Home on Lagrange

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.

Credits

Production

Producer Katie Mingle spoke with Patrick McCray, professor of history at University of California, Santa Barbara; Freeman Dyson, professor of mathematics and physics at Princeton University; Tasha O’Neill, artist and co-founder of the Space Studies Institute; and Bill Higgins, physicist and former member of the L-5 Society who co-wrote the song Home on Lagrange.

Space colony illustrations by Don Davis and Rick Guidice courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center.

Music

Stoney Street by Amon Tobin
New York Editor by Amon Tobin
Rallies Fads And Riots by Am-Boy
Nocturne By Poddington Bear
I’ve Been Here Before by Melodium
Morning by Keegan DeWitt
Squirrel Commotion by Poddington Bear
Deers by Masayoshi Fujita
Space Is The Place by The Sun Ra Arkestra
Home On Lagrange by L5 society (Bill Higgins)
Love Story by Deltron 3030
Whitey On The Moon by Gil Scott-Heron
Curious Child by Nobukazu Takemura
Seeking by Plaid
Starman Leaves by OK Ikumi
Fox Tales by Koloto

  1. James Frykman

    Really appreciated the use of the Deltron 3030 instrumental in this episode. Who can we thank for this brilliant choice?

  2. wsl

    Great show with great characters. Always fun to remember what the future used to look like. But… “produce a centrifugal *force*” ?? Come on 99pi! Gotta get the basic science right. It’s worth explaining to your listeners the right way, even if it feels cumbersome for the story. The alternative is perpetual myth.

  3. Well done. The audio version is truly worth hearing all the way through. As Douglas Adams once said “Space is Big” so condensing the complexity of The High Frontier concept into a short listenable piece is not easy task. FYI: SSI continues to work on the Engineering, NSS continues their L-5 Society roots public relations and Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin (and the little company Amazon) is yet another of the fellows who has taken O’Neill’s large scale Space Manufacturing to heart for a new generation. Big things take time but correct things that have at their hearts Helping Every Person Everywhere eventually come. Make the future, it’s only just begun. Thanks for a great audio piece.

  4. A3000

    There was also a movement of Black artists (Afrofuturists) who embraced the idea of space exploration and used it to critique the condition of Black people here on Earth. A lot of interesting fiction and music came out of these ideas. Octavia Butler, Parliament-Funkadelic, Warp 9, Deltron (of course), Jeff Mills.

  5. On behalf of the O’Neill family I’d like to thank producer Katie Mingle for her dedication to get the facts straight and to craft such a wonderful piece about Gerry’s contribution to our future in space. I truly enjoyed working with her on this.

  6. Gilles Poitras

    Well done.
    “This approach has since been replicated all over science fiction, including in the recent films Elysium and Interstellar.”
    Don’t forget Japan’s Universal Century Gundam animated works starting in 1979 which mad extensive use of the idea of the colonies.

  7. Robert Sugg

    Thank you for a great piece Katie and company. Your command of the new digital production space and your sensitivity to facts, first-person conversations, and human psychology can revisit this story to 60 Minutes, Nova, The Situation Room, The Tonight Show…. Go for broke.

    Are you sure you only read the articles?

  8. Tavio Brown

    No link to the sung version of Home on Lagrange (The L5 Song)? I’m disappointed, I was hoping to hear that song sung in full, but alas all I can find is the lyrics…

  9. David Stewart

    Unfortunately the L5/NSS group morphed into a sad caricature of the looney far-right. This marginalized them more than anything.

  10. Tim Sharp

    When this program started I was really thrilled that a “mainstream” podcast was mentioning Limits To Growth and perhaps we were going to have an actual conversation about the insane ways our species wastes non-renewable resources. Sadly, it turned out just to be an intro for yet another techno-fantasist boondoggle. The last thing we should be doing is encouraging the asinine “We screwed it up! Let’s just run away from our planet!” meme.

