Reaching for the High Frontier
The American Pro-Space Movement
by Michael A. G. Michaud
Copyright 1986 by Praeger Publishers and reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT. Read complete book here or buy from Amazon.
Chapter 4: The Big Idea
In the summer of 1970, a year after the first Moon landing, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a study of the implications of continued worldwide growth. Drawing on the interactive world economic models of economist Jay Forrester, they examined the interactions of five basic factors: (1) population increase, (2) agricultural production, (3) the depletion of nonrenewable resources, (4) industrial output, and (5) pollution. Feeding these into a global computer model, the team got results showing that the Earth cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long. Humans could live indefinitely on Earth only if they impose limits on themselves and their production of material goods, seeking a state of global equilibrium.
The results of this study were published in nontechnical form in 1972 as The Limits to Growth. This much-discussed book was a direct challenge to Western industrial and technological optimism, raising doubts about the continuing expansion of the capitalist system. The conclusions fit in with the cultural pessimism so widespread among Western intellectuals at the time, once described as "bleak chic." One of the authors, Dennis L. Meadows, reportedly said, "What we need is a Copernican revolution, and we don't have one."
The limits to growth thesis was given a mighty boost by the oil crisis of 1973-74, when many oil-producing states cut off exports to the United States and some other Western nations. At the United Nations General Assembly in the autumn of 1974, many less developed countries banded together to demand a New International Economic Order, involving a massive transfer of resources and technology from richer to poorer nations, a redistribution of the world's wealth.
Meanwhile, the environmental movement had been gaining strength. An Earth Day was organized in April 1970, and a United Nations Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in June 1972. Seeking an end to the abuse and pollution of our natural surroundings, the movement showed an antigrowth bias. It also demonstrated in its early days a considerable hostility to large-scale, bureaucratized technological efforts, particularly nuclear power.
An important challenge to an expansive view of the future came from the perception that the Earth is finite, with a thin, fragile biosphere. Ironically, this may have been triggered in part by images from spacecraft that showed a cloud-flecked blue and brown ball floating against the blackness of space.
Other events seemed to accelerate a loss of American confidence in the future. The war in Vietnam, which may have contributed to antitechnology attitudes, led to a final American withdrawal in 1975. The Watergate political crisis of 1973-74, which led to the resignation of President Nixon, brought government into disrepute, heightening suspicion of public policy at the federal level. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first cohorts of the post-World War II "baby boom" generation were entering their twenties. The emergence of this population bulge into political awareness seems to have had much to do with the climate of protest that characterized those times. Many young people challenged existing ways of doing things, were cynical about government, and looked for hidden agendas behind "establishment" policies. Related protest movements (such as women's liberation and minority causes and the anti-war movement) tended to see the space program as a white male-dominated, establishment project irrelevant to the social issues of the day and to the needs of ordinary people. The intellectual and political climate for major new ventures in space was poor.
Yet many people were looking for a more positive vision of the future, and some thought of space. "The realization that the Earth was not all we had available was stirring in many minds at that time," says H. Keith Henson, later to be the first president of the pro-space L-5 Society.
What was needed was a mobilizing idea. In his excellent 1978 book Spaceships of the Mind, British science writer Nigel Calder wrote that the prerequisite for a leap forward is the "Big Idea," which he defined as a concept that "captures the enthusiasm of people who will struggle against great difficulties to make it happen." By its nature, the spaceflight field tends to generate daring, sometimes sweeping concepts, but most of them never move the public. For example, proposals for a technologically fascinating orbiting "sky hook" or "space elevator" were circulating in the technical community in the 1960s and 1970s but generated little interest outside it.8 Something more appealing and relevant to the times was required.
In 1967, when the Moon race was still on, two bright, energetic scientists who were competing for selection into the astronaut corps found themselves roommates at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, where detailed medical tests were done. One was the sunny, curly-haired young Brian T. O'Leary, who had just received his doctorate in astronomy. The other was Gerard K. O'Neill, a slender, intense assistant professor of physics at Princeton University. O'Neill, a bright, hard-working experimental scientist who had invented a storage-ring technique for colliding particle beams, was then unknown outside his profession. Both men were highly motivated to go into space, and both were finalists in the competition.
Brian O'Leary was chosen for astronaut training. However, he had entered the astronaut corps at a time when the prospects for future manned spaceflights were dimming; his class became known as the "Excess Eleven." After a year, O'Leary left the program and later wrote a charming, if disillusioned, book called The Making of an Ex-Astronaut.  O'Leary's life since then has been an odyssey of personal experiences, often connected with the spaceflight dream. At different times he was a liberal critic of the Space Shuttle, then a supporter of space colonization, the teacher of a course called "Physics for Poets," an advocate of asteroid mining, and most recently a staff scientist with Science Applications, Incorporated, where he has worked on space station studies. O'Leary has authored two more books, suffused with technological optimism: The Fertile Stars and Project Space Station. As of late 1984, O'Leary was chairman of the National Space Council, a new effort to bring the pro-space community together.
Gerard O'Neill was not selected for the astronaut corps. Crushed, he went back to Princeton and pursued his interest in space another way. From his efforts sprang the single most interesting phenomenon of the new space movement, a "big idea" of potentially historic proportions.
