The Return of the Space Visionaries

In 1969, the year that astronauts first walked on the Moon, Princeton physics professor Gerard K. O’Neill, “almost as a joke,” posed a theoretical exercise for his students: Is Planet Earth the best location for a growing techno -industrial civilization?

Working through calculations with them, he came to conclude that Earth is indeed not the best location — that other planets, and space itself, would be a better venue for an expanding technological species, offering more energy and raw materials, and risking less pollution of our home planet.

O’Neill expanded the ideas into the now-classic 1977 book The High Frontier. It imagined large spinning habitats built from lunar materials and housing thousands of people. It would be paid for by selling power, using huge arrays, also from lunar materials, to collect sunlight and beam it down to Earth in the form of microwaves. Most industrial activity would be moved off of the home planet, which would become a giant nature park for both inhabitants and tourists visiting from space.

The idea inspired a movement. The L-5 Society — named for one of the stable points equidistant from the Earth and the Moon in the lunar orbital plane, where O’Neill envisioned the habitats might reside — was founded in 1975 to advocate for his vision.

O’Neill’s vision is strikingly similar to the ones being offered by today’s aspiring space tycoons, most notably Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), and Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. Musk, though focused like a laser on Mars, talks about “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species,” as the title of a technical article he published last year put it. Bezos, for his part, doesn’t confine his ambition even to settling other planets. His stated long-term goal is to get millions of people off of Earth, where they can pursue their own dreams, whatever those may be, whether on other planets or in permanent settlements in space itself.

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