This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
In the late 1960s, an Italian industrialist and a Scottish scientist started a club to address what they consider to be humankind’s greatest problems. Things like pollution, resource scarcity, and overpopulation.
And because this group met in Rome, Italy, it came to be known as the Club of Rome.
Producer Katie Mingle.
Over the next couple of years, the Club of Rome would grow to include politicians, scientists, economists, and business leaders from around the world. It was a pretty elite group. I’ve always pictured a lot of leather furniture and cigar smoking.
I don’t know how much cigar smoking there was. I mean it was certainly clubby.
That’s Patrick McCray. He’s a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
I think there certainly was a tendency to imagine them as sort of this cigar-smoking cabal, sort of pulling the strings behind the scenes. But I think there was a genuine interest on their part to address these problems of the world.
The people who were a part of the Club of Rome basically wanted to figure out if, and when, the world was going to hit maximum capacity and run out of resources. And toward this end they had a tool, a relatively new tool at the time, the computer.
And so they plugged a bunch of data into their huge 1970s computers, and then looked at the results, and switched up the variables, and ran the tests again.
No matter how they played with the variables, which were resource use, pollution, industrialization, population growth, things like that, all of the models that they came up with, all of them sort of led to the same conclusion. Sometime in the 21st century, there would be this massive collapse of global society.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published a book outlining their findings, called ‘The Limits to Growth’. And it caught a lot of media attention.
“They found the way things are going now, the planet can support us for less than 100 years. It may be nearer 50.”
The book became a surprise bestseller and was translated into more than two dozen languages. And yeah, there were critics who disagreed with the findings, but overall ‘The Limits to Growth’ was incredibly influential.
You know, there was a famous cover of Newsweek around 1973 that shows Uncle Sam on the cover, looking into a cornucopia, and there’s nothing in it. And the headline on the cover of Newsweek says, “Running Out of Everything.”
You could see the idea of limits all over popular culture.
“New York City, in the year 2022, nothing runs anymore. Nothing works.”
And the famous, or infamous movie with Charlton Heston, Soylent Green. I mean the whole premise of the movie is based on a scenario where there’s overpopulation and the earth has exceeded its carrying capacity.
“But the people are the same and the people will do anything to get what they need.”
“This is the police.”
“What they need most is Soylent Green.”
“The supply of Soylent Green has been exhausted. You must return to your homes.”
But I think there was this really fierce debate that ‘The Limits to Growth’ report stimulated, about whether there was this need to curtail economic growth, and to regulate populations, and perhaps even curtail individual freedoms.
And out of this chorus of debate and alarm emerges a physicist and engineer named Gerard O’Neill. He was mostly known as Gerry. And Gerry O’Neill says, yeah, we may live on a limited planet, but we live in a limitless universe and the answer to a lot of our problems here on Earth may actually be out in space. In what O’Neill called the high frontier. Here’s Gerry O’Neill in an archival recording from the seventies.
“Opening the high frontier means making possible and ensuring the survival of the human race.”
Gerry O’Neill wanted to build settlements in space.
If you truly love this planet, the best thing you can do for it is to move as much industry, and as many people as possible, from its surface out into space. O’Neill was motivated and really saw his ideas as a form of environmentalism.
Gerry O’Neill wasn’t the first person to imagine human habitats in space. But unlike others who had come before him, O’Neill was the first to crunch all the numbers and come up with technologically feasible designs.
Over the course of his work he 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’Neill was a professor in Princeton’s physics department, but he wasn’t content analyzing data. He liked building things.
O’Neill’s contribution to physics was re-engineering the way in which particle accelerators were designed and built. And he was really, really successful at this.
He was very famous already as a physicist, long before he got interested in space colonies. So he was very much respected among his equals and a person of great character. I always got along very well with him.
That’s Freeman Dyson.
Yes, I’m Freeman Dyson. I’m a retired professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. My subject was mathematics and physics. I was just a pencil pusher scribbling equations.
Dyson is being modest. He was and is a polymath, an inveritable genius. He’s made huge contributions in quantum mechanics, but also in nuclear energy, biology, and astrophysics. And he’s got pop culture cred too. There’s a video game character named after him. There’s even a Star Trek episode about one of his concepts.
