All posts by Robert Smith

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.


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.