What does it take to conceive a new vision of the future and drive the idea forward? Keith Cooper, editor of Astronomy Now as well as Principium, the journal of the Institute for Interstellar Studies, examines the question in the context of a new book. Grand ideas aren’t enough, for the commitment to build community and expand the audience for a breakthrough are the necessary foundation. What Gerard O’Neill and Eric Drexler can teach us about this and how their example may inform the future choices of the interstellar movement are at the heart of Keith’s review. Along the way come many questions, especially this: Is a ‘failure of nerve to play the long game’ what is holding us back as we contemplate a future among the stars?

by Keith Cooper


In 1972, a think-tank of businessmen, politicians, economists, scientists and bureaucrats going by the name ‘The Club of Rome’ (they held their first meeting in the Italian capital in 1968) painted a picture of a dystopian future where by the year 2030 rising population, increased urbanisation and industrialisation, coupled with depleted resources would all mean one thing: that the planet was nearing its limits and the only way to survive would be in strict moderation, an unchanging equilibrium of austerity (a buzzword today) and restrictions. It was a depiction of a nightmare future where progress effectively shudders to a halt, yet their report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, has been read by 12 million people.

By painting this picture of a narrow, limited future, The Club of Rome inevitably spurred a reaction from the scientific cognoscenti who knew no bounds, were not defined by limits, looked to technology to create a better future and as part of their visions aimed quite literally for the sky. To folk like Princeton physics professor Gerard O’Neill, ‘The Limits to Growth’ was something to rally against and drive the proliferation of his ideas for orbiting space colonies. Humankind, O’Neill reasoned, need not know boundaries or limits if it went into space where room and resources aplenty exist. Throughout the 1970s he galvanised the public to his ideas, inspired the grassroots to form advocacy groups such as the L5 Society to keep beating the drum on space colonies, and became a media darling thanks to his vision of the future, appearing on celebrity talk shows and magazine covers.

For science historian Professor W. Patrick McCray of the University of California, Santa Barbara, author of a new book called The Visioneers: How A Group of Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies and a Limitless Future, O’Neill was an archetypal visionary with the technical know-how to present a realistic case. For McCray, having not only an idea about the future but also having the smarts to make that technological vision a reality are the essential ingredients for a ‘visioneer’, the inspirational visionary mixed with the rigorous, comprehensive work of an engineer. However, writes McCray in his book, a visioneer must do more than produce ideas and calculations; a visioneer also forms and shapes a community of supporters to promote their ideas and is both protector and promoter of the vision and the community that builds up around it.

Optimistic visions of the future

McCray’s two chief visioneers are O’Neill and K. Eric Drexler, who as a student was a member of the 1970s pro-space movement with O’Neill before going on to popularise his vision for nanotechnology in 1986 with his best-selling book Engines of Creation. Both men had ideas way ahead of their time. To O’Neill, humankind had three choices: stagnation (the choice offered by The Club of Rome), annihilation (the threat of the Cold War was serious) or expansion into space and the settlement of orbiting colonies, built from miles and miles of rotating metal cylinders. In hindsight it seems crazily optimistic but back in the 1970s it inspired the public’s imagination in a way no human spaceflight project has done since Apollo. Similarly, Drexler’s revolutionary vision of nano-scale machines reassembling matter at the atomic level, or rushing through our bloodstream to dismantle cancerous cells, is still far from being realised.

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Given that we can’t yet go on holiday to a space settlement, or treat illnesses with a shot of medical nanobots, it is tempting to describe O’Neill and Drexler as visioneering failures. McCray sees things a little differently. O’Neill’s space colonies may not exist yet outside science fiction, but the community he built, signified by the L5 Society, helped spawn today’s pro-space movement in the hands of private initiatives such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX or Peter Diamandis’ Planetary Resources. Where O’Neill failed, one of these large corporations may succeed. The role of large business and billionaires is not exactly the route O’Neill envisioned, but it shows that there is more than one route to the future. Regardless, the power of a visioneer is in creating a community, inspiring people to take up the mantle further down the road if necessary. In a way it is kind of like a built-in insurance policy; ensuring ideas are passed onto the next generation so that others are sufficiently inspired to pick up the pieces should the initial visioneer fail, learn the lessons and have another go at it.