In the fall of 1969, after the first Moon landing, O'Neill recalls that he was concerned that his students were growing cynical about the potential human benefits of science. "Everything scientific or technological was under suspicion," he says. O'Neill, who regarded technology as a tool, wanted to provide an ethical connection, showing that it could be used for good. The device he used was to turn physics into engineering solutions to the world's problems. Leading a group of selected students from his freshman physics seminar, he posed a question: "Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization?"
O'Neill led his students through calculations of how big a rotating pressure vessel in space could be, examining the basic shapes — the sphere, the cylinder, and the torus (doughnut). The answers that came back from the students looked intriguing because it appeared that human colonies in free space were technologically feasible. Calculations showed that a steel shell, rotating to provide Earth-normal gravity and loaded with soil and atmosphere, could be built in sizes as large as several miles in diameter — a miniature, inside-out planet. O'Neill himself put together a model of a cylindrical colony, showing how its surface might be divided into long panels, some of which would open to bring sunlight into the interior through huge windows.
This began the first five-year period of the O'Neill enterprise, during which he did most of his work alone, without outside support, in the best individualist American tradition. After the seminar ended in 1970, O'Neill continued his calculations in occasional spare hours on weekends or late at night. As the numbers continued to come out right, he became interested in communicating his work to others. There followed years of frustrating, unsuccessful attempts to publish an article in a reviewed journal on the concept, which was seen by most editors and reviewers as too "far out."
In 1972, O'Leary arranged for O'Neill to lecture at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. This was the first public presentation of O'Neill's ideas. O'Leary recalls that the lecture went over well. O'Leary, who describes himself as having a "left-wing patina" at the time, encouraged O'Neill to "take his ideas to the people." O'Neill began lecturing at colleges and universities at every opportunity.
O'Neill consulted with experts in other fields as he refined his ideas, sometimes sending them papers for comment. Perhaps the most prominent was the distinguished physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, who pointed out to O'Neill the earlier work of other thinkers in this field.
National Science Foundation policy analyst George Hazelrigg, then in the Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering Department at Princeton, recalls that O'Neill telephoned him in 1973 to say "I've got this idea about colonies," and to ask about the cost of putting payloads into space. The engineers invited O'Neill to give a seminar on the subject, where they raised problems he had not considered. Hazelrigg pointed out that the L-4 and L-5 gravitational libration points, 60 degrees ahead of and 60 degrees behind the Moon in its orbit around the Earth, would be stable locations for space colonies (Figure 4.1). This became part of the emerging O'Neill synthesis and inspired the name of an organization dedicated to propagating O'Neill's ideas: the L-5 Society.
In the early spring of 1974, O'Neill came up with the "Mass Driver," a linear accelerator that could be used either as a space propulsion system or as a means of throwing lunar material to high orbital manufacturing facilities. O'Neill says this was inspired by the work on magnetic levitation of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Henry Kolm and by an article in Scientific American on the same subject, although the idea had appeared much earlier.
By early 1974, a number of technical problems had been worked out in principle. With the support of the Point Foundation of San Francisco (associated with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog), O'Neill arranged for a conference at Princeton in May 1974 "to discuss the colonization of space as a serious possibility." The first day consisted of a closed session for invited guests only, including three NASA officials. O'Neill provided a detailed description of his plans, which included a linear accelerator on the Moon's surface to launch materials to be used in colony construction. He visualized a Model One colony of about 10,000 people, which he estimated could be built for $31 billion. That colony could build larger successors. "None of the technical tricks which are needed for this task is beyond 1970s technology," said O'Neill. "If these ideas are followed, people could be living and working in space within the next fifteen to twenty years, if they want to."
Topics discussed at that meeting were presented in lectures at an open meeting the next day. New York Times Science Editor Walter Sullivan, who covered the conference, wrote a front-page report in the May 13 edition entitled "Proposal for Human Colonies in Space is Hailed by Scientists as Feasible Now." An interview with O'Neill was published in Mercury, the magazine of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, in July/August 1974. The news began to spread. O'Neill later wrote that, while he had shunned publicity before, this experience taught him that publicity is a powerful force.
One of the first nonexperts to seize on O'Neill's ideas was Barbara Marx Hubbard, who called him after seeing the New York Times article. "The amorphous hunger of Eve," she wrote later, "suddenly found itself in the presence of a scientist providing a way to develop universal life that corresponded precisely with my intuitive sense of the future." Her Choiceful Futures group accepted O'Neill's concept that we can build new communities in space and provide inexpensive solar energy for them and for Earth. When O'Neill mentioned the need for a $1,000 research grant to his assistant K. Eric Drexler, she gave it immediately.
O'Neill's article "The Colonization of Space" finally appeared in Physics Today, the nonspecialized publication of the American Institute of Physics, in September 1974 (his letter on the same subject had appeared in the British science journal Nature in August). In this article, O'Neill challenged the orthodox view that the Earth is the only practical habitat for Man or that the planets are the only sites for extraterrestrial colonies, calling this the "planetary hangup." According to O'Neill, we can colonize space, move nearly all our industrial activity away from Earth's fragile biosphere within a century, and encourage self-sufficiency, small-scale governmental units, cultural diversity, and a high degree of independence. He also took on the limits to growth thesis, saying the ultimate size limit for the human race on the newly available frontier is at least 20,000 times its present value if we make use of asteroidal resources.
