Category Archives: The High Frontier

Did they truly read The High Frontier?

I just thought it would be worth saying to folks who have come here on a whim, and to those of us who haven’t actually re-read the book recently, that the book “The High Frontier” by Gerard K. O’Neill is not exactly what many people think it is.

SSI SA Michael Martin-Smith made a great visitor post on the SSI Facebook page saying that O’Neill was one of the foremost “greens.”  That truth is something Spacers tend to forget about.  And it’s truly part of the real important stuff that O’Neill  covered with many, many pages  in The High Frontier.

The news lately seems to be so similar to the news of the days of Limits To Growth with all of the repeated ‘class vs. class’ and ‘Rich only means Evil’ statements and a seemingly growing anger from all sides – ok, it’s a real anger.  But when I read or see those attitudes, I keep hearing so many parts of The High Frontier in my head like a call to remember that there IS a viable answer to many of these issues.  And it’s not a pipe dream or a fairy tale from the good olde days that has since been fundamentally disproved.

I think of The High Frontier more and more over time for the non-space-habitat aspects, and for the significant amount of information that the book goes into in detail on related to the root reasons that all of the big space object stuff is important.  I re-read it and see that it’s more than anything simply about using technologies that we already have to help *Everyone On Earth* gain more security by gaining more wealth for their families and having the option for better Education – things that can snowball and make even more positives for **EVERYONE.**  No country, no neighborhood, no person left behind.

The well-off don’t have to stop being well-off for the poor to stop being poor.  There is plenty for all all around us.  And we’ve been able get it, if we really want it, for decades.

I see The High Frontier more for that now than for the visions of life in a giant can.

If you have not personally read The High Frontier for yourself, then this will seem like I’ve had too  much Kool-Aid from Utopia – I tell you that that is the biggest of all of the misconceptions surrounding this particular Engineering book.

Ok, I’ve read The High Frontier cover to cover several times. Asking others to do that is asking a lot of busy people.   I was ‘forced’ to get in the habit of re-reading it because of my volunteer work at SSI – having worked on the kindle edition and since then being intermittently on a project that we hope will be coming farther along soon.  But still, I’ve done the re-reading and that’s where my view comes from.  I think re-reading it is why when I see some mentions of The High Frontier being  far from the Actual Points of the book, I get a little frustrated.

Books for the Space community and Spacer fans, IF they mention SPACE living at all instead of really being about other-planet living, seem to have a cover-picture-only view of what The High Frontier is fundamentally about.

For instance, these are the first two sentences of the Dedication page of the book “Space Trade” by L. Paul Turner:

“This book is not a repeat of Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s great dream book, “The High Frontier.”  It is not a description of idyllic pasture and forest in space, although on a scale of acres, gardens and trees are in the plans.”

Yes, it looks like there may have been a tiny publishing issue, it doesn’t make grammatical sense but you get the gist of the meaning: The High Frontier was a book of pretty pictures.  “…. great dream book…” says it all.

For people who haven’t read The High Frontier, this is a disservice.  Because cows chewing their cuds under a sky made of regolith IS NOT what The High Frontier was about – in my humblest opinion.  Yes, some of the covers, including the 1989 SSI edition that we re-used for the Kindle picture do show a frolicking family under a curved sky but … it’s not what The High Frontier text is really about.

I’m not picking on Mr. Turner’s book, he isn’t alone by any means in what he probably innocently has presented.  But since I started using “Space Trade” as an example I’ll continue quoting that very first paragraph from the Dedication to show the context…

“Rather, this book is one of the many smaller dreams that Dr. O’Neill alluded to in his farsighted book.  This book, about how to develop real estate in space, is a practical guide to investment, and contains a step-by-step guide to profits and competitive advantage in the current, though still inchoate age of the space trade.”

Ok.  The rest of the paragraph lightly says that The High Frontier had more than pretty flowers and dancing children.  I thank him sincerely for that.  But, having read The High Frontier more than once my personal perception is that O’Neill didn’t just “allude to” any of  the non-habitat points, he hid nothing under fluffy cloud dreams.  Details and numbers abound.  Fossil Fuels, Nuclear Fuels, Education, Energy, Agriculture, Economics, Poverty, Greed and the real interplay between them all are significant and fundamental parts of The High Frontier Concept and the mass-market book with that name.  Flat out.  It is a book about the positives of continuing the growth paths started in our industrial revolutions, about allowing – no, about Encouraging – the underdeveloped countries to grow by catching up with their own Industrial Revolutions.

