Transcript: Space4U podcast, Will Henry
Written by: Space Foundation Editorial Team
Hello, this is Andrew de Naray with Space Foundation, and you’re listening to the Space4U podcast. Space4U is designed to tell the stories of the people who make space exploration today more accessible to all. Our guest today is Will Henry who’s an award-winning filmmaker, producer, and writer best known for the documentary film.
We’ll be discussing today. The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K O’Neill, which was released on September 15th. Will is the creative director and senior producer at Multiverse Media, a media company focusing on space exploration and science and technology. He is currently producing an eight part television series in association with NASA and is also the writer and producer of the legendary podcast, a monthly podcast, dedicated to sharing stories of perseverance and glory from the world’s top athletes.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today Will it’s great to have you on the show. Hey, thanks for having me. So, as I already mentioned today, we’ll be discussing your film, the high frontier, the untold story of Gerard K O’Neill prior to doing the film. Did you have a preexisting interest in O’Neill and if so, how and when was that interest sparked?
No, you know, I, I did not actually in full honesty. I did not. In fact, I didn’t even know who he was. Um, and to be even more blunt with you, uh, I actually wasn’t even that much interested in the space industry. It was a strange happenstance that I got put on this film and, uh, I was immediately intrigued by the story of O’Neill.
Partly because I’d actually grown up, just blocks from his home and lived next to his widow for 15 years of my childhood and his office was on my walk to school. And also my father was a chemist at Princeton. So there was a lot of like crossed lines that just, I had never noticed throughout my life. Um, no, I didn’t know who he was.
I was brought onto the film to be more of a, an assistant to Dylan Taylor, who was the executive producer of the film. And then he, and I just went embarked on a journey of making this film that took years. And over the course of that, I got more and more and more involved and pretty quickly became the film’s writer and producer.
But no, I didn’t know his story, but by the end of even just reading the book for research, the high frontier, I was a complete convert and I’ve really engrossed myself in the space industry ever since. Wow. That’s cool that a connection with, you know, where he used to live and his widow, that’s a cosmic there.
Yeah. So as you mentioned you, uh, co-wrote the film with a Voyager space holdings and space for humanity founder Dylan Taylor, who was also executive producer of the film. I know from a previous conversation I had with him that he is an O’Neill devotee. Uh, how did you two connect to do that film? And how did the idea for the film even come about.
Yeah. So, uh, I’ll actually start with how the film came about. The film came about with, uh, you know, Dylan, as you’ve mentioned, uh, is very much involved in the space industry. He was an early investor in a lot of the, uh, now large private space entrepreneur companies like SpaceX and blue origin and so on. Um, and one of his weekend calls that he frequently has is with a gentleman named Rick Tomlinson of the space frontier foundation and space fund.
And it had been brought up time and time again about how O’Neill. Was really the godfather and, and, and sort of spark that started everything that’s happening today. And without him we wouldn’t have today. And I know that Dylan was at the launch for, or sorry, the, when they landed the double boosters at spaceX years ago.
And, and that moment, he thought about his conversation with Rick Tomlinson and said, someone, something needs to be done. Someone needs to tell the story of O’Neill because this story started decades ago. And so he embarked on making that. I got brought on about two months into filming. Actually, it was obviously a long filming process.
It was a couple of years. I was brought on to really be more of just an assistant to Dylan to help him get this film made because he was a first-time filmmaker. And I had just come out of the Hollywood system and, and realized I wanted to do a little bit more involved, independent film. I was helping him with really just legal stuff, getting shoots set up, really taking care of the backend of the film.
Uh, and then pretty quickly I was in charge of the whole whole thing, but, uh, it was an absolute joy working with him. He’s one of the most gracious, I would say executive producers, but he was so much more than just an executive producer. He was the films financier. He was the backbone of getting the story told and he set up a lot of.
The large major roadways that needed to be set up to get this film made and made a lot of, we would not have the incredible lineup that’s in the film without his personal connections. And you mentioned it took about two years then to produce from concept to release. Is that correct? Actually, it was just, um, it was actually just under three years.
Um, so it was about two years of filming and then we went into post-production right when COVID hit. And we were very lucky, very lucky about that. Um, we’d just finished filming our last. Interviews with the actual remaining family or the remaining O’Neill family, um, and realized that, uh, we were pretty much ready to go into post-production and then COVID said time to go, it’s time to be done filming.
