The Conquest of the Future

The lost tomorrows of Gerald O’Neill and Eric Drexler’s visions of infinite space and abundance.

The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future, by W. Patrick McCray, Princeton University Press, 351 pages, $29.95

Remember the late 20th century? When machines on the moon were spitting 10-pound spoonfuls of soil into orbit every few seconds, as raw material for space colonies and zero-gravity factories? When solar panels in orbit were beaming down the planet’s power supply? When we were manufacturing everything we wanted, molecule by molecule, via machines smaller than the smallest objects we previously knew?

In The Visioneers, the UC–Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray revisits the birth and growth of those futures—or rather, those concepts of the future, which haven’t (yet) come true. Enthusiasts were enchanted by visions of living and thriving in high orbit free from cultural and governmental restraints, of turning the universe into building blocks for any toy kingdoms we imagined.

McCray convincingly posits the movements to plan and promote space colonies (which peaked in the late 1970s) and nanotechnology (biggest in the 1990s) as reactions to a cultural pall emanating from the elite Club of Rome and its notorious 1972 report The Limits to Growth. In that document, a gang of solons from MIT and the United Nations, funded by big corporate foundation bucks, got severe with us: Time to settle for less, folks. Less people, less resources, less growth, less excitement, a wrenching shift to a steady-state grey world of knowing our place and keeping to it, tidying the Earth in the process. Frontiers were out; limits were in.

Screw that, said the stars of McCray’s tale. We can live and work and manufacture and obtain power from space, and we can reshape the world from atoms up without fouling our nests.

McCray defines visioneers as people who not only imagine an exciting future but use “their training in science and engineering to undertake detailed designs and engineering studies” of that future. To boot, they “built communities and networks that connected their ideas to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders.” The two visioneers whose stories he tells are Gerard O’Neill and Eric Drexler, associated respectively with space colonies and with nanotech.

Gerard O’Neill, a physicist who had done innovative work with particle accelerators in the early 1960s, was a science fiction fan. By the end of the decade, he had become enamored with space and tried, but failed, to get a job at NASA. Unenmeshed in our official space bureaucracy, he became instead a freelance astro-visionary (while still teaching physics at Princeton). He began drawing up rigorous designs of orbiting space cities, and he began hyping them in university lectures.

By 1974 he convinced the journal Physics Today to run a cover story on “colonies in space” and got Princeton to host a small conference on the topic (partially subsidized by the Point Foundation, which arose from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog empire). That meeting got front-page New York Times coverage. Soon, O’Neill was everywhere from 60 Minutes to Penthouse to The Merv Griffin Show to National Geographic. In 1976 he had a best-selling book called The High Frontier—back then that meant living and making things in space, not using it as a military high ground—promoting the idea that space was not, as McCray writes, “a government-run program, but...a place.”

O’Neill’s followers started the L5 Society, named after Lagrange Point 5, an orbital position especially suitable for a colony floating in a stable position in the Earth/Moon system. Its founders, Keith and Carolyn Henson, resembled Burning Man devotees, all into Tesla coils, homemade pyro, science fiction, and survivalism. L5 had 4,000 members by 1981, largely educated white men concentrated in the Sun Belt. They wrote filk songs about Lagrange living and canvassed science-fiction conventions for converts. Stewart Brand and his magazine CoEvolution Quarterly started heavily promoting space living, to the dismay of many of the small-is-beautiful back-to-the-landers of his crafty-hippie audience.

McCray notes that the L5 types “presaged the odd political alliances that emerged two decades later when left- and right-wing writers and political leaders united in their enthusiasm for the Internet and…the new ‘electronic frontier.’” Former LSD advocate Timothy Leary, fresh out of jail, temporarily turned his career toward advocating space travel while openly celebrating himself as a “snake oil salesman,” inspiring people with dreams that might go beyond what we know to be strictly possible. Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater endorsed the idea from the right. O’Neill himself told 60 Minutes that he wanted space travel to be more entrepreneurial than governmental—something “forced on the government...by the people and not the other way around.” (O’Neill did not appreciate Leary’s involvement in what O’Neill saw as his bailiwick.)