The idea of human colonies in space was not new. The pioneering Russian space thinker Konstantin Tsiolkowsky had written about space habitats early in this century, providing a fictional vision that would ring true to many space enthusiasts today:
Tsiolkowsky foresaw that our successors would someday occupy "this space, or ring," around the Earth, adding "we could even get much more space and solar light by forming a ring round the Sun with our new dwellings, outside the Earth's orbit." "Dwelling houses," he wrote, "will be built for millions of people." Clearly stating the utopian intent of space colonies, he listed as the final step in his 14-point plan: "Human society and its individual members become perfect."
In a book published in 1929, British scientist J. D. Bernal also envisioned inhabited spheres orbiting the Sun. The basic concept was well established in the space advocacy community by the 1950s, when J. N. Leonard wrote of it in his book Flight into Space:
In his 1954 novel Islands in the Sky, Arthur C. Clarke detailed many features of living in a large station in space, made primarily of materials launched electromagnetically from the Moon. In 1956, aerospace engineer Darryl Romick advanced a proposal for a giant space station that was, in effect, a space colony; Jerry Grey called this a clear precursor to O'Neill's space settlements. By 1963, Dandridge M. Cole had described habitats in hollowed-out asteroids and in metal-skinned colonies made from them, and had outlined the concept he called "macrolife." Cole's vision of a cylindrical space colony is quite similar to O'Neill's early designs, and space writer James E. Oberg still calls space colonization "the Tsiolkowsky-Cole-O'Neill concept." Krafft A. Ehricke proposed mobile colonies he called "androcells," and a Lockheed Corporation design for a "space city" had appeared in the early 1970s.
What O'Neill did, apparently without realizing that similar proposals had been made before, was to revive the idea of space colonies in more sophisticated form, with many of the numbers worked out. He brought the idea forward in time by showing that space colonies could be built with familiar materials and techniques (Tsiolkowsky had predicted the date of the first flight into space as 2017.) He avoided the problem of lifting the entire mass of material from the Earth into orbit by proposing that most come from the Moon, which is much more accessible in gravitational and energy terms for colonies in high orbit. Unlike earlier visionaries, O'Neill got involved with the technology and spelled out a step-by-step approach to building the colonies. As he developed his ideas further, he put together a grand synthesis of several ideas, proposing a complete system rather than a single large technological project.
O'Neill also linked space colonization to solutions to problems that preoccupied many people in the mid-1970s: raising global living standards, protecting the biosphere, finding high-quality living space for a growing population, developing clean, practical energy sources, and preventing overload of the Earth's heat balance. He even suggested that space colonization could help prevent territorial wars. Here was the idealistic vision of new worlds for humanity, made far more credible and relevant. Here, too, was a breakout from the limits to growth.
O'Neill's Physics Today article may have been one of the most photocopied science articles in history. Keith Henson recalls making at least 500 copies himself. Word of the concept, which Henson describes as a perfect example of a "self-replicating idea," spread rapidly among those interested in space and in the use of technology to solve global problems. O'Neill found himself flooded with correspondence. In January 1975, he began sending out informal newsletters to people on his growing mailing list. As late as 1977, he was typing these himself.
In late 1974, O'Neill began briefing government officials in Washington, including people working on NASA's Outlook for Space study. NASA planner Jesco von Puttkamer recalls that "O'Neill's ideas were just what I was looking for." O'Neill persuaded Captain Robert Freitag, then in charge of NASA's advanced programs, to provide the first small grant of government funds ($25,000 for six months) to enable him to elaborate his ideas. According to O'Neill, he got backing from senior NASA officials James Fletcher, John Yardley, and Hans Mark. This initiated the second five-year phase of the O'Neill enterprise, during which he received government support for his research.
O'Neill had consciously related his proposals to the concerns of the time, and a major American concern in 1975 was energy. In 1968, engineer Peter Glaser had suggested that a large collector in orbit could gather solar energy uninterrupted by night or weather and beam it to the Earth. O'Neill believes that he first heard about this idea when Glaser briefed the Outlook for Space group, although von Puttkamer believes he planted the idea by suggesting to O'Neill that the space colonists build something other than colonies from lunar resources, such as satellite solar power stations.
O'Neill used the idea to make his synthesis even grander. In a lead article in Science magazine, published in December 1975, he linked space colonization to a solution to the energy problem, arguing that manufacturing facilities in high Earth orbit could build satellite solar power stations from lunar materials. Once again, he presented numbers that made the concept look credible to many readers. Brian O'Leary recalls that it was the linkage of space colonization to satellite solar power stations that won him over to O'Neill's cause; he took a position on the research faculty at Princeton in 1975 to help O'Neill, replacing student Eric Hannah.
One of those who had heard of O'Neill's ideas was Konrad Dannenberg, another member of the German rocket team that came to the United States in 1945. "O'Neill's ideas came in a dry zone, when nothing was happening," says Dannenberg, who has retired from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "As a space enthusiast," he adds, "I was anxious that something get started." Dannenberg, who arranged for O'Neill to come to Huntsville to speak to a combined meeting of the local AIAA chapter and the World Future Society, recalls that most NASA officials at the Marshall Space Flight Center kept O'Neill at arm's length.
