By Richard K. Rein
Updated December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

His hands grip the controls of the single-engine Piper Cherokee cruising at 6,000 feet over the cloud-shrouded Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, but Gerry O’Neill’s mind soars to far greater heights. “If we were traveling between space colonies right now,” he says matter-of-factly, “we’d be using solar power, which is essentially free. To navigate we would need only a good telescope, a clock and the oldest of all navigational instruments, an astrolabe, to measure angles between the sun and stars.”

Did he say “space colonies”? He did—and not just orbiting space labs populated by a handful of transient astronauts either. O’Neill is talking about gigantic habitats in outer space where thousands of emigrating Earthlings could set up permanent housekeeping. Unlike Buck Rogers, O’Neill’s vision is not set in the distant 25th century. With the technology we already have or will soon have, he insists, all of it will be feasible by the early 1990s.

Skeptics have dismissed his space notion as, well, far out. O’Neill’s own children thought the idea “pretty flaky” at first. For five years no scholarly journal would publish his technical analyses. More recently Wisconsin’s Sen. William Proxmire publicly branded his scheme as “nutty fantasy.” O’Neill himself admits he has been hooked on Star Trek (“He knows all the episodes by heart now,” his wife says). His forehead capped with bangs (the handiwork of Mrs. O’Neill), the scientist bears more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Spock—minus the pointy ears.

What sets O’Neill’s futuristic concept apart from usual run-of-the-millennium science fiction is his outstanding academic credentials. Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, 50, is a professor of physics at Princeton University and an accomplished research scientist. He invented a kind of atom smasher—called particle storage rings—that produces the highest-energy particle collisions achieved by man. That contribution alone assures him a respected niche in his field.

By temperament and training, the soft-spoken O’Neill shuns wild predictions, always preferring to err on the side of caution. Pointing to the cluster of instruments and radios in his private plane, he says, “I’ve got back-up systems for the back-up systems. I’m also a map freak. I’m always uncomfortable unless I know where I am and where I’m going.”

O’Neill’s blueprint for human colonies in space is set forth in The High Frontier, a book he published this year (and due in a Bantam paperback next month, updated and revised). In it he makes space habitation sound not only possible but inevitable.

His own fascination with the subject began almost innocently in 1969, when he decided his freshman physics course needed a theme for students hung up on the need for relevancy. O’Neill organized assignments and discussions around the question: “Is the surface of the planet Earth really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” His wife, Tasha, 29, recalls, “It was a game for him at first. But the more the answers worked out, the more excited he got.”

“Faced with a set of constraints that affect us all—energy shortages, pollution, waste, growing populations—I was automatically led to look for the simplest way of solving all the problems at once,” O’Neill explains. “Once you ask the right questions, the right answers follow almost automatically. That’s simply a matter of working out the numbers.”

He would start with “space manufacturing” on a relatively modest scale. This involves at first perhaps 1,000 space pioneers to build and maintain satellite solar power stations beaming electricity back to Earth by microwave. Then O’Neill’s vision soars. It is not beyond his imagination to picture thousands, even tens of thousands, of spherical, cylindrical or ring-shaped “space islands” serenely rotating (to create artificial gravity) out there someday. By his calculations, these “space islands” could be “as large as 12 miles in diameter, with a land area of several hundred square miles in each one.”

What would life be like aboard an island? In his book O’Neill describes one hypothetical habitat, an early model he calls Bernal Alpha, housing a community of 10,000. The environment is startlingly Earth-like, with flowing streams, tree-covered hillsides and small villages. In some ways it’s an improvement over Earth, since the length of days and even the climate can be adjusted to suit the inhabitants.

According to O’Neill, there is no need to strip the Earth of vast amounts of resources to colonize space. All the building blocks for self-sufficient, self-sustaining space communities are already up there—enriched moon dust for soil, for example, and minerals to be mined from asteroids. Such is the abundance of known, potentially accessible materials, O’Neill figures that “we can build space communities with a total land area 3,000 times that of Earth.”

