Seeking Utopia Among the Stars

Depiction of an O’Neill cylinder’s interior by artist Rick Guidice.

Fifty years ago, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill had a plan for colonies in space. Filmmaker and Princeton native Will Henry takes us back to that future in a new documentary.

By Ilene Dube

As the camera pans over craters of the moon, a male voice speaks: “We earthlings have always been an adventuring people. We always look to a new frontier. Today, the colonization of space offers us a new limitless frontier. It’s beautiful, it’s friendly, and it’s waiting for us.”

Though spoken nearly half a century ago by Gerard K. O’Neill (1927-1992), a Princeton University physics professor until 1985, those words sound science fiction-y even today. “When I speak of space colonies I think of Earth-like habitats with grass and trees and flowers,” the voice over continues. He envisioned a kind of airy space architecture, surrounded by bodies of water, mountains, and forests that would help prevent humans from depleting Earth’s precious resources.

O’Neill, who lived in Princeton with his wife, Tasha, is the subject of a new documentary, The High Frontier, also the name of the 1977 book O’Neill published with Simon & Schuster; it earned the Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award. Among those featured in the film are Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, TESLA and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, Institute for Advanced Study physics professor Freeman Dyson, and TV personalities Johnny Carson and Dan Rather.

Much of the historic footage comes from Princeton University archives, newspapers, and campus-filmed TV — Princeton viewers may recognize classrooms, conference halls, and common spaces. The High Frontier, released in April, was produced by Princeton native Will Henry and financed by Dylan Taylor, a pioneer in the space exploration industry and chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, a multi-national space holding firm.

O’Neill’s inventions bolstered his credentials as a physicist. In the 1960s, he invented particle storage rings — at first viewed with skepticism by other scientists — that were instrumental in the development of particle accelerators, ultimately leading to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful. “He changed the strategy of high energy physics,” Dyson says in the film.

Gerard K. O’Neill, physicist and author of the popular science book “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space.”

Flipping through pages from O’Neill’s papers (today housed at the National Air and Space Museum Archives), his widow Tasha says he predicted email, a computer that could speak, a device that could be worn on the wrist that would enable us to take calls, electronic readers, and computer-guided cars that would save lives.

He also predicted we’d have space colonies by the 1980s, and that the moon could be a good source of building materials and space itself a source of cheap energy (for example, solar energy or materials gathered from moons and asteroids). Interviewed on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, O’Neill said the infrastructure was in place, that energy and material were waiting for us in space.

In archival images, with a Mr. Spock-style ’do, O’Neill looks as if he might have just stepped off the Starship Enterprise. According to the film’s press release, O’Neill’s book (full title: The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space) “sparked a grassroots movement to build Earth-like habitats to solve Earth’s greatest crises.” Space colonies, he espoused, would assure the survival of the human race.

O’Neill was gestating these ideas when mushroom clouds and human-made environmental disasters threatened the planet. He told his freshman physics students that the “humanization of Earth” was the only way to resolve our planet’s becoming overcrowded, dirty, and short on supplies.

The film shows Arthur C. Clarke, with whom O’Neill corresponded, making the case that if, in history, we’d stayed in one place, “we’d probably have become extinct.” Isaac Asimov says the more we put into space, the less we have for arms and munitions — “and isn’t that a better way to spend money?”

O’Neill, pictured with his wife Tasha, is the subject of the documentary “The High Frontier.”

Love at First Sight

Fine art photographer Tasha O’Neill was born in Schweinsurt, Germany, and came to the U.S. at 21 to work as an au pair for the Gallup family in Princeton. A week later she met her future husband at a meeting of the International Club at the YMCA. Blinded by love — she felt as if she’d known Gerry in a previous life — Tasha mistook him for a grad student, not realizing he was 21 years her senior. On their first date, at Odette’s in New Hope, Pennsylvania, they discussed childrearing philosophy. He had three children from a prior marriage, and Tasha’s ideas were influenced by her work with the Gallup family.

The couple married in 1973. O’Neill, who also aspired to be a scientist astronaut, enjoyed soaring above it all. With Tasha he flew gliders and sail planes, and soon the co-pilots secured licenses, acquiring a small plane to fly to meetings, conferences, and vacation destinations.

Together the O’Neills founded the Space Studies Institute to fund research through citizen donations. O’Neill’s following came to be known as “Gerry’s Kids,” many of them science fiction fans — executive producer Dylan Taylor counts himself as one. Timothy Leary, the psychedelic-promoting psychologist, was another adherent.

“Gerry had the dreams and I helped with the execution,” recounts Tasha. “I was with him 100 percent.” She envisioned opening a restaurant in space, going so far as to contemplate what herbs and spices to take. “Those didn’t weigh very much,” she adds. She was never skeptical about any of it because “it was founded on scientific principle and equations. I didn’t have the scientific knowledge, but it all made sense. He brought in established scientists and thinkers, from law to environmentalists. Margaret Mead was among those he met with.”

“It was at a time when we were running out of resources,” she continues, “and he was thinking ‘What can we do? Where can we go? How can we harness solar power and rid the Earth of heavy industry?’”

O’Neill’s charisma enhanced his powers of persuasion. “He was focused and always prepared when he spoke publicly,” says Tasha. “He had a force and people listened because he made sense, never doubting that someday it would happen. When he was convinced you couldn’t move him, he could refute you with hard science. He was pretty sure of himself.”