And that’s what we did. We went right into post-production and took about, uh, gosh, I’d say seven to nine months because it wasn’t just editing the film. It was creating animations. And, um, we partnered with the studio, subtractive ink in Santa Monica, California, right around the corner for me here. And, um, they were just absolutely incredible.
It’s a wonderful team of artists editors and, uh, ended up Ryan Stuit taking over the actual direction of the film and, and bringing together so many pieces in the last seven to eight. Oh, that’s great. I guess he had a lot of time to dive into it there. So, yeah. So, um, this was your first feature documentary.
Uh, was it in, of course you, you know, you said Dylan had a lot to do with the initial writing on it and stuff too, but was it daunting to encapsulate like a 30 year period of such an eventful life into feature film length? And how did you zero in on what you wanted to cover to tell his story while keeping it succinct.
Well, you know, uh, it was difficult to really break all those things down. And it was a little bit daunting at first when I realized that I was sort of being given keys to the making of this film, uh, I was, yeah, there was a little bit of trepidation on my part. I had a, I had a, you know, to fail a few times to really get things right.
And I also knew that I was being entirely funded by someone who had started the film. So I wanted to stay true to that vision as well. And it was a process that definitely morphed over time. But, you know, we, it, it was really a Testament to O’Neill when we realized that putting out just a call for people to be in this film and for people to be interviewed and, you know, it’s, we go and interview someone say, who else do we talk to?
And it was just this laundry list of people. It was almost impossible to include everybody. And unfortunately we did have to pull a few people. It was just. nothing about their interview, but it was just more of, we just didn’t have the space. Um, and so when we ended up zeroing in on, it was really that core mission of O’Neill, which was that who was this man, you know, telling that side of the story, the personal story, and then the public story of, you know, making it known that putting a heavy industry in space was the best way to move forward with as a species.
Um, and so we tried to cover all those things along the way. We’ve talked about as environmental aspects, we talked about its business, uh, workings, and really tried to stay true to the human personal story of who he was. So, you know, bringing in his business life and his personal story was the most important thing we could do, but also trying to stay true to, you know, who was there along the way and bringing in a lot of those main players.
And, uh, inspiring this new generation of people. Today would not exist in the space industry without what O’Neill set up. And we wanted to tell that chronology, but also make a movie that was going to be interesting to young people and not just inform them in a historical sense, but inspire them to go out and continue this legacy.
So basically you think that, you know, his struggles back then were necessary to inspire today’s commercial space companies in their current efforts. Oh, without a doubt. In fact, I don’t think we would have the, the space industry that we have today and specifically. I don’t think we would have these private space entrepreneurs.
Today without O’Neill. Um, and that’s why this was just so important and why Dylan decided to make this film, because there were policies that SSI Gerry’s nonprofit organization fought for, that we now have in place in our government, that we’re all in the goal of building his O’Neill future. And without that, you know, he didn’t achieve what he was hoping to achieve.
He achieved a lot of what he wanted, but not like we don’t have O’Neill cylinders in space at this moment, but if he didn’t get those policies in place, if he didn’t set the, the sort of corporate structure up for people, if he didn’t inspire the young people who now run these major companies today would not exist.
And so I think this film was one of those sort of like pieces of gold in the sand that you just, you know, you’re someone found it and we got very lucky to find it. And to be able to tell that story. Interviews in the film suggest that O’Neill at one point might’ve been considered for a Nobel prize, but then after penning his most acclaimed book, the high frontier, that was no longer a possibility.
Why is that? Yeah. You know, uh, it is really unfortunate that he didn’t get the Nobel prize. And like you mentioned, uh, you’re absolutely right. He would have won the Nobel prize full stop. That’s absolutely true for the invention of the particle accelerator. And these are widely used today. It was a major shift in high energy physics, and it changed everything we know, uh, and use today in that field.
And the reason he didn’t get that Nobel prize is one. You have to be alive. Unfortunately, if he’d lived long enough, He may have gotten a Nobel prize later. Um, and they also awarded that Nobel prize after he had passed, but also in part he had, he had started writing popular fiction and, uh, it sounds crazy to probably people like you and I that, um, you know, if you invent something, you do something that is worthy of a Nobel prize.
That something else you do is could sort of keep you from getting that, even if it’s just something as my minute, as writing a book that is relatively non-confrontational, but that’s exactly what happened. He wrote something that was, you know, to the Nobel prize committee, almost seen as like writing a comic book, they found it to be popular science.