He expects the cost of getting started in space colonization to run $50 billion or so, roughly the equivalent in today’s dollars of the Apollo program that put men on the moon. But he insists the “payback” would be rapid and virtually limitless. “The profound difference between this and everything else done in space is the potential of generating large amounts of new wealth,” he says.

“From a technical view,” O’Neill believes, “you could have large colonies in space before the end of this century”—or within the lifetimes of most people on Earth today. For himself, though, O’Neill admits with noticeable disappointment that he may be too old to be one of the pioneers.

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. His family had moved there when doctors ordered his father into early retirement because of complications from wounds he suffered in the First World War. But after five years the elder O’Neill felt so good he went back to work. He was still at it in his 80th year. “Tough guy,” says O’Neill in admiration.

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.

When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced openings for scientists as candidates for its post-Apollo astronaut program in 1966, O’Neill could not resist. “The space age is perhaps the most exciting moment for man in many centuries,” he explains. “To be alive now and not take part in it seemed terribly myopic.” After months of training and dozens of medical and psychological tests, O’Neill was picked as a finalist. Then NASA canceled the program, sending a dejected Princeton prof back to the campus.

For the next five years O’Neill’s space travel was limited to private flying (an instrument-qualified pilot, he holds both powered-aircraft and sailplane ratings). One evening he attended a meeting of the YMCA International Club where he met Renate “Tasha” Steffen, 21 years his junior. The daughter of a West German businessman and an aspiring interpreter, she had interrupted her studies to live in Princeton for a year, supporting herself as governess to the children of pollster George Gallup Jr. After meeting Gerry, Tasha decided to extend her stay.

They officially became a team in 1973 while Gerry was competing in a glider meet in Nevada. “He went on his first cross-country flight, about 40 miles,” she says. “I had to chase him on the ground. The next day we got married. We forgot to buy a ring.”

The O’Neills live in a four-bedroom ranch house near Princeton’s Lake Carnegie. At home the resident physicist hardly ever reads a newspaper or watches TV these days. He does linger over his morning espresso, especially when he has stayed up half the night in preparation for a graduate course he is teaching for the first time. It is on the theory of electricity and magnetism—”nothing at all to do with space colonies,” he notes.

Proselytizing for what he terms the “humanization of space” leaves Gerry O’Neill with little free time. At Princeton three years ago he organized and chaired the first conference on the subject; it drew 100 scientists, engineers, space-flight technologists and astronaut Joseph Allen. Since then there have been articles and TV appearances in profusion (to the point where the O’Neills’ phone has to be unlisted). He and his wife constantly fly to meetings, NASA consultations, lectures—so much so that “G&T Airlines” (for Gerry and Tasha—she is also a licensed pilot) has logged more than 650 hours in two years, the equivalent of three trips around the world.

O’Neill is not at all surprised by the popular response to films like Star Wars (which he has seen three times) and the newly released Close Encounters. “A lot of young people are growing up today with the feeling that movement into space is inevitable. They’ve been born since Sputnik, and they can’t understand what the argument is about,” he claims. “The argument is mostly because of older people, for whom going into space is still an alien idea.”

Plenty of doubters remain, of course, but O’Neill is pleased that he has stimulated debate. And he certainly knows how to stimulate. Gathering a group of students after a recent lecture, the professor stated a proposition: “We take comfort in the assumption that we surely are only one of many different civilizations scattered across the galaxy. As a result, we may think it doesn’t matter what happens to us—life is so plentiful.”

Then O’Neill puts in the twist: “But if that is so, why haven’t we run into any of the people who came before us in the galaxy? Perhaps when other civilizations reached our point they blew themselves up. We haven’t done anything yet to suggest we won’t do the same thing. Maybe life is far more rare than we realize and, up to now, we’ve shirked our responsibility to try to preserve it. Maybe we are alone.” O’Neill found it unnecessary to add that if all those “maybes” are true, then the peopling of space becomes all the more compelling.