A review of The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill
by Adam D.A. Manning
"Life is extraordinarily rare, extraordinarily precious."
Professor Gerard K. O’Neill
An account of a remarkable life can be a wonderful gift to so many of us, in inspiring us and helping us reflect on our own lives. There are few lives more remarkable than that of Professor Gerard K. O’Neill and at last a full-length documentary, The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill, offers a visual biography of someone whose work has inspired so many of us.
O’Neill is most remembered for his powerful conception of space settlement, and fittingly the opening sequences is of his vision of huge space habitats, brought to life by some breath-taking graphical work. The Untold Story begins by underlining three major themes of his concept; that we will want to settle space as we are explorers, that whilst this vision seems fantastic it is feasible with today’s technology and that space settlement of this sort will not only protect life on Earth but also enhance all our lives.
Space advocate Rick Tumlinson acts as a chronologer, identifying that O’Neill’s concepts were developed during the height of the Cold War and around or shortly after the Apollo moon landings. Indeed, O’Neill had so much of the right stuff, he came close to walking on the Moon himself. Throughout The Untold Story, Tumlinson’s role is to pick out a timeline for the audience, coloured with some engaging and often rather wry anecdotes.
The Untold Story is full of wonderful vintage video from earlier decades, including a wealth of clips of O’Neill presenting his ideas. His appearances on chat shows are especially enjoyable.
Professor O’Neill is always a striking figure; handsome, athletic, elegant. For a while he seemed to have a distinctive style of turtleneck tops and a jacket, which with his fringed haircut makes him immediately recognisable. It might sound like an ugly 1970s fashion, but on him it works. When he speaks, O’Neill is consistently clear, eloquent, and calm. He is good humoured and pleasant without being flippant or supercilious, and this is vital when seeking to present such a fantastic concept in a credible manner. The Untold Story allows the audience to appreciate why O’Neill was such an effective communicator and how he was able to galvanise so much interest and enthusiasm.
There is also real treasure in video of legends such as Isaac Asimov, Nichelle Nichols, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury. Numerous contemporary contributors are included as well and Frank White, the author of The Overview Effect, appropriately enough discusses the broader aspects of O’Neill’s concept for space settlement, especially, for a modern audience, how the concept has been linked to environmental protection and in particular spaced-based solar power. Space solar has long been associated with O’Neillian (if such a word can be coined) settlements, so video of Peter Glaser, the originator of the concept, is a special treat.
The Untold Story though is not just about O’Neill’s High Frontier space settlement concept, and his beautiful wife Tasha tells us more about him as a man, and his family. A person’s life is more, much more than their work and in exploring these other aspects, The Untold Story provides a balanced and touching overview.
“Far-fetched? That’s what we said twenty years ago about walking on the Moon.”
As a documentary, each part flows smoothly and seamlessly into the next, and the craft that was put into assembling all the elements must be admired. This is a work of quality and those who admire Professor O’Neill will be delighted with the detailed attention with which it has been made. Along the way, there is much to enjoy, including a section on the L5 Society. One of the key aspects that makes the vision so exciting is that, as we are regularly told throughout The Untold Story, his vision for space settlements required no astonishing breakthroughs in technology; we can make this amazing vision of the future happen now if we really want too. That fusion of the extraordinary and the achievable is perhaps the spark that has given O’Neill’s vision so much power.
If there is perhaps an omission, it is in not focussing quite as much on why, after all, we don’t have huge space habitats in orbit, why, after all, we didn’t get to L5 by ’95 (1995 that is). Mention is made of the failure of the Space Shuttle to live up to expectations, and whilst this was a major practical reason, there is little said about the criticism of the concept towards the end of the seventies, that pre-dated the launch of the first Shuttle mission.
Further, the modern followers of O’Neill, Gerry’s kids as they are called, are discussed and especially the richest person in the world, Jeff Bezos, who has explicitly endorsed The High Frontier as his model for space development. This is taken as a celebrated resurrection of O’Neill’s work, but no mention is made of its modern critique, for example, the work of Daniel Deudney in his book Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity, or the general backlash, especially from an environmental perspective, against what has been termed the “billionaire boys’ club” of Branson, Bezos and Musk and their attempts at private space travel.
roughly eighty minutes long, The Untold Story will already be long
enough for most of the audience, and any more detailed discussion of these
points would take away from the object of the piece, which is a consideration
of O’Neill’s life as a whole, rather than a scrutiny of the implications of
More directly relevant to Professor O’Neill’s work are comments from Al Globus, who has written a great deal about space settlements. One of the striking aspects of O’Neill’s vision was the huge leap that was proposed to build settlements with hundreds and thousands of people. The lack of any intermediate steps is an aspect of O’Neill’s plans that provided an easy way to attack its chances of success. Al Globus’ revisionism proposes smaller space habitats, placed nearer to Earth, as both achieving important milestones and providing a first step towards the larger habitats proposed by O’Neill.
Whilst The Untold Story might almost imperceptibly cross the line into being something of a panegyric of Professor O’Neill, these points are easily remedied. We live in an age of abundant information and if the viewer is interested, it is not difficult to find out more. One of the most powerful conclusions from the contributors is that in retrospect O’Neill provided us with the finish line; it is up to us to get there, “to build the road to space”, as Jeff Bezos put it.
Documentaries of this sort often play their best role by inspiring the viewer to learn more, and The Untold Story, a beautifully and lovingly crafted work, is sure to do that. Professor O'Neill's vision is without doubt the most inspiring depiction of the future, and this film and its examination and celebration of his life will, it is hoped, mean that vision will be shared with many more, who may become Gerry’s kids too.
|Tasha and Gerard O'Neill|