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The dinosaurs blew it, they didn't get into space in time, mankind needs to leave Earth just to survive, and in The High Frontier, in this book O'Neill shows us why each of us personally would want to go.

The High Frontier is a book by Gerard K. O'Neill, written back in 1976. The third edition of the book is similar to the previous editions, with the addition of a few chapters from other authors and a supplementary CDROM with 1 hour of mpeg.

O'Neil was a teaching professor who was trying to interest his students in space, and decided to pose the question: "Is a planetary surface the best location for a technological civilisation?"; the answer was that it was not, neither Mars, nor the Earth are optimal, they suffer a relative lack of energy. In space, you only need to obtain material once, and it's almost endlessly reusable with sufficient power, but energy- you need a continuous and powerful supply of that.

Therefore this book considers space exploration, not from the obvious angle of landing on planets and trying to survive and possibly bending their environment to our needs, but instead living in space because it is a better place to live.

O'Neill explains this idea through 12 chapters and a mixture of first person fiction set in space, and factual descriptions of science and technology that mankind already has that would work to achieve this.

The story behind this book is that it was written around the time when Apollo was being wound down, where space held so much obvious possibility, and The Space Shuttle was going to cost $20 million per launch rather than the $400-1500 million behemoth that it ended up becoming.

Behind the scenes the politicians, having beaten the Russians to the moon, and nervous about losing astronauts, were reducing support for space; so this book was trying to raise popular support so that the politicians might reinvest.

And so reading this book now is somewhat poignant- Gerard O'Neill died fairly young of Leukemia with his dream unrealised; stalled for lack of a cheap launch system. And reading back from a distance of 30 years I detect a very slight retro edge to parts of the book, in places it talks about issues which were probably very cutting edge back then, a big emphasis is put on running out of energy on the earth; and a workable, safe, albeit somewhat expensive, High Frontier solution is found (beamed solar energy). The perceived problems back then are not quite the same ones as perceived to be facing us today. But these old problems have not truly been solved- the oil is genuinely running out, it has just taken longer than originally forecast.

The book is still mostly modern, and contains large scale ideas, anyone who can plausibly conceive of building single structures 30km across, and give instructions on how to build such a thing deserves a lot of respect; and yet O'Neill keeps it real enough that you can believe that anybody might be able to live on the High Frontier, not just an elite few.

The end of the book contains extra new chapters, written by several luminaries; I found the last two to be the most interesting, Rick N. Tumlinson lends some light into the dark political corners of American space efforts, and George Friedman does excellent work extending O'Neill's ideas with our current knowledge of asteroids (esp. NEOs).

At the end of the day, O'Neill's vision is prettier and more realistic than anyone elses. His is a vision based on economics, on people earning money and living in Space; this seems a good approach. Robert Zubrins Mars Direct tries hard to 'debunk' O'Neill, mostly by arguments of incredulity about whether large windows or mirrors are possible (check out the metalised windows on any modern skyscraper to see what is easy to achieve) but to be honest his ideas for living on Mars share so much in common with O'Neill's ideas, this is political posturing- Mars' surface is essentially as hostile as space (less than 0.01 bar pressure and cold, and less sunlight); and they both ultimately share a single idea- that going into space is very necessary. And Robert Zubrins ideas rely on governmental charity to pay for them- the government is supposed to give him a lot of money for the glory of it all. And it is a LOT of money. O'Neill needs every bit as much money, but he at least has business plans to pay it back.

All in all, an amazing book, get it!

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