This Space Available
By Emily Carney
Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen
I don’t know when
But just saying it could even make it happen
– Kate Bush, “Cloudbusting”
By mid-1981, Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s popularity was reaching the crest of its wave that had begun circa 1974. His vivid space settlement treatises had captured the collective imagination of the public via articles in sources as diverse as The New York Times and Penthouse. In 1977, he’d appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, a show that strangely functioned as an indicator of scientist fame (Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame made frequent appearances). He was name-checked by public figures from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart to author Isaac Asimov, and had inspired one of spaceflight’s first grassroots movements, the L5 Society. More personally, he experienced the joys of fatherhood for a fourth time, as his youngest child, Edward, was born to him and his wife, Tasha, in 1980.
In addition, the United States’ space program was entering its spectacular Shuttle Golden Era. In April of that year, STS-1 Columbia launched from Pad 39A at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, leaping off the pad on twin solid rocket booster columns, augmented by three RS-25 engines. To this day, the IMAX footage of this launch – captured in the film Hail Columbia! – is nearly unmatched in sheer loudness and awesomeness (perhaps only bested by the Apollo 11 launch in that mission’s corresponding IMAX film). At long last, after 12 sometimes frustrating years of development, America had a space vehicle again.
It bears mentioning that the first Shuttle flight, helmed by astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen, was far from perfect; damage to the orbiter and its fragile web of silica tiles caused considerable worry during Columbia’s world premiere. More issues would plague the nascent Shuttle program during its first five years. Despite the very real concerns about the Shuttle design and issues encountered during its first jaunt, Columbia landed safely at runway 23 at Edwards Air Force Base two days after its launch, proving that NASA could launch a vehicle like a rocket, and land it like a plane. To some, this seemed to verify the Shuttle’s promise as the reusable “space truck” of the future. Some of O’Neill’s mid-1970s space settlement designs were, in fact, based on then-new Space Shuttle technologies, such as the orbiter stack’s large external tanks. In the midst of this wave of newness in his professional and personal life, O’Neill published 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future in May.
2081 can be viewed as a sort of reaction, nearly a decade later, to the overwhelmingly negative March 1972 Club of Rome report entitled The Limits to Growth. According to the book Visioneers (a combination of the words “visionaries” and “engineers”) by W. Patrick McCray, “Announced with a media blitz aimed at policy makers and ambassadors, its ‘doomsday timetable’ predicted an inevitable collapse of societies all around the planet unless politicians and business leaders had the courage to restrict the growth of populations, industrialization, and resource use. …Extensive computer-based calculations by researchers from MIT provided the Club of Rome with evidence needed to support its bleak assessment of the future.” From its beginning, 2081 is imbued with a completely different tone and mood from Limits, kicking off with a quote from Sophocles: “Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man; the power that crosses the white sea, driven by the stormy wind, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him…”
The first section of the book discusses “the art of prophecy,” and potential futures (both positive and negative) viewed through the lenses of other popular thinkers and authors. 2081 also discusses what O’Neill viewed as the drivers of change: computers, automation, space settlements, energy, and communications. The final section of 2081 resembles an expanded, even more far out version of his previous book, The High Frontier. It’s a tantalizing view into the book’s titular year, then a century out, replete with butler robots in every modernized kitchen, his trademark space settlements, routine space travel, devices that carried electronic books, and the freedom to fly anywhere one would like. Moreover, “freedom” is one of the overriding themes of 2081. He makes this fairly explicit in “The Art of Prophecy”: “I made my own value judgments years ago on two basic questions that involve the future: I place a higher value on the freedom of the individual than on material wealth or the absence of risk, and after freedom – not before – I put the search for peace.”
However, while O’Neill’s meaning of freedom was likely markedly different from others’ definitions both back then and at present time, his use of this word gave his critics pause in 1981 and beyond. It’s one of the reasons why 2081 isn’t viewed as the same genre-busting classic as The High Frontier. O’Neill’s definition of freedom – viewed through the lens of his writing in 2081 – seems to be exemption from dictatorial or totalitarian regimes. At the book’s end and in future speeches (particularly one at the First International University at MIT in 1988), he made specific references to the type of societies that could – and could not – support new frontiers, technological or otherwise.
For example, here’s a passage in “A Final Word” from 2081: “First, an importance, guard the freedom of ideas at all costs. Be alert that dictators have always played on the natural human tendency to blame others and to oversimplify. And don’t regard yourself as a guardian of freedom unless you respect and preserve the rights of the people you disagree with to free, public, unhampered expression.” At MIT in 1988, he stated, “Dictatorships do not thrive in a frontier environment,” and underscored that a free society – perhaps a society unlike the then-Soviet Union, which he obliquely references in the speech – flourishes in a new frontier.
Forty years later, it’s almost impossible that O’Neill – as futuristic as he was – could have predicted the effects of social media and rapid information dissemination upon the United States. It’s easy to see how, particularly at the present time, O’Neill’s musings on freedom could be misrepresented to mean something very different from his intended purpose. As McCray wrote in Visioneers, “Over time, the tools for promotion and advocacy changed. In the 1970s, O’Neill’s supporters promoted the ‘humanization of space’ with mimeographed newsletters, bumper stickers, and leaflets passed out at science fiction conventions. By the late 1990s, the communities that visioneers fostered could also interact with one another through e-mail, Web sites, and Internet newsgroups. These new tools amplified visioneers’ messages as well as the chance of being distorted or attacked.”
Despite this unintended drawback of 2081 and the criticism it received, the book still deserves a second glance at present time. 2081 contains some of O’Neill’s most inspiring and virtuosic writing, and it’s clear he is having fun with not just the future he is outlining for readers, but with the sanguine time he’s inhabiting. The book ends with an anticipative, yet somehow sad, note: “Some few of you reading this book, perhaps more of you than we now expect, will still be around in 2081. If so, look back over these yellowing pages from your vantage point in our future. Perhaps the next time you’ll read them you’ll still be young, and will be living comfortably on a colony circling another star, in the year 2081.” The note is poignant in that O’Neill’s treatises weren’t met by the then-new Space Shuttle, as he’d hoped, and 40 years out from 2081, the space community is only beginning to realize the hope of “routine” spaceflight through private enterprise.
One is also sad that O’Neill, who died in 1992, wouldn’t see the latter milestone during his all-too-brief lifetime. I’ll be 103 in 2081, and I still hope I’ll get to see the future O’Neill so passionately championed.
Featured Photo Credit: O’Neill profiled in U.S. News and World Report, August 1981. Retrieved from The High Frontier on Twitter.
Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.