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The High Frontier

Dr. Gerard O'Neill, 50, is a high-energy physicist best known in his field for originating the colliding-beam storage ring, which has been adopted in nuclear accelerators throughout the world. Since 1974 he has become better known to the general public as the designer and promoter of very large scale Space Colonies. He is a professor at Princeton (though this year, 1977, he's teaching at MlT), a former Navy non-com, and a holder of the International Diamond Badge for soaring (about 1% of glider pilots have one). This talk was given at the World Future Society convocation in Washington D.C. in Spring, 1975. It was perhaps the least well-attended of the hundred presentations at the conference. Futurists were more interested in problems than solutions that year. O'Neill's remarks that day converted me from mild interest in the Space Colonies to obsession.


During the past decade a number of premises about the basic problems of the world have become very widely accepted. The more important of these accepted ideas are:

  1. That for the forseeable future every significant human activity must be confined to the surface of the earth.
  2. That the material and energy resources of the human race are just those of our planet.
  3. That any realistic solutions to our problems of food, population, energy and materials must be based on a kind of zero-sum game, in which no resources can be obtained by one nation or group without being taken from another.

Given those premises, logic has driven most observers to the conclusion that long-term peace and stability can only be reached by some kind of systematic global arrangement, with tight constraints to insure the sharing, equable or otherwise, of the limited resources available. I find it personally shocking that many such observers, even those who profess to a deep concern for humankind, accept with equanimity the need for massive starvation, war or disease as necessary precursors to the achievement of such a systematic global arrangement.

In what follows, I will deliberately depart from my usual style. I will not hedge all my statements with cautious limits and buttress them with footnotes, as I would before a scientific audience or as I certainly shall when I testify before a Congressional subcommittee a few weeks from now. Rather, I will be assertive in style, so as to make clear by its shock-value how fundamentally different one new concept is.

If the studies which we have carried out at Princeton University continue to survive technical review, then I must tell you that in my opinion the three basic premises on which most discussions of the future have been based are simply wrong. The human race stands now on the threshold of a new frontier, whose richness surpasses a thousand fold that of the new western world of five hundred years ago.

That frontier can be exploited for all of humanity, and its ultimate extent is a land area many thousands of times that of the entire Earth. As little as ten years ago we lacked the technical capability to exploit that frontier. Now we have that capability, and if we have the willpower to use it we can not only benefit all humankind, but also spare our threatened planet and permit its recovery from the ravages of the industrial revolution.

These statements may sound like empty rhetoric. In the next few minutes I would like to sketch for you how they can be proven to be true. It is not necessary to have a technical background to appreciate these facts. Indeed, one of the most surprising aspects of the new opportunities is that they do not require new technology for their realization.

The high frontier which I will describe is space, but not in the sense of the Apollo program, a massive effort whose main lasting results were scientific. Nor is it space in the sense of the communications and observation satellites, useful as they are. Least of all is it space in the sense of science-fiction, in which harsh planetary surfaces were tamed by spacesuited daredevils. Rather, it is a frontier of new lands, located only a few days travel time away from the Earth, and built from materials and energy available in space.

These are the facts which force a revolution in our thinking:

  1. Solar energy: as everyone knows, the Sun is a virtually inexhaustible source of clean energy. It is difficult to use on Earth as more than a small supplement to other sources, though, for two reasons:
    a) Unreliability: though solar energy is available full time in space, on Earth it is cut off by nighttime, by seasonal variation in the daylength, and by clouds.
    b) Low average intensity: the cost of any solar power installation is the amortization cost of the equipment, because the source is free. The amount of solar energy which flows unused, in a year, through each square meter of free space is ten times as much as falls on an equal area in even the most cloud-free portions of Arizona or New Mexico. A given solar-energy installation in space, therefore, is potentially able to operate at a tenth the cost at which it could operate on Earth.

  2. Materials: If we build new lands in space, starting from the Earth, we are the "gravitationally disadvantaged." We are at the bottom of a gravitational well 4000 miles deep, from which materials can only be lifted into space at great cost. Our technique must exploit the fact that the Moon has a gravitational well only 1/20 as deep, and as we now know from the Apollo samples, is a rich source of metals, glass, oxygen, and soil. In the long run, we can use the fact that the asteroids are also a source of materials: the three largest asteroids alone contain enough materials for the construction of new lands with a total area many thousands of times as large as that of the Earth.
Briefly, I will describe for you first the long-term then the immediate possibilities on this new frontier. As I do, remember that everything I describe is well within the limits of present-day, conventional materials, and of present technology. If we were to start now, with determination and drive, in my opinion the first space community could be in place, with its productive capacity benefiting the Earth, before 1990. other people who have made such estimates put the date about a decade later, but the surprising fact is that the agreement is that close. The reason is that the job requires straightforward engineering, not any basically new science - nothing as new and advanced as hydrogen fusion power, for example. To estimate conservatively what sort of habitat might be practical in the long term, perhaps 40 to 100 years from now, I'll sketch a space colony which is about as big as may be practical using present-day materials.

Recently the NASA/Ames laboratory completed a painting of the exterior of such a colony: note industry sites. A colony would be big enough to model some of the most desirable areas of the Earth. A portion of the island of Bermuda, or a section of the California coast like Carmel could be easily fit within one of the "valleys" of a Model III Colony.

The date of realization of colonies of that size does not depend on materials or engineering - those we have already. Rather, it depends on a balance between productivity, a rising living standard and the economies possible with automation. Under the space-colony conditions of virtually unlimited energy and materials resources, a continually rising real income for all colonists is possible - a continuation rather than the arrest of the industrial revolution. Reasonable estimates of three percent per year for the real income rise, 8% for interest costs and 10% per year for automation advances put the crossover date (the date when large colonies become economically feasible) about 40 to 50 years from now - well within the lifetimes of most of the people who are now alive.

