The High Frontier by Gerard K. O'Neill

Pipe Dream?

A first glance at the idea of large habitats in space may seem ridiculous. Yet the idea was highly developed using 1970's technology as a baseline. Back then, the idea got wide mainstream notice. Is our society less willing to dream of a great future, rather than a diminishing one, today?

The High Frontier, 2nd and 3rd Editions

**** Excellent

In 1976 the first mass-market edition of a book suggesting that then-present technology could be used to manufacture large space stations capable of supporting thousands of people. And not in Spartan conditions, but in comfort. In a society jaded by Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the collapse of the Apollo program this book seemed like a long shot to capture the public imagination. It seemed much more likely to become a subject of public ridicule. But capture the public imagination it did. In spades.

The book captured my attention. Of course, I was a "true believer" in space, so I was an easy sell. For others, the well-credentialed, soft spoken but passionate personality of its author may have carried the idea. Gerard K. O'Niell was one of the finest presenters to champion humanity's future in space. He showed no signs of the crank or crackpot. Rather, he was so convincing that his detractors often came across as looking like the cranks.

The second edition of this book has been in my library for all these years. When I came across it recently, I realized that the last time I read it was in 1985 or so. Since then I've worked extensively in aerospace--at the time I'd only worked for small companies building "black box" style subsystems for aircraft and space craft. Instrumentation units. I had little contact with the industry as a whole. Challenger and Columbia disasters had not yet happened. I was a different me, the world was a different place as well.

I had occasion to wonder how well this book had held up. Other books I've read that I thought highly of back when look like starry-eyed nonsense now. Would the same be true of The High Frontier? I was almost afraid to read it again.

A Rock Upon Which to Build

I read it again, and it read just as well as it did when I was so much younger and the public less jaded by our nation's go-nowhere do-nothing space program. Yes, there is a lot of detail lacking to make the ideas come true, even today. But this book is the general treatment, not the technical pitch. If anything, we've advanced significantly in basic technologies since 1976. We have, however, let much of our space infrastructure whither away.

Still, I see no worse technical obstacles to the idea now than existed back then. On the other hand, I see far more societal obstacles. We live in a world that expects far higher margins of safety, and far less risk. A society which is largely intolerant of others taking risks without the approval of the media and the population as a whole.

The one thing this book really brought home to me is how much the general public's mindset has changed since 1976. Demands for freedom are now demands for the trivial in many cases. The demands for the greater freedoms, and the willingness to accept the personal risks that go with those freedoms, are missing from our general discourse today. The concerns in this book for creating habitats that give people access to both comfort and personal freedoms is an anachronism in this time. It's painful to consider.

In spite of this, the book is still enjoyable to read and inspirational. That inspiration led me to wonder how far things have come in practical--if small-scale--work since the date of my old paperback. To begin with, I went online and ordered the 3rd edition to see what had been added and updated there. While I wated for it to arrive, I did some looking around online.

Keeping the Dream Alive

While the potential for actual construction is very poor at present, there are plenty of folks out there who haven't given up. Where possible, they seek to build more of the foundation necessary for large space habitats. They educate the public, now largely unaware of the idea itself, much less of its practical possibilities. They also do what they can to support societal change that will open the way to this becoming a reality.

Among the groups out there worth a visit, see:

  • Truax Engineering Multimedia Archive
  • The National Space Society (with an extensive online library.)
  • The Space Frontier Foundation
  • The Space Access Society
  • The 3rd Edition

    The 3rd edition of The High Frontier arrived with a bright new cover and a new trade-paper format. So far as I can tell, the text of The High Frontier itself is unchanged from the earlier edition. There are many more illustrations to go with the text, however, making many parts of it much more clear than in the 2nd edition. There are also several more recent papers on the subject appended to the original book, by authors other than G.K. O'Neill. One great loss, though, is the wonderful color art of the 2nd edition by Don Davis. Perhaps the rights could not be obtained for this edition. It's a shame, they're very evocative of the lifestyle that Dr. O'Neill anticipated for space station dwellers.

    Addenda to the Original

    While the papers added to the original are generally pretty good in their content, many of them have the feel of rants by enthusiasts rather than studied positions of the knowledgeable. It's a shame, because I feel it really hurts the cause these authors feel so strongly about. It's like someone who thinks they can carry opinion by being the most vociferous in their statements. Some of the material is somewhat dated, already, as well. But there are some gems here.

    The Test of Time

    I was pretty well shocked at how well this book conveys its message over 30 years after its appearance. I was expecting O'Neill's book to smack of unrealistic enthusiasm, but it does exactly the opposite. Just as it did over 30 years ago. On top of that, it was a fun, pleasant read. If you read it back when, or if you've never read it before, I highly recommend picking up a copy.

    Give it a read. Then ask yourself if you can see a future where large numbers of people--not just small numbers of government astronauts--live in space. Really live, not just visit for "missions." What do you think?