They felt it was in line with Isaac Asimov’s writings, which, you know, are just as inspirational as anybody else. But when you’re looking to give someone a Nobel prize, it’s just something that they don’t. Uh, I, I know, uh, Lee Valentine of this Space Studies Institute called it a kiss of death. So the Nobel prize committee, and that’s exactly what happened.
And it’s unfortunate. He would have won that. He was a prolific inventor. He invented the particle accelerator. He invented the little sort of like chambers that make that work. He also invented the precursor to GPS. Um, and he predicted a lot of what we use today. You know, things to like the Kindle to self-driving cars.
And it’s just incredible. How way ahead of his time he was. Yeah, like you said, there was an audio recording in the film from 1979. I think that has him talking about this future filled with emerging technologies, computers that understand verbal commands, uh, electronic mail, a wrist device for personal communications that can be used anywhere that, like you said, tablet, computers, computer-controlled cars being that these are all realities and now commonly available.
With the advances now happening in commercial space, what do you think is a current practical path to realizing his vision of a free space habitat? You know, it’s a really good question because I think that the answer is that we just don’t stop doing what we’re doing. You know, I think we’re in a really great place right now and a really exciting place too, you know, um, and, and I, what I really hope.
Is that we don’t find ourselves in a bit of like a mid 1980s position in a couple years from now, which was that we had a couple of disasters and a couple Major governmental blockages that pretty much shut everything down. And we are lucky that there are the space agreements that spaceX and blue origin and Virgin galactic can work with in America to allow us to continue.
Um, and I just hope that the government doesn’t find some, you know, a flippant way to get in the way and stop things and that we just keep going because people are doing what they’re doing today because of O’Neill whether they know it or not. And a lot of them do know it. That’s why this film is so wonderful, but they are doing it whether they know it or not.
And I think we just need to keep going because people like O’Neill have sort of set up the goalposts for us to succeed while I have my own laundry list of, of ways. I’d love to put barriers on all the companies doing things right now. I have my own personal opinions about how certain companies in the industry are doing things right or wrong.
Um, I think what we need to do is not stop and continue to work globally. Um, I think that working with other governments and working with other nations, um, by allowing heavy lifting infrastructure to be used globally, I think is key to achieving a future that is beautiful in space and, and a future that not is, is not just about space.
It’s about earth too. You know, I think there’s a major misconception about the space industry and I’m sure you’ve heard this many times, which is that. We’re going to space because we’ve trashed earth or going to trash earth. And that is not what we wake up thinking. Every day I wake up thinking every day, God, I hope that we can succeed in space because earth needs that we need to help earth.
We have the road in front of us and we have the right tools and we have the leadership that we need right now. And, um, I can, I just hope we continue to think globally and humid and humanistically right. That’s great. And it’s, there’s that desire to go beyond. It’s not just, you know, we’ve got to find another place to live and, uh, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about, you know, risk aversion and how that’s going to go, you know, going forward just, you know, with obviously, you know, Shatner’s recent flight on blue origin.
You know, like it’s inspiring, but then there’s also all the questions of like, well, gosh, what if a celebrity dies in space, you know, or, you know, or trying to get there. So, um, that, that will be interesting to see how that plays out and hopefully it, you know, doesn’t stifle it too much.
Yeah. And you know, I think that, um, I am 100% not surprised that we had a bit of what we call the pause in space exploration in the space industry from around 1986 with the, just the challenger disaster to the early two thousands. Um, I’m not surprised at all. And quite frankly, we probably needed that, but it is unfortunate that disasters on a small scale stop, something that could be so profound for humanity and something that could be so helpful to earth.
Um, because yeah, I hope that celebrities don’t go into space and get hurt. I hope they come back just as healthy as, as they left. I want to build, uh, you know, the possibilities for people to go into space and reproduce and to have wonderful physiology and understand that. We’re going to space with the knowledge that we’re going to go and be healthy about doing it.
And that’s super, super important. And that will take some time. I’m not even sure we will see that in our lifetime, but I hope we do, but I hope we go at the pace that is accurate. I hope we don’t skip steps and I hope that every step along the way allows us to keep rolling into the next step. Right. And you can’t deny that a lot of those technologies, we devised to go into space, come back and benefit us on earth, you know, in time.
So, um, and speaking of what you had mentioned about, you know, Gerry basically kind of inventing the precursor of GPS — is that the same technology essentially that’s used today? Do you know. So, um, essentially it’s the same. Yes, because the, I, the concept and I, I hope I’m getting this accurate. Um, it was actually inspired by a plane crash.
