All posts by Robert Smith

SSI Mass Drivers on and elsewhere

December 2019 update:  Part 3 of the 1976 Space Manufacturing Summer Study Series: “Dr. Brian O’Leary on Mass Driver Payload Guidance and Transfer” is now available on the Space Studies Institute SoundCloud Channel.

This joins part 2 (Dr. Frank Chilton on Mass Driver Acceleration) and part 1 (Dr. Gerard O’Neill with an overview of the Summer Study). 

We hope that you and your team make the time to listen to these previously unavailable – thought forever lost – recordings.  The 1976 Summer Study’s focus on Mass Driver Technologies was a unique engineering milestone in the industry, and the math has not changed.

Part 4 of the series should be coming in a matter of weeks, get caught up now, at The SSI SoundCloud Channel.


If you had a chance to view the SSPS and Economics video release from the recent SSI 50 gathering in Seattle, you may have noted a question about recent work being done on SSI Mass Driver technologies.

Well, in case you missed this article… Leonard David wrote a short Space Insider piece on Mass Drivers on just a few months ago. It includes a nice mention of the Space Studies Institute background and you can read it right now via this link to

Leonard David Space Insider

Space Studies Institute Founder and First President Gerard K. O’Neill was the one who not only coined that now popular term for MagLev linear payload accelerators, but also one of the folks who spearheaded the first real work for the technology to get around the major issue of launch costs for freespace construction materials.

Space Studies Institute Newsletter 1986 JanFeb
Space Studies Institute Newsletter 1986 JanFeb


If you want to learn a little more, the new SSI Soundcloud Channel has begun releasing recordings from the 1976 Summer Study where Mass Drivers were a primary topic, and also there are a few Mass Driver videos on the SSI YouTube Channel including the one introduced by Leonard Nimoy that shows test firings of MD-I, MD-II and MD-III.

Along with the popular Heinlein novel “Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” connection mentioned by Mr. David, engineering and literary historians might find interesting the 1937 Princeton University Press book “Zero to Eighty: Being My Lifetime Doings, Reflections and Inventions Also My Journey Around The Moon” by Akkad Pseudoman (copyright named to E. F. Northrup)  and the story “The Moon Conquerors” by scientist R. H. Romans in the Winter 1930 issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Quarterly. The latter reference (shown below, mind my fingers) launched rockets, but that picture is quite fascinating.

1930 Space Wonders Quarterly Moon Conquerors

More recent writings include “Spaceships of the Mind” by Nigel Calder from the BBC documentary of the same name.  That book includes many unique photographs of the O’Neill/Kolm team at work.

And then there is the hard to find, but perhaps most technical of the non-classified engineering books: “AIAA Progress in Astronautics and Aeronautics Volume 57: Space-Based Manufacturing from Nonterrestrial Materials” edited by Gerard K. O’Neill, Brian O’Leary, Assistant Editor.  This book is more commonly known as “The Yellow Mass Driver Book” and you can very occasionally catch copies at somewhat realistic prices from sellers who don’t do their own research via this page:

More information on ‘the yellow book’ is in the introduction to the first of the 1976 Summer Study recordings currently being released on the SSI Soundcloud Channel.  (Now that the SSI 50 videos are completed we hope to get back to the SC releases very soon.)

And of course, quite a bit of the true story behind the making of the working Mass Driver hardware can be found in a very readable way in the book “The High Frontier” (available exclusively at in Kindle and new SSI 50 paperback release, by clicking this link).

Need more?  There’s a touch of the Mass Driver and related technologies’ benefits to Humans who choose to live well on the Earth in the Gerard K. O’Neill book “2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future” (released by SSI on Kindle a short while back, you can get to it via this direct link to its Amazon page).  You may have spotted “2081” being mentioned at the very end of the very last SSI 50 conference video, but you had to look close.


SSI President Gary C Hudson with the Kindle versions of SSI's The High Frontier and 2081
Space Studies Institute President Gary C Hudson with the Kindle versions of SSI’s The High Frontier and 2081


And the SSI Newsletter collection has many Mass Driver details from their moments in time and there is even a working person’s story of touching Lunar Mass Drivers in the Omni Magazine article original draft here on

All sound too ‘engineery?’ Would you like to really understand the basic concepts right at your kitchen table?  Make a tiny, working, one coil Mass Driver yourself!  Former SSI Executive Vice President Dr. Richard Woodbridge, III shows you how at this page (with video, it’s really easy).

Wow, that’s a lot of good links to get a person started.

To get back to the SSI 50 questioner about ‘any current work,’ we have to add this to the Leonard David article at the top of this post. A short while back, an SSI Researcher was funded to assemble MD background information and they spoke to a couple of the members of the original MIT and SSI/Princeton teams. That same sort of question was asked…

‘All was going gangbusters and then, aside from SSI Newsletter pieces asking folks to please pitch in…  just a few dot mil papers and then nothing. What happened?’

One of the men, still doing physics professionally, casually replied, in essence:

‘When the military came in, I just had to get out.’

Now, let’s all be professional and be careful about those conspiracy things, they are a slippery slope even when you see them coming.  But we did find that an interesting anecdote.

We hope the links above whet your interest. Go find more sources and remember to let your Institute friends and colleagues know of them.

It is never too late to help a fundamentally good thing get back on the right track.

SSI 50: The Space Settlement Enterprise Video Collection

Professional organizations release conference videos for folks who couldn’t make the trips themselves, but professional viewers have to remember that there is a human downside to having a bunch of sessions dropped all together on the internet.