One of those who did meet O'Neill in Huntsville was Gerald W. Driggers, who was later to become president of the citizens organization inspired by O'Neill's ideas (he also was co-manager of the Space Applications Incorporated space industrialization study). Driggers found O'Neill naive about the way government and the aerospace industry worked and feared a conflict between the visionary O'Neill and more conservative professionals in the aerospace business. Space industrialization, he believed, was a way to bridge the gap.
In May 1975, O'Neill hosted the second Princeton Conference on Space Manufacturing Facilities (Space Colonization), the first to be attended by large numbers of interested outsiders. Gerald Driggers, who gave a paper on the "Construction Shack" that would house people building the first colony, recalls that the atmosphere was one of enthusiasm and camaraderie. Richard Hoagland, of the Statendam voyage, was active as a master of ceremonies.
In July 1975, O'Neill was invited to testify before the Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications of the House Committee on Science and Technology, which then was holding hearings on future space programs. This was arranged largely through the efforts of committee staffer Darrell Branscome. O'Neill first testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Aerospace Technology and National Needs in January 1976. Both occasions provided rallying points for his small but growing band of citizen enthusiasts. Meanwhile, T. Stephen Cheston, then an associate dean of Georgetown University's Graduate School, arranged for O'Neill to meet with White House and other senior administration officials.
From June to August 1975, a group of scientists, engineers, sociologists, and economists met at NASA's Ames Research Center in California for a summer study of O'Neill's concept. Their report, issued in August, did not find any insurmountable problems that would prevent humans from living in space, although the practical engineering and social problems were seen to be quite difficult. Noting the large estimated price tag of $100 billion, the study commented, "In contrast to Apollo, it appears that space colonization may be a paying proposition." Significantly, the authors also said, "Space colonization appears to offer a way out from the sense of closure and of limits which is now oppressive to many people on Earth." The group recommended that the United States, possibly in cooperation with other nations, take specific steps toward the goal of space colonization. The report's concluding words suggest the idealism attached to the concept:
The possibility of cooperation among nations, in an enterprise which can yield new wealth for all rather than a conflict over the remaining resources of the Earth, may be far more important in the long run than the immediate return of energy to the Earth. So, too, may be the sense of hope and of new options and opportunities which space colonization can bring to a world which has lost its frontiers.
O'Neill called a press conference to attract attention to the report, generating further press stories. To O'Neill's annoyance, NASA was slow to publish the complete results of this and other summer studies.
Despite this, O'Neill's ideas received generous publicity in the media during 1975 and 1976. Former NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine wrote a supporting column in Newsweek in August 1975. O'Neill's concepts also were described in the National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, and Harpers (in an article attractively entitled "The Garden of Feasibility"). In February 1976, Smithsonian magazine carried an article entitled "Colonies in Space Might Turn Out to be Nice Places to Live." O'Neill also began appearing on television talk shows, while continuing to lecture. Meanwhile, O'Neill's ideas received a huge, if subtle, boost from the widely reproduced paintings of Don Davis, who visualized the interiors of space colonies to be attractive places with many of the qualities of familiar Earthly environments. One painting even depicted a suspension bridge across a body of water, reminding the viewer of San Francisco Bay. "Suburbia was utopia to people coming home from World War Two," observes G. Harry Stein. "Space colonies were the new utopia."
Another NASA-sponsored summer study took place at Ames Research Center in 1976. Meanwhile, O'Neill and a small number of helpers were working on the actual technology needed to open the High Frontier. During the first half of 1977, a volunteer group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Henry Kolm and O'Neill (who was there for a sabbatical year) put together the first working model of a mass driver. Brian O'Leary focused his research on the mining of asteroids and published an important paper in Science in July 1977. O'Neill and others, particularly Harvard economics student Mark M. Hopkins, also were developing economic arguments for what came to be called "high orbital manufacturing."
In January 1977 O'Neill published his book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, which provided a popularized version of his ideas. Describing what day-to-day life would be like in a colony, O'Neill said that by the year 2150 more people may be living in space than on the Earth. Reprinted several times, the book has been translated into eight languages. The High Frontier concluded with this paragraph:
In May 1977, O'Neill hosted the third Princeton conference on space manufacturing, cosponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and NASA. This has become a biennial event, with conferences held in 1979, 1981, and 1983. Although many of the papers presented are technical, listeners are reminded of deeper motivations. At the 1981 conference, Henry Kolm reportedly said, "The survival of life depends on the success of this movement." Professor James Arnold of the University of California at San Diego, an advocate of asteroid mining, reportedly agreed, saying, "Humanity is taking its final exam, on survival."
With the help of Stephen Cheston and Brian O'Leary, O'Neill organized an advisory panel on large space structures to the Universities Space Research Association, a consortium of 52 universities, as part of his continuing effort to improve his concept's standing among his fellow scientists. He also continued his efforts to persuade NASA that space industrialization based on extraterrestrial resources deserved serious consideration.
In the summer of 1977, a third summer study was held at Ames. Brian O'Leary believes that this was the high point of the O'Neill enterprise, producing the most definitive and mature version of the concept. After that, O'Neill began to move away from colony design because he had concluded that "we knew how to make space colonies. The next problem was to find out how to get from here to there."
