The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future

Update:  In 2014, the History of Science Society awarded The Visioneers the Watson and Helen Miles Davis Prize as the best book for a general audience. In addition, the American Astronautical Society selected The Visioneers for the 2012 Eugene E. Emme Award for Astronautical Literature. Named for NASA’s first Chief Historian, the Emme recognize outstanding books which advance public understanding of astronautics through originality, scholarship and readability.

As a historian, I am fascinated by the unrealized visions of the future that are scattered about our past. And, in the early 1970s, the future appeared very uncertain indeed. The idea that America and other industrialized societies faced limits to their power and future economic growth helped define this era. The unveiling of the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth Report in 1972 articulated this mood in a most sensational fashion. While scientists and economists roundly criticized its methodology, the report’s Malthusian conclusions stimulated fierce debate about the need to adopt a steady-state economy and lifestyle. “Limits” – to resources, energy, wealth, even life itself – became a staple theme for movies, television shows and fiction. While some feared the depletion of natural resources and humanity’s impact on the planet, others saw such terrestrial constraints as a challenge.

The Visioneers follows the careers of two inventive individuals who imagined, designed, and advocated radical new exploratory technologies. With a narrative starting in the early 1970s, it explores how and why a select group of scientists and engineers developed expansive visions of a future radically improved by space colonies and nanotechnologies.

In 1969, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill began looking outward to space colonies as the new frontier for humanity’s expansion. A decade later, Eric Drexler, an MIT-trained engineer, looked to the molecular scale where self-replicating nanoscale machines could assemble the materials and devices humans need. These modern utopians predicted that their technologies could transform society as humans mastered the ability to create new worlds, undertook atomic-scale engineering, and, if truly successful, overcame their own biological limits.

In The Visioneers, I show how O’Neill and Drexler’s work pushed far beyond futurism and speculation to describe an expansive future shaped by the technologies they studied, designed, and promoted. Just as importantly, they built communities and networks which connected their ideas to interested citizens, writers, politicians, and corporate leaders. Nonetheless, visioneers were not immune to the lures of profit, celebrity, and hype. Both men faced difficulty funding their work and overcoming colleagues’ skepticism. They often saw their ideas co-opted and transformed. LSD guru Timothy Leary incorporated O’Neill’s concepts into his ideas for humanity’s “conscious evolution” while Star Trek and other science fiction plots routinely featured out-of-control nanobots. Ultimately, both men struggled to overcome stigma and ostracism as they unshackled their visioneering from pejorative labels like “fringe” and “pseudoscience.”

Avoiding easy sensationalism, The Visioneers offers a balanced look at the successes and pitfalls O’Neill and Drexler encountered. It reveals the importance of radical new ideas which inspire scientists, politicians, and business leaders to fund cutting edge research and help create tomorrow’s technologies. But it also reveals the dangers of promotion – oversimplification, misuse, and misunderstanding – that often plague this exploratory engineering. From the 1970s to today, visioneers worked to build technical and social foundations for their view of the technological future. The Visioneers explores what this entailed, the places where it went astray, and the ways in which it worked.