The new documentary film “The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill” digitally premiering on Saturday, April 17, tells the story of a prominent Princeton-area visionary, the opening a new era of human exploration, and a legacy with roots in the region.
The frontier is space and the story is how O’Neill’s ideas, expressed in his 1977 book “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space” showed the world that humans could create space colonies with existing technology and materials.
Through the use of slowly turning cylinders in low-Earth orbits, O’Neill proposed constructed habitats that would reproduce Earth’s gravity and create an atmosphere where thousands of people would be able to live, work, and play.
The colonies would also be the solution to such earthly problems as hunger, overpopulation, dwindling resources, and war.
The reaction was positive.
As the National Space Society said, “One of the most striking things about (O’Neill’s) High Frontier concept is that it excited many people who had not been space enthusiasts and who had no connection with NASA, the aerospace industry, or space science. Many saw it as a breakout from the limits to growth and accepted the idea that space was an essential part of an optimistic scenario for the future.”
Foreign Affairs Magazine reported that O’Neill’s synthesis suggested that the imaginative use of technology could provide solutions “to a host of interlocking problems, including energy shortages and the protection of the environment.”
And the famous late astronomer, astrophysicist, and creator of the popular “Cosmos” television series, Carl Sagan, told a 1975 House of Representatives Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications, “Our technology is capable of extraordinary new ventures in space, one of which is the space city idea, which Gerard O’Neill has described to you. That is an extremely expensive undertaking, but it seems to me historically to be of the greatest significance. The engineering aspects of it as far as I can tell are perfectly well worked out by O’Neill’s study group. It is practical.”
More recently, in 2019, Amazon founder and proponent of space colonies Jeff Bezos told Business Insider, “I think we’ll live in giant O’Neill-style space colonies. Gerard O’Neill, decades ago, came up with this idea (that) the space colonies we’ll build will have many advantages. The primary one is that they’ll be close to Earth. The transit time and the amount of energy required to move between planets is so high. But if you have giant space colonies that are energetically close and, in terms of travel time close to Earth, then people will be able to come and go. Very few people are going to want to leave this planet permanently — it’s just too amazing.”
Bezos along with fellow businessman and proponent of private — aka non-governmental led — space exploration Elon Musk appear in the film, along with the late theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, entrepreneur and author Peter Diamandes, co-founder of Elestis Memorial Spaceflights Charles Chafer, and Rick Tumlinson, founder of SpaceFund, Earthlight Foundation, and Space Frontier.
Also prominent is Tasha O’Neill. The Princeton-based photographer was married to Gerard O’Neill from 1973 until his death in 1992, and in 1978 co-founded the nonprofit Space Studies Institute – designed to “open the energy and material resources of space for human benefit within our lifetime.”
“It is the culmination of many years of work,” says Tasha during a recent telephone conversation about the release of the film, “The recognition that Gerry finally gets from his peers and young people who were following him and are inspired by him, makes me very proud. I was part of all of this.”
Tasha credits Tumlinson as the individual who got Multiverse Media producer Dylan Taylor interested in financing and producing the feature-length documentary, whose premiere coincides with the re-release of O’Neill’s second book, “2081: A Hopeful Year for the future,” written in 1981.
Tasha says the production has been in the works for the past three years, and its original release was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally from Schweinfurt, Germany, where her father worked as a wholesale grocery distributor and her mother was homemaker, Tasha (nee Renate Steffen) says she and the astrophysicists “met in Princeton at the YMCA mid-1969. I had just arrived to be an au pair for the George Gallup family, and I had been taken by another girl to the Y’s covered dish supper. People would meet every Thursday at the international club.
“I was talking to people and I noticed a guy coming through the door and was immediately attracted to him. My eye was drawn to him. I saw him making his way and came to me and said he was having a party and asked for my phone number.
“I figured he was a graduate student. Little did I know that he was 42, I was 21, and he was full professor at the university.”
Asked about her background in science and physics, Tasha says, “That’s the bizarre part. I had flunked physics and math, so I ended up with a physicist. It was one of those ironic things. But Gerry had the incredible knack for getting complex ideas across in a way a layperson could understand.”