One of the most striking things about the High Frontier concept is that it excited many people who had not been space enthusiasts and who had no connection with NASA, the aerospace industry, or space science. Many saw it as a breakout from the limits to growth and accepted the idea that space was an essential part of an optimistic scenario for the future. Even the distinguished foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs carried an article by Louis J. Halle entitled "A Hopeful Future for Mankind," half of which was about O'Neill's vision. O'Neill's synthesis suggested that the imaginative use of technology could provide solutions to a host of interlocking problems, including energy shortages and the protection of the environment.
Many of those in the environmental movement of that time were unsympathetic to the space program, but O'Neill turned some into supporters of the new vision. Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog and editor of Coevolution Quarterly, took up the O'Neill cause in print in the fall of 1975 with an editorial entitled "Apocalypse Juggernaut, goodbye?" and later produced a book on space colonies. Brand says O'Neill's appeal lay in the prospect of alternative societies and of breaking the limits to growth. "It was the first new ball game since the American continent filled up," he adds. Brand himself became a supporter of space colonization because it offered a constructive alternative to the use of high technology for war, a reminder of the older "moral equivalent to war"argument.
Thomas A. Heppenheimer, one of FASST's "Michigan Mafia," believes that the appeal of O'Neill was that we could have livable, attractive colonies in space within our time. There was a sense of feasibility because O'Neill had worked out the engineering figures. And the idea had a hopeful potential for the world.
Another striking aspect of the response to O'Neill's ideas is that they attracted interest and support from a broad range of professions and academic disciplines. His ideas were inherently interdisciplinary and not the exclusive province of space scientists and engineers; his concept gave more people an opportunity to identify with, and contribute to, the space enterprise. Unlike most spaceflight ideas, colonization drew some support from social scientists. Stewart Brand notes that anthropologist Margaret Mead was attracted to the idea because of her concern about the "monoculturization" of Earth; the colonies would be islands that would be less like other islands. Brian O'Leary believes that some anthropologists saw in the colonies opportunities for social experiments. Magoroh Maruyama, an anthropologist then with Portland State University, published papers describing the opportunities for social diversity and tolerant participatory societies that such colonies would provide.
Early converts helped the cause with their own written works. In October 1975, scientist J. Peter Vajk, then with the Livermore National Laboratory and later active with the L-5 Society published a computerized economic analysis entitled "The Impact of Space Colonization on World Dynamics," which included the idea of the solar power satellite. In 1978 he turned this into a book entitled Doomsday Has Been Cancelled, arguing that O'Neill's concept was a breakout from the limits to growth.
The appeal clearly included a utopian element. Earlier examples, such as steam power, electricity, and atomic energy had suggested that a new technology can imply utopia to some of its advocates. However, O'Neill is quick to point out that what he advocates is the opposite of a utopia in the sense that it does not tell people how they should live.
O'Neill also provoked opposition. Many argued against space colonization on the basis of cost, and the economic analyses done by O'Neill's team were seen by most outside observers as optimistic. There were doubts among technical people. There also was an ideological, sometimes emotional quality to some of the criticism, as if people found the idea of space colonization offensive. Lewis Mumford was quoted as saying that "I regard space colonies as another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race. Such proposals are only technological disguises for infantile fantasies." There also was the argument that humans should not take their evil ways into the heavens. In a 1977 article in the The Futurist entitled "Space Colonization: An Invitation to Disaster?" physicist Paul L. Csonka argued that space communities would be undemocratic and would fight each other; without effective control from Earth, "most colonies could easily turn into space variants of the prison island concept." Csonka, who believed global government must come first, called for a moratorium on large-scale space colonization.
The old elitist argument used against the Apollo program resurfaced. Newsweek reported in November 1978 that "To diehard Earthlings O'Neill's space colonies remain hopelessly utopian and even dangerous," and described author-philosopher William Irwin Thompson as fearing that space colonization might bring about an elitist world government of scientists and bureaucrats. An even more drastic version of this argument was implied by the James Bond film Moonraker.
Despite his critics, O'Neill had succeeded brilliantly in developing and publicizing an exciting new idea. Where he failed was in his encounter with the unfamiliar world of Washington policymaking and congressional politics.
O'Neill's troubles began after the arrival of the Carter administration in January 1977 (ironically, one day before O'Neill's book came out). Space clearly was low on the new administration's list of priorities, and the political climate for a major new space enterprise was poor. NASA was placed under further constraints in planning for advanced missions, and funding cutbacks led to reductions in NASA's financial support for O'Neill's research. "After 1977," says Brian O'Leary, "the bottom began to fall out."
O'Neill and trusted supporters like O'Leary and Cheston were continuing the long, tiresome job of calling on people in the administration and the Congress that is the essence of lobbying. Cheston recalls that O'Neill had a long meeting with Presidential Science Adviser Frank Press in January 1978 in which Press asked "quality questions."