    1. Your opinion has some merit in the cases of White Flight shown in movies like Elysium but – technically and honestly speaking – the point of **O’Neill’s** work was not rich folks looking down on everyone else left behind. The High Frontier is fully rooted in the uplifting of ALL people here on Earth and takes great pains to show that the big part of this is not to flee but to create the tools that will make all people – ESPECIALLY those who are suffering from lack of food and water and personal power to chance their plight – have an equal footing. Really, it is. I sincerely hope that you will look a bit deeper into O’Neill’s High Frontier (not just looking at others who use the huge space habitats for the fun or spectacle of them) and in so doing you may find that this is not quite what a 20 minute overview may have pointed your feelings to. If it was only about big space colonies then I believe – from my contacts – that O’Neill would not have worked so hard on the details of the complete system. His goal was far bigger than pretty pictures… The High Frontier spells that out *very* clearly as a way to help the poor while also helping those who have the power to make it happen (it is an expensive project, so rich folks are required – but the poor are big winners, by design). I hope you’ll look to that by perhaps reading The High Frontier book for yourself, if only to be able to say that you personally performed your due diligence to prove that your reaction was 100% valid.

    2. Tim Sharp

      Hi Robert, thanks for your reply.

      I’m sure O’Neill had the very best of intentions and perhaps you’re right and I should read the book (although life is brief and there are oh-so-many books), but from what I heard in this program I was very unimpressed, as I really fail to see how building something as prodigiously costly as a huge space station would be economically and politically feasible. You’re saying it wouldn’t just be rich people, really? The way the the economy is now? Maybe I’m just dense, but in what way would this sort of thing be available to any but the most criminally wealthy? You don’t have to summarise the book, but some rough idea of how this is economically possible would perhaps change my mind.

      It is enormously expensive to launch material into space (yes, including using a mass driver) and even more expensive to build things in space, (don’t even get me started on the flawed economics of space mining). This doesn’t even take into account how hard it is to keep humans alive in an environment which has effectively no value to us. The Earth’s environment provides 75% of all our species’ wealth, for free. We don’t get that discount in space. If we want water, we have to transport it or make it, if we want energy, we have to pull it from the sun, (as I’m sure you know, solar power is highly diffuse and expensive as heck to store, with a relatively low EROI even on Earth, the sheer costs of building an array that would power the high-tech lives of some 10,000 people in space as well as a massive station providing that 75% needed for sustained human life is approaching the domain of fantasy). We need shielding from cosmic radiation, artificial gravity, food and a thousand other things (apparently O’Neill didn’t know that people cannot become tumescent in zero-G either). Yes, currently we can currently supply all that for a couple of people in LEO at an extremely high cost, but that is all built off the back of our current limited supply of cheap non-renewable energy and I really don’t see how we can provide that for anything like the kinds of numbers that would be required to mitigate the ecological crisis currently underway across the planet.

      But perhaps I’m being unfair and, at the time this was written, this was all in fact feasible. I’m sympathetic to that, Carter putting the solar panels on the roof of the White House and all. Unfortunately, that was 40 years ago and we have burned through quite a lot more of the environmental bounty we were provided with since then. Taking masses of people into space takes gargantuan amounts of energy and money which, with a population of more than seven billion, dwindling energy stocks and a planet in the throes of irreversible ecological collapse, seems to me to be a colossal waste of time and resources.

      More fundamentally, the High Frontier idea seems entirely designed to perpetuate the tragically destructive infinite growth meme (I mean, it’s right there in the name, and I could spend all day talking about the silliness of the “frontier” myth), all in all taking precisely the wrong lesson from the LtG (which is flawed in the details, not in the overall point). We live on a limited planet, and the laws of energy and thermodynamics do not owe us any favours. We can accept that and reduce our energy usage, recognizing that it is fundamentally not possible for everyone on Earth to live like a middle-class U.S. suburbanite (the U.S. currently consumes 25% of all the planet’s resources with 5% of the population, it doesn’t take a math whiz to see the problem there), or we can continue to desperately search for excuses which will allow us to delude ourselves that we’re off our self-made hook until we wake up one day and discover that all our species-wide follies have come home to roost.

      I’m aware this is currently an unpopular opinion, one of the great secular points of faith, greater and deeper even than the “Christian-rapture-by-robot-brain” Singularity Cult that goes unquestioned these days is the “caves-to-the-stars” meme, born out of the very understandable human urge to wander and expand and grow coming crashing up against the hard limits of physics. I sympathise, it’s an emotive and powerful dream, and maybe hundreds of years from now some of us will venture out in something very like what O’Neill had proposed (though I doubt it), but for the forseeable future we are inescapably a part of this planet, and our desperate desire to deny this fact will only make the realisation that we were dreaming of something that could not be all the more painful the longer we deny our present reality.