By the end of the 1970s, seeking ways to get big money of some sort behind his ideas, O’Neill was talking less about people living in space in groovy liberty and more about manufacturing in space—and, more important in the OPEC-fearing age of malaise, creating American energy independence via solar panels beaming energy from orbit to earth. NASA funded some studies related to O’Neill’s ideas; Sen. William Proxmire (R-Wisc.), famous for publicizing government waste, got mad; Ronald Reagan became president; and by the end of the 1980s, most of the money and ideas going into space were about space-based lasers, not colonies, factories, or solar collection facilities.

McCray’s story then shifts to Eric Drexler, after an entertaining chapter linking space and nano via the wonderful Omni magazine, the popular face of visionary science in the 1980s. (Its very popular face—the publication’s monthly circulation was over a million in its early-‘80s apogee.) Drexler started as an O’Neillite, a member of the L5 Society’s board, and a pioneer in “solar sail” planning. He then shifted his vision from vast to small, imagining how supertiny machines could build whatever we needed molecule by molecule, including more of themselves—self-replicating nanobots, as they came to be known.

Like O’Neill, Drexler’s first big visionary splash was in a specialist journal, in his case the Proceedings of the National Institutes of Science in 1981. (He used the phrase “molecular engineering” rather than “nanotechnology” back then.) Also like O’Neill, he moved quickly into popularizing his arguments, discussing them in Smithsonian in 1982. By 1986 an Omni cover story was hyping his ideas, and he had his own high-selling book that same year, Engines of Creation. Also that year, Drexler and his then-wife Christine Peterson started the Foresight Institute to promote nano ideas, deliberately placing the institution near the new energy and money of Silicon Valley. (Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 and John Walker of Autodesk were early supporters.) Stewart Brand, always on the cutting edge of visionary science, jumped on the bandwagon; science fiction became awash in nano visions, both wondrous and horrifying; conferences were held; popular science articles bloomed; and in 1992, Al Gore invited Drexler to speak at a congressional hearing on technologies for a sustainable world.

McCray tells how “official” nanotech, as valorized in the 2003 “21st Century Nanotechnology and Development Act,” buried its Drexlerian roots, with research and developments oriented not toward his wilder visions but toward small incremental advances in chemistry and physics, with results such as sunscreens and tennis balls made with “nano” substances. By 2006 one physicist in the field called Drexler “the name that can’t be spoken in polite society.” Still, McCray makes it clear that much of the government and corporate, not to mention popular, enthusiasm for nano research can be traced back to Drexler’s visioneering, even if nanobots don’t exist yet.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Forget space fracking and orbital potato batteries, where's my laser-equipped personal jetpack?

  • Mr Whipple||

    Duke Nukem has it.

  • Counterfly||

    Vaporware doesn't count.

  • Counterfly||

    Laser-equipped personal jetpacks? When we can't even get single page views?

    Also, every single scientist should be single mindedly working on the only important advance that even matters: sexbots.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    reason helps those who help themselves.

  • Counterfly||

    What are you, some kind of hacker? I'm not going to violate my browser's eula by typing in the link bar. Clicks only around here!

  • dinkster||

    Just don't give the url to Gawker and you're in the clear.

  • Nyk1||

    But if everyone will have a sexbot, who will be slaving away in the cubicles? Both CEOs of big corporations and politicians need to suck their employees dry in order to get hundreds of flesh-and-blood Homo sapiens sexbots that are only willing to do it with the highest-status alphas. Libertarianism of course provides the moral justification for treating employees as slaves.

  • Counterfly||

    You know who else was animated by the promise of new possibilities of dwelling in newly-built living spaces in a surprising new place...

  • Question of Auban||

    Frank Lloyd Wright?

  • Rich||

    The Croods?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You know who else used nanites?

  • Ted S.||

    Warty?

  • mr lizard||

    The T-1000?

  • ant1sthenes||

    Goggles?

  • Rich||

    Mork from Ork?

  • itsnotmeitsyou||

    Wesley Crusher

  • trshmnstr||

  • Question of Auban||

    Captain Jack Harkness?