O'Neill's relationship with NASA had not always been an easy one. Impatient with bureaucracy, he sometimes irritated NASA officials. Stewart Nozette, the young executive director of the California Space Institute, argues that O'Neill did not "work the system" to get a major program going; he did not find a way to make it happen within the existing infrastructure. "You can't do it just because it is scientifically provable," observes Nozette. O'Neill was dealing with a gunshy NASA, which had been the target of many critics, which was having trouble with the Space Shuttle, and which had uncertain backing from the White House. An added blow was an attack by Senator William Proxmire in 1977 after the "60 Minutes" television program did a report on O'Neill and his followers. Proxmire said of O'Neill's ideas: "Not one cent for this nutty fantasy." According to Thomas Heppenheimer, this hurt O'Neill's prospects for getting more NASA funding.
The next major blow from the administration came when the White House released a fact sheet on U.S. civil space policy in October 1978. That document stated, "It is neither feasible nor necessary at this time to commit the United States to a high-challenge space engineering initiative comparable to Apollo." In his newsletter, O'Neill called this "myopic." O'Leary, who recalls making frequent trips to Washington in O'Neill's private plane, describes him as being very frustrated at this point.
O'Neill and his allies sought action through the legislative branch. In October 1977, Barbara Marx Hubbard's Committee for the Future organized a seminar on the High Frontier on Capitol Hill. Representatives Olin Teague, Edward Pattison, and Barbara Mikulski invited their colleagues to attend. This event provided another rallying point for the loose but growing constituency for O'Neill's ideas among young people. Young space activist Harrell Graham reported later that the Committee for the Future had called space-sympathetic people around the country, asking them to urge their local congressman's office to see that a Washington staffer was sent to the seminar. "This last minute, quite unorganized and spontaneous long distance phone campaign," he wrote later, "resulted in not only increased congressional staffer attendance at the seminar but laid down the beginnings of a network of people and organizations around the country who can be relied upon in the future."
Two months later, Teague introduced a pro-High Frontier resolution (H.R. 451), which included the following:
In a circular letter Barbara Hubbard wrote, "the resolution represents a first effort of citizens to take leadership in calling for long-range decisions on space." A companion pro-High Frontier resolution (H.R. 447) was introduced by Barbara Mikulski, Lindy Boggs, and David Stockman, who later was to be budget director for the Reagan administration. An ad hoc committee to support the two House resolutions was formed by Brian Duff, who had been NASA press spokesman until 1971, and Carol Rosin, who later became an outer space arms control activist.
Teague held hearings on future space programs, including discussion of his own resolution, in January 1978. O'Neill and Hubbard were invited to testify, along with former astronaut Neil Armstrong, engineer and third industrial revolution advocate G. Harry Stine, scientistentrepreneur-science fiction writer Charles Sheffield, Presidential Science Adviser Frank Press, and NASA Administrator Robert Frosch. However, Teague's resolution never left the committee. Meanwhile, Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey (where Princeton is located) introduced legislation that would have funded a National Science Foundation study of High Frontier concepts. Although the bill passed the authorization committees, the appropriations committees declined to provide the funds.
More general space policy bills were introduced at the next session, but none passed. In 1979, Don Fuqua sponsored a "Space Industrialization Act," which would have created a public corporation to finance promising space industrialization projects, and held hearings in May and June, but that bill died, too. In the Senate, Adlai Stevenson III introduced a space policy act in 1978, apparently in reaction to the Carter administration's space policy document, and reintroduced it in the following year. Senator (and ex-astronaut) Harrison Schmitt introduced his own space policy act in 1979 and 1982, advocating a series of steps toward an "orbital civilization." Both senators included references to space industrialization; Schmitt's bill, the bolder (and politically less realistic) of the two, included High Frontier concepts. Congressman George E. Brown of California introduced a similar space policy bill in the House. None of these bills got out of committee.
Meanwhile, the focus for the hopes of the High Frontier advocates had become the satellite solar power station (SSPS), which provided the concept with an economic rationale. Peter Glaser had testified on the concept in 1973. After the oil shortages of 1973-74 had spurred interest in alternative energy systems, the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) established a Task Force on Satellite Power Stations in 1976. NASA, which wanted to get into the energy field, negotiated an arrangement for a joint study with the Department of Energy (the successor to ERDA), which ran from 1977 to 1980. NASA conducted the systems definition of the SSPS, while the Department of Energy worked on the environmental, health, and safety factors, as well as economic, international, and institutional issues. O'Neill briefed the study group, arguing for the use of nonterrestrial materials for building these satellites.
In 1978, Peter Glaser and his allies formed their own pro-SSPS organization called the Sunsat Energy Council to push the idea, using this vehicle to attract attention to the SSPS concept on Sun Day, May 3, 1978. Sunsat had an informal alliance with O'Neill and his colleagues, who saw the SSPS as the way to get space colonization. Other players included people at the Marshall and Johnson Space Flight Centers and at the Boeing and Rockwell International Corporations. One of the Boeing engineers involved in this effort was Gordon Woodcock, who became president of the pro-O'Neill L-5 Society in 1984.
