As an experimental physicist, Gerard O'Neill invented and developed the technology of storage rings that became the basis of today's high-energy particle accelerators. Not content to be only a pioneer of physics, O'Neill went on to become a visionary teacher and educator who advocated large-scale human colonization of outer space, as well as an entrepreneur who founded several corporations devoted to developing new space-based technologies.
Gerard Kitchen O'Neill was born in New York City on February 6, 1927. The only child of Edward Gerard and Dorothy Lewis (Kitchen) O'Neill, he was raised in Connecticut and upstate New York. He attended the Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, New York, and edited the school newspaper. During this time, he also earned money broadcasting news for a local radio program. After graduating from high school in 1944, he joined the U. S. Navy on his birthday. There he was trained as a radar technician and was sent to the Pacific theater just as the war ended. Following his discharge in 1946, he entered Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania to study physics and mathematics, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1950. During the war, O'Neill had realized the potentially destructive role physicists could play in society, and decided to use his knowledge of physics only to benefit human beings. Upon graduation, he received an Atomic Energy Commission fellowship and entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He received his Ph.D. in physics in 1954 and accepted a faculty position at Princeton University the same year.
Pioneers High-Energy Physics with his Colliding-Beam Principle
During only his second year as an instructor in the Princeton physics department, O'Neill published a two-page letter in Physical Review titled "Storage-Ring Synchrotron: Device for High-Energy Physics Research." Discussing this important paper in a 1993 article, British physicist Freeman Dyson stated, "it laid down the path that high-energy physics has followed for the next 36 years. If you read the letter now, you can see that almost everything in it is right." However, in 1956 when his letter was written, O'Neill encountered a highly skeptical physics community. His special storage ring design for increasing the collision energies of atomic beams from particle accelerators was simply a theory that had not been proven. Finally obtaining financial support in 1959 from the Office of Naval Research and the Atomic Energy Commission, O'Neill and his colleagues built two particle storage rings at Stanford University that used his high-vacuum technique and successfully demonstrated his colliding-beam theory. Physicists around the world concurred immediately and soon hurried to build their own. O'Neill became a full professor at Princeton in 1965.
Embraces "Humanization" of Outer Space
In 1966, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) opened its astronaut program to civilian scientists, O'Neill immediately applied and, following months of training and testing, was selected as a finalist. Although NASA later discontinued this program, O'Neill used the experience to reform the teaching of physics at Princeton. Seeking to replace the same traditional problems that students of classical physics had always considered, he encouraged them to apply physics to something real and relevant like the Apollo moon missions that were taking place in 1969. After asking his class to consider his question, "Is the surface of the planet earth really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?" O'Neill found himself as intrigued and enthusiastic about the notion of a possible human habitat in space as were his students. This led him to a prolonged study of the technical issues of building human colonies in space, such as energy, land area, size and shape, atmosphere, gravitation, and sunlight. By 1974, O'Neill wrote an article, "The Colonization of Space," that led to his most significant book, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, published in 1977.
This lively book expanded upon his thesis that a "breakout" from Earth was inevitable, and that this future colonization, or "humanization," of space would ultimately determine the continuance of intelligent life. The book proved to be both a popular and a critical success, winning the Phi Beta Kappa Science Book of the Year Award. It has since seen six English editions and been translated into six languages. As he continually reevaluated and revised his ideas, O'Neill shifted his emphasis for colonizing space from relieving population pressure to providing Earth with a limitless supply of clean, inexpensive energy. His plans included ambitious space manufacturing programs, and he argued that several potentially profitable space-based industries could exist.
Founds the Space Studies Institute
O'Neill realized that because of political influences and budgetary constraints, NASA could not be a reliable and steady supporter of the kind of basic research he felt needed to be done. Therefore, in 1977 he sought and obtained private support for a new, non-profit corporation called the Space Studies Institute. Located at Princeton University, the Space Studies Institute supports technical research on the science and engineering of living and working in space with grants made possible by members' contributions.
In addition to providing dependable funding, the Space Studies Institute was intended to usher in a new style of space technology development. Ever the individualist, O'Neill believed fervently that small, private groups were superior to large, governmental bureaucracies in developing the tools of exploring space. He felt strongly that the settlement of space offered such potential benefits to mankind that it was too important to be left in the hands of national governments. In 1983, he founded the Geostar Corporation which, based on O'Neill's own patent, developed the first private satellite navigational system to guide travel on earth. The company, however, went out of business in 1991, despite having developed a satellite-based navigational and position locating system.
O'Neill died on April 27, 1992, of leukemia. He left behind three children, Janet Karen, Eleanor Edith, and Roger Alan, from his 1950 marriage to Sylvia Turlington. Divorced in 1966, he married Renate Steffen in 1973, with whom he founded the Space Studies Institute. O'Neill's son, Roger, became chairman of the Institute's board of directors and is working to carry on his father's tradition. Before his death, O'Neill wrote in Who's Who: "To me the ideals of human freedom, of individual choice, and of concern for others have always been of the greatest importance. I hope that at the end of my life I can look back on work honestly done and on fair dealings with others."
In April 1997, a Pegasus rocket carried O'Neill's ashes into space along with those of 21 others, including Star Trekcreator Gene Roddenberry, counter-culture guru Timothy Leary, and Harvard psychologist Krafft Ehricke. His remains should circle the earth for up to a decade before reentering the atmosphere and burning up harmlessly.
- The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York: Morrow, 1977.
- 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.
- The Technology Edge: Opportunities for America in World Competition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
- Daniels, Lee A. "Gerard K. O'Neill, Professor, 69 (sic); Led Studies on Physics and Space." The New York Times. April 29, 1992, D: 24.
- "Gerard K. O'Neill." Current Biography (1979): 290-293.
- "Interview: Gerard K. O'Neill." Omni (July 1979): 77-79, 113-115.