Gerard K. O’Neill on Space Resources; Omni Magazine First Word

Gerard_K_ONeilThere 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!


23 thoughts on “Gerard K. O’Neill on Space Resources; Omni Magazine First Word

  1. Regarding how to achieve economic sustainability in space while achieving large goals such as settlement, it seems to me that the public-private approach is the most likely to succeed.

    The big goals require big funding. In theory one could start small (e.g. small sats imaging Earth for profit, followed by imaging asteroids, followed by asteroid sampling, followed by the in-space production of propellant for sale, and this leading eventually to the construction of O’Neillian colonies…or some other pathway). But this is very theoretical and uncertain to come to get us to out ultimate goal. For example, even though communications satellites have long been profitable, they haven’t led to in-space resource utilization or settlement.

    But the COTS, etc programs have provided sufficient funding to develop vehicles large enough for cargo and crew. And in the case of anticipated future SpaceX technologies, I can see using such an approach (public-private) to get us to lunar and asteroid resource utilization and even lunar and perhaps Martian settlement.

    So, I don’t buy O’Neil’s go it alone philosophy. Normal investors want to put their money into those opportunities which provide good return but, importantly, minimal risk. I believe that on-Earth investment opportunities will almost always have lower perceived risk. We can hope and wait for the rare billionaire who will risk a sizeable portion of their net worth for us. But apart from Elon (much of who’s net worth can be traced to public-private programs) I’m not sure who else fits the bill.

    1. Oh I think that there are ways to leverage. We spent decades trying to get the government to do these things without success. I do think that the public private partnership has merit and is a way to go, but for something really big like O’Neill wanted to do, I still think that we are a ways away from the political tipping point for support.

      I am highly encouraged though at the thought patterns of the very young 17-25 age bracket. They are so tired of politics as usual and I think that they are interested in, and ready for space.

  2. Regarding the limits to growth argument, I have never been that excited about it one way or another. First of all, I have doubts that it is a real problem to begin with. Peak oil has given away to fraking. Even if we ran out of that then the markets would simply move to the next more costly form such as biofuels, electric vehicles, nuclear, solar, fusion, or whatever. We may pay a bit more but it’s not like the end of civilization or anything. Regarding rare metals, there are probably alternative approaches. For example, it’s not like our economy can’t grow because some metal with some unique quality doesn’t exist on the periodic table. So, one metal becoming rare on Earth won’t spell the doom of civilization.

    Secondly, although we in theory will run out of something at some point in time, it’s not clear that that is a problem for the here and now. It doesn’t seem to me to be an urgent issue and so it is not clear to me that it needs to be THE rationale for our next effort in space. For example, the discovery of the New World wasn’t important because Europe had stopped growing because they had run out of something. Rather, the New World was important because it added to Europe’s growth, it was part of the future, and it held the potential for a new civilization which would bless the Old World with new freedoms. I think that these same reasons apply to our next efforts in space.

    1. You may not be excited about it but most of our government today runs its climate change and other government policies based on its premises. I agree with you technically, but I was just in a presentation by leading IPCC members this past week and they have rejected most of the feasible technical solutions.

  3. Long time fan of Gerard K. O’Neal, new fan of denniswingo.

    Too bad the missile age and early space age gave him, along with many others, the impression that progress in space would continue at Apollo levels of ambition. Since Apollo was a political mission, practical missions like space colonies would be out of the question, regardless of their technical feasibility, only comparatively simple missions that maintained the aerospace industrial complex prevailed.

    We are just now at the beginning of the “real” space age where commercial space access brings continuously expanding opportunities for profit in near and far space. When the time comes to start building colony stations, it will be because they are needed. Shortly after they are proven, we will build them because people want to. Let the birth of a thousand nations begin!

    1. The future is not written in stone and we are equally (in my opinion), headed for either Star Trek or Mad Max….

      As for the past, the Apollo program was betrayed by those who sought to use its success as a template for their own desires to fill their particular rice bowl of government intervention, for the greater good of course.