After chapter one (a trailer, a teaser, a look at what could be through the eyes of a person who might one day be looking at it), the book is pretty much numbers, historical background and brass tacks.  In fact, it can be said that The High Frontier is truly “a step-by-step guide to profits and competitive advantage in the current, though still inchoate age of the space trade.”

Over time I guess the pretty pictures seem to be all that stick in the mind, but The High Frontier is far more than a pretty picture.  It’s about hard work and making a positive life for Human Beings wherever they choose to live and raise their families. It is not escapism, it is not about turning your back on the Human Race.

Robert Zubrin once told me ‘to choose to live in a tin can is a declaration that you have *absolute faith* in the abilities of your fellow Human Beings. ‘  O’Neill figured out that once people understand there are no actual limits to energy and resources a tin can be made very pretty, but the primary reasons for it to be at all are for it to be profitable and helpful to all Human Beings.

I like Mr. Turner’s book, it’s a very good read and I hope that SSI Associates add it to their lists.  I’d sure like someone to read it and write a review that we can put here on the SSI site for other Associates to learn from.  But you know what I’d also like?  I’d also like a review of The High Frontier, not as yet another “I read this when I was 17 and it brings back memories” or “we lost the will to do things like that” type of thing, but as a real review done with fresh eyes on the workable information that it presents in relation to the world that we are living in Right Now.

That’s what I’d like.

Wouldn’t you?

Stephen Hawking should roundtable with Mike Combs

Last night after the family was asleep I started checking on the mailing list for the upcoming SSI Update, our special private Newsletter for SSI Associates. Robin Snelson had just sent nearly a hundred new addresses and before the merge I took a moment to appreciate the people on the long-term list. My eyes were caught by the name Mike Combs.

Mike has been a great Advocate and organizer and writer on The High Frontier for many, many years. Robin told me that he was one of the earliest HF Webmasters and many Space professionals know him from his legendary Space Settlement site (the original 1996-2014 pages are now hosted as a reference on the National Space Society servers at ). He continues to run the SSI Yahoo group and when we started assembling the SSI Newsletter Archive Mike was the first to offer his personal copies of issues that we hadn’t yet found. He’s just a great, dedicated High Frontier person. A true shining star.

Anyway, I finished merging the names and fired up the new SSI Facebook page to check that all was well… and I saw Mike had given the page a “Like.” A happy sight to end a day.

Woke up this morning and flipped open the Google news to see the report that Stephen Hawking has given us all a deadline to get our butts beyond the limits of this Earth. The issues are listed like a tolling bell and the end-all goal is stated by the author of the article without hesitation: we have to find “Another Planet” that will make everything wonderful again for the chosen ones.

So, let’s see. There’s a problem, a whole host of problems, caused by the limitations of squeezing the last drops out of a limiting planetary surface and the answer is… to pass through billions of miles of limitless resources and limitless raw energy and quick like scared little bunnies scuttle back down to hope for the best on yet another limiting planetary surface.

Don’t they say that continuing to make the same mistakes while expecting a different result is a sign of insanity?

What’s this got to do with Mike? “Planetary Chauvinism.”

In The High Frontier book and in many other writings and presentations, Gerard K. O’Neill brought up that term, usually with the anecdote of a conversation with Isaac Asimov:

“We are so used to living on a planetary surface that it is a wrench for us even to consider continuing our normal human activities in another location. If, however, the human race has now reached the technical capability to carry on some of its industrial activities in space, we should indulge in the mental exercise of “comparative planetology.” We should ask, critically and with appeal to the numbers, whether the best site for a growing, advancing industrial society is Earth, the Moon, Mars, some other planet, or somewhere else entirely. Surprisingly, the answer will be inescapable: The best site is “somewhere else entirely.”

In a roundtable TV interview, Isaac Asimov and I were asked why science fiction writers have, almost without exception, failed to point us toward that development. Dr. Asimov’s reply was a phrase he has now become fond of using: “Planetary Chauvinism.””

-Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier, Chapter 3: The Planetary Hangup
copyright space studies institute

I sent Bing looking for the original reference and came across this short Wikipedia entry that says that Ike recalled hearing it from Sagan. That entry ends with the line: “The counter-argument is that all the benefits of a planet can be achieved in space, usually by an O’Neill Cylinder type structure.” And looking an inch down to the source we see a link to Mike Combs’ “Somewhere Else Entirely”.

Read Mike’s piece. Click the link and read it right now. And if it’s been a while since you sat down with the details in The High Frontier, get your copy off of the shelf or go over and pay that whopping 7 bucks to get it on your Kindle. Refresh your memory on the finer points and talk it up. People are discussing this stuff – Your Stuff – right now.   And they’re ready to listen to you.

