All posts by Robert Smith

Gee Whiz Society

A small group got together at the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park, the burger joint where Gerard K. O’Neill would share lunches with the construction workers and physicists who were working together building the Stanford Linear Accelerator – “The SLAC” – just a short walk away on Sand Hill Road. (And also share breakfasts and dinners too, according to SSI Co-Founder Tasha O’Neill)

At this lunch someone asked where the phrase about SSI not being a “Gee Whiz Society” came from.

We can tell you that there are many recordings in the Space Studies Institute archives; a number of them are not correct for general public release and many of them were recorded by O’Neill personally – he seemed to always carry that little micro cassette recorder that the President of Panasonic gave him as a gift. Throughout those recordings that phrase popped up.

We think that we can tell you at this point that one time in a private meeting with accountants it was pointedly raised that there was ‘too much’ money going out to hardware projects, when some of it, they thought, might be better used for “advocacy.” O’Neill’s response to this was: “Hardware projects ARE what we do” and “Find the money for them.” And in the listening you can hear plainly that: That… Was… That.

In any case there is a place where you can see the “Gee Whiz” being used to a full audience. Unfortunately, we do not have the recording of it, but if you have ever heard the man’s voice maybe on one of the SSI YouTube or Soundcloud Channel releases, we think you can hear it in your head while reading along.

For context, this was one of the last times GKON addressed the full membership, and it is very likely that he knew it would be. That is important to keep in mind. He was, as always, careful with his words *BUT* there is no doubt that in this address, he was speaking with true reason. We can hear that even in the typed words and we hope that you can too.

“As you know, SSI is a low profile operation. That’s by design. We are not a “Gee Whiz” society – we’re trying to do serious, worthwhile, permanent things which are going to be valuable and bring us out into space.”

“They link fundamentally and make dependent the future of the United States space program on a science program. I say that speaking as a scientist. There is nothing more self-serving, there is nothing more conservative, than the scientific establishment. The scientific establishment takes as a high priority the justification of more science, more grants, more funds, more graduate students, and so on, doing basically the same things.”

“To be fair, some of NASA’s worst blunders, the Shuttle and the Space Station, have nothing to do with science. I think we are seeing a fossilization that has occurred in NASA for many years. As long as NASA always looks to the scientific community to justify NASA’s existence, we will always have a very timid though possibly still expensive, space program. It will not tie into the needs of the ordinary person in this country.”

“It will not tie into the needs of the ordinary person in this country.”

“It will not tie into the needs of the ordinary person in this country.”

“It will not tie into the needs of the ordinary person in this country.”

Oh, sorry, I seem to have accidentally typed that same line repeatedly. My bad.

We hope you will read it to the end, it is only three short pages.

And remember that it was a speech, meant to be heard in through the air, so it’s one of those things that really works best when read out loud.

Here is the link:

Free Presentations from The Space Studies Institute

The Space Studies Institute is sometimes asked if we can provide pre-made Powerpoint presentations so folks can go out and correctly give new minds The High Frontier Concept.  Years ago, way before everyone had a presentation tool on their computers – and their phones – SSI used to do that, we’d work up a 15 or 20 minute talk and lend out the script and the heavy circle gadget of slides and folks would click through the bullet points at their Rotary Clubs or College halls; records show even many High School persons and even a few very advanced Junior High people used those offerings!

Following a ‘Think Tank’ session in the U.K. a few years back, we started being asked if we could give the script and slides away so it could be used, but we thought that it wouldn’t be all that special or effective since it was recorded at the session and it’s up on the SSI YouTube Channel for anyone to already find, and here it is:


Yes, I know, that starts with the obligatory Big Picture Of Earth In Space… like every darned Ted Talk about every topic imaginable seems to start with.  In our case, that Earth in Space image makes direct sense, but the Ted Talkers use it because it’s a cheap, fast tricksy way to try to make a connection to a wide audience.  I think it is way overused but I guess people think it still works.

The real fundamental need that folks asking for pre-made presentations think they have is for something adequate to share.  Over the years of SSI,  with the thousands of presentations that have been done by using SSI things, we have found that having a message come from the heart and with the current understanding of the person doing the presentation, is really the key to any message getting across.

A lot of people are under the impression that they don’t have it in them yet, or they have that funny part of that old Seinfeld episode in their brains about the fear of public speaking being higher on the fear list than DEATH! ;-).

But I have to tell you that the actual hardest part of it all is very easy to get over, that’s the part where you don’t have a starter, a common ground point that relates the other person’s current X to your Y.

