Space Studies Institute (SSI)
The first major, purely private organization to promote physical research and development into developing lunar and near Earth asteroidal resources, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, was the Space Studies Institute (SSI), based in Princeton, New Jersey near Princeton University. SSI is still going today, but has been overshadowed as others took interest and grew up, the latter in no small part being due to SSI's early promotion of lunar and asteroidal resources utilization and space colonization and industrialization.
Many of today's leaders in space resources and colonization efforts are descended from the SSI community, e.g., Peter Diamandis, Jeff Bezos, Rick Tumlinson, K. Eric Drexler, and others, who were all young men at the time of their participating in the SSI community in the 1980s.
Outside of government circles, SSI initially produced the largest quantity of useful research and development for utilization of lunar and asteroidal materials in the 1970s and 1980s. SSI's emphasis is on the private sector, though as a 501c3 not-for-profit organization SSI cannot embark on a mission itself. The results of this research and development are available to any private companies and consortiums embarking upon a venture. SSI is a not-for-profit research organization in the truest spirit. SSI supports R&D using funds from generous philanthropic donations and various subscription services such as their "Senior Associate" program.
Besides past and present research, SSI is one of the very best organizations to know for meeting many of the best research professionals in the relevant fields.
SSI was founded in 1977 by Princeton physicist Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, who had been promoting the utilization of lunar and near Earth asteroidal material from sometime around the year 1970, including the organization of workshops and two conferences in 1974 and 1975. It was partly from his realization that government was neither going to do this nor appropriate that he decided to create SSI.
SSI's mission is to fund research and development leading to lunar and asteroidal resources utilization which NASA, other governments and the private sector are not supporting, i.e., it is independent of political winds and business trends. SSI's research is usually performed in conjunction with private companies, universities, and sometimes NASA, but SSI is not dependent upon them for its existence and SSI's policy is not shaped by any subserviant desire for contract money. SSI has maintained focus on its mission for more than 30 years now.
For example, SSI entered into a joint project with McDonnell Douglas Corporation, Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America, an industry giant) and Goldsworthy Engineering for the construction of a pilot-scale solar powered glass composite production facility. Using a 10.3 meter concentrator with a focusing capacity of 10,000 suns, this unit is the first large-scale demonstration of lunar processing techniques. This is just one of many, many examples of SSI research projects performed in conjunction with technical leaders in private industry.
The main SSI event was the bi-annual conferences, which was the top conference on utilizing lunar and asteroidal materials until around 1990. These SSI conferences were usually co-sponsored with the AIAA (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics), and the proceeds were always published.
Dr. O'Neill passed away in 1992 (after a long bout with leukemia).
The Board of Directors and staff continued the organization. Unfortunately, SSI sputtered and went into general decline.
The last biannual conference was held in 2001. (See also the section on the Space Resources Roundtable, which arose to fill in part of the vacuum.)
In 2010, the series resumed with another conference, but I see no conference after that.
SSI has resumed some activities, though the rest of the world has grown up a lot so that SSI no longer plays the leading role it did in decades past. Nevertheless, many of today's leaders come from the SSI community.
SSI is a must-know organization for people in the space resources field.
More information can be found on their website at ssi.org
I also participated in the SSI community in the mid to late 1980s. Before that, I corresponded and did a little bit of paid research for SSI when still studying at the University of Arkansas. I attended SSI conferences and also did some volunteer work with SSI people in the mid to late 1980s.
There are a few things in particular not covered by the SSI website which I should add here, but I will start by a short synopsis highlighting the main things covered in other places, in order to provide some context.
Dr. O'Neill wrote a book called "The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space", first published in 1976, which outlined his vision for utilizing lunar and near Earth asteroidal resources for space industrialization and colonization, and this book was extremely popular both with readers and in the mass media. It has gone thru about a dozen reprintings since that first edition.
Dr. O'Neill's name became widely recognized in many circles -- in both the space professional and advocacy communities, as well as in political circles in Washington, D.C. Dr. O'Neill traveled extensively and tirelessly to make public appearances.
Dr. O'Neill and SSI people were successful in getting NASA to fund some small but high profile projects in the 1970s.
