The High Frontier by Gerard O'Neill is a book that was gifted to me in 1998 by Dr. James Burke, a retired Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) veteran and a livelong Space Advocate from the Planetary Society. I have read bits and pieces over the years, but now I made it from cover to cover during my holiday on the island of Texel last week.
As the book was written in 1976, it tells a story of a post-Apollo era US Civil Space Programme looking for a new meaning after the grandiose cold war victory. In those days, the US Civil Space Programme, and particularly the Human part of it, was awaiting for the Space Shuttle to come online. A future is depicted in the book where maybe in the mid-90s there could be a first large sphere, orbiting the Earth (and the Sun) at the Lagrangian L5 region of Space. Hundreds of colonists would be living and working there to build Space Based Solar Power (SBSP) satellites, to provide the energy thirsty Earth of cheap energy. Everything would be build from Lunar and Asteroidal materials, so the deep gravitational well of the Earth would not bear its toll on the aspirations of the colonists.
In his futuristic considerations of how this future could work, he makes an interesting statement on Money. He speaks about electronic money called SHARES (on page 9):
"...... Our housing, food, clothing, and the rest are purchased in SHARES (Standard High-Orbital Acquisition-units Recorded Electronically) so our Earth salaries just accumulate in the bank....".
Could this quote be one of the first references for Bitcoin? I mean, O'Neill clearly understood that the colonists should be very smart, and that electronic money could best be used, instead of sending up coins and bills from Earth under the control of a Earth bank. A few pages later, he lists a number of principles that would be key attributes of technical solutions [in general]. One of these reads (on page 17):
"...A technical "improvement" is more likely to be beneficial if it reduces rather than increases the concentration of power and control...".
I don't think he specifically meant to address this principle for the SHARES concept, but my wild guess is that this highly intelligent man sure had some more ideas on the SHARES concept, than just the witty acronym.
One of the triggers for re-reading the book is because of a documentary that is being produced as we speak: Gerry.
There is a number of people that I know from my International Space University (ISU) network that are being (or have been) interviewed for Gerry: Rick Tumlinson, Peter Diamandis and Loretta Whitesides. Through the book, I have learnt about the Space Studies Institute (SSI) that Gerard O'Neill founded, and how this movement grew rather fast in the seventies. I also found that this organisation still exists as of today through this website but honestly, I think it kind of marginalized. I am curious to learn what really happened with this organisation, and why the whole in-Space manufacturing prophecy remained in the feasibility study paper phase? Why has no country demonstrated a basic Space Based Solar Power capability in the last 40 years? The International Space University (ISU) was founded in 1988 and is a thriving organisation. There is much overlap between the SSI and ISU. Why have they never joined forces? Was there ever an attempt? Just hoping here that the documentary will shed some light on these questions?
The book I was gifted, was issued in 1989, and has an appendix called Perspective - the view from 1988. The appendix seems driven by frustration that the US Civil Space Programme is not going the ways of the SSI. But he is not really harsh on the Space Shuttle programme whilst it has been clear now, that it was really the Space Shuttle programme that eated a lot of money away from the true High Frontier. Strangely, he doesn't mention the 1986 Space Shuttle accident at all, surely a key event in those days. Another strange thing is that, while he is very clear on Nuclear power (in his opinion Nuclear doesn't have a future in Space, and on Earth where it suffers from Environmentalism), strangely enough, he doesn't mention the Tsjernobyl nuclear disaster, taking also place in 1986. The questions arises: Where was Gerard O'Neill in 1986?
Another interesting thing I have learnt, is that he started a company called GeoStar in the 80s, and that he made the unusual arrangement to allocate 85% of GeoStar's founding stock to SSI. GeoStar was enabled by a patent by Gerard O'Neill and intended to be used for navigation of aircraft. The company ran into trouble and filed for bankruptcy in 1991. A tragedy is that Gerard O'Neill died in 1992 of Leukemia which was diagnosed back in 1985. He sure would have been a very interesting person to talk to in these days.