Category Archives: Gerard O’Neill

Gerard O’Neill "The High Frontier"

“I don’t believe that when creative new enterprises begin to do surface operations on the moon, that they’re going to looking for ways to employ people. They’re going to be looking for ways wherever possible of doing it through, ah, observing with television and controlling with radio. With the operators sitting here, on the surface of the Earth. That’s the inexpensive way of starting out any industrial operation – whether it’s in nearby space, or whether its on the surface of the moon.”

(Keep in mind O’Neill was unaware of the abundance of near-Earth asteroids from which we can more easily obtain water-ice than on the moon; all lunar activities will only be telerobotic…it is also much less expensive and safer to test Martian equipment in chilled vacuum chambers on the Earth.)

"Remembering the Future" Key Takeaways from Gerard K. O’Neill’s ‘The High Frontier’

“By the time construction of Island Two begins […] we may be exploiting the vast reserves of the asteroids, and not long afterward, if the economics is favorable, we may shut down the lunar mines, and leave the facilities there as ghost towns.”
Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier, page 198
Where does the idea of returning to the moon come from?
Decades old analysis unaware of 9,000+ Near Earth Asteroids, 1,500 of which are closer than the moon (and to an extent unforeseen advances in telerobotics, digital communication, and the health effects of reduced gravity). It may be instructive to read excerpts from the most influential text promoting commercial development of lunar resources, The High Frontier, written half a century ago by Gerard O’Neill (late founder of easily the most noble, proactive, genuinely intellectual space-advocacy group by far: The Space Studies Institute, still in operation). O’Neill thought the closest asteroids were in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter “1,000 times further than the moon” (p. 317). We also still – amazingly – have no evidence whatsoever of the health effects of reduced gravity between zero and 1g. Not one mouse. It may turn out that one-third Earth’s gravity is beneficial. We simply do not know.

The statement “Cowards Return to the Moon” specifically addresses Moon First advocates of ‘LunaMars’ programs, in which Martian settlement would be “practiced” on the Moon. However, there will always be reasons to explore the Moon tele-robotically from Earth. Whether or not lunar resources are of value depends upon current unknowns, such as: the composition of Near Earth Asteroids, launch costs, advancements in tele-robotics, and evolving business opportunities. These factors are constantly in flux.

For confirmation of the decline in our civilization’s spiritual visionary core read The High Frontier. It is a gorgeous work of imagination, a singular exercise in heartfelt optimism. The infinite resources and inexhaustible energies of space are proposed as real-world pragmatic solutions to the most pressing, systemic, foundational challenges facing humanity. Unfortunately it was written prior to the discovery of significant numbers of near Earth asteroids:

“During the time period about which I am now speculating. I am assuming that it will not yet be practical to obtain carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen from the asteroids.” (p. 216)

“As has happened so often when we’ve studied in depth possibilities that seemed promising as aids to space manufacturing, the asteroids may be even better sources of materials than I’ve suggested so far. Though most of the minor planets are in the main belt, Dr. Brian O’Leary pointed out that a special class, named after the asteroids Apollo and Amor, have orbits much closer to the Earth’s.” (p. 231)

“With the help of the gravity-assist technique, already well-proven in spaceprobe missions to the outer planets, it seems that some of the asteroids may be much more accessible than those of the main belt, and from an economic viewpoint may even give the Moon a run for its money. There’s plenty of material available; even the smallest asteroid we can see in our telescopes has a mass of more than a million tons.” (p. 231)

“The material resources of nearby space, once thought to be confined to our Moon, have now been shown to include Earth-approaching asteroids undiscovered until the last decade.” (Appendix 2, p. 314)

“Other than the external tanks, the nearest source of materials is the Moon, and the next nearest, typically 1,000 times as far away, is the Earth-approaching asteroids. Lunar and asteroidal materials have great value not because they are different from elements found on Earth, but because of their energy height.” (Appendix 2, p. 317)

Moon Never?
Fortunately Gerard O’Neill was not wedded to any one single location from which to obtain material for freespace communities. His comments regarding the limited value of lunar resources are instructive:

“We are already talking about shifting the mining base from the Moon to the asteroids, where we’ll have a complete range of elements including carbon, nitrogen, and hydrogen. […] With the known unused materials out there, we could build space communities with a total land area 3,000 times that of Earth.” (p. 8)

In the “long” run, within one or two decades after the human use of space begins, we will begin to exploit the resources of the asteroid belt.” (p. 59)

“Tsiolkowsky postulates an Earth on which a growing population is beginning to feel the ecological limits. His travelers visit the Moon only incidentally; they realize from the start that the place for settlement is well away from any planetary surface.” (p. 61)

