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Space colony illustration
Gerard K. O’Neill’s vision of space settlement lives on with the re-established SSI conference later this month. (credit: Don Davis)

Reviving the SSI Space Manufacturing Conference

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Thirty-five years ago, NASA Ames Research Center was the site of the first large technical study on space settlement. This groundbreaking summer study, organized by Space Studies Institute Founder Gerard K. O’Neill, was the first major effort to look at the engineering and technical elements required to create human settlements off the Earth.

This is the only space conference that is solely concerned with the science and engineering of humanity’s expansion into the solar system.

Later this month, the Space Studies Institute will return to Mountain View to continue that pioneering work. SSI will hold its 14th Space Studies Institute Conference on Space Manufacturing and Space Settlement at the NASA Ames Conference Center on October 30 and 31, 2010. The conference will bring together the world’s leading experts on affordable space transportation, extraterrestrial prospecting, lunar and asteroidal manufacturing processes, robotics and tele-operations, closed environment life support systems, space solar power and energy, and off-planet property rights.

This is the only space conference that is solely concerned with the science and engineering of humanity’s expansion into the solar system. Its goal is to help complete the missing technological links required to allow humanity to access the boundless resources in space.

The conference owes its existence to Dr. O’Neill, a Princeton physics professor who had very innovative ideas about opening the space frontier. He envisioned mining lunar and asteroid resources in order to build large-scale settlements in space and to supply Earth with cheap, abundant energy via space solar power satellites. Instead of hauling everything from the Earth, humans would live off the land. A commercial approach would open the high frontier to entrepreneurs.

Dr. O’Neill organized the first space manufacturing conference in 1975 at the urging of his friend Stewart Brand, editor and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand believed that the space community had to bring its ideas to a broader audience. He put up the seed funding, and the first space manufacturing conference was held at Princeton University.

Things took off from there. In 1976, O’Neill built the first mass driver prototype with colleague Henry Kolm. The device, which uses a linear motor to accelerate payloads to high speeds, was designed to help extract resources from the moon and asteroids. That same year, O’Neill published The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, which was the first book to apply real engineering insights into how to construct off-world colonies.

O’Neill founded the Space Studies Institute in 1977 with the hope of opening the vast wealth of space to humanity. The Institute’s mission is to open the energy and material resources of space for human benefit within our lifetime. In addition to funding original research, SSI continued to host a series of biennial space manufacturing conferences at Princeton through 2001.

These gatherings—and Dr. O’Neill’s pioneering work—helped to inspire a new generation of post-Apollo space advocates to think differently about how to expand humanity into space. This diverse group helped to form the core of the NewSpace commercial space movement that has now come into its own. The results of their efforts can be seen in the Obama Administration’s new direction for NASA.

It is the right time to revive these space manufacturing conferences after a nine-year gap.

This conference continues in the spirit of the SSI Princeton gatherings that Dr. O’Neill began. The conference will bring together researchers who are studying water on the Moon and near Earth objects with entrepreneurs who want to access those resources. Builders of closed-loop life support systems will meet scientists researching synthetic genomics. From these interactions, we expect that fruitful collaborations will grow.

The conference will kick off on Friday, October 29, with special event at the Sheraton Sunnyvale Hotel. NASA Ames Director Pete Worden will moderate a debate titled, “Moon, Mars, Asteroids: Where to Go First for Resources?” We expect a lot of fireworks on this discussion, which will feature asteroid advocates Michael A’Hearn and Mark Sonter and lunar resources supporter Paul Spudis. Jeff Greason, John Lewis, and Greg Baiden will complete the roundtable.

Two days of technical sessions will follow at NASA Ames Conference Center that will focus on all aspects of opening up space, with sessions led by leading experts in their fields. Most of the session chairs and speakers at the conference have built and flown technologies, giving them practical experience. Saturday’s session leads include Gary C. Hudson of HMX on space transportation, Taber MacCallum of Paragon SDC on closed-loop life support, and William (Red) Whittaker on robotics and space manufacturing.

Famed biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter will discuss the contribution of synthetic genomics to space settlement during the final session on Saturday. Dr. Venter, best known for his pioneering work in sequencing the human genome and creating the first cell with a synthetic genome, will talk about the use of synthetic genetics in closed-loop life support systems and mineral extraction and synthesis. The talk is a joint session with the Synthetic Biology Workshop, a separate invitation-only conference being held at NASA Ames on the same weekend.

Dr. Lewis will give a dinner talk titled “Asia’s Road to the Moon,” at the Sheraton on Saturday night. Dr. Lewis will have recently returned from a trip to China, where he is serving as an advisor to that nation’s space program. It should be fascinating to hear what he says about how that rising power is approaching the exploration and settlement of the Moon.

Sunday’s sessions include Engineering Materials from Non-Terrestrial Resources, Space Solar Power and Space Energy Systems, and International, Legal and Economic Considerations. Dr. Greg Baiden of Penguin Automated Systems will give the Sunday luncheon talk, titled “Terrestrial Telerobotic Mining Technology: An Enabler for Extraterrestrial Habitation, Mining and Construction.”

There is now a clear alignment between SSI’s goals and NASA’s new direction.

It is the right time to revive these space manufacturing conferences after a nine-year gap. We expect that the cost of Earth-to-orbit transportation will fall significantly during the next decade. The administration’s preferred flexible path will allow sequential development of a reusable transportation infrastructure between the Earth, the Moon, and asteroids.

For economic space development we need to mature the technologies of closed life support systems, materials refining, mining, and manufacturing so that as transportation costs come down, we will be ready to go. There are many technological gaps in our ability to exploit the vast resources of space. Now is the time to reinvigorate research and collaboration on the critical path technologies needed for space industrialization and settlement.

There is now a clear alignment between SSI’s goals and NASA’s new direction. The space agency’s chief technologist, Robert Braun, has asked SSI to submit technical roadmaps for each area covered by the conference. We hope it will be helpful to the agency as it plans out how to advance beyond Earth orbit.

Expanding humanity into the solar system was a future that Dr. O’Neill never lived to see. Sadly, he passed away after a long battle with leukemia in 1992. We hope that this conference will be worthy successor to the pioneering work that he began.