The Art of Elysium

The science-fiction film Elysium opens today in theaters around the country. Starring Matt Damon & Jodie Foster and written/directed by Neill Blomkamp (who also did the excellent and wrenching District 9), it explores the consequences of future technologies on an Earth  rivened by inequality – perhaps an advert for a high orbit Occupy movement. As the trailer makes clear, this dystopian future has the one-percenters enjoying fine living and good health on the space settlement Elysium while the rest of humanity suffers deprivation, hunger, and pollution of the sort that Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) and the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth, 1972) warned about.

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Movie poster for the 2013 film Elysium

I haven’t seen the film yet but I’ve watched the trailer several times. I was immediately struck by similarities in the depiction of Elysium – both inside and from the outside – to designs associated with Gerard O’Neill’s concepts for space colonies in the 1970s. In a draft of The Visioneers, I wrote about artists’ conceptualizations of O’Neill’s ideas but I ended up having to cut a lot of this material to meet the word count specified in my book contract. The release of Elysium spurred me to go back to this material and re-think it some. So, let’s take a look…

In the film’s trailer, we see a rocket ship approaching a torus-shaped space settlement:Screen Shot 2013-08-08 at 11.56.07 AMThis, of course, resembles wheel-shaped space stations that hark all the way back to Chesley Bonestell, von Braun, and Kubrick’s 2001, if not earlier. This design – known as the Stanford torus – was familiar to O’Neill and his supporters:

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“Stanford torus” as depicted by Don Davis

As we zoom closer, we see Elysium in more detail:

Elysium shot 1Compare this with a painting done by Rick Guidice in 1975 for a summer study of space settlements at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the Bay Area:

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1975 painting by Rick Guidice; original copy in the NASA Ames collection.

Looks similar, right?

So- what was this “summer study?” This was based at the Ames Research Center, NASA’s facility in the Bay Area, and Stanford University. NASA (or, more accurately, that part of the agency which physicist Freeman Dyson has called the “paper NASA” as opposed to that part of NASA which bends metal and actually builds things)  provided funding to help support the study as did the American Society for Engineering Education.

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Cover of the report which came out of the 1975 Stanford/NASA study.

What started in 1975 as pedagogical exercise for students grew into a full-blown ten week design study as an interdisciplinary group of some few dozen engineers, physicists, social scientists, and students started with O’Neill’s basic concepts and improved on them.  Study participants also worked out detailed schedules, budgets, and milestone charts for accomplishing the entire system. Guidice was a freelance illustrator who often did advertising work; his artwork, designed to sell the future of space exploration, was another product from the summer study.1 (More of Guidice’s space art is here. The granddaddy of all space art is, of course, Chesley Bonestell – here is an excellent look at his work.)

Participants in the 1975 Stanford-Ames study were interested in what living on a space settlement might be like (as opposed to just designing one) and considered the sorts of agriculture and animal husbandry that might make the most ecological sense. The curiosity some study participants had for communal living and libertarian-oriented governments blended with questions about the social and psychological effects of long-term space habitation. Would, for example, living in space be akin to shimanagashi – a form of banishment used during feudal Japan?

Moving inside Elysium where an international assemblage of the future’s movers and shakers resides, we see:

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Image from Elysium trailer

and this:

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Image from Elysium trailer

It’s impossible not to see the close resemblance to a 1975 piece by another illustrator, Don Davis:

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Painting by Don Davis showing the interior of an O’Neill style space settlement.

Davis came of age with the Apollo program and worked as a scientific illustrator for the US Geological Survey’s Branch of Astrogeological Studies. Davis also did the black and white artwork that appeared in O’Neill’s award-winning 1977 book The High Frontier. Like O’Neill described in his 1977 book The High Frontier, life in a space colony would be environmentally benign. Farming and manufacturing areas would be separated from residential areas, the result being an idyllic landscape characteristic of some 19th century small town. O’Neill – a high energy physicist and professor at Princeton – spent a good amount of time in the Bay Area working at Stanford’s linear accelerator center. He was an enthusiast for coastal California’s landscape so it’s not surprise that some of this filtered into images for his space settlements:

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1975 image by Don Davis showing space settlement interior. Note the “Golden Gate”-style bridge.