  • Baal||

    the Ancients ?

  • dinkster||

    URS?

  • SumpTump||

    Sometimes man you jsut have to roll with it dude. Wow.

    www.WebAnon.da.bz

  • Question of Auban||

    Your profound words of wisdom continue to inspire millions around the world Annonbot.

  • dinkster||

    I want to see what annonbotz comments on leftwing rags looks like.

  • ||

    Nuclear! Pulse! Rockets!

    This is the only viable way to lift realistic payloads to exploit space with our current technology, and will be for quite a while unless some Black Swan tech comes down the pike. Wait did I say *exploit* space? That sounds kinda rapey. I meant to reach out to say reach out to space, hand-in-hand as we explode small thermonuclear devices to travel around in it.

  • JWatts||

    Black Swan tech

    I do not think it means what you think it means.

  • ||

    Holy Shit! What freaking debt is owed to Drexler?

    How about the Father of Nanotechnology, Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley (who rather vehemently disagreed with Drexler)?

    Or the Grandfather of Nanotechnology, the man who originally proposed that "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", the Nobel Physicist Richard Feynman?

    Not to say that Drexler hasn't made a name for himself, but suggesting the field of nanotech owes him a debt is like saying the field of Martian exploration owes a debt to H.G. Wells and even that is somewhat of an insult to Wells' inspirational qualities and relative timelessness.

  • Brian Doherty||

    See p. 227-28 of the book for the debt Smalley owed to Drexler.

  • PapayaSF||

    Good review. Nice to see a book that covers a lot of my old intellectual stomping grounds. I have a copy of O’Neill's book that he autographed for me, and various other connections that I won't go into to avoid compromising my pseudonym.

    Another part of that whole scene was life extension, centered around Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw. Christine Peterson is now doing conferences on the subject, in addition to still being the head of the Foresight Institute.

  • Brian Doherty||

    Papaya---Indeed, had McCray wanted to expand his scope, adding Durk and Sandy as a third example of visioneers would have fit in very well with his story--in time, politics, overlapping audience, general zeitgeist--with their "engineering" being self-hacking the human body in a sense.

  • PapayaSF||

    Aha, interesting to know.

    Back in those optimistic times, who would have said that in 2013 we'd have no space colonies, no solar power satellites, $17 trillion in federal debt, and a President to the left of Jimmy Carter?

  • Scott Bieser||

    Great article. Minor quibble: The Lagrange Points are not geosynchronous (allowing something to orbit over the same spot on Earth). They are points a little bit outside the path of the Moon's orbit which are gravitationally stable -- that is, something orbiting in those spots (Particularly L4 and L5) are less likely to drift out of place, than in other spots.

    O'Neill and Drexler, of course, inspired or informed a spate of science-fiction tales, including my own web-comic.

  • ||

    Loved the review, BD. Keep em coming. I read Engines of Creation when I was twelve and it inspired my passion for bleeding-edge science, a debt that I also owe to Ray Kurzweil. I read his book The Singularity is Near shortly after Drexler's book. I'm currently reading Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind, which focuses on his theory of AI. Good read, highly recommended. Scott Bieser, I just discovered Quantum Vibe and I love it! I'm still reading the early strips. Dr. Murchadha reminds me of Professor Bernardo de la Paz in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Was that intentional?

  • Ray||

    "William Proxmire (R-Wisc)"

    Democrat, actually. I know it's hard to believe there once were sane ones.

  • mollyblixtegelind||

    before I looked at the receipt of $6587, I have faith that...my... sister could realey making money in their spare time on-line.. there dads buddy started doing this less than eighteen months and a short time ago took care of the loans on their place and bought a brand new audi. we looked here, http://www.jump30.com

  • mauboy_j||

    what Francisco answered I cannot believe that anyone able to earn $5877 in one month on the computer. did you look at this web page http://www.jump30.com

  • advancedatheist||

    Time to set aside this Drexler nonsense and go back to doing real stuff. His ability to schmooze the geeks at MIT into giving his a doctorate for his cargo cult science says something about the integrity of MIT's doctorate-granting process circa 1990.

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