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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reading List: The High Frontier

O'Neill, Gerard K. The High Frontier. Mojave, CA: Space Studies Institute, [1976, 1977, 1982, 1989] 2013. ISBN 978-0-688-03133-6.
In the tumultuous year of 1969, Prof. Gerard K. O'Neill of Princeton University was tapped to teach the large freshman physics course at that institution. To motivate talented students who might find the pace of the course tedious, he organised an informal seminar which would explore challenging topics to which the basic physics taught in the main course could be applied. For the first topic of the seminar he posed the question, “Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilisation?”. So fascinating were the results of investigating this question that the seminar never made it to the next topic, and working out its ramifications would occupy the rest of O'Neill's life.

By 1974, O'Neill and his growing group of informal collaborators had come to believe not only that the answer to that 1969 question was a definitive “no”, but that a large-scale expansion of the human presence into space, using the abundant energy and material resources available outside the Earth's gravity well was not a goal for the distant future but rather something which could be accomplished using only technologies already proved or expected in the next few years (such as the NASA's space shuttle, then under development). Further, the budget to bootstrap the settlement of space until the point at which the space settlements were self-sustaining and able to expand without further support was on the order of magnitude of the Apollo project and, unlike Apollo, would have an economic pay-off which would grow exponentially as space settlements proliferated.

As O'Neill wrote, the world economy had just been hit by the first of what would be a series of “oil shocks”, which would lead to a massive transfer of wealth from productive, developed economies to desert despotisms whose significance to the world economy and geopolitics would be precisely zero did they not happen to sit atop a pool of fuel (which they lacked the ability to discover and produce). He soon realised that the key to economic feasibility of space settlements was using them to construct solar power satellites to beam energy back to Earth.

Solar power satellites are just barely economically viable if the material from which they are made must be launched from the Earth, and many design concepts assume a dramatic reduction in launch costs and super-lightweight structure and high efficiency solar cells for the satellites, which adds to their capital cost. O'Neill realised that the materials which make up around 99% of the mass of a solar power satellite are available on the Moon, and a space settlement, with access to lunar material at a small fraction of the cost of launching from Earth and the ability to fabricate the very large power satellite structures in weightlessness would reduce the cost of space solar power to well below electricity prices of the mid-1970s (which were much lower than those of today).

In this book, a complete architecture is laid out, starting with initial settlements of “only” 10,000 people in a sphere about half a kilometre in diameter, rotating to provide Earth-normal gravity at the equator. This would be nothing like what one thinks of as a “space station”: people would live in apartments at a density comparable to small towns on Earth, surrounded by vegetation and with a stream running around the equator of the sphere. Lunar material would provide radiation shielding and mirrors would provide sunlight and a normal cycle of day and night.

This would be just a first step, with subsequent settlements much larger and with amenities equal to or exceeding those of Earth. Once access to the resources of asteroids (initially those in near-Earth or Earth-crossing orbits, and eventually the main belt) was opened, the space economy's reliance on the Earth would be only for settlers and lightweight, labour-intensive goods which made more sense to import. (For example, it might be some time before a space settlement built its own semiconductor fabrication facility rather than importing chips from those on Earth.)

This is the future we could be living in today, but turned our backs upon. Having read this book shortly after it first came out, it is difficult to describe just how bracing this optimistic, expansive view of the future was in the 1970s, when everything was brown and the human prospect suddenly seemed constrained by limited resources, faltering prosperity, and shrinking personal liberty. The curious thing about re-reading it today is that almost nothing has changed. Forty years later, O'Neill's roadmap for the future is just as viable an option for a visionary society as it was when initially proposed, and technological progress and understanding of the space environment has only improved its plausibility. The International Space Station, although a multi-decade detour from true space settlements, provides a testbed where technologies for those settlements can be explored (for example, solar powered closed-cycle Brayton engines as an alternative to photovoltaics for power generation, and high-yield agricultural techniques in a closed-loop ecosystem).

The re-appearance of this book in an electronic edition is timely, as O'Neill's ideas and the optimism for a better future they inspired seem almost forgotten today. Many people assume there was some technological flaw in his argument or that an economic show-stopper was discovered, yet none was. It was more like the reaction O'Neill encountered when he first tried to get his ideas into print in 1972. One reviewer, recommending against publication, wrote, “No one else is thinking in these terms, therefore the ideas must be wrong.” Today, even space “visionaries” imagine establishing human settlements on the Moon, Mars, and among the asteroids, with space travel seen as a way to get to these destinations and sustain pioneer communities there. This is a vision akin to long sea voyages to settle distant lands. O'Neill's High Frontier is something very different and epochal: the expansion of a species which evolved on the surface of a planet into the space around it and eventually throughout the solar system, using the abundant solar energy and material resources available there. This is like life expanding from the sea where it originated onto the land. It is the next step in the human adventure, and it can begin, just as it could have in 1976, within a decade of a developed society committing to make it so.

For some reason the Kindle edition, at least when viewed with the iPad Kindle application, displays with tiny type. I found I had to increase the font size by four steps to render it easily readable. Since font size is a global setting, that means than if you view another book, it shows up with giant letters like a first grade reader. The illustrations are dark and difficult to interpret in the Kindle edition—I do not recall whether this was also the case in the paperback edition I read many years ago.

Posted at May 2, 2013 18:28