She adds that she met him just as he was beginning his exploration of space technology and colonization. “I was in the whole idea from the start. Three weeks before he met me, he asked students who wanted to challenge the seminal question: is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization? And the answer was no.”
In a matter of time O’Neill’s ideas, proposals, and work caught the public’s imagination. “He was on all the popular (TV) talk shows, Carson, and various shows and written about extensively in magazine articles and so on,” says Tasha.
That includes People Magazine, where in 1977 the Princeton-based future founder and publisher of U.S. 1, Richard K. Rein, wrote, “Born in New York City, the only child of a lawyer, Gerry O’Neill grew up in an isolated upstate hamlet with the curious name of Speculator.
“From his father Gerry acquired the outlook of a ‘Jeffersonian democrat.’ As a teenage Navy seaman in the waning days of World War II, he ‘bumped around on a little ship in the western Pacific with guys who had never gotten as far as high school,” he recalls. “I heard as much good talk from them as I’ve ever heard at faculty meetings in universities. Sometimes more.’
“Navy training in radar pointed him toward science. After graduating from Swarthmore College with high honors in physics and earning his Ph.D. from Cornell University, O’Neill joined the Princeton faculty in 1954. Married by then to a psychology professor, he fathered three children before the marriage ended in divorce in 1966. He also began developing his particle storage ring device and — not for the last time — ran up against heavy academic skepticism. ‘Most distinguished physicists could give all sorts of reasons why storage rings would never be practical,’ O’Neill recalls. ‘Now they are almost universally used.’ His invention plays a major role in helping scientists understand the nature of subatomic particles.”
However, the momentum was slowed by new practices and ideas and funding becoming more difficult. “It always about the money,” says Tasha.
There were also personal changes. Tasha says O’Neill stopped being interested in space. “He was a sprinter, not a runner. So he felt when his leadership wasn’t needed anymore, he left it in other hands and he started Geostar,” says Tasha about one of O’Neill’s final ventures, a satellite navigation system.
Then in 1985 O’Neill was diagnosed with leukemia and given 18 months. He lived seven years, thanks to an experimental trial.
“It wasn’t easy,” Tasha says. “With a small child it was really difficult. He was five when it was started. We lived our lives, still traveled, and did all kinds of things. He wanted to leave a legacy for the family. He worked really hard. New projects made him forget that he was sick. He wanted to be positive and not wallow. His mind was such that he had to create. “
Tasha says his death also spurred her to create. “Gerry died in ’92 and I was 44 with an 11-year-old son. I decided I needed to find something my own, and I wanted to be out and about with people. I joined a walking club at the Y. We walked four miles. One morning I put a point and shoot camera in my pocket. And there were some ice formations. I thought I got something.”
She says she then took a correspondence course and “it grew from there.”
Still involved with the Space Studies Institute, she says she has stepped back but hopes the organization will get more visibility with the release of the film and generate more individual and organization funding to do research.
While her general interest in science may have waned, she still is interested in how O’Neill’s ideas are revisited with more than just curiosity.
“One of the biggest proponents of (O’Neill’s colonies) is Jeff Bezos,” she says. “He read the ‘High Frontier’ as a teenager and was very impressed. And when he went to Princeton he heard Gerry speak and it has always been his dream to make things happen.”
She also presented him with the National Science Foundation’s G.K. O’Neill Memorial Award in 2018.
Reflecting on a renewed interest in space travel and the reemergence of O’Neill’s ideas, Tasha says, “The students who had worked with Gerry are adults. A lot of them founded companies or are in prominent positions. It took Jeff to get things started in a big way. A lot of small companies have been doing things and our institute has been doing studies. The time is right.”
“The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill,’’ premieres Saturday, April 17, at 8 p.m., on www.spacechannel.com, on Space Channel platforms, or available in “theater mode” on the RADtv Playstation app. The film will be released for online viewing on demand on Sunday, April 18.
For more information, visit www.thehighfrontiermovie.com.