The Space Studies Institute (SSI) grew out of the interest generated by Gerard K. O’Neill’s vision of human colonies in space, an industry based on non-terrestrial materials and the return to Earth of valuable resources from space. Dr. O’Neill’s interest in and exploration of these topics was prompted by a hypothetical question asked of an advanced section of Princeton University’s Physics 103 – “Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” From these rudimentary beginnings, Dr. O’Neill continued a personal intensive examination of the possibilities of human colonies in free space. From 1969 until 1974 he addressed the technical issues of energy, land area, size and shape, atmosphere, gravitation, and sunlight.
In 1974 Dr. O’Neill’s ideas and calculations came to public notice on the occasion of a one-day conference held on the Princeton campus in New Jersey. The conference was covered by The New York Times (which included a front page story) and soon afterward by many other newspapers, magazines and broadcast media in the U.S. and abroad. It had been his objective to keep to himself about this project until after his basic article, “The Colonization of Space” was accepted by a respected scientific publication. This acceptance occurred early in 1974 when he was informed of the coming appearance of his technical article in Physics Today, (vol. 27 no. 9). This was followed by the monograph, “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space,” which won the 1977 Phi Beta Kappa Science Book of the Year Award. (It has since been published in six languages with five English language editions.)
In the following year, a much larger conference was held in cooperation with Princeton University and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. This began the sequence of four-day conferences, biennial from 1975 to 2001, which became a regular part of the Princeton calendar. The conference proceedings, including those of 1974 and 1975 continue to be published by AIAA.
By late 1974, the healthy and vigorous National Aeronautics and Space Administration supported O’Neill’s research efforts with a small grant. Prominent at the time in NASA administration were Dr. James Fletcher, Mr. John Yardley and Dr. Hans Mark, all strong supporters of Dr. O’Neill’s work, and as a result, he was asked to direct NASA studies in 1976 and 1977 at the Ames Research Laboratory. Technical articles resulting from these studies were published by AIAA and NASA.
But with NASA’s future becoming more uncertain and its ability to make long-term plans directly curtailed by political changes, financial support for Dr. O’Neill’s research, although maintained until 1979, became less certain to continue indefinitely. In 1977 it seemed wise to create an entity which could maintain support for the essential research no matter what political winds might blow through Washington. Dr. O’Neill therefore sought private support for a new non-profit corporation to be called the Space Studies Institute. It would be devoted to research and education with the goal of realizing benefits of the High Frontier. At the end of the year and with legal matters attended to, SSI was given a strong head-start by two gifts from private donors, totaling nearly $100,000.
Early in 1978 SSI began its operations with one administrative employee in a small windowless office made available by the Physics Department of Princeton University. Over the following years, SSI continued to grow and at the same time maintained support for research with grants made possible by contributions by members and Senior Associates of the institute. Senior Associates made up the core of contributors by pledging an annual gift for a period of five years. The categories ranged from “Associate” pledging $100 a year to “Distinguished Colleague” pledging $500 or more per year with various flexible payment schedules. All members, staff, directors and officers of SSI were committed to identifying and funding the most appropriate and cost-effective research projects which would hasten the advent of the high frontier concepts espoused by Dr. O’Neill and his supporters.
SSI’s research projects began with the design and construction of the mass driver. Early in Dr. O’Neill’s calculations, it became clear to him that launching materials off the surface of the Earth was prohibitively expensive. But the Moon, with its reduced gravitational pull, could be used as a source of construction materials. A device was needed which would achieve such high speeds that, although positioned flat on the surface of the Moon, could attain escape velocity (lift off from the Moon’s surface). This was viewed by O’Neill as “the essential device” for future space construction.
Early mass driver research and construction was done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while O’Neill was a visiting professor of aeronautics. During the 76-77 academic year, and with the help of Professor Henry Kolm of M.I.T. and a group of graduate students, a working model of the mass driver was constructed. It’s design included a series of electromagnetic drive coils and a “bucket,” the payload container.
Back at Princeton, and with SSI firmly established, the second version of the mass driver was designed and built in a Physics Department laboratory with joint sponsorship from NASA, Princeton University and Space Studies. Instead of using a “push-only” type of impulse to the drive coils, the second mass driver employed a “push-pull” strategy. After the bucket was magnetically attracted to the first coil, the current would be reversed to repel it towards the next coil which in turn would pull, then push. However, the ultimate design turned out to be the “pull only” which was designed for the Mass Driver III. The success of Mass Driver III was apparent from the very high speeds achieved – 1800 g’s as compared to 33 g’s of Mass Driver I. To achieve lunar launch, Mass Driver III needed to be only 160 meters in length.
SSI now focused on the materials part of the equation by sponsoring a major research study involving chemical processing of raw lunar soil. Under contract to SSI, Dr. Robert Waldron acting a principle researcher, set up a technique to separate and purifier chemical components. His results offered a promising future for using lunar regolith for space construction and fuel as well as uses such as shielding.
SSI also sponsored a joint research project with McDonnell Douglas and Alcoa /Goldsworthy in the field of composite materials for construction. The purpose of the partnership was to use SSI’s experience working with lunar simulant, Alcoa/Goldsworthy’s experience with glass composites, and McDonnell Douglas’s experience with solar concentrators. Goldsworthy had already devised a matrix made of non-organic material which could combine with the glass fiber in order to produce glass/glass components from lunar materials. The solar collector directed high temperatures to the materials for bonding.
SSI funded a design study for the Lunar Polar Probe (later renamed Lunar Prospector and flown by NASA), a small probe that scanned the Moon from a polar orbit, searching for water and other useful volatiles. The probe helped fill major gaps in knowledge of chemical abundances on the Moon’s surface.
Many other research projects of medium and small size were completed, and SSI continued to support on-going projects directed by the research committee of the Board of Directors.
The questions how? where? when? were answered by SSI’s research projects, but central to many SSI supporters is the answer to the question, why? The answer is tied to many vital issues of present and future impact such as environmentally clean energy, and abundant and economic energy for all nations, especially the developing countries. SSI believed that the solution to these potentially catastrophic worldwide problems is a space-based energy system tapping the unlimited energy source – our sun – and transmitting the power back to Earth. The idea of a solar power satellite was first proposed by Dr. Peter Glaser twenty years ago to power the world’s energy needs. Now more than ever, this solution is gaining merit and studies confirm that the satellite could be constructed of non-terrestrial materials (SSI-sponsored studies in 1985 and 1989), and other research teams have made improvements in the design of the solar cell.
Even after the death in 1992 of the founder of SSI, the board of directors continued its commitment to O’Neill’s dreams for a peaceful and beneficial use of space for all humankind. Dr. Roger O’Neill, Gerard’s son, was named as Chairman of the Board of Directors. He worked with Professor Freeman Dyson, President, to carry on in the tradition of his father. At the last board meeting that he attended, one month before he succumbed to a seven year bout with leukemia, Dr. Gerard O’Neill firmly stated, “Our mission is not complete until people are living and working in space.”