      1. It is my sincere hope that we get neither Star Trek or Mad Max scenarios as likely outcomes in our lifetimes! It doesn’t seem plausible to me that either is likely, there is just too much space in space for such conditions to either last, or become ubiquitous. I rest my case against Mad Max scenarios mostly on Steven Pinker’s arguments in “The Better Angels of our Nature”.

        Somewhat related, and helpful for my argument, I just finished the first book written by a terrestrial property developer on possible space development scenarios. I think he is mostly correct for the broad picture of outer space development, but the details will likely be much different. Yet it is apparent that space development will be very expensive initially, so Mad Max scenarios would be hard to evolve in those conditions, and the massive central control of a Star Trek scenario could narrow development solutions greatly.

  4. I think you asked one of the Limits to Growth (Club of Rome?) people why extraterrestrial resources was not considered in their studies. I guess they never considered such.

    You should stop by the Ames History Office, get a picture of you along side one of original paintings from 1970s inspired by O’Neill’s work.

    1. Dr. David Webb, one of my mentor’s was on the committee that funded the study that became the Club of Rome output. He said that he did ask these european bankers and others on the team about extraterrestrial resources and that they basically blew it off as not possible.

      Menopausal thinking as Timothy Leary would say.

  5. “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.”

    I think things have changed since 1998.
    Or I think there is no hope of doing anything with the moon without minable lunar water.
    Once you have lunar water mined, then that will transforms the Moon into place that allows what Dr. O’Neill suggests.
    So without minable water on the moon, I think one should ignore the Moon.
    But if there is minable water anywhere in space, and it’s mined, then you stop ignoring the Moon.
    Or Dr. O’Neill’s world/reality did not include minable lunar water- and in my opinion that would not work. Just as SPS don’t work. But SPS will begin to be possible if lunar water is mined.

    And the key to whether or not the moon has minable water depends on exploration of the Moon
    to find where and if there is minable water.
    Once that is done, then it’s the 6-8 billion needed and more importantly it’s possible to get the 6-8 billion needed to mine the water [and other stuff].
    So I would say minable of lunar water is only path to the Moon- and not minable by any government operation- it has to be commercial.
    Or NASA can play on lunar surface, but not may help at all.Or NASA could do lunar water mining what it did for SSTO which was to prove it was not possible {which is false}.
    Both SSTO and lunar water mining have to do with markets rather than some kind of “technological answer”. NASA has demonstrated it can wreck markets.

    Now in terms of technology what is critical for lunar water mining is orbital depots.
    One could also say that for SSTO, that orbital depots could be “helpful”- though maybe not
    as much on the “critical path” as it is for lunar water mining.
    I would say developing depots is most important thing NASA can do in the near term. And it’s needed even if the Moon doesn’t have near term minable water.
    Or depots are needed to mine water from asteroids also. Depots are also a way to lower costs
    for Mars manned exploration.
    Or without depots being used and without a significant amount of lunar exploration to find minable water, it’s harder to get to mining the Moon. Or upfront, you need to develop privately depots, and upfront you need to explore the moon- which billions of dollar without profit in sight.
    Or probably best to start your own spaceport, put depot at it’s inclination and get satellites to GEO
    as your business. So your business is being a spaceport- and you in competition with governments who may give that service “for free”- just to ruin you.
    Personally I would recommend the spaceport- though one starts with legal problems of it.
    Or you want to get rocket launch companies to use your spaceport, rather than also requiring you
    to build rockets for your spaceport- so it’s a legal and political [and international] “problem”.
    But even if you built the rockets for the spaceport, you still want other rocket companies using your spaceport.
    Of course another path is suborbital and seems even with suborbital could it could intersect with using depots.

    1. G

      We already know that the Moon has large quantities of hydrogen in the polar regions, based on remote sensing. Whether it is in the form of hydrocarbons or water (probably both) is not that big of a deal. What we do know, and this is 100% confirmed, is that the Moon has basically a bunch of metal oxides, with oxygen making up almost half the mass of the Moon. Also, hydrogen (as that is the key desirable element that is scarce) locked up in hydrocarbons might be more valuable, as carbon is also incredibly useful but also scarce on the Moon.

