Defending the “High Frontier”

It is always intriguing to go back, at the end of a long research project, and look at the materials that didn’t make it into the final product. One of the stories I didn’t include in The Visioneers concerns the attempts of Gerard O’Neill to both defend his ideas and also get his ideas out to the broader public.

For those of you unfamiliar with O’Neill, here’s a basic recap: O’Neill (1927-1992) was a Princeton University physicist who did some very innovative revamping of how particle accelerators are designed.1 His “storage rings” are now commonplace in today’s high-energy accelerators. In the late 1960s, somewhat unsatisfied with his career, he began to turn his attention to what he called “the humanization of space.” O’Neill envisioned self-contained worlds – space colonies that would be microcosms of larger earth bound systems. However, where previous visionaries offered only descriptive speculations of their utopias, O’Neill used detailed mathematical calculations and informed extrapolations of existing technological trends to develop detailed designs for space settlements. The 1974 publication of a major article in Physics Today brought O’Neill’s visioneering much wider attention. O’Neill became a minor celebrity – someone invited to testify before Congress about future places for space exploration and regularly profiled in mainstream publications. His appearances on national talk shows with Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson brought his space colony ideas to an even wider audience. The full exposition of his visioneering, given in his bestselling 1977 book The High Frontier, won Phi Beta Kappa’s award for the year’s best science book and was translated into several languages.2

One of the arguments I make in The Visioneers is that people like O’Neill with expansive ideas for the technological future have to do considerable work to retain control and ownership of their ideas.3 This is an inevitable tension that arises for visioneers as one of their key activities is to promote their visions to the public and policy makers in the hopes of generating publicity, acceptance, and perhaps even realization. O’Neill even titled a chapter of The High Frontier (in keeping with the spirit of the time) “Taking It to the People.”

However, once one has taken “it” to the people, one can’t always control how and what the “people” will do with it. For example, after his release from jail on drug charges in 1976, Timothy Leary began to advocate a new agenda which riffed on some of O’Neill’s work. Leary called his plans SMI2LE, an acronym for “Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension” and O’Neill was careful to distance himself from them. In practice, he largely ignored Leary, figuring the former LSD guru’s trippy reputation would speak for itself.

In 1980, O’Neill got wind of another attempt to broach the barricades. This required a more active approach as this time the threat came from Hollywood. Warner Brothers was preparing to release the science fiction film Outland. Starring Sean Connery, the film was set at a remote mining operation on the Jovian moon of Io. The plot, reminiscent of the classic 1952 Western High Noon, involves the arrival of a Federal marshal to maintain law and order at the space settlement. Murders and corporate malfeasance make the marshal’s (aka Connery in the Gary Cooper’ish role) job difficult and dangerous. O’Neill saw an advance advertisement for the film and objected to it for two reasons – one was that the movie unfolded in the sort of space settlement that he had been designing and advocating for years.4 Even more irksome was the name of Sean Connery’s lawman character – “Bill O’Neil.”

Coincidence? Physicist O’Neill didn’t think so. In response, he put together an entity called “The High Frontier Company.”

Correspondence from “The High Frontier”

The person who led the charge against Outland was writer and attorney Philip Friedman. The author of several non-fiction thrillers, Friedman also had a foothold in Hollywood. For example, his screenplay “Rage” became the basis for a 1972 film starring a post-Patton George C. Scott. Friedman, with O’Neill’s consent sent several letters to challenge the Outland ad campaign. He stressed O’Neill’s international reputation as a physicist and the fact that he had been using the “High Frontier” phrase in reference to space settlements “since 1975.” As a result, O’Neill’s concept was now the “standard popular exposition of the idea of space colonization.” More seriously, Friedman said, was the fact that O’Neill was planning his own film. Outland, therefore, could make people think that IT was the “long-rumored and in many circles eagerly awaited O’Neill High Frontier movie.”

