Space colonies didn’t always meet with a glowing reception, though. The same year that People magazine profiled O’Neill, he appeared on "60 Minutes" to discuss his work, and his NASA funding.
Watching the program was Senator William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat with a seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He would soon grow famous for his Golden Fleece awards, which he gave out to government-funded projects he perceived to be wasteful, including an elaborate FAA study on the body measurements of 432 airline hostesses and studies on the effects of alcohol on rats.
The very next day, Proxmire wrote a letter to the administrator of NASA, Robert Frosch, requesting a list of all NASA expenditures towards the goal of space colonization. "I would be particularly interested in a yearly breakout of such funding coupled with a justification for each expenditure based on NASA's priorities and goals," he wrote.
Another letter, sent by Proxmire to the producers of "60 Minutes" and featured on the next episode, was more explicit about his feelings. "It's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy."
Frosch’s reply, preserved in NASA’s archives, argues for considering the space colony studies under the heading of "long-range studies":
"Such activities are intended to provide the knowledge required to assess technical feasibility of possible space projects to support the planning of science and technology research. This process of evaluating potential future options has proved to be a most effective technique for understanding alternatives, establishing priorities, and providing the basis for informed judgment on important issues."
Whatever the reason, NASA’s later grants to O’Neill, which continued till around 1980, according to Patrick McCray, a historian whose recent book includes chapters on O'Neill, tended to focus on his work on a mass propulsion system—potentially suitable for getting things up into orbit, but not explicitly space-colony-related. O’Neill continued to advocate for the colony idea. Even today, twenty years after his death from leukemia, there are parts of the Internet where people argue that this idea could still make a comeback, that the future of humanity lies in orbit. But what seemed just over the horizon when we’d recently put men on the Moon is harder to imagine now, in this age of decreased public funding for space flight.