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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: Gerard K. O'Neill (1927 - 1992)

This essay is about Gerard K. O'Neill.

There are many O'Neills that are better known -- for example Eugene O'Neill, author of "The Iceman Cometh", or the nine-times-married actress and model, Jennifer O'Neill, known especially for her role in the movie "Summer of '42".

Gerard K. O'Neill graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh NY, and on his 17th birthday joined the US Navy for the last year of the war. He trained as a radar technician and began to develop a real interest in science, especially colonies in space. Honorably discharged at 19 he was accepted at Swarthnore to study Physics and Math, and went on to earn a Ph.D. in high energy physics at Cornell. In 1954 he became a physics instructor at Princeton.

But the always boyish-looking O'Neill was most fascinated by the possibilities of long-term colonization of very nearby space. Avoiding drama he approached the whole subject rationally, describing realistic colonies in his book "The High Frontier", published by Morrow in 1977.

Today, we are somewhat behind what O'Neill had hoped for. We have had space stations, and the football-field-sized International Space Station of today is only a fraction of what he and his Princeton physics students calculated was possible. Those stations were slowly rotating spheres and/or cylinders, of typical diameters of half a dozen miles, with their own atmospheres of oxygen and nitrogen, and with thick shells using material from the asteroids, which occasionally slam into the earth and which are known to be rich in many metals as well as ice and water.

O'Neill wrote in the 1970s that oxygen could quite easily be mined from the moon, and NASA has ongoing plans to scoop and heat the moon's soils to capture this oxygen.

O'Neill also said that, initially, solar power stations could be built to earn money. Sunlight would be plentiful 24 hours a day -- no clouds, no night-time --  alleviating much of earth's energy problems and avoiding earth's consumption of oil and the dangers of nuclear energy. He proposed beaming microwave energy down to earth -- a transmission method Tesla had also proposed long ago.

In a hearing before a Subcommittee of the 94th Congress in 1976, O'Neill said that such satellite power from power stations in geosynchronous orbit involves the risk -- which he felt to be controllable --  of ecological damage from the microwave beam [ref.1 p.264-5], and that the more efficient way of building such power stations would be to use materials from the moon, not the earth, thus avoiding extreme 'lift' costs from earth. He explained that the materials needed for a satellite power station would be mainly metals, glass and silicon, and -- as already found from the Apollo projects -- soils from the surface of the moon are typically 40% oxygen, 20% silicon and roughly 30% metals.

Sadly, O'Neill died of leukemia in 1992. His colonies in space looked differently at the ways that movie dramas treated civilizations beyond the earth; he looked at all aspects factually. He and his students calculated the thicknesses needed for cosmic ray shielding, the types of metals needed plus what he called moon 'slag'; the slow rotation speeds for achieving earth gravity inside his enormous cylinders -- perhaps 20 miles long; he calculated the needs of a large populations in terms of foods, water, atmosphere, and he sketched out the total construction costs of his habitats. He also designed them to be at the Lagrange points, L4 and L5 of Earth and Moon, locations where objects are not drawn towards either Earth or Moon, and where the Trojan asteroids have collected over the eons.)

Finally, no time to mention his invention of the Storage Ring for colliding particle beams, used today, and his performance of those first experiments at Stanford, nor such things as his International Diamond Badge as a sailplane pilot. Altogether a remarkable life.

References:

1.  "The High Frontier; Human Colonies in Space", by Gerard K.O'Neill; Wm Morrow & Company, Inc, 105 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016.

Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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