  11. Eleanor O'Neill

    Tim Sharp misses a few critical ideas about my dad’s work and should certainly read the book. He says “We need shielding from cosmic radiation, artificial gravity, food and a thousand other things (apparently O’Neill didn’t know that people cannot become tumescent in zero-G either).”

    1) Cosmic shielding is an integral design of the habitats’ hulls

    2) Artificial gravity is provided via rotation (ever seen 2001? it doesn’t even need to be all that large a circumference for this to work)

    3) Food is grown in farming pods or sectors or whatever, depending on which habitat design is built

    4) Resources are plentiful in space… there are already companies such as Planetary Resources working on retrieving those that aren’t sitting pretty on the moon (where mass drivers can do it cheaply).

    5) And finally, solar power is certainly feasible on a space habitat. There isn’t even a need for much storage because the sun is aways shining on you, undiluted by atmosphere.

    As for rich vs poor, I couldn’t say what’ll happen since that’s likely to be tied up in political factors, but though dad wanted space to be open to all (as do I), to me the first concern is this:

    Nice as the Earth is, it’s a very vulnerable basket into which to be holding all our eggs. We could be wiped out by a massive asteroid (or nuclear/bio war) all too soon. In my view, we’ve got to spread off this planet or our days are likely numbered. (Neal Stephenson’s novel Seveneves tells a pretty interesting story of what might happen if we aren’t ready when that day arrives.)

  12. Tim Sharp

    Hi Elinor, thanks for your response and I hope you do not take my critiques of the conceptual ideas in play here as anything like a personal criticism of your father, who, from what I heard in this program and from what little digging I did, sounded like he was a wonderful man. I also thank you for providing more details from the book which, again, I confess I have not read. I’ll go through your points one by one, followed by a few more of my thoughts.

    1) “Cosmic shielding is an integral design of the habitats’ hulls”

    I’m interested by this, as I was under the impression that NASA had still failed to crack any kind of shielding that would keep individuals outside of the magnetosphere safe within acceptable limits of exposure. There was a competition recently held for students around the country to propose ideas (with prize money!), and I believe a partnership is underway with MIT and CIT to research this and other long-term space habitation issues further, but as far as I know, nothing has yet achieved the standards required. Was there another concept that Mr O’Neill had some forty years prior that NASA is unaware of?

    (link 1) http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/april/nasa-awards-radiation-challenge-winners-launches-next-round-to-seek-ideas-for
    (link 2) http://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-establishes-institute-to-explore-new-ways-to-protect-astronauts

    2) “Artificial gravity is provided via rotation (ever seen 2001? it doesn’t even need to be all that large a circumference for this to work)”

    I have no disagreement with the use of centrifugal force to simulate gravity, but I do question the size dynamics at play. According to an article I read in Popular Mechanics, at a size of anything less than a football field, the long term effects on the human body would appear to be unpleasant at best. Yes, the ISS is currently about that big, but it is mostly solar panels, the modules themselves are quite small (this feeds into a later point I’ll have about scale/energy).

    (link) http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/rockets/a8965/why-dont-we-have-artificial-gravity-15425569/

    3) Food is grown in farming pods or sectors or whatever, depending on which habitat design is built

    Again, I’m not going to disagree that with hydroponics it is possible to grow food in space (and indeed this has been done on the ISS, even with the limitations of microgravity), but I also have to stress the scale and energy requirements needed if this is to be truly self-sufficient for a massive space station, as they are positively gargantuan. You need to constantly provide water, heat, humidity, light and nutrients, as well as control for healthy microbial activity, (molds are a problem even in space). This is all potentially do-able, but I don’t think it’s as simple as just building “farming pods or sectors or whatever” and once more I have to stress the enormous cost of materials and energy that would be required to make this truly self-sustaining. That 75% free stuff thing we get from Earth is no joke, it takes an insane amount of money and energy to keep even four or so people alive in LEO as we currently do. The costs are truly staggering once you start talking about THOUSANDS of people.

