In 1968, an Italian industrialist and a Scottish scientist started a club to address what they considered to be humankind’s greatest problems—issues like pollution, resource scarcity, and overpopulation. Meeting in Rome, Italy, the group came to be known as the Club of Rome and it grew to include politicians, scientists, economists and business leaders from around the world. Together with a group of MIT researchers doing computer modeling, The Club of Rome concluded that sometime in the 21st century, earth would reach its carrying capacity—that resources would not keep up with population—and there would be a massive collapse of global society.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published a book outlining their findings called The Limits to Growth. The book became a bestseller and was translated into more than two dozen languages. It had its critics and detractors, but overall The Limits to Growth was incredibly influential, shaping environmental politics and pop culture for years to come. There was a growing sense that limits would need to be put in place in order to regulate populations and economic growth.
But in the midst of the debate, a physicist named Gerard (Gerry) O’Neill suggested a solution—one that would ask us to look beyond planet earth and into outer space.
O’Neill wanted to build vast human settlements in space. And although he wasn’t the first to imagine humans living there, he was the first to come up with technologically feasible designs for habitats.
Over the course of his career, Gerard O’Neill would turn skeptics into true believers, find support from NASA, and start a social movement toward the goal of building human colonies in space.
Before he started thinking about space colonies, Gerry O’Neil was a professor at Princeton, with a focus on high-energy particle physics. He designed and built particle accelerators and made a number of important innovations in the field. As a teacher, he was respected by his colleagues and known for getting his students involved in hands-on projects.
In 1969, the same year the first astronauts walked on the moon, O’Neill asked his introductory physics students at Princeton to figure out what made more sense—building human settlements on the surface of another planet or building free floating settlements in outer space. After months of research and calculations, O’Neill and his students concluded that free-floating habitats were superior for a number of reasons.
It would be easier, they reasoned, to move things (and people) on and off of free-floating settlements than it would be to move them on and off of a planet. This is because the force of gravity on a free-floating settlement is far weaker than that of an entire planet planet. All planets sit in “gravity wells” that make moving things on and off of them difficult.
On top of that, in outer space, the sun’s energy would be available 100% of the time, obviating the need for other fuel sources.
When the semester ended, O’Neill did not stop thinking about how to build human settlements in space. In fact, he’d only just begun.
O’Neill decided he would build his settlements at a place in our solar system around 250,000 miles from Earth called LaGrange Point 5. Lagrange points are places in space where objects stay put. Which is to say, they stay in stable positions relative to nearby bodies. L5 maintains a position that is equidistant from the Earth and the moon, so a settlement there would always remain in (relatively) close range to both.
O’Neill’s basic designs for habitats were variations on cylinders, spheres and ring shapes. This approach has since been replicated all over science fiction, including in the recent films Elysium and Interstellar.
In all of his designs, people would live inside giant sealed tubes that would slowly rotate about a central axis. This rotation would produce centrifugal force roughly equal to the force of gravity on Earth. The inside of the tubes were also large enough to hold idyllic landscapes including rivers, trees, hills, and terraced housing that could hold thousands of people.
O’Neill hoped the first settlement would house 10,000 people and subsequent structures would house up to 3,000,000. The idea was that eventually these settlements could unburden the Earth of a significant portion of its population while also providing our home planet with solar energy, beamed back to the surface via radio waves.
The initial materials would have to be brought into space by NASA’s space shuttle. The shuttle was expected at the time to become a sort of “space truck,” making regular flights to and from space. But O’Neill knew to build on the scale that he imagined, he’d have to get subsequent resources from somewhere with less gravity (the earth sits in a 4000 mile deep gravity well).
The moon was perfect. Its gravity well is only 200 miles deep and the minerals in its rock and soil included everything O’Neill would need to build the settlements. Materials would be mined on the moon and then shot from the lunar surface toward L5 using a type of electromagnetic catapult known as a mass driver. O’Neill even built a working model of one with his students.
Initially, Gerry O’Neill’s designs and ideas got a fairly cool reception from the scientific community. While few questioned the engineering or physics, some were thrown by extreme nature of his proposals. But O’Neill did have early support from a few of his colleagues including the famous physicist Freeman Dyson, who did not always agree with O’Neill’s specific vision, but was nonetheless excited by his friend’s ideas.
Later in 1974, his research was published in Physics Today and requests for interviews and speaking engagements began to roll in.
O’Neill even attracted the interest of NASA, which funded a series of studies around his ideas at the Ames Research Center. These studies produced the artist renderings featured throughout this article.
In all of his interviews and lectures, O’Neil talked about space in a whole new way. Space wasn’t a government program open only to elite astronauts. Space was a place— a place for ordinary people to live in and explore.
By 1975, a group called the L5 Society had formed around O’Neill’s ideas and were spreading the gospel of space colonization. L5 was vocal and politically active—publishing a newsletter and lobbying Congress and NASA for an expanded space exploration program.
The group attracted an odd assortment of members, ranging from scientists and space enthusiasts to hippies and science fiction geeks. They even developed a sort of theme song, Home on Lagrange, set to the tune of Home on the Range:
… where the microwaves play, down at three degrees k, and the cold virus never evolved; home, home on Lagrange where the space debris always collects; we possess so it seems, two of our greatest dreams: solar power and zero-g sex.
This somewhat eclectic collection of followers (which included LSD guru Timothy Leary) made it difficult at times for O’Neill to get the government to take his ideas seriously.
Meanwhile many environmentalists outright rejected O’Neill’s ideas, seeing space exploration as an extension of the military industrial complex. Others characterized his colonies as a literal form of white flight.
But no one really disputed the technological feasibility of O’Neill’s designs. And given the fast pace of the space race in the 1960s and 1970s, many people expected space colonies to be on the horizon in decades if not years.
In 1977 all of O’Neill’s research was published into a very readable book called The High Frontier and O’Neill appeared on 60 Minutes with Dan Rather, where he predicted he would see space settlements built in his lifetime. But despite O’Neill’s optimism, this 60 minutes segment marked the peak of mainstream interest in his ideas.
And while NASA had funded some of O’Neill’s work, it became clear to O’Neill in the late seventies that they were not prepared to spend the billions needed to build his settlements in space. NASA’s space shuttles did not become regular and reliable “space trucks” and ended up making fewer flights into space than originally predicted. And in general, NASA became a more cautious and less adventurous organization than many had hoped.
In 1977 O’Neill founded the non-profit Space Studies Institute, which raises money and does its own research on space colonization.
Gerard O’Neill died in 1992 after a long battle with cancer. Now, 25 years after his death, some people think we are on the brink of another space age. Many of the new space visionaries (like Peter Diamandis and Rick Tumlinson) were young men at the peak of O’Neill’s career and some see themselves as carrying out his legacy. Many of these new space entrepreneurs also hope to make a lot of money in space—by mining asteroids and providing commercial flights to “space tourists,” and they believe that private investment, and not NASA, will fuel the next space age.
According to his wife, Tasha, Gerard O’Neill wanted his ashes scattered in a space colony. Tasha and many others believe it won’t be long before this wish becomes a reality.