Many of us have trained a neural path habit into our brains by years of streaming video; Funny cat antics have trained us to expect laughs every 15 seconds and Netflix binging of entire seasons of The Office in a weekend have trained us to think it’s okay leave something on in the background while we do other stuff around the room.

Watching professional conference videos in those habitual ways doesn’t give a real payoff, because the reason for the recording was different… but those streaming habits are so very hard to break.

As you watch the SSI 50 conference recordings, and any professional conference recording, it’s best for you to approach the watching in the same way that you take on a university online class. Set the time, and watch for the points. The professor may start meandering, some other student might ask a tangential question that gets things out of focus (a camera may go out of focus!) but you know that something in that 2 hours may be on the test. And, more importantly, something that you see – that it seems no one else in the audience had spotted – may turn out to be the unique core of your post doc or professional trade career.

There are 11 videos, 12 hours and 46 minutes of produced content, in the SSI 50 YouTube Playlist (plus the “Working Today” PSA). Take the time for them. Make the time for getting the most out of them, For Yourself.

The complete list of SSI 50: The Space Settlement Enterprise video recordings is now assembled for researchers at the content page:

SSI 50: Reevaluating SSPS and Considering Other Revenue Potentials

About three quarters the way through the final panel session of the final day of SSI 50, two attendees quickly ducked out of the Allen auditorium to refresh their coffees. As the door eased closed behind them I heard the one man’s exasperated words, “Sheeesh! Robots, AI, Military! Where’s the Humans?!”

For the rest of the talk and during the long drive home, I have to say that I felt the same emotions as that man about this session.


In putting together the video, going through the angles second by second, rewinding and replaying over and over, the words of the other person in that overheard exchange started coming back to me. Just before the door had shut and over the din of the museum public visitors, she had said to him, “No, there was a nugget in…”


A good word for a session on the quest for the gold that will make Space a place worth living.


The final session of SSI 50: The Space Settlement Enterprise gathering held at the Museum of Flight in Seattle September 9th and 10th, 2019 is about the ways to pay and to make it pay.

The original High Frontier platform, envisioned during the peak of the American energy crisis of the 1970’s, put Dr. Peter Glaser’s invention of Space Solar Power Satellites as the primary revenue source for LaGrange area communities.

In the end, short of a miracle substance, SSPS will be the way an advancing civilization powers its survival. Eventually it will be obvious to everyone that digging up and pumping out the remains of ancient solar energy from the ground is silly when you can get to the unlimited pure, live source in just 8 minutes.

But will that happen in a time that we all live to see? Will it be required for our “O’Neill Colonies” to be built? And even if SSPS goes live in a very big way, didn’t we learn from Enron that putting all of your stock into just one bucket, energy or otherwise, can be a dangerous idea?

After a short intro, Dr. John Mankins, Founder of Artemis Innovation and undisputed living expert on SSPS gives us a status report and his view of the relatability that SSPS now has to Space Settlement. This portion, with occasional refocusing to the topic, runs about 50 minutes.

Then, the whole panel of Dr. Mankins, Eva-Jane Lark, VP of BMO Nesbitt Burns, and Dr. Philip Metzger, Planetary Scientist of the Florida Space Institute of the University of Central Florida, join together to discuss other revenue options.  Don’t expect a big finish ending with a single slide showing “The Ultimate Product!”, this remains the toughest nut to crack.

Most of the SSI membership is comprised of Engineers and Scientists, and while Gerry O’Neill was both of those, he was also a businessman.  It’s our turn now. TANSTAAFL.

SSI 50: Bioneering

“Life originated in the sea and developed in it slowly for hundreds of millions of years, while the land surfaces of the ancient earth remained utterly lifeless. The primitive, soft-bodied sea creatures, many of them hardly more dense than the water itself, were utterly unable to colonize it. The gleaming surface above their heads was a deadly, impassible boundary. They had developed in water, and without water all around them they could not live.”
-Jonathan Norton Leonard
Flight Into Space: Facts, Fancies and Philosophy
Chapter 11: The Hostile Environment

“Space doesn’t give a d**n about ideology, it’s always trying to kill you”
-Jim Logan
SSI 50: The Space Settlement Enterprise
September 10th, 2019


This next SSI 50 Panel recording, “Bioneering,” may have parts that will ruffle some viewers but knowing the real issues and working to create fixes is the price of admission to into O’Neillian Islands and other off-Earth locations.

After a brief overview, session Host Dr. Jim Logan, cofounder of the Space Enterprise Institute and former NASA Flight Surgeon on Gene Kranz’s Mission Control Team, welcomes Dr. John Charles of Space Center Houston for a major dose of radiation and other killers.

Next, Morgan Irons of the Cornell University College of Agriculture and Founder of Deep Space Ecology, LLC gives a conference highlight: a Space-based Agriculture, Soil and Quasi-Closed  Technologies presentation to help us plan for moving into sustainable Habitats instead of sterile metal boxes.

Joe Carroll, President of Tether Applications Inc., brings reduced gravity issues, that all too often go un-mentioned even by professionals, right up to the forefront, and then Dr. Logan takes the podium again for a – sobering – view from his decades of work beyond the front line of Space.

This one is a doozy. “Bioneering,” the second panel of day two of SSI 50: The Space Settlement Enterprise. Recorded September 10th, 2019 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

If during some parts of this video you start feeling a bit ill, I offer the sentence that Jonathan Norton Leonard wrote right after the quote at the top of this post: “But life tries everything over and over until something works.”

And Jim Logan’s upbeat, motivational sentence?  Let’s get to work on those fixes so maybe in a future session he will have one.