Should we be surprised to see images of space settlements painted four decades ago appearing in big-budget films like Elysium? I don’t think so. Images by artists like Guidice and Davis were widely reproduced in books and magazines from 1975 onwards and were especially visible to sci-fi and space buffs. Moreover, there has been a small flurry of on-line essays (here and here and here) about the “art of space settlements.” It would be more surprising if the artists and designers working on Elysium hadn’t seen them.

What interests me most as a historian is that paintings by people like Guidice and Davis are visualizations of a possible future and therefore have political implications. O’Neill believed not just in the power of these images but in the underlying physics and engineering that made them realistic. In a recent interview, Davis noted that “Gerry O’Neill was very matter-of-fact minded. He was not a far-away dreamer at all. His mathematics and knowledge of processes involved tended to make the idea very convincing as you discussed it in detail with him.”

Elysium’s trailer makes it clear that the film’s protagonist wants to escape a crowded and polluted planet – the very sort of scenario which inspired O’Neill to imagine moving large numbers of people off-world. The mini-Spaceship Earths that O’Neill imagined people might be able to build one day would be able to experiment with all sorts of political and social systems.

Critics of O’Neill’s ideas derided their inherent elitism – a Space Age version of white flight. When underground comic artist R. Crumb accepted an invitation from Stewart Brand to attend California’s first Space Day (“or whatever the hell it was called,” Crumb wrote) in 1977, he described space advocates as just a “smug bunch of hypocrites.” Fifteen years later, critics derided the libertarian-infused ideology of the cohort as selfish, elitist, and childish. Critics have likewise attacked transhumanism. “The Singularity is not the great vision for society,” one observer said, “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”2 Elysium looks like just such a lifeboat, full of rich, healthy, well-fed, and long-lived people.

When director Blomkamp was asked by Entertainment Weekly if the film was about the future, he responded: “This isn’t science fiction. This is today. This is now.” A lesson to take away from O’Neill’s sidetracked visioneering and today’s transhumanism is that we need a more inclusive vision for the future, especially if radical visions for it are going to be anything more than paint on canvas.

[After-the-fact note: Today’s New York Times has a good review of Elysium. At the end, Manohla Dargis comes to somewhat similar conclusions — “…its banality is further evidence of how difficult Utopian visions, even caricatures like this one, have become for filmmakers to imagine.”]

  1. An on-line essay by Veronique Greenwood for discusses this. Greenwood interviewed me at length for her piece and I shared a host of materials with her. []
  2. Andrew Orlowski quoted in Ashlee Vance. “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday.” The New York Times, June 11, 2010, B1. []

Calling Governor Moonbeam?

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The recent news that California is slowly scratching its way back from the budgetary abyss the state was circling the past three years delighted me for at least two reasons. One is obvious – I work for the University of California which had the proverbial stuffing beaten out of it during the Great Recession. My other source of joy is more esoteric.

When the New York Times reported on Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown’s recent State of the State speech, it noted in passing that as Democrats “face pressure to increase spending, many are now describing Mr. Brown, long known as ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his eccentricities, as the only adult in the room.”

As I describe at the end of The Visioneers, 1973 and 2013 are a lot closer than their four decades separation might suggest. A person who fell asleep in 1973 with The Limits to Growth on their lap and then woke up today would find today’s headlines eerily familiar. We have soaring oil prices, shortages of key minerals, and the birth of Spaceship Earth’s 7 billionth inhabitant. In response to dire expectations, so-called “doomsters” have suggested the need for restraints and restrictions, ideas which their “boomster” counterparts resist. More locally (for me) Jerry Brown is again/still leading the Golden State. And journalists are still tagging him with the “Moonbeam” label.

Why Moonbeam? Readers of Leaping Robot past a certain age will know that this moniker was bestowed on Brown by Chicago columnist Mike Royko in 1976. Royko was referring to the fact that Brown’s 70s-era political appeal was mainly to the “moonbeam vote” by which he meant the “young, idealistic, and nontraditional.” Royko, circa 1976, had no great fondness for California, once calling it the “world’s largest outdoor mental asylum.” A few years later, he expanded on this, with a description any naturalist would appreciate: “If it babbles and its eyeballs are glazed it probably comes from California.”

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Columnist Mike Royko, 1932-1997

Royko’s tag for Brown stuck and it certainly damaged the California governor when he ran for president in 1980. But he later regretted the effect his words had, calling “Moonbeam” an “idiotic, damn-fool, meaningless, throw-away line” and asked people to stop tarring Brown with it. “Enough of this ‘Moonbeam’ stuff,” Mr. Royko concluded in 1991, “I declare it null, void and deceased.”