There was a plane crash in San Diego that, um, should not have happened. And he said, you know, I’m a pilot. I need to make sure this doesn’t happen to me. I need to make something that there needs to be a warning system or, or a satellite GPS, you know, a geo positioning system, you know? Um, and so. And create a geostar, which was this concept that, you know, we would put satellites in orbit and you would be able to communicate and position trajectories and objects that needed to be positioned and allow other people to see that.
And that may not have been the full blown GPS. We have today. But yeah, it definitely set the sort of mechanics and space for us to have GPS. And I think that if he had not gotten sick and passed, when he did and geostar did take off, I think we would maybe be looking at geostar on our phones instead of GPS.
Right. And then as you mentioned, also as a physicist and he invented that particle accelerator, is that technology still in use today? And if so, how is it. Oh, yeah. In a big way. And I I’d say that, I think that is his most implemented hard science invention and that being, he invented the particle accelerator existed.
It just existed in a much more toned down version of it. Um, we, they were much, much smaller. They were, uh, you know, at max I think something like two or three feet long, um, and could only be, uh, you could only study the subatomic particles for a few like milliseconds. And that really just does nothing for physicists that does absolutely nothing for them.
So he was young, he was in his mid to early twenties and he was thinking what’s the best way for me to make a name for myself. And he was sitting in his office one day and just had, had sort of like a brain blast. And jumped up to a chalkboard, drew this loopy figure that would became the particle storage rig.
And what it does is allow the subatomic particles to be studied for much longer periods of time. And with that came the ability for us to build these larger and larger and larger. So things like SLAC at Stanford, the huge particle accelerator they have there, which is miles long, and then CERN in Switzerland, which is the biggest in the world.
Those are products of O’Neill. And so, you know, when we were actually doing the research for this film, we reached out to them and they were like, oh, you knew O’Neill we, our entire infrastructure is built on his idea. No one ever asks about that guy. And so, yeah, it was just incredible because, you know, everybody knows about particle accelerators for the most part, or you know, that they exist, but his concepts allowed them to work and allowed them to actually be an industry that just didn’t go away because.
When you look at how physics and science works, if you don’t have the money to keep it alive, it will just die. Um, and he gave all those physicists with big ideas in particle physics, with dreams of being able to study certain parts of the, uh, atomic structure for longer periods of time, the actual sort of like keys to the funding to get the funding, to do the work.
And so his, his work was instrumental in that field. Going back to a passenger space travel. Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are often lumped into the same category of passenger space travel. But from an O’Neillian perspective, bezos appears to be much more inspired by O’Neill’s vision, uh, O’Neill and his students at Princeton determined that, trying to create a habitat on another planet, such as Mars, which appears.
More Musk’s objective, was not advisable. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that part of O’Neill’s legacy is off putting to those who aspire to see Mars as the place for a human habitat? Um, I really hope it’s not because the idea of a habitat or civilization on Mars is not off-putting to me. And I’m a huge O’Neillian.
I think that it’s fundamental to space exploration, that we allow all avenues to be pursued. And that’s not just, you know, what’s called planetary chauvinism. You know, the idea that we must live on a planetary surface or the idea of. You know, O’Neill cylinders. Of living in space habitats in free orbit.
I, they are not mutually exclusive and should not be. I think that when you look at the business plans of these companies, they have to sort of pick one, you know, because it’s just such a big project and it’s so expensive, you know, spaceX was saying, yeah, we’re doing all of this. You know, we’re trying to land multiple boosters at once.
And by the way, we’re trying to build space colonies. And this was, you know, let’s say six years in the past right now. So let’s say 2015, I think we’d all say, well, that’s not going to work. And they probably would have lost some of their funding because of that. But this is specifically, we are doing this because we want to do this.
And that’s what spaceX is doing. Bezos of blue origin is saying, we want to do this because we want to do that. He wants to build heavy lift infrastructure. To build an O’Neill cylinder world. Um, and I think that in the future, I hope that both are achieved because they are both fundamental to our future in space.
Because one, there’s just easier ways of doing both. You know, there, there’s easier ways of building, uh, habitats and free space for certain reasons, but there’s also things you can’t do in free orbit, there’s certain kinds of manufacturing and, and industry that you cannot do in free orbit and that you have to do.
On the surface of a planet, and those can be things just that are reliant on land size or natural resources that you need more readily and quickly. Um, and so, you know, I think as far as getting my dream is that we are able to get the things that affect sort of like, for example, things that affect climate change, the industries that are doing the most harm, just get those up into places like the, uh, LaGrangian points, get those up there.