Was there ever such a film in the works? Yes. In O’Neill’s personal papers, I found a screenplay written by Friedman. It doesn’t have a date on it but other materials with it suggest it was prepared c. mid-1980.5

The script was accompanied by a number of drawings and storyboard images that show what life would be like in the cinema version of O’Neill’s High Frontier.

Image from O’Neill’s script

A closer examination of the screenplay reveals another aspect of how O’Neill defended his visioneering. Scattered throughout the script, in O’Neill’s distinctive handwriting, are corrections and amendments. To Friedman’s mention, for example, of a “high gravity centrifuge,” O’Neill wrote “Makes no sense.” (This was in keeping with O’Neill’s general practice of taking a red pen to articles about him that appeared in magazines and newspapers.) In other places on the screenplay, O’Neill added editorial comments and suggestions as to what visuals he thought would best convey a sense of what life in a future space settlement would look like. His interventions reminded me of the examples David Kirby gives in his book Lab Coats in Hollywood; it describes how Hollywood brings in scientists as consultants in the hopes of getting greater technical and scientific accuracy (as well as realism) for cinematic productions.6 As Kirby describes, compromises often occur but, in the most cases (like the advice several experts gave Stanley Kubrick as he was shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey) scientists’ knowledge complements creative expertise.

In 1980, O’Neill found himself defending the “High Frontier” on two fronts – one was to try retain ownership of an idea he had invested his professional reputation, considerable personal resources, and years of his life to. At the same time, he was also working to ensure that a screenplay in which he was personally involved maintained a high level of accuracy and a visual sense that resonated with his visioneering.

O’Neill’s own cinematic interpretation of the “High Frontier” never moved past the script and storyboard stage. Meanwhile, Outland came out (with the name of Connery’s character unchanged) in May 1981. It made a little money for Warner Brothers and got favorable reviews from more than a few major newspapers – The New York Times, for example, called it “good escapist entertainment” and praised the film’s “uncommonly handsome” depictions of life on a future space colony.

At about this time, a potential third front in the battle to own the “High Frontier” appeared. In 1981, Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham started a organization devoted to space-based strategic missile defense. Graham named his outfit – yes – “The High Frontier” and found ideological and financial support from conservative activists and policy makers. The group contributed to Ronald Reagan’s stew of ideas for what became the Strategic Defense Initiative or ‘Star Wars.’7

How did O’Neill react to this new appropriation of “his” phrase? My reading of O’Neill’s life leads to me think that he would have been conflicted – his politics were center-left but he was also a lifelong proponent of grand and ambitious technological solutions, especially those that involved space. In any case, I’ve seen no evidence suggesting O’Neill’s inclination to defend the “High Frontier” on this front and contest Danny Graham’s appropriation of it.

So – did Gerard O’Neill ever see Outland? According Tasha O’Neill, they never caught it in the theater. But, by the time it appeared, O’Neill was already moving into the next phase of his career – that of the high tech entrepreneur with his company Geostar – and another ensemble of visioneering activities.

  1. Gerard K. O’Neill, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1977 []
  2. A video made shortly before his death in 1992 shows O’Neill, sitting in his Princeton home, explaining some of his ideas and his rationale for them; []
  3. Michael D. Gordin draws a valuable and similar parallel in Ch. 5 of his wonderful new book Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012). []
  4. An article in the May 1980 issue of the pop science magazine Future Life (a budget version of the much fancier Omni) discusses Outland, saying that the film “centers around life in a space habitat, specifically the Island One concept pioneered by Gerard O’Neill.” []
  5. These papers are not part of Princeton University’s collection for O’Neill – that, perhaps, is grist for another story – but instead are “archived”  by Tasha O’Neill, a few miles from the Princeton’s campus in her (dry and very tidy) basement. []
  6. David A. Kirby, Lab Coats in Hollywood: Science, Scientists, and Cinema (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011). []
  7. Graham presented his ideas to Reagan in a 1982 report called “High Frontier: A New National Strategy”; it appeared a year later as a book []

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