The SSPS study, which included inputs from a variety of experts all over the United States, enabled a number of young space enthusiasts to get involved in this public policy issue. The study concluded that there was no major scientific or technological barrier to building the system, although it would be expensive. However, people who favored decentralized solar power sharply criticized SSPS, which they saw as another centralized, bureaucratic system. Some critics saw SSPS as a major aerospace project masquerading as an energy option. Others used environmental arguments, claiming that the microwave beam from the SSPS would disturb the ionosphere and be dangerous to life. Washington lawyer-lobbyist Leigh Ratiner, who later worked closely with the L-5 Society, recalls that the satellites were called "bird-fryers" on Capitol Hill. Some opponents even claimed that these large objects would interfere with astronomy.
There were even more powerful forces in opposition. According to George Hazelrigg, who did extensive analyses of SSPS, it ran into the combined power of the fusion energy lobby in the Department of Energy and the major energy companies, which did not want it.
In 1978, Representative Ronnie Flippo of Alabama (his district included the Marshall Space Flight Center) introduced a Solar Power Satellite Research Development and Demonstration Act, which would have provided $25 million for further SSPS studies. The Flippo bill passed the House but was killed in the Senate, largely through the efforts of a single professional lobbyist acting in partnership with one Senate staff member and a retiring senator.
The crisis came in January 1980, when the Carter administration "zeroed" SSPS in its new budget. Supporters of SSPS and other High Frontier ideas launched a desperation campaign in Congress to get funding restored. Flippo got $5.5 million authorized, but this was killed by the House Appropriations Committee.
The SSPS campaign effectively died in the summer of 1980, when the Department of Energy study was completed. That study concluded that the SSPS had the potential to serve as a future (post-2000) electrical power option but that the present portfolio of electrical power options appeared adequate. The National Academy of Sciences published its own study of the SSPS in 1981, concluding that the concept of an SSPS is presently faced with sufficiently serious difficulties that no funds should be committed during the next decade to pursue development of the system. The Congressional Office of Technology Assessment also published a study that year, concluding that too little is currently known about the technical, economic, and environmental aspects of SSPS to make a sound decision on whether or not to proceed with its development and deployment.
The solar power satellite was a fine example of space advocates seizing the theme of the time, in this case energy. But it was premature and did not have enough friends. Frederick Koumanoff, who directed the Department of Energy effort, states that "the bottom line on the SSPS was that there was and still is a need for significant improvement in some basic technologies before an SSPS concept could be fully considered and the economics of it be determined with some precision." The legislative effort in support of it was fragmented and uncoordinated.
The space revolutionaries had pushed too far, too soon. With the SSPS died any early realization of O'Neill's dream with government funding. "O'Neill hung himself on the SSPS," says Hazelrigg.  "SSPS queered the deal," agrees Ratiner. The attempt to legislate the High Frontier had failed and was not revived seriously again. Todd Hawley, a young space activist who later led the student pro-space organization Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, calls it "the death of utopia."
During the mid-1970s, O'Neill was doing his research on a shoestring. His first research assistant, Eric Drexler, was funded in large part by a grant from Barbara Marx Hubbard. O'Neill's wife Tasha offered to provide room and board for young researchers at the O'Neill home and to allow experiments in the basement. O'Neill also faced uncertainty in funding from NASA, which was vulnerable to budget cuts and political criticism.
Seeing a need for independent, private financing for his research, O'Neill, in 1977, founded the Space Studies Institute (SSI) in Princeton, with himself as its unpaid president and Tasha as its unpaid secretary-treasurer. The SSI provides a mechanism through which donors can fund what O'Neill calls "critical-path" research. Early major contributors included William O'Boyle and David Hannah, who later was to found the private launch vehicle company Space Services Incorporated. By the summer of 1978, O'Neill had formed a Senior Advisory Board for the institute, which included physical scientists Freeman Dyson and Hannes Alfven, anthropologist Carleton Coon, designer Buckminster Fuller, former NASA administrators Thomas Paine and James Fletcher, Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space Peter Jankowitsch, and old allies Barbara Marx Hubbard and Stephen Cheston. This began the third phase of the O'Neill enterprise.
Starting with a mailing list of several thousand, O'Neill quickly attracted support; there were over 1,000 paying subscribers by 1979 and about 10,000 by the end of 1983. In addition to regular members, who contribute $15 a year, the SSI by 1984 had nearly a thousand senior associates who had pledged $100 a year for five years, despite the fact that few of them will realize any tangible benefit from their contributions. The SSI has a small but highly computerized office with a lively and dedicated staff and plenty of enthusiastic young volunteers (for example, members of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space have stuffed envelopes for mailings of the institute's newsletter). SSI also has local support teams, which are like small chapters of the organization.
The SSI's research has been concentrated on the development of a mass-driver and on techniques for processing lunar and asteroidal materials, with some work on the mathematical and telescopic search for asteroidal materials near the Earth. In 1984, the SSI awarded a grant for the design of a satellite solar power station.
O'Neill's decision to set up the SSI proved to be a wise one. As of September 30, 1979, all NASA support of private space manufacturing research, initiated in 1975, was ended. This was the main factor leading to the departure of Brian O'Leary, who had worked on High Frontier research since 1975.