      As for ignoring the Moon, that’s no longer tenable, even with the information we have, and even if the hydrogen is not super mineable. It was shown a long time ago that a LOX/Aluminum engine would work and there is a LOT of aluminum on the Moon.

      The key is not hydrogen, the key is energy. The more we have on the Moon, the more useful things we can do. The less we have, the fewer useful things. Thus, getting large quantities of low cost energy production on the Moon is where I would suggest research dollars go. The rest will fall out from that. Molten salt Thorium reactors, using lunar native Thorium is the medium to long term solution.

      1. > oxygen making up almost half the mass of the Moon

        Wow, I cannot imagine that but I’m no geologist. But I can imagine in the future of low cost processors separating the metals from oxygen, and they dump the oxygen into space because there’s no means to store or use it all.

        > key is not hydrogen, the key is energy.

        Good point, and reminder of people think they are getting “free energy” using hydrogen powered cars.

        I read O’Neill applied for and was one of finalists in 1967 scientist astronaut group. What if he was selected? Would he continue his research or have spend more time doing “astronaut stuff”? (i.e. preparing for next big thing as all Apollo flights had no vacancies).

      2. Oxygen is major element in terms of mass of rocket fuel. With LH&LOX mixture of 1 to 6, it’s 6 times more massive. Any way to get oxygen cheaply would work.
        With water when split 9 kg of it, you get 8 kg of oxygen and 1 kg of hydrogen, and splitting 90 tons of water to get 90 tons of rocket fuel over a period of one year will require a large amount of power generation.
        Now if split aluminum oxides it will require far more energy to get the 80 ton of oxygen
        and I think getting enough electrical power to split as much a 90 tons of water a year
        is a large part of the problem or cost of making lunar rocket fuel.

        So I agree that hydrogen is not the key, rather the cheapest way to make oxygen on the moon is the key. But one look at the hydrogen made from splitting water as way to reduce the cost of rocket fuel.
        So I think hydrogen on the Moon is more expensive or higher price per kg an the cheaper one make LOX is the important issue. Or twice the cost of LOX is worst than twice the cost of hydrogen.
        So if LOX is $1000 per kg and Hydrogen is $4000 per kg if instead LOX were $500 per kg and hydrogen was $8000 per kg- that is better.
        Or if using 1 to 6, 6 times $1000 is $6000 + $4000 is $10,000 for 7 kg.of rocket fuel
        Or $1428.57 per kg of rocket fuel
        As compared to:
        6 times $500 is 3000 plus $8000 is 11,000 for 7.
        Or $1571.42
        So $1571.42 is *cheaper* than $1428.57 because one can sell LOX cheaper in orbit.
        And I believe being able to export LOX and water to lunar orbit at lowest price is key element of whether water is minable on the Moon. And if water is minable, than other things become minable.
        Or I don’t think it’s necessary to export hydrogen from the Moon.

        Of course supply and demand control the price of LOX and LH2. Or I can’t decree that thou shalt pay or more hydrogen.
        But I can predict that hydrogen will be more valuable on the Moon than oxygen.
        So as general rule I assume if LOX is $1000 per kg, then LH would be around $4000
        per kg. And in the future, it seems one will have an oversupply of LOX [so even cheaper than hydrogen- and possibility a “shortage” of Hydrogen- more expensive hydrogen relative to oxygen].
        So if assume one can sell hydrogen 4 times higher, then that essentially 1/2 the cost of making the LOX.
        Same thing if getting oxygen from aluminum ore- the selling of the aluminum lowers the cost of making the oxygen. But is aluminum metal worth more than the oxygen?
        I tend to think of metals such as aluminum or steel on the moon as worth less than LOX or rocket fuel [per kg]

        So you are vendor on the moon, and you selling AL and LOX for the use of rocket fuel.
        Buyer ask how much for your LOX? And how much for AL? And can buy them separately?
        And what is the vendors answer?

