Gerard K. O’Neill and the Great Disappointment

Gerard OneillDisappointments must not be forgotten. One of the great disappointments of those interested in the use and development of human space capabilities has been the inability to colonize the solar system. Emerging from the Apollo program of the latter 1960s and early 1970s, space advocates were jazzed by the prospects of a space station in orbit, and trips to both the Moon and Mars. It was not to be.

Some grew disheartened and bitter. Others formed into political interest groups. Still others declared a pox on all whom they felt had betrayed the grand dream of an expansive agenda in space and set out on their own. Many of the most visionary pioneers saw space as a safety valve for an overcrowded, resource depleted planet.

In 1974 Gerard K. O’Neill, a Princeton University physics professor, began to publish detailed plans for the construction of space colonies. O’Neill proposed the building of colonies in very large, rotating spacecraft placed at gravitationally stable points throughout the solar system. Colonists would live in clean, climate-controlled environments, with trees and lakes and blue skies spotted with clouds along each colony’s inner rim. Animals and plants endangered on the Earth would thrive on these cosmic arks; insect pests would be left behind. Solar power directed into each colony by huge mirrors would provide a constant source of non-polluting energy.

O’Neill believed that the first colony could be completed by about 2005. Each fully developed colony would provide room for ten million humans, plus desirable plants and animals. Emigration to newly-constructed colonies, O’Neill estimated, would reverse the rise of population on the Earth by 2050.

Otherwise sensible people flocked to O’Neill’s ideas. O’Neill’s vision of this experiment in space also found an audience in many quarters of NASA. He received funding from NASA’s Advanced Programs Office—but only $25,000—to develop his ideas more fully. Senior NASA officials such as Administra­tor James C. Fletcher and Ames Research Center Director Hans Mark encouraged his efforts.

Figure 33-Colonies in Space-Bernal_Sphere

Artist’s conception of a space colony. During the 1970s, physicist Gerard O’Neill proposed the establishment of very large colonies in the emptiness of space as a means of relieving population pressure on Earth. The concept, which attracted many followers, is not a feasible solution in the near term.

In the summer of 1975, NASA officials took O’Neill’s ideas seriously enough to convene a study group of scientists, engineers, economists, and sociologists at the Ames Research Center, near San Francisco, to review the idea of space colonization, and followed it up with another study the next summer. Surprisingly they found enough in the plan to recommend it.

Although budget estimates of $100 billion accompanied any colonization project, the authors of this study concluded, “in contrast to Apollo, it appears that space colonization may be a paying proposition.” For them, it offered “a way out from the sense of closure and of limits which is now oppressive to many people on Earth.” The study recommended an international project led by the United States that would result in the establishment of a space colony. Supporters founded the L-5 Society, named for one of the points to which colonist would migrate, “to arouse public enthusiasm for space colonization.” 

O’Neill publicized these findings exhaustively, but with political will for an aggressive space effort at low tide in the latter 1970s nothing came of it. Both O’Neill and his supporters criticized NASA for not turning the dreams of a visionary future in space into reality. A further wedge between the pro-space advocates and the government agency charged with space exploration resulted.

Yet, many of O’Neill’s ideas were strikingly naive and certainly politically unsupportable. His vision of constructing space colonies, while enormously attractive for some people, has never been viable. He thought that space colonies would ease the pressures of overpopulation on Earth, yet one must ask if the Earth is truly overpopulated. Through more effective husbanding of resources here, there should be enough for all. And it is more likely that through greater energy generation and communication technologies, humans will learn to live in places heretofore viewed as uninhabitable—such as polar regions and under the oceans.

Fantastic schemes such as O’Neill’s promised little for the solutions required to sustain this planet. They constituted a form of denial in that they directed public attention to solutions that were perhaps technically feasible but politically unattainable. Humans had best learn to take care of their own planet before abandoning their home for starry evacuation schemes, and spaceflight technologies may significantly help with that undertaking. No wonder they failed. It was a great disappointment for many, and some have yet to overcome it.

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5 Responses to Gerard K. O’Neill and the Great Disappointment

  1. Damara Arrowood says:

    I’m just a new kid on the outer edges of the Space community and perhaps still wearing my rose-coloured glasses, but I don’t feel O’Neill or his plans failed. We have yet to go ahead with even the technically feasible aspects of those plans. I feel it’s more an issue of timing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. NelC says:

    I’m not sure that it’s strictly accurate to write that this was a scheme to relieve overpopulation; in the beginning, at least, the main thrust of the thing was to support the building of solar power arrays to beam energy down to Earth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Can’t believe anyone considered his book viable in the short term. Kids with no science education already knew it wouldn’t be viable for hundreds of years, but some beaurocrats might have had delusions about the space shuttle.

    Liked by 1 person

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