinel, founded the L5 Society in 1975. Henson co-wrote papers for three of O'Neill's Space Manufacturing conferences at Princeton. The 1975 paper, co-authored with his wife, was on the subject of "Closed Ecosystems of High Agricultural Yield." The 1977 and 1979 papers were co-authored with Eric Drexler, and patents were issued on both subjects — vapor phase fabrication and space radiators.
In 1980, Henson testified before the United States Congress when the L5 Society successfully opposed the Moon Treaty. The Society was represented by attorney Leigh Ratiner (who had been actively opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty). The experience became an article, "Star Laws," jointly written by Henson and Arel Lucas and published in Reason magazine in 1982.