Mass Drivers

Mass Drivers and Space Colonization

While teaching freshman physics at Princeton University in 1969, Gerard O’Neill posed the question, “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?”

Inspired by the papers written by his students, he began to work out the details of a program to build self-supporting space habitats in free space. This eventually resulted in the following two papers:

  • A Lagrangian Community?, Gerard K. O’Neill, Nature, 23 August 1974, No. 5468, pp. 636, doi:10.1038/250636a0
  • The Colonization of Space, Gerard K. O’Neill, Physics Today, September 1974, Volume 27, Number 9, pp. 33-40. Reformatted and updated with color illustrations, August 2010.

A much cited paper was subsequently published in Science:

  • Space Colonies and Energy Supply to Earth, Gerard K. O’Neill, 5 December 1975, Science, Volume 190, Number 4218, pp. 943-947

The first Space Manufacturing conference was held at Princeton in May 1975; but the proceedings were not printed until March 1977.

  • “Space Manufacturing Facilities 1 Conference Introduction,” Gerard K. O’Neill, Proceedings of the Princeton / AIAA / NASA Space Manufacturing 1 Conference, May 7-9, 1975.
  • “The Space Manufacturing Facility Concept,” Gerard K. O’Neill, Proceedings of the Princeton / AIAA / NASA Space Manufacturing Facilities 1 Conference, May 7-9, 1975.

Omni, a long defunct magazine, published a long interview of Gerard O’Neill in 1979, that subsequently was expanded with telephone interviews in 1982 and 1983. They also published several short articles on a variety of subjects that are included here:

  • “Space Colonies — Interview with GerardK. O’Neill,” Omni, 1983
  • First Word, Omni, July 1980
  • “2081,” Omni, June 1981
  • Conquest of Space, Omni, October 1983
  • Moon River, Omni, May 1989

The potential of a mass driver for space applications was first identified by Gerard O’Neill in 1974. Two papers that articulate the characteristics of a basic coaxial mass driver are described in:

  • “Basic Coaxial Mass Driver Reference Design,” Henry H. Kolm, Proceedings of the Third Space Manufacturing Conference, May 9-12 1977
  • “Technical Note: Mass Driver for Lunar Transport and as a Reaction Engine,” Gerard K. O’Neill and Henry H. Kolm, The Journal of the Astronautical Sciences, Volume 25, Number 4, pp. 349-363, October 1977

The MD-2 mass driver is described in the following paper:

  • “High Acceleration Mass Drivers,” Gerard K. O’Neill and Henry H. Kolm, Acta Astronautica, 1980, Volume 7, pp. 1229-1238

The capacitors used in a mass driver dominate its mass and cost. The quenchgun concept developed in 1978 by Henry Kolm eliminates these capacitors by storing the entire launch energy in superconducting barrel coils that are transferred to a projectile with almost no loss.

  • “A Superconducting Quenchgun for Delivering Lunar Derived Oxygen to Lunar Orbit,” Nathan Nottke and Curt Bilby, April 1990, NASA Contractor Report 185161
  • “Electromagnetic Launch of Lunar Materials,” William R. Snow and Henry H. Kolm, NASA SP-509, Volume 2 (Energy, Power and Transport), 1992, pp. 117 (Reformatted, and color illustrations added December 2010)

Gerard K. O’Neill died April 27, 1992. On August 15, 2010, Tasha O’Neill, executor of the Gerard O’Neill estate, gave permission to republish Gerard O’Neill’s papers on this site.