So that we can build energy and build resources in that manner in a much more, uh, safe way for earth, but not on earth, but we should also be achieving things on, on planetary surfaces. Like Mars. I think that I always see that people are sort of arguing about the two and I’m very happy to see that the people who are in charge of these companies and who are really the ones pushing the needle are saying it’s both.
It has to be built. So you were talking about how the particle accelerator was kind of, he hadn’t really received credit or that, you know, people were unaware. He had basically created that technology with the LaGrangian, uh, infrastructure, you know, we got in-space manufacturing coming and, you know, his target had been, I think, you know, LaGrange points like, you know, 4 and 5 in-space manufacturing, the possibility of moon mining in the works.
Um, you know, the targeting those places. When a human habitat in space does come to fruition, do you think Gerry will receive his due credit for inspiring all those things? Oh gosh, I hope he does. I hope he does. Um, you know, I, I have a hard time believing that he wouldn’t because, you know, look at where we are now.
We don’t even have the full, heavy lift infrastructure to make this happen yet. And people are already learning about him. If we do get to that point, I think it’s impossible for him not to get that recognition. And, uh, I think that there will also be people that, uh, are thanked along with that as well.
There’s, you know, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who’s like an early Russian thinker and writer who actually proposed this idea, like a hundred years prior to O’Neill. In a slightly different way. I think his were more about like hollowing out asteroids and stuff like that. I think he will absolutely get his credit when that comes.
And I hope that he does. And I hope that we get to that point that we have those habitats in space. I don’t think that you can do it without thanking him. And I think that this movie is probably a big part of getting people to realize that he was the godfather of all of this. I understand that the film’s already garnered some awards.
Yeah. Yeah. We’ve um, we’ve, uh, it looks like we have. Won awards at around 15 to 16 festivals. We just won one last night. So I’m, I’m blanking on the number, but, um, but yeah, we’ve won quite a number of awards. We’ve gotten best documentary and we’ve also gotten, um, finalists and semi-finalists for quite a lot of festivals around the world.
And it’s not just America. We’re getting things in Germany and Switzerland and France. And it’s been very wonderful to see. That happening. We were really hoping that this film would get a wide release upfront, but we’re also fully, fully, fully aware. Um, and I feel like this goes along with everything we’re talking about right now is that this film will have a long life.
I think that while the film is doing very well and the awards are absolutely giving us some verification that this film is actually a great film, um, and that people should see it. I think this film will only grow. I think we are probably at the least amount of people who will ever see this film right now.
And I think it will only grow and grow and grow every single day. And I think 10 years from now, many more people will have seen it. And even 20 years from now, more people have seen it. Good point. Can you offer any details yet? On the eight part TV series you’re currently producing in association with NASA. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
So, um, I can share a little bit I’ve I’m on a, I’m on an NDA for that, but I’m more than happy to share that we are doing a multiple part series, um, in partnership with NASA. And we’re also doing it in partnership with the space channel. And this will be largely focused on the psychological impacts of going to space and the psychological impacts of concepts.
Like the overview effect. Um, and so this will incorporate quite a lot of our partnership with Frank White, the author of the overview effect, and speaking with many, many, many astronauts and people who are now going to space and all that sort of demographic and looking at the psychological impacts of going to space and what it’s meant in the past and what it means today and what it will mean for us in the future and how we can bring that overview effect down to earth in a way.
Oh, that sounds fascinating. Yeah. In the documentary or O’Neill touts the need for creatives in space alongside the more typical engineers and pilots Will add, say, you’ve made a solid case for that here. The film is beautifully done. All the key people were included. It definitely draws the audience into O’Neill’s world and has them cheering his achievements and also makes the struggles that he experienced along the way, palpable, um, I highly recommended it to our listeners here.
So where can they see it. Yeah. So you can actually find all the information about the film, uh, as well as, oh, I’ll just give you the link. It’s at the, uh, thehighfrontiermovie.com and on there, you’ll find links for streaming. You can find links to get the Blu-ray and DVD. Um, we also have quite a lot of merch for the film.
It’s all really great. And we happen to have just a ton of it, like different kinds, which is great. And it’s been very popular, so I highly recommend people go and check that out. Um, and then, yeah, you can obviously find more information about the people in the film links to their work and so on and so on.
Excellent. Well, Will, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us today and we wish you the best of luck on the upcoming TV series. Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me. I really appreciate talking to you. Again, the film is the high frontier, the untold story of Gerard K O’Neill and to learn more about will and his work, you can also visit willhenryfilm.com.
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