There is a group of people, most of us now in our fifties now, that call ourselves Gerry’s kids. In the 1970’s Gerard K. O’Neill, professor of physics at Princeton University was one of the very few voices for space that had the gravitas to be published and listened to on the subject. He founded the Space Studies Institute with the premise that space was too important to be left to the politicians.
The 1970’s was an era very much like today. Every day then it was the doom and gloom of the gas crisis, the resource crisis, the nuclear crisis, and most of all, an amazing crisis of spirit, that was not commented on with the hysteria of the other crises. This was also the beginning of the time of the problems that carry on today in the middle east. As a teenager of that era who lived and breathed space, reading Dr. O’Neill in Omni (and Omni magazine itself) was a breath of fresh air, a counterweight to the Limits to Growth doom and gloomers of that era.
Unfortunately I never got to meet Dr. O’Neill as he died in the early 1990’s. I was a member of one of their projects, the Lunar Prospector, the first privately conceived lunar resource mapping mission. This mission was later adopted by NASA, flew in 1998, and provided the first solid indication of water ice and global resources after the Apollo era. There is a pretty good Wikipedia page about him here. A dear friend has recently given me a corpus of Dr. O’Neill’s writings, including a short one from Omni magazine that is important and I will reproduce in part here.
The reason to me that this is important is that the subject of space manufacturing, space resources, and space development have been around for a long time and it hasn’t happened yet and we need to understand why it did not happen then and how to make it happen today. We need to make it happen because the same type of doom and gloomers that were around then are screaming louder today. They are just as wrong now, if not more so than in the 70’s, but their voices have been adopted by those with good intentions, but no clue about what the future can hold, if we just not give up, not give in, and we don’t surrender to the voices of darkness.
Here is Gerry’s First Word in Omni Magazine. (I don’t know what issue)
If you want to be sure something gets done, do it yourself. That’s an old rule and it works. A small band of people from all over the world are applying it now in practice. They feel that the breakout of humankind into space is too important to be left to the vagaries of national politics and they are making it happen on their own.
With the successes of Apollo, Skylab, Soyz, Viking, and the planetary survey spacecraft, we humans have shown our ability to break free of the limits a planetary surface imposes. Why battle over fossilized energy when out beyond Earth’s shadow there streams by every second, based, enough continuous solar energy to power our civilization for thousands of years? Why fight over minerals when theres more iron, nickel, aluminum, silicon, and other useful elements in the asteroids [ed: and the moon] than we could obtain by carving away every mountain range on Earth?
NASA conducted technical studies in 1976 and 19777, under my direction, aimed at using non terrestrial resources. We obtained positive results, since confirmed in yearlong contractor studies by Convair/General Dynamics, MIT, and the Lunar and Planetary Institute. If there’s a need for big construction in space, whether it’s for radio telescopes, deep-space laboratories, solar-power satellites, or space colonies, that need can be met most economically by getting raw materials from the moon or asteroids. That logistical result will endure forever, because no one can repeal the law of gravity. It will always take more than 20 times as much energy to haul a ton up to orbit from the earth as from the moon.
Despite all good will on the part of our NASA friends, it became clear late in the 1970’s that the space agency could carry this research forward without help. Amid reorganizations, continuing governmental budgetary crises, and potshots from critics, NASA was lucky if it could plan even six month ahead [ed: nothing has changed] But to get results, research has got to be published steadily, and the Space Studies Institute (SSI) was formed in 1977 to do just that: it funds research through tax-deductable gifts from individuals. Overhead? No problem: SSI’s founding officers serve without pay. So do its senior advisors, who include both of the last two NASA administrators, other distinguished scientists, and such visionaries as Buckminster Fuller and Barbara Hubbard.
The Institutes’s donors are asked for only $10 to cover the annual subscription, but most of them renew at higher figures. By 1979, hundreds of individuals began pledging larger sums annually for five years. SSI’s capital resources, acquired by such voluntary gives, will never equal the vast sums that governments extract from citizens by taxation, but SSI is building assets that are even more important: continuity and longevity. It is committed to opening the resources of space for human benefit, and it will hold to that commitment no matter what politicians are swept into or out of office by the winds of political fortune. Occasionally an administration may support a project [ed: like Lunar Prospector] that SSI started. Fine. The institute will turn to the next item on its funding priority list.
SSI funds were allocated first to the construction of a model mass driver, a special type of electric motor that could be used to launch lunar materials to a precise point in space, or to drive space freighters efficiently, running on solar power. The model built mainly by MIT students working as volunteers, demonstrated an acceleration of 35 gravities, zero to 85 mph in 0.1 second. With continued SSI support, and initial design was drawn up for a second model, to work at 500 gravities of acceleration. NASA became interested and supported its construction. By mid-1980 that machine was working too.
The institute also began supporting workshops to find the quickest, least expensive methods of reaching higher economic productivity in space, using solar energy and lunar materials. Specialists in mass driver design, spacecraft engineering, the chemical separation of lunar materials, and industrial automation cooperated and found that an investment of $6 billion to $8 billion, no more than the cost of wholly private ventures like the Alaska pipeline would be enough to establish a partially automated industry in space, producing 100,000 tons of products annually with a value of over $10 billion.
Recently the institute made a third grant, and the research it supported opened the door to what could be the most attractive storehouse of materials in the entire solar system. Following a suggestion by one of SSI’s senior advisors, the Noble laureate Professor Hannes Alfven, a Princeton graduation student named Scott Dunbar wrote his doctoral thesis on a difficult problem in gravitational theory. He showed that small asteroids could be trapped along the earth’s orbit. Those nuggets would be retrievable at almost no cost in energy, and an inexpensive telescopic probe could find them if they exist.
The breakout into space doesn’t depend on our being so lucky as to find those particular asteroids, but it does depend on our learning to separate lunar or asteroidal materials into pure metals silicon and oxygen. The institute has now put its highest priority on raising funds to build a working pilot plant, at tabletop sale, to extract pure elements from minerals identical to those on the moon. With a constancy of purpose and its independence, SSI is proving that a small amount of money spent wisely can be more effective in advancing a cause than much larger sums scattered for purposes that change with every passing year…..
I read back on this missive by Dr. O’Neill ruefully. Today we are still saying what he said three decades ago. The issues are the same, the ideas are the same, and the challenges as well. Late in his life Dr. O’Neill and others founded a commercial GPS like satellite project to provide commercial positioning, which was overtaken by the government provided GPS. What he said back then is still valid today and much of his work and ideas has continued to inspire my own work in this field.
One thing that was an achilles heel of his plan as well as many others is that he only needed $6-8 billion to make the plan work. Time and experience has shown that no one invests this amount of money in a project with as high of perceived and real risks. Many of us who learned from Dr. O’Neill have started with far smaller projects that have commercial viability today, and then hopefully we will grow into the type of organization that can pull off these very big projects. The dream is still there for us and it is the good dream of a positive future for all mankind, while as good capitalists, we have to make a profit as well!