“Any objects which the Moon could build would then have to be lifted off by rocket power. That would limit them to comparatively small sizes; in contrast, the L5 communities could build objects of mass up to tens of thousands of tons, could assemble and test them in their final form, and could then move them to any free-space location where they would be used.” (p. 138)

“Gravity on the Moon is a problem for several reasons. It cannot be turned off, so all the possibilities of containerless processing, the building of large fragile structure, high-purity zone melting, and the other attractions of zero-gravity are forever denied to lunar industry.” (p. 138)

“The Moon seems, therefore, likely to remain an “outpost in space,” similar in some respects to Antarctic scientific colonies.” (p. 139)

“I expect that among the eight or ten people of the mining and transporter-servicing outpost-community on the Moon, at any given time there may well be several geologists and other scientists in long-term residence.” (p. 169)

“If we were using asteroidal materials, we could be sure of having in quantity all the elements we have on the Earth. The Moon, though, is poor in hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, and some heavy metals.” (p. 183; written prior to discovery lunar polar hydrogen/water ice)

“…considered it highly probably that permanently shadowed areas on the Moon contain large deposits of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen in the form of ice and other compounds.” (p. 307)

“It became clear that the earliest productive facilities in orbit and on the Moon should be compact, and modular in form for easy replication. They should be built and tested on Earth, and then emplaced by unmanned rockets. Once in place, those facilities should be operated remotely by people at control consoles on the Earth, because astronaut/cosmonaut working time in space is very expensive.” (Appendix 2, p. 318)

The High Frontier is a rare display of proactive academic initiative, an exemplary heartfelt human achievement:

“It may be quite possible to bring rare species of birds and animals from Earth to the nonagricultural areas, and to have them survive and flourish. Every step toward the settlement of space will benefit conservation programs in another way: by relieving Earth of industry and of its burden of population, so that the species of animals, birds and fish now in danger on Earth will have a better chance of survival here.” (p. 81)

“With energy free to all, materials available in great abundance, and mobility throughout the solar system available to an individual community, it should be more difficult in space than it is on Earth for an unsuccessful government to argue that its failure is due to unavoidable circumstances of location or resources.” (p. 235)

“Those of us who might have been tempted, during the decade of the 1950s, to feel concern and even sorrow because of the narrowed horizons permitted to the children of such groups surely felt quite differently during the 1960s, seeing an epidemic of drugs and a lack of purpose spread throughout a generation in the world outside. It may even be that among the existing Utopian groups there are some free anti-technological taboos, which will find it easier to retain identity by resettlement in space than to retain identity by resettlement in space than to remain on Earth.” (p. 236)

“A nonindustrial Earth with a population of perhaps one billion people could be far more beautiful that it is now. Tourism from space could be a major industry, and would serve as a strong incentive to enlarge existing parks, create new ones, and restore historical sights. […] The vision of an industry-free, pastoral Earth, with many of its spectacular scenic areas reverting to wilderness, with bird and animal populations increasing in number, and with a relatively small, affluent human population, is far more attractive to me than the alternative of a rigidly controlled world whose people tread precariously the narrow path of steady-state society.” (pp. 263-4)

“It may be argued that the exploration and the settlement of space is no more than a “technological fix” for problems that should be solved on a higher, more intellectual plane. Yet by our evolution we are closely tied to the material world: we are the descendants of the survivors, from many generations during which the maintenance of life was a struggle every day with the material world. Our history does not suggest that we are well-suited to changing, overnight, to a species disinterested in material well-being, with paramount concern for humanity as a whole rather than for a narrower group. Indeed, our loyalties are first to those few individuals to whom we are linked by close ties of genetic relationship; only with effort do we extend our concern to the town, the state, the nation, and the world. As a species, we have solved our problems by technical means for millennia, and it would be surprising indeed if we could change our character so completely as to abandon the methods by which we have survived.” (p. 273)

“Generosity toward the Third World, in its attempt to avert famine and to take its place among the community of nations, seems more likely to be shown if that generosity can derive from new, unlimited resources rather than from those we already find to be in short supply. More important than material issues, I think there is reason to hope that the opening of a new, high frontier will challenge the best that is in us, that the new lands waiting to be built in space will give us new freedom to search for better governments, social systems, and ways of life, and that our children may thereby find a world richer in opportunity by our efforts during the decades ahead.” (p. 274)

“After all, we had spent more than a hundred billion dollars on the Vietnam War, and we were spending about as much every year in welfare programs and unemployment benefits. It seemed that space colonization was at least relevant to the issues of conflict, of human welfare and of employment.” (p. 291)

“Truly we may say that the humanization of space now appears as one of the most likely, as well as perhaps the most exciting and rewarding, of the possibilities open to humankind in the last quarter of the twentieth century.” (p. 310)

