Non-Fiction Books about the Moon
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The High Frontier

The High Frontier

by Gerard K. O'Neill
Space Studies Institute Press
Paperback, 326 pages
ISBN No. 0962237906
Cover price: $9.95
Amazon link.

May 1989(originally pub. 1973, 2000 edition now available from SSI with new contributions from others).

Summary Review: Continued growth in material well-being and freedom for humanity is only possible through colonization of space; O'Neill outlines how to do it with little more than boring 1970's materials and engineering know-how, via boot-strap colonies of thousands of people processing moon and asteroid dust in high-earth orbit. The only problem is the seed capital to get started; his initial $100 billion was clearly an over-estimate - a later estimate brought the startup costs closer to $7 billion. Even more important we really should now have the resources and motivation (global warming!) to make it happen.

Full Review: In 1969 Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill organized a weekly seminar for the advanced students in his freshman physics class. It was Apollo's heyday, but also a time of deepening skepticism in the benefits and relevance of science and technology. Both the cold war with the Soviets and the hot war in Vietnam were at their height; pollution seemed to be worsening everywhere; serious people were arguing that humankind was already overstepping Earth's carrying capacity, and it was time to retrench. In this climate O'Neill asked his students:

"Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization?"

And despite what Isaac Asimov called our "planetary chauvinism", O'Neill and his little group came up with strong arguments and designs for artificial colonies in high orbit or free space, well away from planetary surfaces. O'Neill was so taken with their enthusiasm for this that he committed a good deal of his spare time over the next several years to developing the ideas and trying to get them published. Along the way he enlisted a young MIT student named Eric Drexler, and colleague Freeman Dyson, among a small group of supporters. Worldwide publicity finally arrived in May 1974, when the NY Times sent a reporter to the small conference O'Neill had organized on this new topic of "space colonization".

Three years later came "The High Frontier", O'Neill's main publication for a popular audience on the subject. In his 1993 obituary Freeman Dyson said "The High Frontier... established O'Neill as a spokesman for the people in many countries who believe that the settlement of space can bring tremendous benefits to humanity ...."

Repeated throughout the book is O'Neill's goal: "the humanization of space", by which he means in part the capacity to move the bulk of humanity off this planet and into colonies with resources vastly greater than what the Earth can provide. These colonies would be more than self-supporting; their first great contribution would be in construction of solar power satellites from lunar materials, allowing the nations of Earth to vastly expand their energy resources in the most environmentally sound fashion possible. Earth's surface captures only a tiny fraction of the solar energy available; something like 30 times what Earth receives comes through even the relatively narrow confines of geosynchronous orbit; another factor of 100 times as much energy is available inside the Moon's orbit where the "L5" or "high" orbits for the colonies are suggested.

O'Neill goes through in some detail what it would take, using the capacity of NASA's then-planned space shuttle, to first set up an initial mining station on the moon, which would then launch hundreds or thousands of times more mass to high orbit. The one new technology O'Neill relied on was his "mass driver", an electromagnetic acceleration system used both on the lunar surface to dump raw materials into space, and as a propulsion system for free space maneuvering. O'Neill and colleagues even put together several "mass drivers" out of spare parts to test what accelerations were feasible - even the first model achieved over 30 g's.

The centerpiece of the book is the design of the colonies themselves, constructed for the most part out of lunar material. These are the hollow spheres or cylinders, which O'Neill refers to as "Islands", rotated so as to provide a land area with artificial gravity. There's no fancy technology needed, despite what you might expect from the popular literature. The magnitude of Island One, a colony designed for some 10,000 people, is well within the scale of many artifical structures we have built here on earth; O'Neill compares it to shipbuilding in particular. O'Neill's materials are aluminum alloys or even steel; no need for carbon fiber composites here (and the Moon is a little low on carbon anyway). The colonies provide comforts similar to home, with terraced apartments, rooftop gardens, forests and rivers and recreational areas. Lighting is provided through a somewhat complex system of mirrors, baffles, and ordinary glass windows. Radiation shielding is the usual six feet of slag or lunar dirt.

The book is full of great ideas to make the whole scheme practical. For example - the space shuttle cargo bay has roughly the same capacity as a DC-9 airliner. In principle our current space shuttles could be used to ferry over a hundred passengers into space at a time; O'Neill estimates that even a limited shuttle fleet could get close to a hundred thousand people into low earth orbit every year (of course that was back when NASA thought it would be doing 60 shuttle missions a year). O'Neill was sure that other better ways of getting into low earth orbit would come along; 2001 and beyond are shaping up to finally prove this case, with several new private launch systems in the works. With O'Neill's reasonably optimistic scenario, we would have hundreds of millions of people in these colonies in 35-50 years. Sounds outrageous? A hundred years ago most people thought it was impossible to fly something heavier than air, but now airlines routinely handle hundreds of millions of passengers every year.

But why hasn't it already started? The 1989 edition contains a newer appendix by O'Neill with the following quote that sums up at least part of the problem: "In 1973 the U.S. space program had been fifteen years ahead of all others. By 1988 that lead had been thrown away." But O'Neill's prophesying was somehow also at fault. With such huge untapped resources, why hasn't Exxon or Mobil, or General Electric, been leaping at the chance to invest some of their spare capital to make a killing? Maybe they just don't know this is possible? Or maybe they've made a rational judgment to be second or third, not first on something as apparently risky as this? Somebody has to do it first, and O'Neill in his 1989 comments at least seems to have lost faith in NASA and its over-cautious contractors to get the thing started. So who will it be?

This deservedly famous book still provides the clearest rational outline of why, and how, space development makes sense. Read this book first, if you're wondering what space development can do for you and for humanity.

Artemis note: While O'Neill prefers orbital colonization to lunar colonization, the first step in his planning is the establishment of a small lunar settlement (up to 100 people) to set up the mining and export to cislunar space (via mass driver) of raw lunar materials. O'Neill believes orbital settlement is strongly preferable to lunar settlement because of the constant and direct availability of solar power. On the moon we lose power for 14 days in a row, unless we're in one of the lucky permanently sunlit areas, or unless we have some further infrastructure (lunar electric power grid, or a lunar power satellite system) to keep the power flowing. Nevertheless much of what he considers appropriate applies to lunar development as much as to free-floating orbital settlements; and at least on the moon the gravity problem is (partially) eliminated, avoiding the need for O'Neill's complex rotating colonies.

Non-Fiction Books about the Moon

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