Back in the 1960s vacations on the moon and explorations of Mars were not so much dreams as just a matter of time. But as Michael Paluszek, the founder and CEO of Princeton Satellite Systems explains in this week’s cover story, space dreams and space realities are two very different things.
Still, it was not long ago that visionary scientists with impeccable credentials offered us glimpses of what could be. In 1976 Gerard O’Neill, the late Princeton University physics professor and founder of the non-profit Space Studies Institute, published “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space,” a book that sketched out what the American space program could be once we were done with Project Apollo and its quest to put a man on the moon. The book envisions large-scale mining operations on the moon and near-Earth asteroids. Colonies of workers would use the sun and simulated gravity to survive while harvesting valuable resources from surfaces beyond the Earth.
The book was extremely popular at the time, and laid the essential foundation for the Space Studies Institute, which sought ways to tap the vast resources and power of space. O’Neill, who died in 1992 of leukemia, founded the organization in Princeton in 1978. His ideas on colonizing space first gained public interest at a conference he put together at Princeton University in 1974. Those ideas were powerful enough to court research money from NASA, which even asked O’Neill to direct NASA studies at the Ames Research Laboratory in 1976 and 1977.
But after Project Apollo achieved its goal the public lost interest in space exploration and NASA funding began to dry up. O’Neill founded SSI in a small office at Princeton University, as part of the physics department, only to find that space dreams come with a heavy sticker price. Through the ensuing years SSI, often with the help of NASA, researched high-velocity drivers that could punch through the stratosphere.
The institute completed many tests and projects through various contractors, but O’Neill’s plans for space colonies never materialized. Michael Paluszek, who has been familiar with the work of SSI, says the problem was not with O’Neill’s physics, but with the engineering. As a matter of physics, Paluszek says, O’Neill’s ideas were sound. But the materials and scale needed to bring them to reality turned to be “much more massive” than physics could have anticipated.
Nevertheless, SSI continued its mission to understand space and solar technologies. The institute was presided over by O’Neill’s son, Roger, who worked with no less than Freeman Dyson to continue Gerard O’Neill’s vision.
Alas, the Space Studies Institute is no longer in Princeton and might not be in existence at all. SSI had occupied an office at 707 Alexander Road — a shared space — until late 2008 or early 2009. The institute’s last entry at its blog site, http://spacestudiesinstitute.wordpress.com, was posted in 2007. The institute’s Princeton contact information has not been valid for months, and the only contact information refers to Mojave, California.