“A small industrial seed, made up of a mass driver on the Moon, processing plants on the Moon and in space, and general purpose fabrication shops (“job-shops”) in both locations, can grow by self-replication into a mighty industrial power.” (p. 320)

“Even the beginning of realization of that vision will bring profound benefits of realization of that vision will bring profound benefits to our planet and its life: The sure survival of all the races of humanity, and of the plant and animal life forms we cherish as part of our Earthly heritage, in colonies dispersed throughout our solar system and beyond it. The preservation of the Earth and its fragile biosphere, as a place of great beauty, deserving our care and our nurturing, as it has nurtured us through our evolution. Opening a hopeful future for individual human beings, with increasing personal and political freedoms, a wider range of choices, and greater opportunities to develop individual potentials. Reducing the incidence of wars and the constant threat of wars, by opening a new frontier with virtually unlimited new lands and new wealth.” (p. 326)

What about nuclear power? 
“I am not considering the possibility of nuclear power. The reason is straightforward: if the development of the communities is to go on without check for a long period, one must not design into it “absurdities” that would pose a limit as soon as total numbers or total required transport exceeded some modest value. It does not seem to me to make sense to design a deep-space transport system around an energy source that would have to come from Earth.” (p. 219)

“If the elements [of a freespace telescope array] were linked only by light beams, their spacing could be established by the unvarying number of wavelengths of light between each pair. That nonphysical linkage, computer-controlled, would have the further advantage that the mirrors could be programmed to separate and reform, like dancers in a slow-motion ballet, according to the needs of a particular astronomical experiment.” (p. 186)

“The space-borne Cyclops would be a single giant parabolic dish antenna, five kilometers across […] it would require only a single receiver system, which could easily be updated to remain at the summit of the electronic art as the years of search went on. The problem on noise arising from the many communications transmitters on Earth and in space would be overcome by the simple expedient of location a disc-saped baffle, twice the size of the antenna, a short distance away.” (p. 196)

“Once we lock in on the signal, the L5-Cyclops can continue to point at the right place for as long as the program lats. In contrast, a Cyclos antenna array on Earth, on the Moon, or low orbit would be blocked half the time from receiving the signals.” (p. 196)

Remember the Future
“For transport of seven hundred people per day, by single stage single-stage rockets with payloads only two or three times that of the existing shuttle, there would only need to be about five flights each day. […] A flight every three hours or so by a shuttle-derived HLV would be enough to bring up the required supplies to initiate agriculture and to establish a comfortable environment even during the period of rapid buildup of population at L5.” (p. 216)

“The fleet of vehicles I described would be capable of carrying about five hundred thousand people in one year from Earth to L5. In the “fastest possible buildup,” that emigration rate would be reachd in about year 15 from the beginning of the “Island Two” ear and a rate of two hundred million per year would be reached about fifteen years later.” (p. 261)

“Transport from Earth to low Earth-orbit, during the same year, would presumably occur in vehicles with passenger cabins as large as those of a Boeing 747. Compared with the capabilities of the present space-shuttle, that’s an increase over a time of around fifty years that’s much more modest than our own experience in aircraft: from the 24-passenger DC-3 to the 400-passenger 747 in only 30 years.” (p. 262)

“Within two or three years a sphere with a land area of more than a hundred acres for habitation, and an additional several acres for crops, could be made this way, most of it quite possibly by a housewife monitoring a control computer from her kitchen.” (p. 245)

“When time does not press, and there is a need for the comfort of handling the actual piece of paper touched by the sender, mail sent on a space-available basis may be more satisfying.” (p. 202)

“NASA is presently advertising a cost of about 20 million dollars for a shuttle launch, assuming complete recovery and reuse of all the hardware required. […] for a traffic model ranging from 60 to 120 flights per year. […] Its cargo bay is about the same size and shape as that of a DC-9 aircraft, and if filled by a passenger compartment could carry – for the short flight into orbit – about the passenger load of such an aircraft.” (p. 134; 156-157)

“Students who sensed that they had talents in science or engineering were on the defensive, accused by their colleagues of being “irrelevant”, or in another catchphrase of the time, “counterproductive”. (p. 276)

“I have always felt strongly a personal desire to be free of boundaries and regimentation. The steady-state society, ridden with rules and laws, proposed by the early workers on the limits of growth was, to me, abhorrent.” (p. 279)

“The land area available was insufficient; the use of the Moon and of Mars would hardly more than double the land area available to us as a race, and at our present rate of expansion that increase would be used in a mere thirty-five years.” (p. 279)

“Another bright spot was the success, though long delayed, of the Space Shuttle in its first orbital flights.” (p. 321)