Last week, right out in front of the Safeway, I was being introduced to a couple of new people.  My friend introduced me as “the guy that can relate anything to freespace 1 gravity rotating habitats.”  Yeah, no kidding, he’s not a Space Person and yet he used the words “freespace 1 gravity rotating habitats.”  It shocked me, but in thinking about it it’s because I’ve used those exact words in that exact order enough while he was nearby that they apparently stuck.

It’s a parlor trick, but freespace 1g rotating habitats are something that has been distracting me for a while now and I’ve found that other people – outside of the little tight space community – hear about them and they can kind of picture them pretty fast for themselves,  and it’s just odd enough that they get a little laugh and  ice starts breaking.  And what’s more, I have found that folks who don’t think about this stuff all the time can come up with angles that us Space People either hadn’t thought of or had forgotten were important.

Like I said, it’s kind of a parlor trick. And I have to admit, just to you, that I can’t always immediately make a connection between a person’s X and our Y.  But those times when I can’t do it right there occasionally turn into great stuck-in-traffic-time distractions and when I make the connection it gives me a chance to reconnect with the person, and that has once or twice resulted in a deeper relationship than just a later passing wave on the street.

Gerry O’Neill did the same kind of thing you know, he wrote about it at the end of chapter 5 of The High Frontier:

“I’ve devoted a good deal of this chapter to the less serious side of life in a space colony – not questions of economics and production, but of amusement and diversion. It seems appropriate to close with an account of one memorable lunchtime conversation: in the years before the topic of this book was well known, I had made a practice of challenging skeptics to name their favorite sports and then always pointing out that the sport could be better in space than on Earth. Finally someone named a delightful sport that, even in these uninhibited days, is carried on only in private. The skeptic instantly became a believer: can anyone imagine a better location for a honeymoon hotel than the zero-gravity region of a space community?”

When you can come up with a thing that you and another person have in common, you have the key to true human rapport.  Start with what they are interested in or, if you don’t know them well or at all, start with something widely in general, like Sports  – instead of A Sport.  The great thing is that unlike a MISSION TO MARS or robot taking pictures of the rings of Saturn, a Freespace 1-G Rotating Habitat will need to have just about everything we have now on the surface of Earth, including amusements and diversions along with plumbing and plants.  So if you start getting people to toss you their starting points you can probably come up with a connection or two, or three.

And that is the start of a conversation.  And a conversation is sometimes more profitable than being on some stage and projecting a sermon down at a bunch of fidgety people who can smell the fingerfood in the back of the hall.

Ok, you get the point, make making connections a game. It’s fun for the other person and it gets your brain a-rolling down the track. After a while you won’t need to ask anyone else for their canned slides, you’ll already have a pocketful of connections already worked out and you can walk into most any group and link their X to your Why.

Try it!

There’s An O’Neill Colony in San Francisco


The Bay Area is beautiful this time of year. The trees in all of the parks are nearly turned and soon that legendary romantic, film noir fog will be making the Golden Gate Bridge something to be personally experienced.

If you haven’t been in a while, the architecture of “The City” has blossomed with the new Salesforce Tower (with its “Eye of Sauron”) fitting in perfectly with the iconic Transamerica Pyramid.

And, of course, there is also The Space Colony.

Long time SSI Associates may remember that in the early 1990’s a very special Island One was physically created using the original William Snow, Gerard K. O’Neill and Frank Mitola blueprints (one of those is at the top of the SSI Soundcloud Channel, notice the title in the copyright square at the lower right).  The Model was professionally made out of metals by an aerospace model company in the then very turbulent new Russia and was delivered to the United States by a special gift flight on the Martin Marietta corporate jet.

Sadly, the model was finished and delivered after Gerry O’Neill had passed away so he never got the chance to see it for himself, and, sadder still, shortly after that… it vanished.

There is a long story behind its finding its way back home, one of intrigues, late night negotiations, clandestine parking lot meetings, white envelopes and unassuming boxes. It’s a story that Indiana Jones would find entertaining and I am very tempted to tell it here, but that part of the story is best for a one to one face to face with no record.

The end result of all that “librarian work” is far more important:

You can see “The Model” with nothing separating you from it, right now in San Francisco.

Ok, just a little bit of the story: I can tell you that after the pieces of The Model were in the possession of SSI, they were not in perfect display condition. Its 27 year journey had taken a toll and restoring it would be at a real monetary cost. While it was a very important artifact in the Space Studies Institute history, we try to keep with the founding goals of finding and *finding ways to fund* real, tangible technologies for The High Frontier Concept to become a reality. Money for such important projects is hard enough to get people to offer from their personal expendable incomes, so the model had to wait.  As SSI Second President Freeman Dyson smiles to hear us swear, “SSI should never become a museum of a future that never was,” and as Gerard K. O’Neill quite often directly stated to possible investors in their own futures, “The Space Studies Institute is not a Gee-Whiz Society.”  So the boxes of pieces were secured and tucked away in hope of  some future opportunity.

