The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space


The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, by Gerard K. O'Neill, New York: William Morrow & Co., 1977, 288 pp., $8.95.

A common belief among intellectuals otherwise favorably disposed to laissez-faire is that the American frontier disappeared around 1890 and that this fact forced a fundamental change in the relationship between American governments and their citizens. No longer was traveling West a suitable outlet for the poor or otherwise disaffected, goes the theory; new, statist institutions were required to deal with them. Followers of this theory could presumably be diverted from Kennedy-style New Frontiers by the emergence of an actual new frontier.

Comes now Gerard K. O'Neill, professor of physics at Princeton University, with a compelling case that the ultimate frontier—space—can be economically reached in our generation. Backing up his arguments are impressively detailed cost estimates.

O'Neill's biggest obstacle is what has been called "planetary chauvinism," the notion that all worthwhile human activity must take place on large balls of rock. The well-known difficulties of sustaining life in space do not justify planetary chauvinism, because there are also great advantages to a space environment, such as the lack of gravity and the abundance of room. In particular, transportation becomes very cheap away from the gravitational influence of the earth.

The very plausible scenario suggested by O'Neill begins with the reusable space shuttle, which makes certain types of space manufacturing economical. Because room is not a constraint, these space factories can support a large number of solar panels for energy and can be made large enough to be self-sufficient agriculturally, given this abundant energy supply. The population can also be large enough (say 10,000) to include plenty of people with specialized skills, so that only the rawest of raw materials need be imported.

With cheap energy and transportation, the cost of producing a space habitat would not be impossibly large. Rough calculations suggest that the cost per resident of a space habitat would be about the same relative to total income as the emigration costs borne by the American pioneers. The one vast difference is that a space habitat would include the latest technology, freeing emigrants from the type of hardships faced by the American pioneers.

Of special relevance for anyone disaffected with today's societal/governmental alternatives—O'Neill's work suggests that easy and convenient emigration will soon be available on a scale unparalleled in human history. A community in space could be physically independent of earth but could also obtain information (which in its broadest sense includes literature, music, drama, etc.) from earth or from other space habitats within hours. Food need not be taken in pills—as in the standard space opera—but would be grown as on earth, except that the weather would always be perfect. The physical arrangements (terrain, temperature, precipitation) of each habitat could differ according to the tastes of its residents.

Emigration from a habitat would be as cheap as any other space travel where gravity is not a major concern, although it could be time-consuming. So despotism and homesickness need not be more severe away from earth than on it. Not treated by O'Neill is the problem of defending a habitat.

The future sketched by O'Neill is a much more reasonable prospect than anything yet suggested elsewhere, and since his scenario is of particular interest to political and cultural minorities, The High Frontier is well worth the attention of any friend of liberty.