Ever since Christopher Columbus made the rounds of potential royal backers, the exploration of new worlds has required as much persuasive salesmanship as it has intrepid navigation. Few men in that tradition have been as articulate as Professor Gerard K. O’Neill, a high-energy physicist who was a prominent advocate of human colonies in space.
Photo illustration by Henry Bacon
In both scientific and popular articles, in lectures and on television, and in his successful books The High Frontier and 2081, O’Neill argued that the unlimited energy and materials of space could make possible a new and attractive life for millions of people. In his view, the established practice of launching costly chemical rockets would be replaced as soon by permanent habitation and large-scale manufacturing in space. What’s more, while his predecessors advocated metal-walled, compartmentalized “space stations,” O’Neill envisioned colonies that resembled the earth, with soil, greenery, even blue sky, sunshine, and clouds.
The concept behind O’Neill’s space colonies — that there’s more potential energy in high orbit than on earth — was elegantly simple. His first contribution to science came in 1956, when, as a 29-year-old physics instructor at Princeton, he worked on a new proton accelerator, a machine that made accelerating protons collide, permitting physicists to study the quirks of subatomic particles. Until that time, it was felt that particles had to accelerate and collide within the same chamber, a prerequisite that resulted in all sorts of design difficulties and expense. O’Neill’s “simple” solution? To have subatomic particles accelerate in one machine and collide in another. Though his skeptical colleagues challenged his ideas, O’Neill went on to design a “storage ring” that could store accelerated particles awaiting collision. Today, most subatomic particle accelerators are based on O’Neill’s storage ring concept.
“Perhaps it was the experience of that previous transition from incredulity to acceptance,” O’Neill said, “that encouraged me to continue working on space communities, another ‘crazy’ idea that carried the same sort of logic. In both instances, the numbers came out right.”
O’Neill’s “numbers” convinced him, in 1969, to hold an exploratory seminar on space colonies for a few of his students. He waited five more years before finally finding a forum in print. But O’Neill does not regret the lag. “It gave people a chance to think about the possibilities,” he said, “and to make their own assessments. People would raise questions and I’d go off and think about them and find solutions, and that was very worthwhile. The ideas kept evolving all along, but there is nothing I regret or would like to retract.”
In 1974, following that small conference in Princeton, space colonization began to attract national attention and spent the years that followed working for his vision of the future. At home, he and his wife, Tasha, directed the nonprofit Space Studies Institute, dedicated to research on habitation and manufacturing in space. O’Neill also envisioned and worked Geostar, a then-visionary satellite system that would allow millions of people to communicate “from anywhere to anywhere with pagers no larger than a pocket calculator.” Just think of how that concept has been fulfilled today.
When O’Neill was not designing space colonies or raising money for Geostar, he relaxed by flying a light plane to lecture dates and Washington, D.C. The pace clearly agreed with him. When he discussed space colonization and industrialization with OMNI contributing editor Monte Davis in 1979, he was delivering a playbook for the future we dream of still.