“I think the two key roles visioneers serve are to encourage the formation of communities of like-minded people to support or oppose their ideas, but also ultimately I think visioneers are best at promoting debate and discussion about what we – society – want the technological future to be like, what we hope and fear,” McCray tells me. “I see this happening more today in debates about geo-engineering, synthetic biology, drones, autonomous cars etc.”

There’s another subject to add to McCray’s list of contemporary topics: interstellar flight, an area that McCray recognises is an arena for potential visioneers. In fact it doesn’t take a huge leap to see the parallels between O’Neill’s ‘High Frontier’ and the interstellar movement and hence the possibility that we could learn something by the study of O’Neill, Drexler and other visioneers.

Courage to play the long game

In a way ‘The Limits to Growth’ provided an adversary, an alternative philosophy for the visioneers and their movements to rise up against. More specifically, it was seen by the visioneers as an attempt to reign in the great potential of human technology and progress. While today we don’t talk about ‘The Limits to Growth’ report as much – it is 41 years old after all, although The Club of Rome and its philosophies still exist – it feels like it has been reborn in different guises just as O’Neill’s pro-space movement has been reborn in the hands of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Today other fears replace the oil crises of the 1970s: the economic crash, a growing unease of how sophisticated technology is integrating itself into society, the battle to save the environment in the face of increasing climate change and the frictions the environmental debate causes, and the usual bouts of war, terrorism and international sabre-rattling. Limits were the enemy in the 1970s; today it is despondency leading to shortsightedness and a failure of nerve to play the long game, essential for a long term project such as interstellar flight.

An interstellar community already exists, as evidenced by the success of the Centauri Dreams website, the plethora of interstellar organisations and the now frequent symposia that draw hundreds of attendees to discuss the topic. It’s not quite as organised as the L5 Society, but it isn’t required to be; today the Internet and social media provide the glue that bind the community together; in the 1970s it was mailing lists, newsletters and local chapters in university physics and engineering departments.

However, once the community is in place and growing, and the ideas of the visioneer are being disseminated, those ideas become owned by the many members of the community. McCray describes in his book how O’Neill started to distance himself from his own community when people he deemed as undesirable joined, most notably LSD guru Timothy Leary who had strong ties with high-ranking members of the L5 Society and co-opted O’Neill’s space colonies for use in his own philosophy. Furthermore, O’Neill was angered by the producers of Sean Connery’s 1981 science fiction film Outland, set on a space colony reminiscent of O’Neill’s; Connery’s character was also called O’Neill.

Meanwhile, Drexler also faced a battle to hold onto his ideas for nanotechnology, a battle he ultimately lost. Despite often being cited by other scientists as their gateway into nanotechnology thanks to Engines of Creation, Drexler found himself sidelined by fellow academics who doubted the the engineering of nano-bots. Today nanotechnology bears no resemblance to his advanced technology, but rather is mostly just another avenue of mainstream chemistry.

“I think that the ways in which their ideas were co-opted was perhaps something they didn’t think about but was probably inevitable,” says McCray. “I also think that once you put your ideas out there and work to get attention for them, then you have to accept the fact that others will distort them, replicate them, modify them etc. O’Neill seemed to take this more in his stride than Drexler but then, with nanotech, I think there was more at stake, i.e. real funding.”

Should the interstellar community worry about losing ownership of our ideas? Next year director Christopher Nolan will release a new science fiction movie called Interstellar, rumoured to involve Kip Thorne’s wormhole physics just as Carl Sagan’s Contact did. Will our community bristle at Hollywood co-opting the word ‘interstellar’? Will we grimace at the likely bad presentation of physics and starflight? Probably, but the horse bolted a long time ago; spaceflight is a staple of science fiction. while there have also been many scientific proponents of interstellar flight over the years, from Les Shepherd to Robert Forward. Nobody owns the vision of interstellar flight; what is needed now is visioneers to make it happen. We should embrace its prominent exposure in science fiction rather than try and protect it from mainstream dissection by movie reviewers and audiences, and use that as a spur to present a more scientific take through the media.

