Gerard K. O’Neill, Part 1

Gerard K. O’Neill, Part 1

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Gerard K. O’Neill Part 1

Father of Space Settlements


Frank White

(c) Copyright, Frank White, 1995, All Rights Reserved

This message is the 21st in a series of Space Frontier Foundation essays designed to inform the Internet public about the incredible possibilities awaiting us in space and the sixth in Frank White’s series on the Visionaries Of The Open Frontier.

Not long after the Apollo 11 landing on the moon, a Princeton physics professor asked his class to think about the best place to construct large-scale human settlements beyond the planet Earth. Up until that moment, most people, working under the influence of generations of science fiction writers, had assumed that humans who moved off the Earth would live on the surface of the moon or on Mars.

The professor, Gerard K. O’Neill, and his students, may have started with those same preconceptions, but they concluded their analysis with a startling series of insights that has transformed our thinking about human evolution into the universe.

O’Neill and the class determined that a planetary surface would not be the optimum site for space settlements, largely because of the energy required to land on and take off from such a surface. They also realized that the best way to build a space settlement would be to “live off the land” like earlier terrestrial pioneers, using extraterrestrial materials for construction, rather than dragging those materials out from Earth.

What emerged was the visionary concept of space settlements built in free space, housing up to 10,000 people, powered by the unlimited and non-polluting energy of the sun. The libration points between the Earth and the Moon were found to be the most stable places for such communities, and the fifth of these, L5, the best spot of all.

O’Neill and his students had transformed the paradigm of space settlement thinking.

While many observers would say that O’Neill’s most important conceptual breakthroughs came in the distinctions between living in free space and on planetary surfaces, the most significant transformation in thinking was really the idea of the frontier as a place where all human beings could go and realize their full potential. O’Neill articulated his vision in a book, The High Frontier, which immediately became a popular antidote to the “limits to growth” thinking that came to permeate the 1970s.

O’Neill and his class spawned a movement that is likely to turn into a revolution.

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