    (link) http://science.howstuffworks.com/space-farming.htm

    “4) Resources are plentiful in space… there are already companies such as Planetary Resources working on retrieving those that aren’t sitting pretty on the moon (where mass drivers can do it cheaply).”

    OK, now we’re really getting into the meat of the issues here. From everything I’ve seen and read, it seems to me that space mining is a ludicrously cost-prohibitive exercise. Yes, technically resources are “plentiful” in space, but there is something even more abundant in space, and that is nothing. In other words, you need to expend crazy amounts of energy to get anything up into space to begin with, even more to send your mining robot (I assume we’re talking robots here) out to an asteroid, more again to capture the rock and still more to process it (or maybe they just collect stuff there and take that back, either way, the costs are insane).

    The vast majority of asteroids in our solar system (that aren’t ice, which is most of them) are highly homogeneous and are not ore-rich in anything like the densities required to be economically viable. This also doesn’t address how you then extract and process these materials in space to be used as construction materials without going bankrupt (are we talking about oceans of construction bots, or space construction workers? Either way, the scale required is fantastic, in the true meaning of the word).

    Yes, PR is looking at some hunks of platinum, but even then the current cost of platinum is far less that what you would need to break even on a space mining operation, not to mention if they did get massive quantities of the stuff it would naturally depress the cost, which would make it even more infeasible.

    The idea of resources “sitting pretty on the moon” is also a somewhat dubious proposition to me. You’re still looking at massive costs for getting the materials up to the moon establishing a mining colony and massive costs for keeping the builders/miners alive (or having functional robots doing their stuff up there, forty years after these proposals and we still lose robots in space all the time and they are extremely expensive to replace.) All in all, I’m pretty dubious about us mining much but water on the moon (maybe a solution for that particular space station issue!).

    (link 1) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-sten-odenwald/the-myth-of-space-mining_b_8415992.html
    (link 2) http://www.adamsmith.org/blog/economics/theres-a-very-slight-problem-with-asteroid-mining
    (link 3) http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/the-problem-with-asteroid-mining
    (link 4) http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/stranded-resources/
    (link 5) http://www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~ucfbiac/Lunar_resources_review_preprint_accepted_manuscript.pdf

    “5) And finally, solar power is certainly feasible on a space habitat. There isn’t even a need for much storage because the sun is aways shining on you, undiluted by atmosphere.”

    Of course, solar power is technically feasible, but the size of the array required to meet the needs of the enormous space station you would need to:
    a) Be big enough for artificial gravity to work, (with the habitable ring of the station at least larger than a football field)
    b) Mitigate all the costs required to keep hundreds or thousands of people on board alive

    As I mentioned in my first point, the ISS is currently the largest station we have in orbit and it is MOSTLY solar panels and needs all of them to keep a positively minuscule number of people alive (and their food is primarily packaged stuff, not farmed, and they live in hideously cramped conditions, no luxuries for these guys/gals, a far cry from the pretty ring illustrations). Solar energy is awesome, but it is also highly diffuse and so to collect enough energy to power the kinds of scales of activity and habitations discussed here is an extremely expensive proposition. You would need to get tons and tons of silicon, glass and rare earth metals up in space to power it, (or take it from asteroids and process them I suppose? There’s that cost thing again). None of these resources are free, and with the economics required I think we are beginning to approach the domain of utter infeasibility. I’d actually buy it more if the thing was nuclear powered, and even then I would have serious questions about the costs involved.

    “As for rich vs poor, I couldn’t say what’ll happen since that’s likely to be tied up in political factors, but though dad wanted space to be open to all (as do I),”

    This is kind of the crux of it, though, isn’t it? Everything is politics. The human race is not a platonic ideal. We can’t even get our act together on dealing with the global climate, or stop ourselves from obliterating swathes of the planet’s biomass and, as this program itself implied, pretty much the only people looking at going en-masse into space these days are plutocrats. There are also already deep legal issues brewing as to the “ownership” of space. Nobody is seriously talking these days about it being “open to all” and, really, how could it be? The costs required to get even a kilo into space are prohibitive, let alone keeping a human being alive up there, so of course only governments or the ultra-rich are going to be over-represented, we’re hardly going to be building ghettos in space anytime soon. I mean, technically, Antarctica (which is far more economical/habitable than space) is kind of “open to all”, but you don’t see swathes of lower-income people setting up shop there either, and you probably never will, barring a potentially human-species-killing shift in the climate.

