SSI Newsletters: Q4 1981

Space Studies Institute 1981 Q4 Newsletter

Space Studies Institute
195 Nassau Street
PO Box 82
Princeton, NJ 08540
[[librarian note:  This address is here, as it was in the original printed newsletter, for historical reasons.  It is no longer the physical address of SSI. For contributions, please see this page]]



SSI’s support goes into near-term, critical-path re­search. But occasionally we like to take a longer view, toward the far-term consequences of the work SSI is beginning. Recently, NATURE magazine requested of Dr. O’Neill a review of Are We Alone? by R.T. Rood and J.S. Trefil. Dr. O’Neill believes that the search for extra­terrestrial intelligence is a worthy project because it will yield valuable astronomical data, independent of the likelihood of its finding life-generated signals. The book draws on the space colony concept, so by courtesy of NATURE, here is Dr. O’Neill’s review of it.

Is the origin of life so extraordinarily improbable an event that it has occurred but once in the history of our galaxy, or do star systems other than our own teem with intelligent life, able to communicate with us? Surely this question, raised almost forty years ago by Enrico Fermi, is one of the most profound that we can

Rood and Trefil outline an emerging modern view on the answer. They begin with the seminal paper “Searching for Extraterrestrial Civilizations” by Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, which appeared in NATURE in 1959. There the authors pointed out that sensitive radio receivers could detect signals from transmitters of moderate power over interstellar distances. Frank Drake, already thinking along similar lines, was further stimulated by Cocconi and Morrison’s paper and carried out Project Ozma, using a radio-telescope to listen for possible artificial signals emitted from the nearby, solar-type Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani systems. Although no recognizably artificial interstellar signals were ever detected, then or in searches over the succeeding decades, there grew in the early 1960’s something of a consensus among those scientists interested in the question. It was based on assumptions they made on probabilities: that a star will have planets, that life will develop on one such planet, that it will develop technological expertise, and that a culture capable of communication will survive long enough to be heard. Those  probabilities and a few other factors, simply multiplied together, form what is variously called the Sagan­Drake, the Drake or the Green Bank Equation. Rood and Trefil choose the last version, memorializing the first scientific conference (1961) on interstellar com­munication. The Green Bank conferees concluded that intelligent life was abundant in our galaxy, that physical space travel over interstellar distances would be forever impractical, and that communication could occur only by radio transmissions; the only problem was to find the right frequency and the signal code.

One definite signal, unmistakably intelligent and extraterrestrial, could end the argument at any time, but until that happens everyone can speculate. Most of Are We Alone? is devoted to the fascinating skein of logic woven over the past ten years by a young generation of scientists, who have reached a fairly general agreement among themselves that the Green Bank conferees were both too sanguine on their probabilities and too short-sighted on technical progress. In the modern view, life is a far more unlikely phenomenon than had once been thought, and there is a strong possibility that it is unique to our planet.

Michael Hart stimulated much of the new research on the Fermi question, and the authors discuss Hart’s work in considerable detail. Dr. Hart, now at Trinity College in Texas, set up a mathematical model of the Earth’s atmosphere, and in 1978 traced that atmo­sphere by computer over geologic time, from its formation by volcano emissions to its complete trans­formation through biochemical processes once life did form. Hart found that the survival and evolution of life depended on an extraordinarily lucky series of acci­dents, by which the temperature of the Earth remained remarkably constant for most of the age of our planet. Had we not been so fortunate as to be located at precisely the right distance from the Sun, within margins of no more than one or two percent, Earth would now be as lifeless as Mars or Venus, according to Hart’s calculations.

The young revolutionaries further conclude that their elders were badly misled by (in my phrase) “Temporal Chauvinism,” a lack of appreciation for the probable development of technology beyond our era. If there is a civilization more advanced than our own, it will be ahead not just by decades but by millennia – and with technology to match. The authors conclude that the modern concept of space colonies, not published until more than a decade after the Green Bank conference, logically confounds many of the assumptions made by the 1961 conferees. Space colonies, they estimate, are certainly feasible technically, don’t require a particularly high technology, and have such extraordinarily high survival value for any civilization reaching its Nuclear Age that they will inevitably be developed by any long-lived civilization capable of interstellar radio communication. Given the certainty of space colonies, virtually every star system is a hospitable target for colonization by any species, no matter what its point of origin or requirements of temperature, gravity and atmosphere. The development of space colonies therefore means, in the opinion of the young scientists of the modern school, that physical interstellar travel, first by robot probes and then by living colonists, is a natural and not particularly difficult stage in the development of any intelligent civilization. That conclusion is made quanti­tative by computer simulations carried out by Eric M. Jones at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Jones comes to a single conclusion, remarkably insensitive to assumptions about ship speeds, the gestation time for a civilization around a star before it spawns col­onies to move on to other stars, and other variables. He finds that the spread of a civilization outward across the entire galaxy takes no more than at most a few thousandths of the galactic age – that is, the expan­sion in explosive.  My own calculations confirm that conclusion, and suggest an even shorter expansion time, less than one ten-thousandth of the galactic age.

