Premature Prophets

The lost tomorrows of space colonies and nanotech


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 dreams of the late 20th century? Orbiting solar panels would beam down the planet's power supply. Machines on the moon would grind out raw materials and spit them into space to build space colonies and zero-gravity factories. Everything we wanted would be manufactured molecule by molecule, via contraptions smaller than the smallest objects we previously knew.

In The Visioneers, University of California at Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray convincingly posits that the movements to plan and promote space colonization (which peaked in the late 1970s) and nanotechnology (biggest in the 1990s) were 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. Fewer people, fewer resources, less growth, less excitement—a wrenching shift to a steady-state, gray world of knowing our place and keeping to it, tidying Earth in the process. Frontiers were out; boundaries were in.

Screw that, said the stars of McCray's tale. We can live, work, manufacture, and obtain power in space, and we can reshape the world from the atom 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. They "built communities and networks that connected their ideas to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and business leaders." The two key visioneers of his tale are Gerard O'Neill and Eric Drexler.

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 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Unencumbered by official space bureaucracy, O'Neill instead became a freelance astro-visionary while still teaching physics at Princeton. He began drawing up rigorous designs of orbiting space cities and hyping them in university lectures.

By 1974 O'Neill 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 (partly 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. The society's founders, Keith and Carolyn Henson, resembled Burning Man devotees, keen on Tesla coils, homemade pyro, science fiction, and survivalism. By 1981 the L5 Society had 4,000 members, largely educated white men concentrated in the Sun Belt. They wrote filk music, a typo-inspired form of folk songs on science fiction themes, about Lagrange living. They 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 intrusion onto his turf.)

By the end of the 1970s, seeking ways to get big money behind his ideas, O'Neill was talking less about people living in groovy, zero-gravity liberty and more about manufacturing in space—and, more important during 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-Wis.), 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.

At this point McCray's tale shifts to Eric Drexler, after an entertaining chapter linking space and nanotechnology via the wonderful Omni magazine, the popular face of visionary science in the 1980s (or very popular face: The publication's monthly circulation was more than 1 million at its early-'80s apogee). Drexler started as an O'Neillite, a board member of the L5 Society, and a pioneer in thinking about "solar sails," superthin materials that could unfurl from spacecraft and help propel them slowly through the vastness of space via charged particles emitted by the sun. He then shifted his vision from vast to small, imagining how super-tiny machines could build whatever we needed molecule by molecule, including more of themselves—self-replicating nanobots, as they came to be known.

Drexler's first big visionary splash, like O'Neill's, was in a specialty journal, in his case the Proceedings of the National Institutes of Science in 1981. (He used the term molecular engineering rather than nanotechnology back then.) Also like O'Neill, Drexler moved quickly into popularizing his arguments, discussing them in Smithsonian in 1982. By 1986 an Omni cover story was hyping Drexler's ideas, and that same year he had his own popular book, Engines of Creation, which sold more than 100,000 copies.

Drexler and his then-wife, Christine Peterson, started the Foresight Institute in 1986 to promote nanotech 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, then a Tennessee senator, invited Drexler to speak at a congressional hearing on technologies for a sustainable world.

McCray tells how "official" nanotech, as valorized in the 21st Century Nanotechnology and Development Act of 2003, buried its Drexlerian roots, with research and developments oriented not toward his wilder visions but toward 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 government, corporate, and popular enthusiasm for nanotech research can be traced largely back to Drexler's visioneering, even if we are still waiting for our nanobots.

Both O'Neill and Drexler, and both of the movements that arose around them, had a recognizably libertarian edge. Each 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's authoritarian ethos.

As Club of Rome member and "lifeboat economics" popularizer Garrett Hardin put it, the organization's ideas implied that we had to "reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible." O'Neill hated the totalitarianism he believed was inherent in limits-to-growth talk, grounding his visioneering in a "desire to be free of boundaries and regimentation." (O'Neill's critics on the left 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 undergraduate days at MIT. He believed that nanotech's material abundance would, as McCray writes, "defuse tensions between libertarians and socialists." The anarchist philosopher David Friedman spoke at an MIT Nanotechnology Study Group conference in 1987.

While not making a big deal out of it, McCray makes it clear that even if visioneers wanted to be fully entrepreneurial-libertarian, in reality you probably need to enlist the help of big government and big business to turn science fiction into reality. And the best way to do that, as with the development of rockets, turned out to be demonstrating a 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 West.

McCray's well-detailed book includes enough social history to demonstrate that these ideas had real cultural heft in their heydays, a conclusion that certainly feels right to a reviewer who read Omni as a kid and was turned on to L5 and life extension 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 the human body 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 by the time the visioneers independently revived their ideas.

McCray himself does not come across as a true believer, but he does not seem inclined to complicate his characters' beliefs. He does not note, for example, that for all of O'Neill's 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—although Drexler did, after his first popular exploration of his ideas in Engines of Creation, produce a more technically grounded book, Nanosystems, in 1992. Still, 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 at the end of his tale, 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. Both are animated by the same promise of dwelling in newly built living spaces in a surprising 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, story teller: 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.