At the 2018 conference of the National Space Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization, Tasha delivered the Gerard K. O’Neill Award to Jeff Bezos for his accomplishments as founder of Blue Origin, an aerospace company focused on building reusable launch systems to lower the cost of access to space. Bezos read The High Frontier in high school and credits O’Neill as formative to his thinking.

After the presentation, Tasha was seated next to Bezos for dinner. He inquired whether she knew Dyson, a previous recipient of the O’Neill Award. Tasha told Bezos that the Dysons babysat their son, Edward (the only child O’Neill and Tasha had together), taking him to school and helping with his homework. Edward, 40, lives in Vancouver, Washington, and works in IT.

Depiction of a pair of O’Neill cylinders by artist Rick Guidice.

Speculating on the Origins

O’Neill read Buck Rogers as a child growing up in Speculator, New York, in the Adirondacks. Later, he became a Star Trek devotee.

After a stint in the Navy, where he developed an interest in science, O’Neill graduated Phi Beta Kappa in physics and mathematics from Swarthmore College, class of 1950. He earned a doctorate in physics from Cornell University in 1954, and began his Princeton career in a junior-faculty position before being named full professor in 1959. He co-authored a graduate-level textbook on elementary particle physics.

O’Neill’s first marriage, to a psychology professor with whom he had three children, ended in divorce in 1966. His earliest articles about space colonization were rejected from scientific journals.

By 1976 he made it to the cover of the New York Times Magazine, introducing his ideas on space colonization, followed by coverage in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Washington Post Magazine, Penthouse, and on 60 Minutes. NASA not only listened to, but funded him. Ronald Reagan appointed O’Neill to the National Commission on Space in 1985, and he was named the Hunsaker Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1986.

“A lot of young people today are growing up with the feeling that movement into space is inevitable,” he told Princeton’s Rich Rein for a 1977 People Magazine interview. “They’ve been born since Sputnik and they can’t understand what the argument is about. The argument is mostly because of older people, for whom going into space is an alien idea.”

Depiction of the interior of an O’Neill cylinder, illuminated by reflected sunlight by artist Don Davis.

His entrepreneurial endeavors included forming a number of private nonprofit organizations and for-profit businesses, all geared toward technology development. He invented a precursor to GPS navigation that was the basis of his company Geostar.

O’Neill went on to write 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future and The Technology Edge: Opportunities for America in World Competition.

According to his New York Times obituary, “At the time of his death, Dr. O’Neill was working on a form of high-speed ground-based transportation called a magnetic flight system, in which a small-diameter car would ‘float’ on a magnetic force in a vacuum tube on land or underground, and thus be able to reach incredible land speeds that would make it possible to travel from Boston to Los Angeles in an hour.”

But his ideas for humanizing space did not materialize in his lifetime.

“Despite their science-fiction overtones, O’Neill’s ideas were firmly rooted in physics principles,” writes Benjamin Gross at sciencehistory.org; Gross is a past consulting curator of the Sarnoff Collection at the College of New Jersey who earned a doctorate in the history of science from Princeton. “During the mid-1970s NASA and Stanford University cosponsored workshops aimed at implementing his designs.”

According to Gross, by the early 1980s “conflicts over the commercialization and militarization of space splintered the colonization movement, though nonprofits such as the National Space Society continue to promote aspects of O’Neill’s vision today.”

Will Henry, filmmaker and producer of “The High Frontier.”

Return Home

Although filmmaker Will Henry grew up in Princeton — he attended Riverside Elementary School about a decade after O’Neill’s youngest son, Edward — he first learned about O’Neill when hired to work on the film. In between summer camp at the American Boychoir School, sports, and a part-time job at Kopp’s Cycle, Henry made hundreds of short films with friends, centered at some of his old haunts such as Lake Carnegie and Princeton Garden Theatre. These were frequently featured in the Princeton Public Library’s Student Film Festival.

With a father who was a chemist and a mother who was an educational researcher and master gardener, “I was certainly not a science fiction, space, or physics nerd,” says Henry. “I was an athlete and film geek.” On further reflection he adds, “I was obsessed with science experiments, botany, biology, and later developed an interest in chemistry like my father, although I was a rubbish student.”

“I am enormously fascinated by O’Neill’s work,” Henry continues, “because he had such an optimistic and practical view of humanity and our future. His ideas of space colonies were certainly other-worldly, but the main tenets of his vision were to solve humanity’s greatest crises of overpopulation, dwindling resources, energy, and war.”

The film was three years in the making, sifting through “treasure troves of old videotape libraries, trash heaps of slides, archives at the Smithsonian…. The amazing thing is that O’Neill’s story was simply sitting out there for someone to find it.”

Henry, who lives in Long Beach, California, had never met Freeman Dyson before filming and was delighted by all the coincidences he found in his hometown. “I used to fish in the pond outside Freeman Dyson’s window at the Institute for Advanced Study every summer for 15 years and never knew I’d return to interview him in that very building.”

The timing of the film’s release is ideal, says Henry. “SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are making such major accomplishments in the space industry. They know O’Neill is the person to thank for those accomplishments, but the world audience may not. So, what better time to remind them than while it’s happening?”

“Gerry was a visionary with a robust and thorough roadmap, and proved how we could achieve a better life for humanity using the tools we already have,” says Henry. “No new science needs to be invented, nothing fantastic needs to be discovered. The only thing that stands in the way of his vision is cost, and the good news is that private space companies are breaking down that barrier.”

To view the film, go to thehighfrontiermovie.com.