That opportunity came earlier this year when SSI got a call from Joseph Becker, Associate Curator of Architecture and Design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Mr. Becker was working on a new exhibit called “Far Out: Suits, Habs and Labs for Outer Space.” As he was putting together this special exhibit, he had begun to see that The Vision of Gerard K. O’Neill was a centerpiece of it all and while the NASA Ames Center had contributed those historic and amazing Rick Guidice and Don Davis Summer Study paintings it would be really nice if Gerard O’Neill’s own organization had something to add. Robin called the location of the boxes, they were unsealed and, very carefully, The Model was assembled so that Mr. Becker could take a look. He was happy with what he saw.




SSI told him the whole story and pointed out that while The Model was mostly intact it was a very precarious assembly. Along with the scuffy and patinaed mirrors, there were two missing tension cables and the Agriculture Rings were – ironically – only being held on the end cores by gravity. The original spot welds had eroded and the trusses needed some tender loving care to get them back to display condition. Mr. Becker said, ‘Don’t worry, I know people.’


The boxes were re-packed and delivered to SFMOMA where Joseph introduced them to Assistant Curator Anna Lau, Associate Conservator Ellie Ohara and Head of Conservation Michelle Barger.


SFMOMA's Anna Lau, Ellie Ohara and Michelle Barger
SFMOMA’s Anna Lau, Ellie Ohara and Michelle Barger


Ms. Ohara took the parts and made them whole again. And you should see them now. You really should, and you really can.


SSI is made up of mostly Technical people and when many technical people fly into SFO they Uber south on the 101 for the 20 minute drive to Silicon Valley, usually too busy to take the 15 minute ride north into The City. But if the holidays are a time of travel by choice and Northern California fits your family budget, consider the seafood and aquarium down at Fisherman’s Wharf, a choppy spray ride out to the dark history of Alcatraz, a traditional Japanese Tea or visit to the Academy of Sciences planetarium, indoor rain forest and living roof in Golden Gate Park, walk to the nearby Panhandle Park where The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin’s Big Brother and Jimi Hendrix all made history… but do not forget to head down to 151 3rd Street, to SFMOMA.

Save money and look smart by parking in the locals garage right around the corner at 147 Minna Street, then walk back to 3rd, enter the main museum entrance, go up the escalators to pay the surprisingly low admission, turn around to the left and take the elevators to the 6th floor.

“Island One. The Real Model.” Part of the exhibit “Far Out” running only until January at the SFMOMA.





Get more information on Far Out: Suits, Habs and Labs for Outer Space from this SFMOMA link.


Bernal Sphere, Island One?  Which is it?  Both.

“Imagine a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow; for this purpose the new molecular materials would be admirably suited. Owing to the absence of gravitation its construction would not be an engineering feat of any magnitude. The source of the material out of which this would be made would only be in small part drawn from the earth; for the great bulk of the structure would be made out of the substance of one or more smaller asteroids, rings of Saturn or other planetary detritus. The initial stages of construction are the most difficult to imagine. They will probably consist of attaching an asteroid of some hundred yards or so diameter to a space vessel, hollowing it out and using the removed material to build the first protective shell. Afterwards the shell could be re-worked, bit by bit, using elaborated and more suitable substances and at the same time increasing its size by diminishing its thickness. The globe would fulfil all the functions by which our earth manages to support life. In default of a gravitational field it has, perforce, to keep its atmosphere and the greater portion of its life inside; but as all its nourishment comes in the form of energy through its outer surface it would be forced to resemble on the whole an enormously complicated single-celled plant.”

J.D. Bernal (1901-1971), from the essay “The World, The Flesh and The Devil” published in 1929

Bernal Sphere.” You’ve heard that phrase billions and billions of times. Very likely when you’ve heard it you got the picture in your head though, of an O’Neill “Island One.”

Back when nuclear physicist and Princeton Professor Gerard K. O’Neill was just getting into the distraction of the numbers of “That space stuff” his friend Freeman Dyson pointed him to the writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and to “The World, The Flesh and The Devil” by J.D. Bernal.

As those real numbers started to make sense and a real design started developing O’Neill didn’t forget that source and he related the design of what we now see in our heads to the previous visionary by coining the term “Bernal Sphere.” As you can see in the original 1929 essay text, a true Bernal is not exactly the same as an Island One, it’s got a fair bit of Dandridge M. Cole to it and lacks many up-to-the-space-age parts, but when O’Neill humbly paid his homage, it stuck.

We think both of the men would be happy about that.