I argue that the outward movement of self-replicating robot probes is more certain than that of life, but Jones may well be right in his assertion that in our own case, “The human migrants will not be far behind the probes.” In the view of the young revolutionaries, based on that chain of logic, if there had ever been an intelligent race prior to our own its descendants would be here already. And as we seem to have evolved locally, we are not they. Hence, there’s a strong probability that we are in fact alone in our galaxy. It’s thought-provoking that Enrico Fermi, by this famous question, “Where is everybody?” appears to have arrived at the same conclusion forty years earlier.

-Gerard K. O’Neill
The above review was published in the 5 November 1981 issue of NATURE, volume 295, issue 5836 on page 25.



A Progress Report by
Dr. Robert Waldron

The accessibility of space, with its potential benefits to a broad segment of humanity, will depend on the affordability of travel, shelter, and necessities and amenities for survival, safety, comfort and productive activity beyond the exosphere. These, in turn, will depend on the ingenuity and skill which science and technology can bring to utilization of readily accessible resources such as lunar and asteroidal materials, abundant solar energy, adjustable (artificial) gravity, etc. and the determination and vision to expend social political and economic effort and resources to pursue these goals.

The research program on processing of non­terrestrial activities currently being funded by SSI, and now in progress at Rockwell International and California Space Institute, represents a key step in converting mineral grains into purified metallic and non­metallic elements and compounds for structures, energy conversion and utilization, life support, pro­pellants and other important applications. In combi­nation with efficient methods for deploying lunar soil in orbit (such as the mass driver) and electric propulsion spacecraft for cargo transfer, it can provide the vast majority of refined materials necessary for most activities in the earth-moon and more distant regions of space.

Chemical processing in orbit or on the lunar surface must, of necessity, be practiced in quite a different manner than on earth. The absence of virtually unlimited quantities of air and water (available on the earth at essentially pumping costs) for cooling and/or process use and also absence of a number of other key elements or compounds, requires conservative use of such substances and highly efficient recovery of such space deficient elements (primarily hydrogen and fluoride) by recycling and regeneration of reagents containing such elements.

The first phase of the R&D program to verify and demonstrate feasibility of a proposed process for separation and purification of the seven major elements or their compounds (aluminum, calcium, iron, magnesium, silicon, titanium and oxygen) which account for over 99 percent of the weight of lunar soils is currently underway with Rockwell investigating most of the high temperature steps and CalSpace the water­based chemistry. This process would also be applicable to processing of stony and chondritic meteoric or asteroidal bodies.

The process uses a low temperature, water-based acid system to dissolve the simulated lunar sample and separates the silica fraction by distillation as gaseous SiF4, and the remaining metallic elements as fluoride salts or solutions based on differences in solubilities or affinities for ion exchange resins. The separated fluorides are either reduced to metals with sodium or converted back to oxides by hydrolysis or indirect means (mostly involving high temperature
steps). The remainder of the 33 process steps involve recycling and regeneration of acid fluoride reagents for the ore dissolving step and sodium for the reductions plus minimizing loss of water or other reagents by drying and purification of the output streams.

In the Rockwell portion of the work performed to date, three of the ten non-drying steps have been substantially completed and special apparatus is being prepared for four additional steps which will be run in the next 60 to 90 days [Editor’s note: that time will be from late October 1981 to the end of January 1982). The critical data needed include efficiency of removal of fluoride from calcium, magnesium, aluminum and silicon flurocompounds and conditions of temperature and pressure to achieve useful reaction rates. At California Space Institute progress is being made in precipitation and separation of calcium and magnesium fluorides from acid fluorosilicate solutions, and separation of aluminum from titanium using anion exchange columns.

No serious obstacles to application of the process have been encountered thus far in the program, and sufficient alternative options are available to substi­tute for individual steps in the overall process to justify a high level of confidence in practical success for the basic approach.

Dr. Waldron is the principal investigator at Rockwell International, working on the $100,000. grant from the Space Studies Institute.