There are NO LIMITS to Growth. The limits are only in the views that we humans have accepted to be truths, but that are truly only rote and easy habit. There are a far wider range of solutions that can pay all of the bills that we’ve stacked up and give every human being a new surplus.

We call those better, smarter, more profitable long-term options that we have the technology and ability to start building right now: “The High Frontier.”

The All Time Classic: Gerard K. O'Neill's The High Frontier
The All Time Classic: Gerard K. O’Neill’s The High Frontier

Thanks Mike!

SSI Supermodels (part 2): Make your own SSI Mass Driver

[looking for part 1 – the O’Neill Cylinder Model?  click here!]

In the early 1980s, Dr. Richard Woodbridge III, a Princeton graduate and retired Vice-President of the New York Life Insurance Company was SSI’s Executive Vice President. The SSI Conference Proceedings and SSI Update Newsletter Archives document much of Dr. Woodbridge’s excellent volunteer work for the Institute, but one little thing he did seems to have stuck in the minds of many long-time SSI Associates: The 3 page paper “How To Make A Model Mass Driver.”

Mass Driver Model page 1
Mass Driver Model project page 1


This short document gave everyone with a little extra weekend time the hands-on experience and personal pride of building a conceptual model of one of the most important engineering aspects of The High Frontier Concept.

The SSI Mass Driver is *THE* mechanism to cost effectively launch the raw materials that make those huge SSI Space Manufacturing Facilities, Island Colonies and civilization-changing Solar Power Satellites.

The biggest restriction to such HUGE engineering projects is the cost of lifting the dumb mass of their infrastructures – not the high tech parts, those add up to only a small percentage of the total weight and established rocket technologies can handle that – it’s the dumb support structures that can not be lifted economically from the surface of the Earth. But lifting the raw mass from the surface of the Moon or from Asteroids is a totally different cost structure… when you add the simplicity of the Mass Driver technology.

This small model is a very low powered concept project. It dosn’t have any photoelectric beam detection to automatically turn on the switch as the driver is coming near – a series of these and timing to alternate the currents to provide pull and push forces at the proper moments is how you get the huge speeds in short runs. And this model running at your house doesn’t have the vacuum or the low temperatures that make the Mag-Lev guide system of a real Mass Driver as amazingly efficient. But it IS a working model of the coil pull part of the equation.

It’s a thought starter, great for anyone who has been looking for a jump start warm up project to get the wheels turning on Space Manufacturing and it’s excellent for kids in grades 5-12 looking for a unique Science Fair presentation. Plus, as I found when making mine for the video, it’s just plain fun.

You can just watch the video on the SSI YouTube Channel but to get the full picture you should take the few minutes to read the text of the original paper below; It adds extra enhancements that can make your model a bit more exciting than the one I made for demonstration.

By the way, after seeing that pre-wound spools of 18-20 gauge wire weren’t being wound as accurately as companies had done in the past, I got actual original Radio Shack wire spools on Amazon for just a few bucks, and Home Depot sold me the doorbell button for a penny. In all, the cost was about ten dollars and I did the whole thing in about ten minutes (including the time spent swearing about burning the insulation near the solder point – D’OH!)




A mass driver has four parts:

1. The MASS that shoots out into space.
2. The DRIVER that pushes the mass out and then stays behind to be used again.
3. The ENERGIZING COILS that make the driver move, and
4. The ELECTRICITY, in our model from a battery, which moves through the energizing coils turning them into a magnet which draws the driver into the inside of the coils, pushing the mass, then stopping the driver. The mass shoots out into space.

Space Studies Institute Make It Yourself Mass Driver image 1

Space Studies Institute make it yourself Mass Driver image 2


The MASS. Use a small piece of wood from a wooden match, or toothpick, or twig. Or a small brass screws. That is – something that is not iron or magnetic.

The DRIVER. This must be of iron like a piece iron rod and it must be thin enough to fit inside the plastice drinking straw. A Number 6 or Number 8 Finishing nail works well. A Finishing Nail is a nail with hardly any head.

The ENERGIZING COILS. You can get from a store that sells electronic parts HOOK-UP WIRE that is wound on a hollow plastic core. Get from Radio Shack a spool of No. 18 gauge hook-up wire, 55 feet, stranded. One end of the coil is free on the outside. The other end of the coil sticks out into the inside of the spool. So, you have an energizing coil right there. Scrape the insulation off each wire about a half an inch. This may be tricky for the end that sticks out into the hollow core is short.

The ELECTRICITY. Use a 6 volt lantern battery.