Writing in the spring of 1984, O'Neill said SSI's current research program was designed to do the following:
Meanwhile, Stephen Cheston, desiring to get more social scientists involved with the space enterprise and to defuse potential criticism, formed a Space Utilization Team at Georgetown University in the spring of 1978 and got a NASA grant to study social science interest in space development. Cheston was assisted by Charles Chafer, who later became the Washington representative of the private launch vehicle company Space Services Incorporated, and by Chafer's wife Sallie. Together, the three formed the Institute for the Social Science Study of Space, affiliated with the Universities Space Research Association, to develop "an objective, scholarly community of researchers and analysts concerned with the systematic investigation of the human factors involved in the exploration, industrialization, and utilization of outer space." In May 1979, the ISSSS put out volume 1 of the Space Humanization Series, containing papers on several space-related subjects (the editors were Cheston and space activist David C. Webb, and the managing editor was the National Space Institute's Courtney Stadd). Volume 2 had not been published as of 1985. The institute also began putting out a newsletter called Space and Society in the spring of 1980. This effort eventually led to a NASA publication entitled Social Sciences and Space Exploration to aid college faculty in teaching space subjects in social science and humanities courses (several colleges and universities have given courses on space industrialization and colonization). However, Cheston discontinued the ISSSS in 1984 because both he and the Chafers had become involved in commercial space activity.
Although he has focused the SSI on "critical path research," O'Neill realizes that a modestly funded SSI will not bring his vision to early realization. In his April 1979 newsletter, O'Neill announced his decision that any potentially lucrative patents of his own would be registered in the name of the SSI and that all income from such patents would go to the SSI. This set the stage for O'Neill's newest venture.
An active private pilot, O'Neill was disturbed by inadequate navigational and positioning systems for aircraft, particularly after a 1978 mid-air collision between a private plane and an airliner over San Diego that killed 150 people. Later that year O'Neill began developing ideas for a satellite positioning system, later adding to it a digital communications system. An article on the subject in AOPA Pilot in July 1982 was well received; O'Neill obtained patents in November and set up the GEOSTAR corporation in February 1983. By the end of 1983, successful ground proof tests of the system had been conducted. GEOSTAR hoped to launch its first satellite in 1987.
O'Neill structured the new company so that the SSI is a major, although nonvoting, shareholder. When GEOSTAR begins generating revenues (perhaps in the late 1980s) a significant portion will go to SSI. If GEOSTAR proves to be a commercial success, SSI could find itself generously funded for the first time. "GEOSTAR money," says Stephen Cheston, now a vice-president of the firm, "could be critical in moving up the whole High Frontier idea by one to three decades." But the SSI must hold on until the 1990s.
Has O'Neill made a difference? At the very minimum, he revised and broadened the classic agenda for spaceflight, opening up for public discussion potential new options for human activity in space. His was the first widely known proposal for an economic return from a massive investment in space since the communications satellite. He took a giant step toward making space industrialization and the use of extraterrestrial resources appealing to people outside as well as inside the aerospace community. O'Neill's colonies and the satellite solar power stations they were to build may have been an overreach at the time, but they stretched the limits of the conceivable. They changed the intellectual culture for space, making it possible for such ideas to appear regularly in mainstream space literature.
O'Neill also changed the rationale for sending humans into space, from exploration and adventure to economically useful permanent residence. In tune with the ethos of the emerging new pro-space movement, part of which he inspired, he democratized the idea of spaceflight, making it an aspiration for the many rather than for a select few. Irwin Pikus of the National Science Foundation, who addresses space law issues at the Princeton conferences, believes that O'Neill's tireless campaigning for humans in space also helped revive the permanently manned space station, which became U.S. national policy in 1984.
O'Neill showed that a dedicated individual can have an impact even in a field as bureaucratized as space. But the pursuit of this dream has been personally demanding. O'Neill sometimes seems a driven man, seeking the realization of the High Frontier within his lifetime. Absorbed with GEOSTAR, O'Neill in 1984 could not even give much time to his first love, the SSI. He has even less time for people in the pro-space movement, many of whom see him as remote and reclusive. He has clashed with other bright people such as Heppenheimer and Hazelrigg and has been accused of being less than generous in giving others full credit for their ideas.
O'Neill personally experienced what was to be the full cycle of the new pro-space movement. First, enthusiasm about the big idea and a desire to communicate it with others. Second, the encounter with the realities of government and politics, leading to frustration. Third, the scaling down of near-term goals and their pursuit by indirect or private means. However, O'Neill has not surrendered his dream. In his 1981 book 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future, O'Neill wrote that "the fundamental transformation that space colonies will bring about is from an economics of scarcity — the zero-sum game that we are forced to play on Earth — to an economics of abundance.... By 2081 there may be more Americans in space colonies than are in the United States."
G. Harry Stine believes that O'Neill stepped into the vacuum Wernher von Braun's departure left. If von Braun was a leader of the first spaceflight revolution, O'Neill deserves credit for at least outlining and trying to launch the second: space industrialization and permanent human residence beyond the Earth. Pikus believes that O'Neill "has had real influence, creating a new option after the limits to growth."  Space activist Courtney Stadd (formerly with the National Space Institute and later the Washington representative of the private launch vehicle company Starstruck) says, "O'Neill may die embittered, but he provided a conceptual revolution, a paradigm shift." This may turn out to have been the Copernican revolution Dennis Meadows reportedly said we did not have. Concludes Stephen Cheston, a trained historian, "1975 was a turning point in U.S. cultural history. The idea will continue to wedge out."