This issue of SSI UPDATE marks the beginning of a new feature, our Guest Column. Each issue will con­tain an article from someone prominent in the fields of the future, and as a matter of principle there will be no editorial changes made in these contributions. We invite your reactions and suggestions.
Space Studies Institute 1981 Q4 Newsletter guest image


The bold U.S. space projects initiated in the 1960’s have been successfully completed, opening vast new frontiers for American exploration and utilization. Our current impressive capability to operate in space-and the major extensions of that capability that lie within our grasp-confront the United States with major policy decisions: Shall the U.S. now establish base­type facilities in orbit, and extend the Space Transpor­tation  System from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) and the moon? Or shall we continue to limit ourselves to sending a few explorers on scouting missions to LEO to observe and to experiment, but not to occupy? Shall we con­tinue the robotic exploration of the solar system? Shall we invest vigorously in promising new civil and military space application systems? Or shall we turn away from the space frontier?

The challenge to America in space in the 1980’s is, as James Michener recently pointed out, like that Shakespeare sensed when he wrote:

“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune,
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

The demands for major advances in U.S. space capability for national defense, for scientific research, and for successful competition in economic applications require continuing extensive operations in space. America’s heritage and our pioneering nature impel us to move boldly into this new world. Yet the advanced space technology which is increasingly essential to both our civil and defense space programs is being reduced in the face of serious new challenges to U.S. leadership from Japan and Europe as well as the Soviet Union. It is ironic that at the moment that the success of the space shuttle has opened a broad highway to LEO America is without a realistic space policy to direct the use of this valuable invention. Typical of our confusion is the most recent Presi­dential policy statement of 1978 which proclaimed U.S. leadership in space, while denying all major new program starts . . . Rhetoric, not Rockets!

NASA’s budget reductions which now threaten critically important U.S. space capabilities – JPL and the planetary program, practical applications programs, aeronautics and propulsions, inter-orbit (LEO to GEO) transportation, and shuttle growth – do not fly in the face of national policy; we essentially have no policy. America has not determined what it wants to accomplish in space in the 1980’s, and without leadership to point the direction the nation doesn’t know what kind of a space program it should support.

The NASA Administrator and the Secretary of Defense report to the President. They are responsible for developing and recommending to the President appropriate goals and programs for the nation’s future in space, for supporting the President’s legislative proposals on space before the Congress, and for implementing the nation’s approved policies and programs. Clearly, America needs and can afford a forward-looking space program for the remainder of this century. Their organizations, not the budgeteers, have the competence, the vision and the responsibility to initiate, annunciate and support U.S. space policy.

What programs would be appropriate for the world’s leading space-faring nation for the remainder of this century? I’d propose these:

• Developing the full potential of the Space Shuttle through extensive and varied NASA and DoD flight programs.

• Investing in promising new civil and military space applications.

• Extending reusable round-trip space transportation systems for personnel and cargo outward from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) and, eventually, to the lunar surface.

• Establishing multi-purpose research, logistic, and operational manned space bases in LEO, with a man-tended base in GEO.

• Landing unmanned spacecraft with sample-return capability on each solid world in the solar system.

• Deploying and tending major astronomical ob­servatories in space.

• Establishing a lunar research station to initiate extraterrestrial resource development in the next century.
The American people are looking to the Administra­tion and the Congress for leadership in setting appropriate new directions for our space program. Please . . . Rockets, not Rhetoric!



Dr. O’Neill’s lecture schedule includes the following dates. There are no lectures scheduled in January as Dr. O’Neill will be in Japan. (*) indicates a closed lecture, not open to the public.

December 7th -Southern Association of Colleges and Schools;* Dallas, Texas.

December 10th -Continental Telephone Company;* Marco Island, Florida.

February 8th -American Bankers Association;* New Orleans, Louisiana.

February 23rd -Stephen F. Austin University; Nacog­doches, Texas.


In response to many letters from children asking about space we have developed a children’s information sheet. It is geared toward the middle elementary grades and is free, for a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Also available is the reproducible brochure; please enclose a SASE with your request.

Princeton/AIAA/SSI Fifth Conference proceedings will be released in January. Requests and questions should be sent to: AIAA, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019.

Senior Associates are receiving the NASA publication SP-428, which is being mailed directly from the Ames Research Center.

A set of 16 color slides and descriptions of space colonies and space manufacturing is available for $15.00 through SSI

For Holiday giving we now have an attractive personalized card for your gift subscriptions. For each gift enclose the name to be placed on the card and the address to where it should be sent along with your donation.

©space studies institute

Next: 1981 SSI Kids Special

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Technology for Human Space Settlement