Postmortem on L5 (part 1)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat 03 Jul 2004 - 22:22:31 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Postmortem on L5 (part 2)"

    [Been sorting through old paper files recently and found this article that was published in _Claustrophobia Life-Expansion News_ #159, March 1990. To my surprise the article didn't show up on the net, in fact there are few references to _Claustrophobia_--(surprising that they aren't on the net since it was a relatively influential news source during its 170 issue run). The article might have written it for National Space Society (NSS), but if so they turned it down. Since it is as much about memes as space, posting it on the memetics list (after expanding a few acronyms and fixing a few typos) seemed like a good place for it. Incidentally, for the obsessive-compulsive historian of memetics there is this URL

    Keith Henson July 4, 2004]

    Postmortem on L5

    By H. Keith Henson,
    (Officially) a Founder of the Society

    [Ed. (Eric Geislinger) - Long-time readers of Claustrophobia will remember that we started out as a "combozine" which (among other things) included copies of L5 News. Fitting in nicely with our "wrap it up year" is the following latest word regarding "Whatever happened to the L5 Society?... ]


    "O'Neill Testifies Before Congress--. . . Target dates for this proposal are the establishment of a construction site in 1982 and completion of the initial L5 community of 10,000 people in 1988. The first (SPS) power would be beamed to earth in 1989."

    L5 News Vol. 1, #1

    "Our clearly stated long range goal will be to disband the society in a mass meeting at L5."


    Since the dust has settled after the merger, and the name change attempt has been discredited, it's time for the old L5-ers to try to figure out why the "good old days" were good, and to try to analyze current trends with the new discipline of memetics to see if there is anything we can do
    (outside of the holy grail of nanotechnology) to promote better times for ourselves and our ideas. (Those who are upset by the "M" word or the "N" word should stop here.)

    The space colony dream (or meme) grew in the mind of Dr. Gerard O'Neill from his own work, that of his students, and fragments of previous dreams
    (Tsiolkovsky, Cole, Bernal, and others) in the late sixties and early seventies. In September of 1974 (the year that also saw the first small conference at Princeton) Dr. O'Neill's space colony meme made the big time
    (small b) with a publication in the September 1974 issue of _Physics Today_.

    Because of my long standing and locally known interest in space development
    (thanks to the late Robert Heinlein) and my more recent concerns about resource limits, Dan Jones, a rock climbing friend of mine with a doctorate in physics knew I would be interested--- infectable, nay, actively seeking infection with a meme like this. He brought me a copy of Dr. O'Neill's article within hours of that issue reaching Tucson. (The "Colonies in Space" article ranks high on the list of "most Xeroxed" in the world.)

    After reading it, I immediately tried to find anything else that had been published on space colonies. The only other thing available was an interview with Dr. O'Neill that had been published in _Mercury_ about the same time. He mentioned a small conference on space colonies that was being planned at Princeton for the spring. Despite the fact that I was nearly broke from starting a business, had never been to a conference before, or given a paper at a meeting, or even been on the campus of an Ivy League school, I made it to the 1975 Space Manufacturing Facilities (SMF) Conference, and, with my former wife, gave a paper on space agriculture that covered all the major points involved in environmental control and growing food for thousands of people in space. (Much of it was cribbed from Heinlein's _Farmer in the Sky_.) Perhaps half of the major players in the post '72 space movements found out about the space colony dream, were similarly affected, and were drawn to that conference.

    A few months before the conference, Dr. O'Neill had melded into the space colony dream the solar power from space (SPS) concept invented by Dr. Peter Glaser (he holds the. soon-to-run-out patent). This was the last major ingredient needed to put the space colony meme into an effective and more intensely infective form. Energy from space provided a rational for building colonies in space, especially in the memetic environment caused by energy crisis of the early seventies. Ideas with less promise (but shorter time and size scales) were converted into reality. Anyone driving through the California passes can see them, vast fields of windmills built on tax breaks.

    Dr. O'Neill gave a Spook-like presentation on building SPSs and space colonies (literally) from moon dust. His studies (later published in
    _Science_) made it seem logical that the habitation of space with all that attractive new land could be started by a short-term industrial development project of 10 or 15 years. For those of us raised on science fiction, (at least for those who would actually go into space if we were given the chance) the space colony meme was terribly compelling.

    The '75 SMF conference was an intense, almost religious, experience. It will be a bright spot in the memory of the "world savers" who were there as long as any of us are left alive to remember it. I hope that somewhere a tape survives of the impassioned banquet speeches, and the dire warnings from shell-shocked NASA representatives that if Proxmire got wind of this craziness he would "kill the Shuttle"

    The space colony idea inspired a vast outpouring of effort from those of us who "caught" it. (I now understand why we were so motivated.) Summer studies ('75, '76 and '77) put the design into a form that has not changed noticeably in the last decade. Mid-1975 saw the abortive start of "High Frontier," and in September the less-than-auspicious founding of the L5 Society.

    Late in the year the fledgling Society put in an appearance at the "Doom and Gloom" Limits to Growth conference near Houston. Our star was Dr. Peter Vajk who (in the process of folding in energy from space to the computer models) had begun to suspect that the Limits to Growth models were
    "cooked." I wouldn't mention LTG, but the growth in popularity of one idea is often depends on the cultural environment set by another idea. The space colony/SPS idea of nearly limitless energy and materials stands in stark contrast to LTG. I think (though I can't prove it) that the LTG "dreary, hopeless future" meme made a contrasting meme like space colonies/SPS more likely to be accepted and spread.

    In 1976 the space colony/SPS idea began to spread widely and the L5 Society, which those with the strongest infections joined, grew beyond the first two hundred or so who had direct contact with Dr. O'Neill. L5 made its first appearance at a World Science Fiction convention (MidAmericon) at the urging of Dr. Jerry Pournelle. A letter in Playboy by science fiction author Robert Anton Wilson and promotion by Dr. Timothy Leary (who had independently come to the conclusion that we needed to leave the planet) were significant factors in the spreading of the space colony idea and the growth of L5 that year.

    Funding for space colony/space manufacturing/ extraterrestrial resources studies never amounted to much, but SPS funding under the Department of Energy peaked at about $10 million a year. Several companies, notably Boeing, worked on it. The L5 Society got involved in one of those glorious waste of liberal administrations, a study of how the space buffs felt about SPS.

    The end of the SPS funding came in 1979. I still have a plastic portfolio dated April 22-25 1980 from a national conference that was held in Lincoln, Nebraska to officially report on the success of the technical and economic studies, and unofficially moan about the political end of a project that had been kicked back and forth between NASA and DOE, and died on the rocks of cheaper oil and four-year planning horizons.

    With the SPS economic rational gone, the believability of space colony dream suffered. As prospects for near term space habitation faded, the rational for an L-5 Society faded, but the publicity stirred up by the Moon Treaty fight kept the moribund Society growing in numbers (if not dedication) for some time.

    [Cut in two parts to get through the file size limit.]

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