But there is a little more to the Moonbeam story. Royko wasn’t just referring to Californians’ predisposition to perhaps being a little more free and easy going than Chicagoans. In the mid-1970s, Gov. Brown actually was quite spacey…

In 1977, Brown became quite interested in Gerard O’Neill’s ideas for an expanded human presence in space. Besides noticing the swell of public interest, Brown was also mindful that the aerospace companies (and technology-oriented firms, in general) were a mainstay of the California economy. Brown had recently asked former Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart to be his science advisor and he first met O’Neill at meetings facilitated by former Whole Earth Catalog publisher (and informal Brown advisor) Stewart Brand.

In August 1977, as the movie Star Wars sold out theaters nationwide, Brand, Schweickart, and O’Neill and some 1,100 invited guests from the aerospace and science communities met at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles for the first California Space Day. The event blended O’Neill’s techno-utopianism with presentations from major aerospace firms. Space Day’s motto, emblazoned behind the podium, was anti-limits, proclaiming “California in the Space Age: An Era of Possibilities.” A working model of O’Neill’s mass driver device, which would soon be featured in an episode of the PBS science show Nova, sat next to the podium. Timothy Leary, meanwhile, pushed his psychedelic version of O’Neill’s vision, saying, “Now there is nowhere left for smart Americans to go but out into high orbit. I love that phrase – high orbit…We were talking about high orbit long before the space program.”

Brown’s speech at Space Day abandoned his earlier ascetic language of limits and restricted opportunity which he had used at his 1975 inauguration.

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Gov. “Moonbeam” Brown addressing the crowd at Space Day, August 1977.

“It is a world of limits but through respecting and reverencing the limits, endless possibilities emerge,” he said, “As for space colonies, it’s not a question of whether – only when and how.” The pro-space ideas Brown put forth were drawn straight from O’Neill’s vision – solar power beamed to earth via satellite, and space manufacturing facilities along with space settlements providing a “safety valve of unexplored frontiers” to accommodate the dreamers and rebels from the pro-space movement. Journalists, of course, noticed the gubernatorial shift in rhetorical direction and wondered if critics would “challenge what appears to be his recantation of Buddhist economics.” Outside, meanwhile, laid-off workers waved signs that said “Jobs on Earth, Not in Space.”

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Even after the klieg lights had been turned off at Space Day, Brown continued to push for a “California Space Program.” Brown, prompted by Schweickart, Brand, and O’Neill,  was interested in making space socially useful and economically relevant. For example, Brown imagined that satellite communications would facilitate teaching and the exchange of research information between University of California campuses.

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Such a satellite could also foster better emergency communications – nice for a state regularly wracked by fires, mudslides, and riots. Another usage Brown imagined was a system of space-based environmentally monitoring stations. Brown’s interest in prosaic uses of space was a far cry from the utopian-tinged visions of O’Neill. But both men were interested in seeing space exploration expand into areas that might more directly benefit people earth-side and also make some steps towards ameliorating environmental problems. As Brown 1980 campaign slogan had it: “protect the earth, serve the people and explore the universe.” (I’d love to see someone run for office today with this!)

Not everyone agreed with this vision of the future. Many pundits and writers – Lewis Mumford, John Holt, Wendell Berry – attacked O’Neill, Brand, and Brown for championing more “mega-projects” that would help support the military-industrial complex. Others blasted their claims that the humanization of space offered any real solutions to the earth’s environmental problems.

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This debate was captured nicely in the opening pages of the 1977 book Space Coloniesthat Brand edited – one one page is a picture of a floating space colony. On the other page is a reproduction of a 19th century photo of a Native American couple – he says “Goodbye! Good luck!” while she grumbles “Good riddance!”

So far, in his second lap as California’s governor, Brown hasn’t put forth any spacey ideas. Perhaps he learned his lesson the first time. Or, more likely, space just isn’t the compelling technological frontier that it once was. Brown’s take?  “Moonbeam also stands for not being the insider,” said Mr. Brown. “But standing apart and marching to my own drummer. And I’ve done that.” I wonder what Mike Royko would say to all this…today’s Brown sure seems less Moonbeamy but also a lot less dreamy.

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 []