Space Settlement: The Call of the High Frontier

Thirtyyears ago, Princeton Professor Gerard K. O'Neill published his scenario forspace settlement.

"Isthe surface of a planet the best place for an expanding technologicalcivilization?"  O'Neill's question to his advanced physics students inspireda young generation of thinkers to examine the possibilities of spacemigration.  In the middle 1970s, the accomplishments of Apollo were freshin our minds and the next steps forward seemed only paused but not yetabandoned.  We still dared to have great dreams, and great choices seemedto be opening up.


The resultsof Dr. O'Neill's initial classroom think tank were described in his PhysicsToday article in 1975.  His 1976 book The High Frontier explored thesubject in more detail.  As others became enthusiastic about the idea,many articles appeared in magazines and newspapers around the world.

O'Neillnever wanted the space settlement movement to be a one-man show, and he washappy to see a proliferation of books expanding on the idea.  Stuart Brandof Whole Earth Catalog fame published a book called Space Colonies, athought-provoking anthology with ranges of opinion impossible to find ingovernment and academic writings.  (A lightly censored version is archivedat NASA's SpaceSettlement pages.)

In themid-1970s I had occasion to ask one of the contributors, Paul Ehrlich, hisopinion of the space colony idea.  He laughingly dismissed it, saying,"Maybe the Army Corps of Engineers will build it."   Hisskepticism was based on some of the early rhetoric that population problemscould be addressed by space migration, an idea he rightfully dismissed onmathematical grounds alone.  A few years later he published (with AnneEhrlich) Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment.   Onechapter contained a discussion that showed a good deal of further thought aboutspace colonies, especially the problem of creating stable ecosystems from scratch,even in such large volumes as O'Neillian habitats.

Thisremains a major challenge, and requires a body of knowledge we have scarcelybegun to gather.  Just as the Human Genome Project is mapping out theintricate details of our genetic code, there will need to be the equivalent ofa Gaia Genome Project to take inventory of the varied ecosystems across Earth,mapping out the interaction between the environment and its inhabitants. It may be that certain soil bacteria, insects, and plants are criticallyimportant in as yet unknown ways.  When these subtle complexities arebetter understood, we can more intelligently design and build closed-cycleecosystems in space.

Unfortunately,human expansion on Earth is in the act of displacing and erasing more and morepieces of the ecosystem. Those who would compile such a massive study of theGaia system may soon be in the position of trying to copy the pages of adocument that is burning and falling apart before their eyes. 

Time is ofthe essence in deciding if there will ever be a space settlement effort, onthis and other critical fronts.

As theinitial tide of space colony interest waned in the late 1970s, there was lesstalk of visionary ideas and more about economic justifications.  The mainindustry was seen as mass-production of solar power satellites, collectingenergy in space and beaming it down to antenna farms for use on Earth. When the second round of 1970s oil shortages hit at the end of the decade, theidea looked even more attractive.  But this was in the day when oil wasrising from $15 a barrel to $37 by 1980.  By 1986, oil was down to $15again, and the sense of urgency faded.  Today, with oil running over $50 abarrel and the supply a constant source of uncertainty, such a novel energysource could begin to look more inviting again.

Visions ofspace colonies and space power industries faded in the glare of some harshrealities: the Shuttle not living up to its selling points, the space station'sprotracted birth agonies, and the dwindling prospects for going beyond Earthorbit. 

If theideas for space settlement have engineering validity, they deserve to be keptready so they can be considered as an option when the times become right. The English Channel Tunnel was an idea gathering dust on shelves since the daysof Napoleon, long predicted never to happen, but suddenly the work was done andnow the tunnel is taken for granted, as if it always existed.

It's timefor a new generation to be made aware of the possibilities of space settlement. One motivation that may be compelling--more than the Earth-saving energyproduction scenario, worthy as that is and even more than the thrill ofjust going out there--is the idea of living in a small but independent world ofone's own choosing. 

There arenow practically no new nations created on Earth without episodes ofbloodshed.  Short of revolution and war, there are few options availablefor those who dream about establishing a new society somewhere, as variousideological and religious groups have historically done.  But even today,there are many people who would welcome the chance to settle a new frontier,where new ways of life could be tried.  If enough people believed therewas an opportunity to leave whatever they didn't like about society behind andstart over with a new nation aligned to their shared passions, I believe thatcould stir the pioneer spirit that still slumbers in many.  

Space settlementmay really get started if the idea finds appeal in influential circles,especially among world leaders.  Several Great Themes have successfullycirculated among leaders of the industrial societies, such as the need to avoidnuclear war, the importance of economic ties, and the need to make and honorinternational agreements. A Great Theme of establishing a permanent humanpresence in space--as a way to develop new energy sources to maintain highstandards of living for the growing population of Earth, and as a way to backup Earth's living populations and preserve our collected knowledge, and tocreate new living spaces for those wanting new ways of life--would provide aguiding principle for vital policy decisions.

During theKennedy era, when Project Apollo was presented, many influential peoplerecalled the Colliers symposium articles and the Disney space televisionspecial.  The idea was already real to them, so they instinctively knew itcould be done.  It was just a matter of priorities.

Having a technologicalcivilization that's able to afford nice things like space travel depends on theinfrastructure not being destroyed by wars or natural disaster.   Theability to "back up" our selves and our gathered knowledge may not always be possibleas it is today.

As long aswe live in a world where limited resources must be allocated among a growingpopulation, we are ultimately doomed.  All our efforts to increase foodproduction and extend individual longevity will end up trading a soonercatastrophe for a later one of greater scope.  So far, we are succeedingin a kind of pyramid scheme with Earth's resources, but in time the pressure ofhuman numbers will strain and drain them. When resources become scarce andpopulations dense, individual freedoms are unaffordable luxuries.

Ifcivilization is to be allowed to spread beyond Earth, it must take place beforethe world's resources are forcibly redistributed or squandered and disrupted bymajor wars.  In recent history, we have seen we have seen our ability toreach the Moon thrown away to pay for a massive military effort that onlymanaged to delay the communist takeover of South Vietnam by 10 years.

We havelost precious decades of establishing a beachhead in space due to waveringpriorities and economic downturns.  We cannot assume conditions willalways be as right as they are now for such bold ventures as spacetravel.  Instabilities tug at the house of cards that we callcivilization.  We still have time to accomplish the miracles we know arepossible to achieve, but we need to begin the work while we can still afford todo it.

DonDavis ( is theartist most responsible for making space colonies look like a good place tolive.  He won an Emmy for his work on Carl Sagan's TV series Cosmos.  Today he is theleading astronomical artist for full-dome theater shows in planetariumsworldwide.

NOTE: The views of this article are theauthor's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.

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