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.

Both men, and both of the movements that arose around them, had a libertarian edge. Each one wanted to imbue as many people as possible with the idea that the future is a free zone to be won with intellectual and physical labor. And each arose to fight the Club of Rome mentality's authoritarian implications. In the words of Club of Rome member Garrett Hardin, the organization's ideas implied that we had to "reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible." O'Neill credits his "desire to be free of boundaries and regimentation" as inspiring his space escape dreams, and he hated the totalitarianism he believed was inherent in limits-to-growth talk. (On the left, O'Neill's critics framed his vision as the ultimate in irresponsible suburban flight.) Drexler, meanwhile, had been a fan of F.A. Hayek and Robert Nozick since his undergrad days at MIT, and he believed that nanotech's material abundance would, as McCray writes, "defuse tensions between libertarians and socialists." The anarchist philosopher David Friedman spoke at a 1987 Nanotechnology Study Group conference at MIT.

Still, while not making a big deal out of it, McCray makes it clear that even if a visioneer wanted to be fully entrepreneurial-libertarian, reality seemed to demonstrate that they needed big government and big business involved if they wanted to turn science fiction into reality. And the best way to do that—as with the original development of rockets—turned out to be to show a direct connection to a specific military need. By the Reagan '80s, many of the L5 crew were born-again militarists. In McCray's words, "a growing number of L5's members began to imagine that government funding and military activities in space could help open the space frontier," just as government forts and government-funded railroad ventures helped open the Western frontier.

McCray's well-detailed book contains enough social history to demonstrate that these ideas had real cultural heft in their heydays; it feels right to a reviewer who read Omni as a kid and was turned on to L5 and life extension ideas by reading Timothy Leary's books around the same time. McCray dips into the prehistory of these ideas as well, including a revelatory discussion of the Irish biologist John Desmond Bernal's 1929 book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. (Bernal's text sounds like it invented transhumanism, with its prescient discussion of "new molecular materials" and off-planet colonies of "free communication and voluntary associations of interested people" who would "interfere in a highly unnatural manner" with human bodies itself.) McCray also explains how big names in popular science who retained their cachet for longer than O'Neill and Drexler did—Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman—presaged the book's protagonists by decades with articles that had largely faded from memory when McCray's visioneers independently revived their ideas.

McCray doesn't come across as a true believer, but he isn't much for complicating his characters' beliefs. He doesn't note, for example, that for all of O'Neill aversions to "limits to growth" thinking, life on an actual early-generation O'Neill colony would mean shoving yourself into a world of limits far, far narrower than any mandarins wanted to impose on Earth. McCray does acknowledge that Drexler speculated far beyond the currently possible—though Drexler did, after his first popular exploration of his ideas in Engines of Creation, produce a more technically grounded book in 1992's Nanosystems. But for the most part, the lab chemists and technicians never quite cottoned to Drexler.

O'Neill and Drexler imagined progress in their respective fields faster than reality warranted. But it is too early to declare them prophets of what McCray calls "failed futures." I don't think either of their stories is over, despite being entombed here in a book from an academic press. As McCray mentions in the end, modern concepts of transhumanism and the "Singularity" arose from the nexus of O'Neill and Drexler's belief that no limits in space or matter could hold back human progress. Nanotech was widely imagined as the technical key to life extension and the revival of cryonically frozen bodies—possibly to its detriment in being taken seriously by big science and big industry. Most of the mavens of private space travel can trace their inspiration back to O'Neill, either first or second hand. Less obviously, the seasteading movement is essentially a replay of the early days of O'Neillism, before its focus shifted to beaming solar energy from space. Both are animated by the same promise of new possibilities of dwelling in newly-built living spaces in a surprising new place.

O'Neill died in 1992, of leukemia. He didn't make it to L5. But entrepreneurs shot his ashes into space in 1997, along with those of Timothy Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Engineer, snake oil salesman, storyteller: They were all equal in the end. When mankind does get to L5 and beyond, all three men and all three roles they played will deserve credit, just as the more sober industrialists of modern nanotech owe Drexler a debt.

**Correction: This article initially, and mistakenly, referred to the L5 point as being geosynchronous.