Colony construction is a bootstrap process, in which one starts small, the first small colony builds the next larger, and so on. The first space community might house about 10,000 people. My coworkers and I sometimes call it Model 1, or Island one. We think it could be built in 15 to 25 years, at a cost per year probably not much higher than that of Project Apollo, and not more than one or two tenths of the annual cost of Project Independence. To be realized, of course, its immediate economic return must be far higher, because of interest amortization with discounted economics.

Island One will need careful design, with spot shielding for cosmic-ray protection. It may run in an enriched oxygen atmosphere. At the L-5 Earth-Moon Lagrange libration point, though small, Island One could be a far more attractive environment for living than most of the world's population now experiences.

To obtain from an investment not much larger than that of Project Apollo a return many thousands of times as great, we need a trick: the trick is to exploit the low gravity and vacuum environment of the Moon, to obtain from the lunar surface 98% of the material needed for Island one. For the entire construction of Island One the excavation left on the moon will be only 7 X 200 X 200 yards.

The machine to transport the lunar material is called a mass driver; it exists only on paper, but it can be designed and built with complete assurance of success because it requires no high-strength materials, no high accelerations or temperatures, and its principles are fully understood. Running only 25% of the time, the mass driver could lift 500,000 tons of material to L5 in the 6 year construction time of Island One. An identical machine, located in space, could be a very effective reaction motor for the shifting of heavy payloads, in the 100,000 ton range.

Once Island One is completed, it can become a manufacturing facility with a unique advantage, for those products whose end-use is in high orbit above the Earth. The economic payoff from Island One can be estimated by noting that a typical industry on Earth yields about 20 tons of finished products per man-year of labor, with a dollar value averaging a dollar per pound.

The lift cost from Earth to L5 or to geosynchronous orbit now averages a thousand dollars per pound. The space shuttle and simplified derivatives of it can bring that cost down to 300-400 $/pound. Very advanced large rockets, taking many years and tens of billions of dollars to develop, might reduce that cost to 50-100 $/pound. Taking for conservatism the lowest of those rates, the productivity of Island One would be worth 20 billion dollars per year, in addition to the intrinsic value of goods it produces.

That might be academic were it not that there exists a product, badly needed, whose end-use is in high orbit: the product is satellite solar power. For several years design groups at Boeing Aircraft and at the Arthur D Little Co. have studied the concept of locating large solar power stations in geosynchronous orbit, where sunlight is available 99% of the time, to beam down microwave power to the earth for conversion to ordinary AC or DC power. Oddly enough, the microwave link problem appears solved in principle: 56% efficiency has been demonstrated, and the goal is only 63% to 70%: the stumbling block to realization has just been the lift costs.

By using Island One as a manufacturing facility, it appears that the barrier can be broken and economical solar power achieved. The key point is that the use of lunar materials eliminates the need for incurring the high-lift costs from the Earth, and so appears capable of giving solar electric power on Earth at rates initially competitive, and eventually much lower than coal-fired or nuclear power plants. This is of prime importance for world peace, because the energy source is inexhaustible, and these power stations can be built for any nation that needs them.

If exploited, this approach would also eliminate the need for developing breeder reactors, whose plutonium production would always be subject to theft and use by terrorists.

It should also be emphasized that the provision of unlimited low-cost energy to the developing nations will probably be the most effective contribution we could make to solving the world's food problem, because the cost of chemicals for high-yield agriculture is almost entirely the cost of energy for their production.

Throughout this discussion you may have noticed that I have been careful to avoid prophecy. I am pointing out a realistic possibility: the drivers to make it happen are there: immediate jobs, of the high-technology kind which economic studies have shown generate wealth throughout an economy; the direct payback of a much-needed, marketable product Evidently deeper human needs are also driving this development, because of all the correspondence I receive on this subject only 1% is in opposition to it, and only another 1% is in any way irrational or unintelligent. Yet I do not say it will happen, or when. I hope it will, and soon.

While carefully avoiding prophecy, in closing I would like to show the potential power of the space-colonization approach by showing what could happen if the high frontier were to be explored and exploited by all of humankind: if the construction of new lands in space were to take place on the fastest possible time-scale.

If that were to happen, by about 2018 emigration to better land, better living conditions, better job opportunities and greater freedom of choice and opportunity in small scale, eventually independent communities could even become a viable option for more people than the population increase rate. That time is less than forty-five years away.

If the new option is taken, it would be naive to assume that its benefits will be initially shared equably among all of humankind. The world has never worked that way, and since people do not change there is no reason to suppose that it will work that way in this case. But the resources of space are so great that even nations which achieve only after a long delay the ability to use them will still find an abundance remaining. There are in my opinion at least five or six nations or groups of nations which possess the technical and economic ability to carry out the construction of Island One, the first real beachhead in space, on their own. Some one of these nations or groups may get there first, or - in my opinion preferably - they may do so together. It seems to me that we have in this case the opportunity for a cooperative international program which could have a real stabilizing effect on world tensions; and, knowing that the resources of space are so great, we who may be among those first to exploit them can well afford to provide for our less advantaged fellow humans the initial boost that will permit their exploiting these new resources for themselves. Suddenly given a new world market of several hundred billion dollars per year, the first group of nations to build space manufacturing facilities could well afford to divert some fraction of the new profits to providing low-cost energy to nations poor in mineral resources, and to assisting underdeveloped nations by providing them with initial space colonies of their own.

If we use our intelligence and our concern for our fellow human beings in this way, we can, without any sacrifice on our own part, make the next decades a time not of despair but of fulfilled hope, of excitement, and of new opportunity. .