Should We Be Building Space Stations on the High Frontier?

Poster promoting "The High Frontier"

The High Frontier

After writing a post about Elon Musk firing a Tesla Roadster into space, a reader commented:

Lloyd, you should really read “The High Frontier” by Gerard O’Neill. He imagines building huge space cities at L5 that are full of green space and have no cars. Building them takes advantage of in situ resources and the lack of gravity to be done with very little energy compared to building on earth.

That sounded intriguing, so I bought the 1974 book, and was transported back to an exciting, optimistic time when the future was so bright. It also pointed to some amazing images that I thought would make a great slideshow.

credit: Mass Driver space gun

The author, Gerard K. O'Neill, was a physicist and space activist and taught at Princeton. As well as writing and teaching, he was an inventor who developed a satellite positioning system that became part of the GPS system. He also invented a sort of mass driver magnetic space gun that could fire softball-sized bits of the moon into space. In 1991 he patented a vactrain, a train powered by a linear induction motor and traveling in a vacuum tube that sounds very much like a hyperloop. According to Wikipedia,

The vehicles, instead of running on a pair of tracks, would be elevated using electromagnetic force by a single track within a tube (permanent magnets in the track, with variable magnets on the vehicle), and propelled by electromagnetic forces through tunnels. He estimated the trains could reach speeds of up to 2,500 mph (4,000 km/h) — about five times faster than a jet airliner — if the air was evacuated from the tunnels. To obtain such speeds, the vehicle would accelerate for the first half of the trip, and then decelerate for the second half of the trip. The acceleration was planned to be a maximum of about one-half of the force of gravity. O'Neill planned to build a network of stations connected by these tunnels, but he died two years before his first patent on it was granted.
credit: Rick Guidice, NASA Ames Research Center

O'Neill saw space stations as a way of growing vast amounts of food much more easily than on earth, because there is so much more sunlight.

Sharp limits on food, energy and materials confront us at a time when most of the human race is still poor, and when much of it is on the edge of starvation. We cannot solve that problem by a retreat to a pastoral, machine-free society: there are too many of us to be supported by preindustrial agriculture. In the wealthier areas of the world, we depend on mechanized farming to produce great quantities of food with relatively little human effort; but in much of the world, only-backbreaking labor through every daylight hour yields enough food for bare survival. About two-thirds of the human population is in underdeveloped countries. In those nations only a fifth of the people are adequately fed, while another fifth are "only" undernourished-all the rest suffer from malnutrition in various forms.
credit: Stanford Torus Cutaway view, exposing the interior

O'Neill also worried about climate change, and worried that growth rates in energy use were going to have dire consequences.

It has been pointed out by Von Hoerner that if such growth continues, within about eighty-five years the power we will be putting into the biosphere will be enough to raise the average temperature of Earth's surface by one degree centigrade. That is enough to cause profound changes in climate, rainfall, and in the water level of the oceans.
credit: Rick Guidice NASA Ames Research Center

Solar energy was, and is, the solution to our problems. But it is a lot better and stronger in space.

Solar energy would be a good solution to our energy problems, if it were available twenty-four hours per day and were never cut off by clouds. We should not dismiss it entirely, but it is very difficult to obtain at Earth's surface when we need it. To summarize, our hopes for improvement of the standard of living in our own country, and for the spread of wealth to underdeveloped nations, depend on our finding a cheap, inexhaustible, universally available energy source. If we continue to care about the environment in which we live, that energy source should be pollution-free and should be obtainable without stripping Earth.
credit: Stanford Torus

There would be lots of room for everyone to have what looks like a nice place to live.

Up to now, we have taken it for granted that huge cities were an inevitable part of industrialization. But what if it were possible to arrange an environment in which agricultural products could be grown with high efficiency, anywhere, at all times of the year? An environment in which energy would be universally available, in unlimited quantities, at all times? In which transport would be as easy and cheap as ocean freight, not just to particular points but to everywhere? There is, now, a possibility of designing such an environment.
credit: Stanford torus under construction/ Donald Davis

The main business might be producing electricity and shipping it back to earth. And just like we say today on TreeHugger, that would save fossil fuels for useful, permanent things like plastics.

For energy in the United States alone, we now burn literally billions of tons of irreplaceable fossil fuels every year. From a conservation viewpoint, it makes little sense to blow away this oil and coal in the form of smoke; it should probably be conserved for use in making plastics and fabrics. That environmental consideration, reinforced by a powerful economic drive, suggests the construction of solar-power stations for Earth as perhaps the first major industry for the space colonies.
credit: Rick Guidice NASA Ames Research Center

It would not be boring up there. After all, how many people do you need in a community to be happy? "Human populations of 10,000 have existed in isolation for periods of many generations, within the history of our planet; that number is quite large enough to include men and women with a wide variety of skills." Judging from this rendering, there will even be bartenders in space. Who knows, there might be room for a racetrack for Tesla Roadsters for those who want to take a drive around the torus.

Living in a community like that would be rather like living in a specialized university town, and we could expect a similar proliferation of drama clubs, orchestras, lecture series, team sports, flying clubs-and half-finished books.
credit: Don Davis/ Interior of an O'Neill cylinder

It actually was a wonderful way to spend a weekend, reading something so profoundly optimistic in these far more depressing times. I hope Gerald O'Neill's conclusion turns out to be true:

I think there is reason to hope that the opening of a new, high frontier will challenge the best that is in us, that the new lands waiting to be built in space will give us new freedom to search for better governments, social systems, and ways of life, and that our children may thereby find a world richer in opportunity by our efforts during the decades ahead.
credit: Rick Guidice NASA Ames Research Center

Coincidentally, a recent article in the Next Big Future looks at how Elon Musk's BFR (Big F***ng Rocket) could make O'Neill's vision come to life and have a space station up and running in twenty years, because it can carry so much and drop the price per pound so significantly.

In the 1970s, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill led two Stanford/NASA Ames Research Center summer studies that supported the feasibility of kilometer-scale orbital cities. These studies assumed that the NASA space shuttle would operate as expected, a flight every week or two, $500/lb. to orbit, and one failure per 100,000 flights. The studies also assumed that a more efficient follow-on heavy-lift launcher would be developed. Now the SpaceX BFR being developed over the next 5 years or so could deliver low-cost launch that did not happen with the Space Shuttle.... A $20 billion per dedicated space colonization, industrialization budget could afford this build out by 2040.

Perhaps it is time for a new generation to be inspired by Gerald O'Neill all over again.