Review: The High Frontier – US Space Force Association
US Space Force Association

The High Frontier is an inspirational, educational, and deeply emotive documentary companion to Dr. Gerard  “Gerry” O’Neill’s seminal book. The original source is a thorough and practical proposal for industrializing and settling our solar system. This film leverages modern technology and expert interviews to explain the key arguments of the book and to present them in a way never before possible. The result is a logical and compelling argument for pursuing the habitation of the space between Earth and its moon as well as a tear-jerking memorial to a man who was truly good. Good to his family, his posterity, and to all of humanity.

The work of Dr. Gerard O’Neill has inspired a generation of space entrepreneurs and advocates. This documentary explains his astonishingly grand yet practical proposal for the industrialization and settlement of space and also serves as a touching memorial to the remarkable man behind the message.

The Space Force Association (SFA) shares Dr. O’Neill’s optimistic view of humanity’s future in space. The expansion of life and industry beyond Earth is more achievable than ever. Deliberate civil-private partnership can create a vibrant cis-lunar economy and dramatically change the ground rules for international cooperation and competition. SFA believes the opportunities in space far outweigh the risks, the bounty justifies the cost, and the potential for prosperity is the foundation for security and stability.

Dr. O’Neill in front of one of his “Island” space habitat concepts.

The creative team behind this loving documentary tell the story through the words of “Gerry’s kids” — the academics, professionals, and entrepreneurs who took inspiration from O’Neill’s works. Collectively they are eloquent, passionate, and generally rational. Though none have achieved the kind of success in space that Dr. O’Neill had hoped for.

The biggest element of the book that is missing is its technical foundation, which ranges from bar napkin estimates of material and power requirements to detailed scientific assays of the chemical composition of celestial bodies. The omission is forgivable, though, as it wouldn’t translate well across mediums and some of the cast have participated in critical analysis of the book’s proposals and almost all acknowledge the harsh lessons learned from space programs and businesses during the decades between the book’s release and the relatively recent wave of “new space” achievements.

Still, the film conveys the ambiguous futurist spirit of the book and the man. A fascinating assortment of period footage is married by tight editing with modern digital renderings based on the sketches and diagrams in the book. The film opens with a stirring narrative playing over a flyby of a gorgeous orbiting “Island” habitat teeming with life and bustling with profitable and recreational activity. For passionate space advocates, the result is tear-jerking.

If the film has a weakness, it is only subscribing to the optimism of the source material. The basic science is proven and many revisions of the engineering approaches and profit models have re-validated Dr. O’Neill’s basic conclusions over the years. Yet the bitter reality is that in 2020 there were still no humans living beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) and there was no profitable industry off the Earth. Turns out “space is hard” isn’t a joke.

Fortunately, the book stops short of preaching and the documentary doesn’t cross that line either. It replicates Gerry’s rational and pragmatic approach. It is doesn’t advocate a roadmap to be followed by the letter, but offers a data-driven analysis that supports three ambitious conclusions:

  1. The only way to exceed the population and industrialization limits of Earth is to extend life and commerce beyond Earth.
  2. A basic survey of available resources and gravitational cost reveals that the most opportune place for humans to live and work is not on planetary surfaces, but on orbiting habitats of our own making.
  3. With a first-things-first approach, it is possible to build practical and profitable homes and businesses in space with technology available today.

The big question the documentary faces that the book did not is: if all that was true in 1974, why has it still not been done? The passionate interviews tell that story as well. Exploring insufficient public interest, lack of long term capital investment by governments, and the failure of the Space Shuttle, for example.

Despite some bitter disappointments, most of the speakers carry as much optimism as ever. They point to the acceleration of commercialization that constitutes the heart of “new space” as progress toward a human population in space. It may take longer without big government programs, but it’s still sure to happen, they argue.

Perhaps that optimism is Dr. O’Neill’s real legacy. The film ends biographically. Gerry’s rationale was that space could be made profitable, but that was never his motivation. He passed up numerous opportunities for fortune and fame. He pursued his vision because he believed it was the best thing for humanity. His followers and fans are drawn to his nobility, not his numbers. His belief that space offers solutions or relief for many human troubles is more inspiring than his timelines were convincing.

Ultimately this documentary strikes a satisfying balance between being informational and emotive. Like so many space programs and science fiction films that have drawn inspiration from Dr. O’Neill’s, this film is sure to make you think and feel.

Watch it, share it, and consider the merits of these ideas as we slowly but surely find our place in The High Frontier.

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