However, what if someone were to come in and take over the whole shebang, bypassing the community entirely? A billionaire entrepreneur, one of the nouveau-rich that are trying their hand at commercial spaceflight, could easily do that. Visioneers within the community that have worked hard to refine their concepts and present them in an agreeable fashion could suddenly be kicked aside, yet in the process their role could become even more important.

As O’Neill’s vision fell apart, others today are now looking at potentially picking up where he left off. The analogy I like to make is that Hari Seldon seeded his secret Second Foundation as insurance should the first Foundation fail, which it did thanks to the unpredictable arrival of The Mule. The many organisations that populate the community today are vital because they help prolong the vision should others – including multi-billionaires – fail. It is essential that interstellar visioneers keep that grassroots support bubbling along, even in the lean times. As Icarus Interstellar‘s Andreas Tziolas said in the comments to a recent Centauri Dreams article on interstellar organisations, the community exists because “we’re sick and tired of waiting for someone else to do it!”

Yet visioneers also need patience. “O’Neill and Drexler imagined futures that they themselves would be able to partake in,” says McCray. “I see visioneers operating in this middle group, not two to three years out, but also not 200-300 years over the horizon.” Interstellar flight is a long-term goal and it remains an open question whether any of us will still be around if and when it happens. Perhaps interstellar requires a different breed of visioneer?

Capture the moment

Ultimately, the type of visioneer says something about the times they live in. Part of that is what the visioneer is rallying against. But in the 1970s, moving into the 1980s, the arena was different from what it is today, when society seemed far more open to the possibilities of the pro-space movement, popular culture embraced all kinds of spacey things such as Star Wars, Star Trek, the futuristic sounds of Jean Michel Jarre and prog-rock concept albums and the mass market science fiction paperback and magazines such as Omni, which McCray credits as being a powerful influence on the proliferation of visioneers’ ideas. Would a book like O’Neill’s The High Frontier ever become a bestseller today? Would members of the interstellar community find themselves on the cover of Time Magazine like O’Neill did in the 1970s? Instead interstellar visioneers have to work out how best to use whatever is unique about these modern times to spread the message, rather than trying to recapture glorious past times – social media is an obvious avenue. Having 100,000 followers on Twitter is surely as good as being on the cover of a magazine with 100,000 readers?

Most importantly, visioneers have to be able to build things. Craig Venter, for example, created a biological cell with a synthetic genome in his quest to create artificial biological life. O’Neill and students at MIT – including Eric Drexler – constructed laboratory prototypes of electromagnetic catapults called ‘mass drivers’ that O’Neill envisioned as vital for launching raw materials from the Moon or asteroids into Earth orbit where they could be used for construction of space habitats. Demonstrating the ability to build technology to aid a visioneer’s idea is a key part of gaining credibility. On a grander scale it might be an efficient fusion reactor or the development of human hibernation; on a smaller scale it could just involve inventing a new magnetic nozzle that aids the generation of powerful magnetic fields in a tokamak, demonstrating microwave beaming in the laboratory or creating spacecraft concepts and blueprints like Daedalus and Icarus.

The Visioneers is one of those rare books that is equally about science and personalities, a book that explores the history of visioneers but by doing so also asks questions for visioneers of the future to ponder. For anyone interested in building a better future, in pushing the envelope of technology, in developing a scientific vision, or in creating tomorrow, The Visioneers is an essential read as McCray weaves a fascinating narrative that can easily be applied to the interstellar vision. And as the biographer of the visioneer movement, what advice does McCray have for visioneers in the interstellar community?

“It would be not to limit oneself to just talking,” he says. “Build things. Develop designs. Create a community. Show people what’s possible, if only to start a discussion about what we want the future to be like down the road.”

It will likely not take a single visioneer, but many, whether working together or in rivalry, or separated by decades, but each with their part to play. Maybe some that will succeed are already here, reading this. Perhaps no one in the current community will succeed and it will fall to a new group. Or possibly it will be someone who has not even been born yet but will be inspired by the work of the community today, to whom we are entrusting the future, because good ideas never die.