Dyson was also a friend and colleague to Gerry O’Neill. O’Neill died in 1992.
He had many students who were always following him around. He actually got his students doing real projects. It wasn’t just talk.
In 1969, the same year the first astronauts walked on the moon, O’Neill posed a question to his introductory physics students at Princeton. What makes more sense? Building human settlements on the surface of another planet or building free floating settlements in outer space?
Through months of research and calculations. O’Neill and his students came to the conclusion that building free floating habitats was the way to go.
First of all, you don’t have to overcome gravity every time you go on and off a free floating space settlement. But even more importantly, in space you have access to the sun’s energy 100% of the time. So no other sources of fuel would be needed.
But when the semester ended, O’Neill didn’t stop thinking about space colonization. In fact, he’d only just begun.
It wasn’t just dreams of some rather remote future. It was something O’Neill really thought he could do.
O’Neill decided he would build his settlements at a place in our solar system 250,000 miles from the Earth called Lagrange, or Lagrange Point 5.
Lagrange points are places in space where objects stay put. They don’t move around on orbits. And so these are the most convenient places if you want to have a fixed habitat.
Objects stay put because at Lagrange Point 5, or L-5, the gravity of the sun and Earth are at a special equilibrium.
L-5 was his favorite Lagrange point. A place which is the same distance from the moon and the earth.
All of O’Neill’s designs for habitats were variations on cylinders, spheres, or ring shapes. And his designs had been copied all over science fiction. You can see O’Neill-esque designs in the movies, Elysium and Interstellar, for example.
The design that I find the easiest to picture basically looks like a giant bicycle wheel floating in space. The people would live inside the tire part of the wheel, which itself would be enormous. There would be huge windows that let in sunlight and allowed amazing views of outer space. The artist renderings of O’Neill’s settlements make them look really Earth-like and appealing, with water and trees and terraced housing.
He imagined that, you know, it would be like an Italian hill town. We knew that the first ones wouldn’t look like, anything like that.
That’s Tasha O’Neill. In 1969, Tasha had just moved to the US from Germany to work as au pair, when she decided to attend a mixer at the YMCA. In walked Gerry O’Neill, with his mop top haircut, looking more like a member of a sixties rock band than a physicist.
I looked at him and I thought, Hmm, that’s the first interesting guy that I see around here.” I wouldn’t say it was love at first sight, but it was definitely interest at first sight. Which grew into love very quickly.
When he and Tasha met, O’Neill had just started seriously thinking about space colonies and he was eager to share his ideas with her.
I thought it was really ironic that I would meet and marry a physicist. My physics was non-existent. I flunked it. But he was so good at explaining things to lay people.
And Tasha also got good at explaining his ideas. She explained to me, for example, that the wheel in which people would live would rotate very slowly on an axis, and the centrifical force of that rotation would create a gravity like sensation for the people inside, to keep them from floating around.
The rotating would have been very slow and you would not have noticed it.
But the closer you were to the axis, or the center of the wheel, the less gravity you’d experience. When you went uphill, you got lighter and lighter, and you started skipping like a mountain goat. He’d always say that.
Gerry O’Neill imagined the first structure could house 10,000 people, and subsequent structures could house up to three million. He hoped that eventually these settlements could unburden the earth of a significant population.
And O’Neill also thought his settlements could provide earth with a source of energy by collecting the sun’s energy in space, where it’s in abundance all the time, and sending it back to earth via radio waves. This was a technology that another scientist had been working on already. By doing this, O’Neill believed.
“… one has a solution to the energy problems of the world.”
At this point, you may be wondering how O’Neill planned to get all of the materials needed to build these massive structures into space. He imagined the first loads would be taken by the space shuttle, a new tool for which NASA had extremely optimistic plans. Again, historian Patrick McCray.
In the 1970s, people were predicting shuttle flights happening every week, and it was, you know, I mean it was billed at the time as basically a space truck.
But even with the space shuttle taking trips once a week, O’Neill knew that it wouldn’t be enough. He’d need to get his building materials from the moon.
“The moon is a source of minerals, which we know about thanks to the Apollo project. All of the things in fact that we need for many of the products of an industrial civilization.”
So his idea was to move that material from the lunar surface using a type of electromagnetic catapult.
