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Profiles of the Future That Never Was

One of the exceptions were what UC–Santa Barbara historian W. Patrick McCray calls in the title of his new book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. It’s the subject of a review by Brian Doherty now online at Reason:

Gerard O'Neill, a physicist who had done innovative work with particle accelerators in the early 1960s, was a science fiction fan. By the end of the decade, he had become enamored with space and tried, but failed, to get a job at NASA. Unenmeshed in our official space bureaucracy, he became instead a freelance astro-visionary (while still teaching physics at Princeton). He began drawing up rigorous designs of orbiting space cities, and he began hyping them in university lectures.

By 1974 he convinced the journal Physics Today to run a cover story on “colonies in space” and got Princeton to host a small conference on the topic (partially subsidized by the Point Foundation, which arose from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog empire). That meeting got front-page New York Times coverage. Soon, O’Neill was everywhere from 60 Minutes to Penthouse to The Merv Griffin Show to National Geographic. In 1976 he had a best-selling book called The High Frontier—back then that meant living and making things in space, not using it as a military high ground—promoting the idea that space was not, as McCray writes, “a government-run program, but...a place.”

O’Neill’s followers started the L5 Society, named after Lagrange Point 5, an orbital position especially suitable for a colony floating over the same spot on Earth. Its founders, Keith and Carolyn Henson, resembled Burning Man devotees, all into Tesla coils, homemade pyro, science fiction, and survivalism. L5 had 4,000 members by 1981, largely educated white men concentrated in the Sun Belt. They wrote filk songs about Lagrange living and canvassed science-fiction conventions for converts. Stewart Brand and his magazine CoEvolution Quarterly started heavily promoting space living, to the dismay of many of the small-is-beautiful back-to-the-landers of his crafty-hippie audience.

McCray notes that the L5 types “presaged the odd political alliances that emerged two decades later when left- and right-wing writers and political leaders united in their enthusiasm for the Internet and…the new ‘electronic frontier.’” Former LSD advocate Timothy Leary, fresh out of jail, temporarily turned his career toward advocating space travel while openly celebrating himself as a “snake oil salesman,” inspiring people with dreams that might go beyond what we know to be strictly possible. Meanwhile, Barry Goldwater endorsed the idea from the right. O’Neill himself told 60 Minutes that he wanted space travel to be more entrepreneurial than governmental—something “forced on the government...by the people and not the other way around.” (O’Neill did not appreciate Leary’s involvement in what O’Neill saw as his bailiwick.)

By the end of the 1970s, seeking ways to get big money of some sort behind his ideas, O’Neill was talking less about people living in space in groovy liberty and more about manufacturing in space—and, more important in the OPEC-fearing age of malaise, creating American energy independence via solar panels beaming energy from orbit to earth. NASA funded some studies related to O’Neill’s ideas; Sen. William Proxmire (R-Wisc.), famous for publicizing government waste, got mad; Ronald Reagan became president; and by the end of the 1980s, most of the money and ideas going into space were about space-based lasers, not colonies, factories, or solar collection facilities.

Doherty picks up on that topic further in his review:

Still, while not making a big deal out of it, McCray makes it clear that even if a visioneer wanted to be fully entrepreneurial-libertarian, reality seemed to demonstrate that they needed big government and big business involved if they wanted to turn science fiction into reality. And the best way to do that—as with the original development of rockets—turned out to be to show a direct connection to a specific military need. By the Reagan ‘80s, many of the L5 crew were born-again militarists. In McCray’s words, “a growing number of L5’s members began to imagine that government funding and military activities in space could help open the space frontier,” just as government forts and government-funded railroad ventures helped open the Western frontier.

Considering Kennedy's space program was built upon William James' fin de siècle "Progressive" vision of the "Moral Equivalent of War," it shouldn't be much of a surprise to see the first half of that equation eventually dissolve. And while we're a long way away from the visions O'Neill crafted in the mid-1970s (and particularly, the illustrations commissioned to advance them), they helped those of us who longed for a high-tech future to get through the long grim slog of that decade.

We could use similar help today, as plenty on the left -- not the least of which are those in power and in the media -- still believe in the punitive and outdated Malthusian concepts of "Limits to Growth," We could all use some serious hope -- as their blinkered worldview is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Related: Nice bit of symmetry between today's tech and yesterday's in this headline in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Amazon CEO recovers Apollo engines from Atlantic."

And for another look at the future that never was, here a link to my 2001 interview with illustrator/production designer Syd Mead, with illustrations from his dazzling late 1970s book, Sentinel.