How a 1970s Physicist Gave Me Hope as a Filmmaker
I rang in 2018 by quitting my “survival job” as a bartender, adamant that I would find solid work in the film industry. I landed a few short contract positions, but within a couple months the cost of living in Los Angeles was simply too much. My hope was growing painfully thin and I was days away from taking my old bartending job back when a bit of luck came my way.
It was early March, and on my daily job search I came across a Production Assistant job on a documentary film. Typically I would have overlooked the listing, PA jobs don’t always pay so well, but I saw something that intrigued me. The documentary was about a physics professor at Princeton University named Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, and although I didn’t recognize the name, I grew up just blocks from Princeton University and was raised by a scientist; albeit a chemist. I wrote a quick note to the producer and to my surprise, I heard back the next day and was hired within the week.
The project wasn’t small but the team was. For quite a while actually it was just the first-time Film Producer, Dylan Taylor, and myself. Dylan had previously created a large following by way of a very successful career in another industry. I learned that this film was somewhat of a passion project for him, but unlike most passion projects in the film industry, he actually had the financial assets to make the thing happen. I quickly realized I had stumbled into an incredible project, not just from the enormous generosity I found Dylan shared as a filmmaker but the story of that physicist at Princeton.
So who was Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill? Answering that question ultimately changed my life and the lives of everyone on the project.
I searched through online libraries, studio records, radio stations, and previously confidential museum and university archives. Dr. O’Neill’s remaining family and friends even made dives into their attics for me. “Gerry” as many called him, was on just about every major talk show, radio station, and print publication of the time, garnering an enormous following around the world. I discovered enough information to write several books, TV series, documentaries, compile numerous photo albums, and an endless audio library. It astounded me once I saw the whole story take shape that Gerry could be so unknown today. Many of his followers consider him “the Steve Jobs of his time.”
Gerry’s lesser recognized accolades are enormously impressive. In his late twenties he invented a device needed to create the first particle accelerators, but was later snubbed on the Nobel Prize for it. He invented the precursor to GPS, helped pioneer maglev transport, and invented a lunar mass launcher called the mass driver. However, Gerry is best known for what happened to the course of his life, and humanity, after he asked a simple question to his freshman class in 1969.
In 1969 the world was obsessed with space. America, having just landed on the Moon, was surveying the cosmos to set up industry; places like the Moon, Mars, and asteroids were first on the list. Even though it was the technology that got us out there, experts confirm that in 1969 technologists were hated, most notably blamed for the evils of war. Gerry felt it was important to prove to his students that physics and technology could be used for human good, and asked them questions which would lead them to the same conclusion. At the start of his fall semester, Gerry asked a question to his freshman students that anyone who knows his story can recite, “is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” Simply put, if we’re going to expand out into space, build industry and grow into the cosmos, would the surface of a planet such as the Moon or Mars be best, or is there a better place?
I personally think he expected his students to prove him wrong that day, that the surface of a planet was obviously the best place to set up industry. But that’s not what happened. After his students took up the challenge, they realized he had stumbled upon something that went against everything we were considering at the time. Building industry in free space, the empty “air” between the planets would be cheaper, more efficient, and industry would grow much faster with greater opportunities for individual wealth and freedom. Not only that, but in designing the habitats that might go up there he realized how they could solve four of the major global concerns Earth faced at the time: overpopulation, hunger, limited energy, and limited land area; the main tenets of survival but the causes of war. His seemingly innocuous question led him to stumble across an answer to our “limits to growth,” and a practical way to ensure the survival of our species.
A few years later Gerry published a book on the topic called The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. The book explained how building in free space was our best bet at not only survival, but growth. Gerry introduced the space habitat he believed could make it all happen, the O’Neill Cylinder; this rotating cylinder in space that would be miles longs, miles in diameter, and could house tens of thousands of people for work and play. This habitat became the basis for all space habitats we see in movies, TV, books, and art. What propelled this proposal was that it came from a highly esteemed physicist who proved how to do it with simple math. Once it caught on, he elevated the idea to a humanistic level with the help of sociologists, astronauts, and architects. Gerry quickly found himself the “captain” of a grassroots movement to make it all happen, and the government along with NASA soon took it seriously. It changed science, it changed how people view space, industry, and it changed the lives of every young dreamer, scientist, and technologist of the time; many of whom are household names today.
