Gerard K(itchen) O'Neill

Citation metadata

Date: Aug. 22, 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 720 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1250L

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: 1927 in Brooklyn, New York, United States
Died: 1992 in Redwood, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Physicist
Other Names: O'Neill, Gerard Kitchen
Updated:Aug. 22, 2003

Family: Born February 6, 1927, in Brooklyn, NY; died of complications from leukemia, April 27, 1992, in Redwood, CA; son of Edward G. (a lawyer) and Dorothy (Kitchen) O'Neill; married Sylvia Turlington, 1950 (divorced, 1966); married Renate Steffen, April, 1973; children: Janet, Roger, Eleanor, Edward. Education: Swarthmore College, B.A., 1950; Cornell University, Ph.D., 1954. Politics: Independent. Memberships: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, American Physical Society, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi.


Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, instructor, 1954-56, assistant professor, 1956-59, associate professor, 1959-65, professor of physics, 1965-85, professor emeritus, 1985; president and chair of the board, Geostar Corp., 1983-92. National Commission on Space, member; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hunsaker Professor of Aerospace Engineering; President of Space Studies Institute; member of advisory board, National Air and Space Museum. Military service: U.S. Navy, radar technician, 1944-46; became radio tech II.


Glover Medal, 1977, for The High Frontier; D.Sc. from Swarthmore College, 1978; Phi Beta Kappa Science Book Award, 1978, for The High Frontier.



  • The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, Morrow, 1977.
  • (Editor) Space-Based Manufacturing from Non-Terrestrial Materials, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1977.
  • (With David Cheng) Elementary Particle Physics: An Introduction (graduate textbook), Addison-Wesley, 1979.
  • 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
  • The Technology Edge: Opportunities for America in World Competition, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1984.

Contributor of over one hundred articles to scientific journals, including Physical Review, Science, and Nature.



A physicist, educator, and writer, Gerard K. O'Neill was prominent in the 1950s for his work in particle physics, and later became known for promoting space colonization and exploring high-velocity transportation. He was a founder and administrator of organizations such as the Space Studies Institute and the Geostar Corporation--both involved in space development programs. O'Neill began a career at Princeton University as an instructor in 1954, became a professor of physics some years later, and was named professor emeritus in 1985. In 1985 he also joined the National Commission on Space, and the next year he became Hunsaker Professor of Aerospace Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In his first book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, O'Neill presented his case for space colonies as a means of ensuring solar power for earth, as well as alleviating some modern social problems. Indeed, according to New York Times Book Review contributor Timothy Ferris, in scientific circles O'Neill was known for his design of the "mass driver, a magnetic-impulse device that, he . . . proposed, could launch ore from the surface of the moon to be collected in space and used to build orbiting factories and cities." Even so, O'Neill went one step further in 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future by "envision[ing] a time when space colonies will have spread to the outer solar system," Ferris reported.

Though 2081 contains various essays on future technology, it is predominantly a fictionalized account of twenty-first century life as seen through the eyes of a visitor from beyond Pluto. In addition to controlled climates and anti-aging drugs, O'Neill depicted striking advances in automation, communication, and transportation, such as hydrogen-propelled automobiles, satellite communication for educating remote societies, and underground magnetic trains travelling at supersonic speed. Obviously optimistic about the next century, O'Neill believed that extensions of existing scientific and technological knowledge make all of these advances possible. New York Times writer John Noble Wilford observed that to O'Neill, the predictions of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell "have seriously overestimated the scope of future social change and have just as greatly underestimated technological advances. [O'Neill's] own scenario concentrates heavily on technology and leaves social arrangements only moderately changed."

What Wilford saw as optimistic and a New York Times Book Review critic found "imagination-stirring," Saturday Review contributor Charles Nicol regarded skeptically. To Nicol, a number of O'Neill's predictions in 2081 were too demanding on the reader, like successful ski resorts in space. "A general rule for books of this kind: Visionary desire usually outstrips reason," wrote Nicol. In general, O'Neill predicted lavish prosperity for the future--contingent upon man's efforts to explore new frontiers far beyond earth's realm. Otherwise, O'Neill envisioned a bleak tomorrow in an overpopulated, static civilization.



  • New York Times, April 29, 1992, p. D24.*




  • Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 12, 1984.
  • New York Times, July 7, 1981.
  • New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1981; May 9, 1982; April 29, 1984.
  • Saturday Review, May, 1981.
  • Washington Post, March 14, 1978.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000074772