Category Archives: Art and Models

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 Supermodels Part 3… your Models

Space Studies Institute Newsletter 1992 NovDec image 9 Beranal Sphere model

We’ve had numerous requests for more SSI Supermodels and the SSI “Bernal Sphere” Island is high on the list.  Alas, the massive model we had made decades back (shown above) is gone – maybe in some SSI Alum’s closet,  maybe in a private museum somewhere?

Perhaps these notes from the SSI Newletter archive could jog a memory.

While that particular one was very detailed, it’s worth noting that the one Gerry had on his own desk was a lot simpler.


So simple in fact that a 3d model or even a small kid’s ball and some rubber gasket rings from Home Depot could go a long way to making a nice display.


A ball, 5 rubber rings on either side, a pin running through the center, four rectangular sheets on each end for solar panels and some paint.  That gets a bulk of the imagery done.

A person really into model making could add to that or even use the classic SSI blueprint to do a partial cutaway of the main interior…


… or duplicate the old model that showed the activities inside the agriculture rings (those rings on either side). The cover of the SP-428 book from the 1977 Ames Study directed by Dr. O’Neill offers a nice view…



These Don Davis illustrations from The High Frontier book might spur additional ideas…

ssi_donvais_ch99p347tn ssi_dondavis_ch09p166tn

Windows 10 comes with a 3d modeling “paint” program included and there are many other options from free to nearly free.  And most software links to companies that will 3d print your model for a small price.

The SSI Bernal Sphere starts from a pretty basic foundation… we’d love to see the models that you can come up with!


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.

SSI Supermodels (part 1)


With summer coming to an end and vacations over it’s time to find things close to home to keep the kids (or grandkids) occupied. How about an O’Neill Colony that’s easy to put together and makes The Vision a physical reality that you can see from all angles … on a desktop scale?

Long ago SSI paid thousands of dollars and waited months for a rather large Bernal Sphere model to take to conferences, alas that model was lost to the past (and as I hear tell, it was a pain to move from place to place) but right now for just about the cost of a video game your family can have an O’Neill Cylinder that you can put on any shelf  or take with you to meetings.

This model from the Wave company in Japan was created for fans of the Anime series Mobile Suit Gundam 00 (which has no relation to the annoying song, “MSG” is a multi-season series set in a future where SSI Colonies and Solar Power Satellites – and giant mechs – are part of normal life).

This is a near-perfect Island for engineers and budding engineers to display.  Plus, it’s really easy to put together. Technically, it just snaps together so careful fingers and a fingernail file to gently smooth the little nubs down is all you need.

Here’re a few images to hopefully get you interested:

1) The box. See, it’s an O’Neill.

Wave company Space Settlement O'Neill Colony model box
Wave company Space Settlement O’Neill Colony model box


2) The cool special booklet showing details of the “real thing” It’s in Japanese, but pretty obvious.

Neat booklet on colony details
Neat booklet on colony details

Booklet second image

3) After carefuly removing the parts from the marked pieces frames (they are all numbered to make it easy), you just apply the stickers that show the interior valleys and snap them to the end caps.

The Colony Valleys
The Colony Valleys are nice stickers


3 take 2) Oops, the instructions say to snap the three windows in first, that helps the valley parts sit better between the windows.

Colony model windows
Best to put the windows in first


4) After carefully applying the mirror stickers, just snap the mirrors to the end cap. (Do be careful applying the mirror stickers, on my first one I didn’t slow down and line the sticker up perfectly then tried to peel the sticker off to re-set it and so I’ve got a crumple that won’t smooth out. Taking a bit more care on the other two worked better)

Adding the mirrors
Adding the mirrors


5) Slide the end cap covers over the end caps and the mirrors lock into place, meaning no glue is required and all of a sudden the model is very secure.

Now  just slide in the metal bar, slip that into the base, then pop on the agriculture ring and the service module and… voila!


Now, when I was trying to get the ag-ring pieces separated from the pieces frame I accidentally broke part of the ring (you might notice it sagging a bit at the top near the support strut).  So I drove over to the local Michael’s Crafts store to get a tube of model glue to fix it.

That trip not only fixed the break but also gave a fun story – and some interesting research:

While I was at the model section of the store there was a young man about 13 or 14 going through the paints and he asked me what I was working on. I told him it was a space colony which made him give me a quizzical look… so I said “the Space Colony from Mobile Suit Gundham” and he said “Ooh, nice!” I think that’s an interesting piece of information for folks who may be looking for a common-ground way of starting a discussion of The High Frontier concepts with younger generations.

But back to the model, I mentioned to the kid that I was lousy with a paint brush and asked if he had an easy tip to help me bring out the embossed detail on the model. His advice was to buy a small bottle of dark grey or black Testors model paint and a few cheap brushes, dip a brush into the paint then wipe it off on a paper towel so that almost no mark is left on the towel then brush the model with this “dry brush.”

I think I left too much of the paint on the brush … but still, it seemed to be a great tip!


The Wave Space Settlements O’Neill Colony model is available from sellers on eBay and Amazon. I’ve found the Amazon sellers tend to have a much better price, I paid all of 35 dollars including shipping from Japan and  I see them going for 60 on eBay.

Here’s a link to one of the Amazon listings (there are a few, actually) the seller I bought from was Toy Shop Japan Hobbyone, and I bought a second one for a gift from seller Makimono – both of them came in about a week, no problems at all.

Oh, my bad, you always use the Amazon Smile Program to make your purchases benefit The Space Studies Institute, so use this link for Amazon Smile:

By the way, if you came to this post after googling for Sports Illustrated Supermodels, I do apologize ;-).   And if you’re wondering why this post is titled “part 1″… come back in a day or so to get the instructions for a make-it-yourself working SSI Mass Driver. Yes, I’m serious. This is one that might spur your kids to consider a really cool Science Fair project this year!