However, after gaining a better understanding of how the government space program works, and some subsequent bad experiences with politics, Dr. O'Neill and SSI went relatively apolitical in the late 1970s for the most part, except for occasional participation with some committees.
Dr. O'Neill's focus switched to reliance on non-governmental, private sector support of space resources early on, which in fact was the basis for creating the Space Studies Institute in 1977.
For example, when the US Department of Energy and NASA were completing studies in the late 1970s into launching Solar Power Satellites (SPS), it was clear that their price tag was far too high due to the studies calling for the satellites to be launched up from Earth. Largely in response to this behemoth government contractor generated scenario, SSI sponsored a workshop on utilizing lunar materials led by Dr. O'Neill and Dr. Charles Rosen, president of the Machine Intelligence Corp. (specializing in machine intelligence and teleoperation), which came up with a much lower cost and more practical way to develop space resources based on business models rather than government contractors.
This proposed set of equipment to be delivered to make a small, minimal lunar base on the Moon and a small space industrial facility in high Earth orbit which would process the lunar material into fuel propellant and other basic products sellable in orbit, including for solar power satellites. The emphasis of this scenario was "bootstrapping", i.e., using the first products to expand the lunar base, space manufacturing facility and transportation infrastructure. Hence, the first deployment was to be a "seed". A report entitled "The Low Profile Road to Space Development" gives an overview of the plan. That was in the early 1980s, but shows the kinds of things SSI does.
In contrast to the government contractor SPS proposal costing hundreds of billions of dollars before payback, the Low Profile private sector report conservatively estimated that the total cost before breakeven was around $7 billion, that is, roughly the cost of the Alaska oil pipeline project. Subsequent work has reportedly improved upon this scenario whereby the cost before breakeven has been reduced.
The government reports made assumptions to simplify their study, which were easy to make since it would be government work instead of profitable private sector work. For example, they assumed no bootstrapping. They also assumed all infrastructure to build SPS would be developed, built, launched and put into operation producing SPS before any revenues came in.
However, in my opinion, the weakness of the SSI "Low Profile" scenario is the reliance on a particular lunar transportation system that was too risky and unnecessary -- still too academic. It was an electromagnetic launcher on the Moon, called a "Mass Driver", invented by Dr. O'Neill, with three models of the accelerator section built and successfully tested (each model making major improvements in economics over the previous model). Reliance on such new transportation technology entails an additional risk which is hard to sell. They should have based the system on more mundane transportation technology. (Understand, I worked in the field of electromagnetic launchers for the Pentagon's SDI/"Star Wars" and have much confidence in the technology, but I'm a physicist, not an investor.) SSI and its people are heavily invested in the Mass Driver and believe in it.
Asteroidal resources were not considered in the Low Profile report, but SSI research continued to support near Earth asteroid studies, too. Indeed, Mass Driver research and development tailed off.
It was my observation that while Dr. O'Neill and some of this staff accepted criticisms very well and took them on board, on the other hand some of his followers did not.
Indeed, there was a bit of excessive hero worshipping among quite a number of followers, something I believe Dr. O'Neill would not have condoned. After he passed away, this seemed to intensify. Many people commented on problems this created. It also sometimes seemed that if somebody made any presentation on space resources, if it didn't start or end reciting praise on Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill and SSI as the holy origins of space resources, then they deserved criticism for not doing so. This created a bit of wariness with some people, which was not beneficial.
Dr. O'Neill himself was quite humble. It was remarkable how accessible he was to strangers, how carefully he listened and considered what people spoke, and how pleasant he was in handling people. His fame and popularity never led to any inflation of his ego.
Another piece of history which is important to cover from another angle is Dr. O'Neill's efforts to create other businesses which would make money in order to support SSI, instead of depending upon donations which were very clearly insufficient (despite all the popularity of Dr. O'Neill and SSI).
Dr. O'Neill privately founded a separate company called GeoStar to provide a kind of global positioning system (GPS) service in the 1980s, based on a technology patented by Dr. O'Neill, before GPS became popular. It was clearly Dr. O'Neill's intention to make a lot of money from Geostar and give it to SSI. Dr. O'Neill correctly saw the promise of large revenues from the global positioning business. Dr. O'Neill and some of this top associates started spending a lot of their time, effort and resources getting Geostar up and running. Geostar used no SSI research, as it was technically unrelated, so all time, effort and resources going into Geostar did not benefit SSI one bit.