This catapult was called a mass driver and it would sling raw materials from the moon through space to Lagrange Point 5. O’Neill and some colleagues actually designed a working model of one. The PBS program, Nova, recorded a demonstration of it.
“4, 3, 2, 1.”
All of the people who lived in the first space settlement would be working in space as well, to process the raw materials to build the next settlements, but there would also be jobs in other industries.
I decided that I was going to be running the first restaurant up there and thought about which spices I had to take along that we couldn’t grow up there right away. I mean it captured the imagination.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic about Gerry O’Neill’s ideas as Tasha. By 1972, O’Neill had turned his ideas into a paper and was looking to be published in a scientific journal. He got a lot of rejection letters.
But then, in May of 1974, the New York Times ran a front page article about O’Neill’s ideas.
Which changed our lives dramatically. We had to delist our telephone number.
Shortly thereafter, O’Neill’s ideas also found traction in the academic world, when his paper was published in the journal ‘Physics Today’.
And the requests for interviews and lectures just came rolling in.
O’Neill was interviewed by ‘The Smithsonian’ and the science fiction magazine, ‘Omni’. Even ‘Penthouse’.
And it was a very, very good article.
I mean I only read it for the articles.
In addition to ‘Penthouse’, or maybe because of ‘Penthouse’, O’Neill even gained the interest of NASA, which funded a series of studies at the Ames Research Center.
To explore all the different avenues, and to try to find weaknesses in what he was suggesting, and to really work out detailed designs that built on his original ideas.
In all of his interviews and lectures, Gerry O’Neill talked about space in this whole new way. Space wasn’t just a government program for elite astronauts to take part in. Space was a place. Just another place for you and I to get to, and explore.
When we open up the high frontier, by building colonies in space, there is going to be room for people who want to leave the Earth to go out and to develop their own colonies, and to do their own thing.
This idea of space as a place appealed to a lot of different kinds of people, and soon enough, a social movement started coalescing around O’Neill’s ideas. By 1975, a group called the L-5 Society, for Lagrange Point 5, had formed to spread the gospel of space colonization.
They were very vocal. They were politically active. So they would oftentimes be lobbying Congress or NASA for an expanded space exploration program. And you know, they published a monthly newsletter.
L-5ers were serious space activists, but it was the 70s, and there was a strange convergence happening of scientists, hippies and beautiful nerds of every stripe. Beautiful nerds with instruments.
“All right, let’s do ‘Home on Lagrange’. Take 4.”
That’s Bill Higgins, he’s a physicist and former L-5er who went to a lot of science fiction conventions in the 70s where he says there was often a room full of people singing and playing instruments. Bill co-wrote the lyrics to a song that became somewhat of an Anthem for the L-5 society.
“Oh, give me a locus where the gravitons focus, Where the three-body problem is solved. 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-gee sex.”
I’m just going to give you a second to stop picturing zero-gee sex. Okay. For a while, O’Neill seemed to welcome and encourage the attention from groups like L-5.
But the L-5 society started to attract more controversial characters
“With a show of hands, how many of you would like to live in space and live forever? How about it? Hey, there we go. That’s incredible.”
That’s Timothy Leary promoting the idea of space colonization in the late 1970s. Leary became famous in the 60s for advocating the therapeutic use of LSD. And Leary his own ideas about what space colonies could do for humanity.
Rather trippy ideas about how building space colonies would help usher in this new phase of conscious human evolution.
Having Leary as a spokesman may not have been ideal, as O’Neill tried to get the government to take his ideas seriously.
You know, Leary’s someone who President Nixon once called the most dangerous man in America.
If you’re successful in promoting and popularizing a particular technology or a particular technological future, you also risk losing control over the idea.
He wanted to have the ideas out there. You know, people talking about it is better than not talking.
People were certainly talking about it and not all of it was positive. According to Patrick McCray, many environmentalist’s of the time vehemently rejected the idea that space colonization could be a possible cure for our planet’s problems.
They saw nothing environmental about it. They saw this as a extension of the military industrial complex into space.
And there were non-environmental critiques made as well.