    (link 1) http://news.nationalpost.com/news/who-owns-the-moon-space-lawyers-increasingly-needed-for-legal-issues-beyond-earths-atmosphere
    (link 2) http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2130/1

    “Nice as the Earth is, it’s a very vulnerable basket into which to be holding all our eggs. We could be wiped out by a massive asteroid (or nuclear/bio war) all too soon. In my view, we’ve got to spread off this planet or our days are likely numbered. (Neal Stephenson’s novel Seveneves tells a pretty interesting story of what might happen if we aren’t ready when that day arrives.)”

    Well, much as we may like it or not, our days as a species are numbered regardless in the long run and here, finally, is my deepest point, which I will reiterate and expand on from my previous post.

    Our species’ theatrical narrative of infinite space travel and expansion is by and large, on the real world we live on right now, not in a science fiction book or movie, a fantasy. We are tied to this planet, by biology, by ecology, by economics, by politics, by who we are as a species and what this universe is like. We have allowed ourselves to be blinded by an obsession with technological miracles at the cost of the only large scale habitat we have, or will ever have, for the foreseeable future at least. Our evolutionary drive to expand like a virus, to grow infinitely, is now meeting the petri-dish limits of our planet. Every year we consume more and more non-replaceable resources quicker and quicker, we burn millions of years worth of stored sunlight, we tap into aquifers that will take millenia to replace, we acidify our oceans, we drive thousands of species to extinction, we deplete the limited reserves of phosphorus, fossil fuels, helium etc we have available to us, we poison our rivers and treat our atmosphere like a sewer. We’re now essentially locked into oceans rising, mass biodiversity collapse, Florida becoming uninhabitable salt-marsh, continent-wide droughts, just to name a few of the consequences of our species-wide stupidity. None of these points are scientifically controversial. And the engine of all of this is our pathological hunger to grow more, bigger, wider, larger, deeper, infinitely, on a finite planet, which is the only world in our solar system we have ever evolved to survive on (and even then, large swathes are uninhabitable, no need to go to space for that!). The caves-to-the-stars meme is the purest expression of this hunger, when faced with the reality of the mess we have made, it seems all this thinking can come up with is “let’s just run away to space and not change at all!” I hope I’ve enumerated just a couple of the deep problems with this line of thought. Entertaining fantasies of space colonies free of the realities of politics, economics or who we are as a species, in the end functions in a similar way to a cult and stops people from truly grappling with what we have to deal with on this planet, instead encouraging them to look up to the heavens where they will all find their supposed salvation, not looking around and grappling with this world of crude matter and banality and sacrifice and compromise and humanity, which is the only real world we have.

    I suppose, at the heart of it all, my points of contention are purely about grappling with the world and our species as they are, not as we wish they would be. Yes, it is perhaps technically possible to do the stuff mentioned in this program, but it’s also technically possible for us to build a giant statue of a duck the size of Iceland made of aluminum. It’s not a matter for the technical requirements, it’s about economics, politics, and all those other boring but necessary components of the human experience.

    I know I probably won’t convince you, and I hope I have not offended you with my criticisms. I only hope that some people reading this might take a second or two to think about this conversation and ask some deeper questions beyond the science fiction dreams on offer in this particular program. I care deeply for our species (as dumb as we are) and this planet, we both seem to agree on that, we only disagree on the realistic course of action available to us.

    Finally, I want add that I enjoy the fact we can have a dialogue about these things, as honest non-partisan discussions about space travel/habitation and its promises/realities are surprisingly rare online.

    A few final links for the curious:

    (link 1) http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/why-not-space/
    (link 2) http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.ca/2013/09/which-way-to-heaven.html
    (link 3) http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/06/the_high_frontier_redux.html
    (link 4) http://boingboing.net/2015/11/16/our-generation-ships-will-sink.html

  13. Tim Sharp

    Totally misspelled your name there by the way Eleanor, blame it on late night posting!

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