The PLASTIC DRINKING STRAW. You can get from your grocery store (and many other stores). Whatever you get needs to be about 1/4 an inch in diameter and smooth inside.

The SWITCH. At your hardware store get a doorbell button.


Connect the wires as shown. Put the drinking straw through the spool of wire as near the center as you can. you can pack tissue or modeling putty around the straw to hold it in place. Put in the piece of match stick (which is the MASS), and then put in the nail behind it just so the head end slightly enters the coils.

Press the switch and hold it down a second. The DRIVER will be drawn into the coil. The MASS will fly out the other end. The DRIVER will stay behind.

You have made a mass driver! Not very spectacular, but is is a mass driver.


To make the mass driver more powerful add another 6 volt battery, that is, in series, the plus of one battery to the minus of the other.

A word about what is happening. Do you remember where it is said to hold the switch down for a second? Well, if you let the switch up too soon the coil cannot stop the DRIVER and the DRIVER will shoot out. That is because thie coil does not have the time to draw the DRIVER back before the electricity is turned off.

Also, if you happen to lift the switch, that is stop the electricity just as the DRIVER is being drawn back, the DRIVER may shoot out the back of the tube. So, WARNING, do not get in front of the mass driver. Do not get in back of the mass driver. And do not let anyone else!


If you cannot for some reason get a hold of the inside end of the coil there are two choices, unwind the coil, get the other end, and rewind it on the same spool, or better yet, though it is fairly hard to do, wind you own coil. If you do wind you own coil then you can have a much more powerful mass driver!


The idea is simple, make the wire of the coils much closer to the drinking straw. You could wind the wire right on the drinking straw, but that is very hard to do because the drinking straw is not very strong.

It is best to wind the wire on a piece of a wooden dowel, 1/4 inch in diameter. This wil give you a coil with a center hole (after pulling the dowel out) into which you can slide on the drinking straw. Make the new coil about two inches long and wind all 55 feet on it. The sounds easy, but it is not. It is best to think of rolling the wire on the dowel by turning the dowel and unrolling the wire from the spool.

As you wind, try to keep each winding touching the one before it. You will find that the windings tend to separate one from another and fall apart, stick them together using pieces of tape sticky pieces you can cut off the ends of plastic Band-Aids. you can also use a piece of this sticky tape to fix the wire on the dowel when you start winding. Finish by coating several times with clear nail polish.


WIRE: Can use Bell Wire (from your hardware store) or 20 gauge hook-up wire.
WINDING: Can wind coil on a wooden pencil. A No. 2 of No.3.
BATTERY: Can use a 10 volt lantern battery.
IDEAS: Make scenery for the mass driver, like on the surface of the Moon or Mars or put out in space with the stars. You can set things up so that a little light flashes on when the switch is turned on, Use your imagination.


Battery – 6 volt lantern battery. Hardware store. $8.40
Wire – Spool of Hook-Up Wire, 18 gauge, stranded, 55 feet. From Radio Shack $2.19
Switch – Doorbell button. Hardware store. $2.40

Copyright 1986 by Richard G. Woodbridge III


fyi: we have recently found a trove of photographs of the making of the original SSI and SSI/MIT Mass Drivers. We’ll be releasing those in a special way soon. Also, there are a LOT of MD related items in the SSI Newsletter Archives including one issue from Summer 1980 where Gerry dedicates a whole article to details that will make perfect sense to anyone  who has made their own simple working model.

High Frontier giveaway results are in

This note comes a little late as I was in DC the past few days for SSI (more on that to come soon).

We want all SSI Associates to know that we’ve added up the worldwide free units from our Apollo 11 Anniversary week High Frontier Kindle edition giveaway and over 1700 (1742 to be exact) new Kindle copies are now in the hands of readers.

Added to the copies from the first giveaway, back when SSI had just released the Kindle Edition, that makes around 6500 in total that we have given away for free.  And remember, because Kindle lets a person only claim one copy per account for all time instead of allowing any “loading up” of extra copies that can take away from the reality of the numbers – these 6500 represent actual individual readers (on top of the thousands who buy The High Frontier Kindle Edition at the regular low price).

Many thanks to everyone who helped spread the word about the giveaway, and now that the book is in your Kindle libraries, don’t just let it sit there, take the next step:  READ the High Frontier.

We look forward to hearing your opinions and reviews and – we truly mean this – seeing what tangible things you are inspired to work on and share with fellow SSI Associates that will prove that The High Frontier is more than just a good book.  Let us all see where it takes you and how you are an active and real part of The Human Breakout Into Space.