Science & Nature

Living High in Free Space

In the October 1978 issue of Omni magazine, the book The High Frontier (William Morrow, 1976) was reviewed. Written by Gerard K. O’Neill, it presented a revolutionary idea for colonizing space. O’Neill believed that the “natural ecological habitat for a high-energy, high-growth technological species” was not the surface of a planet but free space itself. Excerpting a passage from the book, Omni wrote:

On a planetary surface, we are the ‘gravitationally disadvantaged’, at the bottom of a deep hole in potential energy. To raise ourselves from earth into free space is equivalent in energy to climbing out of a hole 6461 kilometers deep, a distance more than 600 times the height of Mt. Everest. Does it make sense to climb with great energy out of one such hole, drift across a region rich in energy and materials, and then laboriously climb back down into another hole, where both energy and matter are more difficult to get and to use?

O’Neill didn’t think it made any sense. But what was the alternative?

He proposed that a variety of space habitats could be built in the L-5 area. L-5 is one of the most stable of the Lagrange points, an area where the Earth-moon gravitational fields balance out to zero.

A pair of O’Neill cylinders. Image: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center


Cylindrical space colony. Image: Rick Guidice, NASA Ames Research Center.

At the time, Omni had speculated that by the year 2000, space settlements at Legrange points may be home for thousands of workers. We’re no closer to that vision now than we were 30 years ago, and O’Neill died in 1992 without seeing his concepts brought to fruition. But they live on in such organizations as the National Space Society.


The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space: Apogee Books Space Series 12



“Colonizing Space – 70s Style!”,  SpaceRip/YouTube.


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