However, two tragedies struck. First, Dr. O'Neill was diagnosed with leukemia in 1985 and had to reduce his workload. Secondly, the first two satellites deployments failed, one due to a rocket failure during launch but the other after being deployed in the right orbit -- after a short while, the satellite just suddenly went dead. Soon after the second satellite failure, Geostar failed (even though both satellites were insured) and went bankrupt.
There are two theories on why Geostar failed. One school of thought blames it on key management decisions, which I'd rather not go into. However, Geostar's main competitor who was extremely successful in providing GPS services, and a person associated with them told me that Geostar's failure was because they tried making a better satellite rather than using off the shelf components for a sufficient first generation satellite (which is a management decision, of course). He attributed it to Geostar's academic management and staff. He said that his company got up and running with quick revenues from GPS services using equipment put together quickly, and that's why they beat Geostar in grabbing market share. The academics had gone for a more ideal solution, and that was their business weakness. Better was the enemy of good enough.
Of course, the not-for-profit SSI is entirely independent of the for-profit (and now defunct) Geostar Corporation. SSI would have benefitted from Geostar's success, but did not (and legally could not) invest any resources into Geostar. The two were entirely separate entities in every way except that some people who worked for Geostar also did things for SSI. It is good that SSI remained a separate, not for profit entity not affected by business or else it could have failed as well. Debt could have crushed SSI.
(This is also why PERMANENT maintains its nonprofit status and any costly, for profit venture would have to be separate.)
The Clementine probe, which first discovered polar ice and bolstered support for subsequent Lunar Prospector probe, was led in large part by some SSI followers, something which was kept low profile. The subsequent Lunar Prospector probe which verified ice at the lunar poles (verifying what Clementine 1 detected, and roughly quantifying it), which was designed mainly by Dr. Alan Binder, was heavily promoted by SSI and its associates. SSI had always wanted to search for volatiles in the permanently shadowed lunar craters. (There was some conflict about SSI taking too much credit for Lunar Prospector, and it was subsequently promoted and developed by non-SSI people, but the O'Neill/SSI influence for polar ice explorations is beyond a shadow of a doubt.)
There were years upon years of promotion of the exploration of permanently shadowed lunar craters without sufficient funding. The Clementine probe had many other things as its primary mission, and the lunar polar ice discovery was not part of its primary mission description.
Notably, at one of the SSI conferences, one of the Japanese family owners of the Shimizu Corp. (discussed elsewhere on this website), without any prior notice, walked up to Dr. O'Neill and gave him an envelope with a very large sum of cash for SSI. (See our page on past mission concepts, about Shimizu Lunar Construction.)
SSI received a lot of donations while Dr. O'Neill was heading it, but that dropped off after his death. SSI never got a major philanthropic investor to donate millions of dollars. O'Neill seemed to get interested in side businesses to fund SSI.
However, it was also my observation that in the mid 1980s and up until his death, O'Neill diverted a significant amount of his focus into these sidelines which had little to nothing to do with space resources, from time to time. While Geostar was a good project and experience, O'Neill also did design and promotional work on Earth based trains, wireless PC communications, and other things. He also wrote a book about what America needed to do in order to compete with Japan, obviously a somewhat nationalistic theme. His book "2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future" covered a variety of non-space trends in addition to space colonization.
Regarding creating an unrelated business to make money and support space resources development, two of O'Neill's followers have accomplished what O'Neill did not:
Jeff Bezos started Amazon and is funding Blue Origin with a lot of his profits, a rocket company dedicated to transporting people into space.
Peter Diamandis got several billionaires to start Planetary Resources to start the 2010+ era, albeit after 20 years of tireless perseverance and incremental successes.
There are many other SSI followers who have tried but not fared so well.
If you're interested in developing a business plan to utilize lunar or asteroidal materials, it would be a good thing to get in touch with SSI, who know many technically skilled people in this field.