  6. 2-3 months ago, Al Globus sent out a paper he wrote detailing how much of the radiation which ISS astronauts get is as a result of passing through the Southern Atlantic Anomaly. He shows some calculations whereby, if one chooses an equatorial orbit instead, the amount of radiation exposure is considerably less.

    He also points to data indicating that the permissible levels for chronic radiation exposure could be higher than officially recognized. For example, there are specific places in the world where the population is exposed to considerably higher background radiation without obvious consequences. So, Al argues that we now know of a pathway from orbital tourism facilities to O’Neilian settlements which would not need the massive shielding for radiation.

    My thought is that we could perhaps launch O’Neillian-sized inflatable habitats with self-sealing layers with as little as a single launch. For example, if my math is correct, one could launch an inflatable cylinder of 1 cm thick polyethylene walls 545 m diameter and 545 m long within the 53 tonnes payload capacity of a Falcon Heavy. Or, for a 130 tonne SLS the radius & length would be 1,023 m which would be the size of the proposed Kalpana One.

    Obviously, there are lots of relevant details that would have to be solved along with this but I throw out those numbers to show that, using modern methods (e.g. inflatables and partially-reusable FHs) that what seemed incredible in previous years might start to get in the realm of credibility.

  7. Dennis,

    One of they proponents and practioners(!) of commercial go-it-alone is clearly Elon Musk. Yet, when he talks about the future, he only exclusively mentions Mars. And also, he seems to basically not believe in SPS or space mining, manufacturing etc… So he does, I think, buy the O’Neil vision.. I would say. Do you think that’ a correct representation, and why, in your opinion, is that?

    1. I think that your assessment is accurate. I think that Elon learned too much from a certain person very early in the SpaceX days and has not let it go yet, if ever.

      That’s ok, we are going to help make it happen!

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. I agree that it is ok, we are going to help make it happen. So long as he develops low-cost transportation systems that enable lunar development as an unintended side-effect, then he is doing more than his part to open up the solar system in a sustainable manner. Although it may be ironic that he is doing this unrelated to his objective, for me, it’s still all good.

  8. The case for developing extra terrestrial resources is complicated by the market for those resources. If you want to create wealth from those resources you need at some level to get the resource back to earth. Those proposing mining space sites and bringing the raw or processed ore back to earth are really barking up the wrong tree, certainly in the beginning, But yet, a resource has to be brought back to sell to make the profit that powers the whole cycle. The only initial industry I see that can kickstart this cycle is space solar power. If the launch costs can come down to where space solar power can be reasonable (not marginally) profitable with everything brought up from Earth, that alone will drive the competition for both cheaper launches to further maximise profits and drive for lunar mining to further reduce the absolute need for resources to brought up out of the well.

    It’s long been demonstrable that if you have a project in space with earth resources, you can do that project much cheaper if you can bring in resources from space. If we can get one power satellite project started, an awful lot of the rest will follow. It has always been a mantra in the industry that if you can get to something like $500 a kilo to LEO, space solar power starts to make sense. If Falcon Heavy actually can be launched for $100M a shot, then we’re pretty much there. If it can be launched for 85 or 90M per shot, there should be enough profit in it for the utilities to really start to examine SBSP. If they like the numbers, the $8-12 Billion needed is really a drop I the bucket for them. They just have to be convinced the risk is low enough to make it worth while.

    Once the pebbles start to move, the rest _will_ follow.

    1. > If you want to create wealth from those resources you need at some level to get the resource back to earth.

      I don’t think that I agree with that, at least not at the beginning. Initially the most obvious valuable product / service is propellant / propulsion derived from ice from either the Moon or asteroids. The value of this is due to the fact that it cost a lot of money to get propellant up from the Earth to LEO and so sourcing propellant from in-space sources is valuable from the very get-go. Later, yes, bringing precious metals back to Earth’s surface to compete with that being able to be mined on Earth is doable. But I think that clearly, the earliest, most profitable initial product / service is propellant.

      1. Thus my statement, at some level. The Moon is a good near term target simply due to the time cost of money issue. There are a lot of metals on the Moon just besides PGM’s that are of value for the industrialization of cislunar space as the first step, not only to Mars, but to the stars.

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