People said, “Well okay, who’s actually going to go into space? It’s not going to be the urban poor. It’s going to be basically creating these white suburbs in space.” And there was kind of a critique of some of O’Neill’s ideas as a form of literally white flight, I suppose.
“A rat done bit my sister Nell (with Whitey on the moon). Her face and arms began to swell (and Whitey’s on the moon). I can’t pay no doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon). Ten years from now I’ll be paying still (while Whitey’s on the moon). The man just upped my rent last night (because Whitey’s on the moon).”
Gil Scott-Heron was just one of the people that voiced this criticism about inequality in the space race.
But of all the critiques that were made of O’Neill’s ideas, no one really said this is technologically impossible. And in fact, in the 1970s we had just put astronauts on the moon. Anything seemed possible. Patrick says, to put this in perspective, he likes to imagine a hypothetical scenario. It’s 1975 and you ask a random person on the street, which is the more likely scenario. Scenario A-
We are going to build a base on the moon and then we’re going to build colonies in outer space.
Or scenario B. We’re not going to go back to the moon for another half century at least.
Now, I’d argue that in 1975 most people would have felt that scenario A was the much more likely one.
In 1977, all of O’Neill’s research was published in a very readable book called ‘The High Frontier’, and he appeared on ’60 Minutes’ with Dan Rather to talk about space colonization.
“Do you expect to set foot on one of these space habitats?”
“I sure hope so, Dan, or I wouldn’t be working on it.”
“That’s your hope, but the question is what is your expectation?”
“I’m putting my own professional time and my effort into the scenario that says that these things will be realized within my working lifetime.”
But despite O’Neill’s optimism, the ’60 Minutes’ segment marked the peak of mainstream interest in his ideas, and the goal of building settlements in space began to seem less and less attainable.
NASA’s space shuttles did not become reliable space trucks. The shuttles ended up making far fewer flights into space than originally predicted and, in general, NASA became more cautious and less adventurous than a lot of people had hoped.
Which is why, in 1977, O’Neill founded the nonprofit Space Studies Institute, which raises its own money and does its own research on space colonization.
Gerard O’Neill died in 1992, after a long battle with leukemia. And now 25 years after his death, some people think that we’re on the brink of another space age. One that could lead to the realization of some of O’Neill’s dreams.
There are a lot of people working on it. He had so many young people working with him. They’re now calling themselves Gerry’s kids, and they’re in their 50s. But they learned sitting at his knee, you know, Rick Tumlinson, Peter Diamandis.
“My mission in life since I was a kid was, and is, to take the rest of you into space. It’s during our lifetime, that we’re going to take the people of Earth and transition off permanently.”
That is Peter Diamandis giving a TED Talk in 2005.
“We’ve thought about the government always has the person taking us there. But I put forward here, the government is not going to get us there. The government is unable to take the risks required to open up this precious frontier.”
Like Gerry O’Neill, Diamandis believes that technology can solve humanity’s biggest problems and that we don’t have to live in a world of limits. But unlike O’Neill, Diamandis has another primary motivation, money. The universe is full of valuable things to exploit for wealth.
“If you think about space, everything we hold a value on this planet, metals and minerals and real estate and energy, is an infinite quantities in space. In fact, the earth is a crumb in a supermarket filled with resources.”
There are other entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who would also like to make money in space and build human settlements there.
However it happens, both Freeman Dyson and Tasha O’Neill are sure humans will find their way into settlements in space eventually.
Well, I would say it certainly will happen one day. It’s all a question of when.
And I’m counting on it because Gerry wanted his ashes to be scattered in a space colony. And I think by now you know his grandchildren will, or I hope not his great grandchildren, but somebody will have to do it.
99% invisible was produced this week by Katie Mingle with Sam Greenspan, Sharif Youssef, Delaney Hall, Kurt Kohlstedt, Avery Trufelman, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks to Robert Smith from the Space Studies Institute for all of his help on this story. And thanks to Carolyn Meinel for talking to us about the L5 society. And Bill Higgins for sharing his ‘Home on LaGrange’ song with us. To learn more about Gerard O’Neill and his plans for colonizing space, check out Patrick McCray’s book, ‘The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future’. Also be sure to check out the artists’ renderings of the O’Neill settlements that NASA commissioned in the 70s. We have a few of those on our website at 99pi.org.