Gerard K. O’Neill at Princeton University
In going through Gerry’s life, my own life instantly crossed paths with his. Obviously I’m not a high energy physicist, but each time I uncovered another video, a lost news article, or interviewed a subject for the film, I found myself stumbling upon my childhood in Princeton. I was raised just blocks from Gerry’s old office, and spent my entire childhood exploring Princeton. There wasn’t a day I didn’t run out my front door and disappear into the known and unknown parts of town.
In the first week of production I was introduced to Gerry’s widow, Tasha O’Neill. She sent me a package with some old photos and tapes, and that’s when I noticed the return address. She lived just three blocks from my childhood home, and had for the fifteen years I lived there. Tasha and I became close friends through the making of the documentary, and I think a big part of that was the feeling that we knew each other the whole time. I biked by her house hundreds of evenings and never knew it, and I’m sure we stood in line behind each other at the grocery store. I learned later that the YMCA where she and Gerry met was the same one where I learned how to swim and would have several of my birthday parties.
But that was just the start.
I discovered that the faculty housing unit Gerry lived in during the 1950s was steps away from the one my parents lived in thirty years later. I found an old PBS broadcast which showed Gerry testing his mass driver in the same university hall where I filmed a scene for a student film in high school. I interviewed Freeman Dyson for the film shortly before he passed, and out his office window was the pond I fished in as a kid with my father. I used to bike, canoe along, and watch the sunset at the same lakeside Gerry watched crew racing fifty years prior, and I passed by his office every day when I walked home from school. I even found an old 35mm slide Gerry took of his home being built in the 1960s, and in the background of the not yet grown landscape was the plot of land where my childhood home would be built. Restaurants which Gerry used to eat dinner at were favorites of mine, and favorites of his children, too.
I used to walk along the campus every Friday after school and would pass by the hall where Gerry asked his famous question, where the space manufacturing conferences took place, and the buildings where he came up with his greatest inventions. Gerry would take walks on the dirt path along the lake with his kids and talk about living in space, the same path where I would walk with my parents. There was even a bar in the center of town where a few of Gerry’s close colleagues convened late one night and promised to keep his legacy alive after he passed, a bar that I would visit when home from college. I even found out later that Gerry’s four children went to the same elementary school I attended, and although our stomping grounds were separated by over a decade, I’m sure that on certain nights we smelled the O’Neill BBQs waft through the neighborhood, and on other nights they smelled ours.
In every video, in every photo, in every magazine and newspaper, I found myself somewhere. Either out the window of his office during an interview, in the same grass he sat with students who came to his conferences, or out front of University Chapel he posed near for People Magazine, he was with me every step of the way as I walked through his life. I never got to meet Gerry, he passed in April of 1992, but it is one of the greatest joys of my life to uncover the story of a man who was so profoundly interested in the search for a hopeful future for humanity. And because he did, I have hope again, too.
My original employment on the film was intended to only last eight months. However, Dylan and I quickly noticed there was a treasure trove awaiting us. Through our combined efforts, along with the team we partnered with at Subtractive Inc. in Santa Monica, CA, the film was over two and half years of sifting for gold which turned into the incredible documentary, “The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill.” Dylan ultimately elevated my title to Producer & Writer and my career found footing for the first time, just months before turning 30.
Gerry’s habitats clearly weren’t built in the timeframe he envisioned, but he did manage to inspire an enormous amount of advocates who call themselves “Gerry’s Kids”. I’m proud to add my name to that list. This documentary will remind the world of who Gerry was and why his story is more important today than ever, those four major global concerns growing worse. We may be taking up the challenge a little behind Gerry’s schedule, but because of his life and those he inspired, I believe that the future of our Earth is a hopeful one.