Awesome Space Colonies

In the 1970s, NASA's Ames Research Center gathered artists and tasked them with designing space colonies able to accommodate 10,000 people. Some forty years later, the dream of suburbs in space remains just that—but their influence on science fiction and the public imagination only grows.

By Rob Beschizza at 1:00 am Fri, Aug 20, 2010

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About the Author

Rob Beschizza is the Managing Editor of Boing Boing. He's @beschizza on Twitter and can be found on Facebook too. Try your luck at besc...@gmail.com

 

100 Responses to “Awesome Space Colonies”

  1. cmpalmer says:

    Babylon 5 did a decent job of portraying a cylindrical rotating space station with a landscaped interior.

    Strange that as common as this design is in SF art and novels, it hasn’t been used very often in SF movies. 2001’s station was more Von Braun’ish and sterile.

    The large majority of movies and TV all seem to use “artificial gravity” as a lazy way of avoiding science and special effects (or just assume the audience is too stupid to notice or understand). Impractical as they may be to build, they are more feasible (in theory) than FTL or artificial gravity or inertial dampening fields.

  2. Stefan Jones says:

    All of these are darn familiar. They were used to illustrate any number of articles back in the day.

    I was a teen in the late 70s and way into L-5 colonies. There was a whole raft of SF novels set on cylinder colonies, and a quarterly book-magazine full of pro-space-colonization stories and articles (“Destinies,” by Baen Books or a predecessor).

    I was way over it by the time I went to college. It seemed increasingly obvious that the “this is for the good of humanity!” rhetoric didn’t mesh well with the “fuck you actual living examples of humanity, I’m leaving all this behind to live in a space colony!” subtext.

    And then there was Bruce Sterling’s jaw-dropping rant about what space colonies would probably actually be like.

  3. Anonymous says:

    truly amazing but… you need at least some info of the pictures

  4. Frank W says:

    The future is not what it used to be.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I own the copyrights for a space colony asteroid class ship that is hundreds of times larger than any of the designs shown here-the original asteroid colony ship design is about 220 miles long-about 50 miles wide-and about 25 miles deep from top deck to bottom deck-I also own the copyright for the starship andromeda and other space craft designs shown in the star trek the movie series and deep space nine-
    I wholeheartedly support projects such as are shown here but would like to know how much attention is paid to obtaining the resources needed to build craft of this size and scale??

  6. lava says:

    Peter Hamilton’s Reality Disfunction trilogy has a great account of orbital habitats such as these. But instead of dedicating 1/3 of the surface area to glazing to reflect sunlight, they use a central shaft of plasma to emit daylight equivalent within the habitat. It leaves more internal surface for the environment, and people live in vast skyscrapers that project down into space outside the central habitat, rather than building low-rise communities within the habitat space. Its an interesting development on these early concepts.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I love the emphasis on agriculture. These days the realities of food in (most) scifi are ignored the same way gravity is.

  8. kapusta says:

    What we have here on the Earth is an expanding technological civilization, expanding, I might add, at the expense of the environment.
    And when the environmental bank account is used up…collapse.
    These orbiting habitats simply go with the flow and expand our civilization into orbit…giving humans a future.
    I love these things.
    They may be totally nuts, cockamamie erections, but so what?
    This is what we do best…expand our technological civilization.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Oh, isn’t this what Halo is supposed to be like? In the beginning of the first game. A halo shaped world.

  10. Anonymous says:

    AC75-1883 is clearly inspired by San Francisco Bay. Connecticut, my ass. Those are redwoods.

  11. incant says:

    The k/j hotkeys don’t seem to be working in Chrome. Could this be fixed please? When I use the hotkeys it changes the anchor at the end of the URL (ex: #p7) but doesn’t scroll the page to the next image.

  12. obeyken says:

    While it’s disappointing that we’ve yet to master interplanetary travel and the construction of giant space colonies, we can take comfort in the fact that we’ve instead focused our resources on making our own planet a healthy, sustainable…. aw shit.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think it would be fairer to say, that anything in Mass Effect looks like this. As this is about 40 yrs. old.

  14. Anonymous says:

    These are some beautiful images, especisly the O’Neill type habitats. With the future of manned space programs in question, it maybe a long time (if ever) that anything of that scale will be built. Hopefully big buisness conglomerates will someday be able to make money in space industry (mining, zero gravity manufacturing, ect) Thats the only way I can forsee space colonization ever happening. We can always hope.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Holy crap, Halo was invented in the 70’s?!?

  16. Eric Hunting says:

    Interestingly, in 96 a NASA researcher by the name of Tan McKendris (if I recall that name correctly) explored the possibilities of these same types of habitats from the legendary 77 Summer Study based on anticipated future materials. This photoset shows the three most famous proposed design; the Bernal Sphere, the Stanford Torus and the O’Neill Island Three cylinder. The Island Three was the largest of them with a projected size of 6.5x32km -and necessitating their use in tethered counter-rotating pairs to counter tumbling. (rotating cylinders aren’y the most stable of habitat shapes) O’Neill suggested that a structure four times as large could be built by employing reduced pressure as found at a terrestrial 5000ft altitude. Based on the use of titanium instead of aluminum it could double that size again. An by accepting a 1/2 pressure situation at the core it could be larger still, with a structure potentially 150km long.

    But things really get interesting when you start looking at anticipated nanomaterials. Based on diamondoids, this researcher suggested an O’Neill cylinder could, proportionally, be a whopping 922km in diameter and 4610km long -about 5000km adding in the spherical end-caps. It was suggested this could house as large a population as 40 billion people in urban density.

    And it get’s better. With Buckytube structured nanomaterials this could be as large as 2240km in diameter, 11,200km long, and potentially house 250 billion people. Of course, at that scale you start to wonder if there’s enough available carbon in the solar system, but the shell would only actually need to be 2 meters thick with a mass of 5000kg/m square.

    Most interest in these giant colony concepts fizzled-out by the end of the 80s with the waning in cultural relevance of the space programs in general. The utter scale and set-piece nature of these structures makes them rather implausible. They would take many decades to build before even being partly inhabitable, their structure designs lacking in any sort of incremental or evolutionary aspect. In the real word, communities and settlements are organic entities that need a similarly organic/evolutionary built habitat to support their incremental development. Such giant set-piece artifacts were incapable of this and that seems to be something we instinctually recognize.

    Still, the dream of space habitats persists. The most current analog to the Summer Study concept is Kevin Scott Polk’s Gaiome concept (http://gaiome.com/) which takes a somewhat updated approach to the design of the orbital colony based on the simpler and more stable spherical design form and the use of heliostat lighting based on more contemporary photonics technology. It’s also a more modest 2km in diameter. The Gaiome also treats its hull as a more active structure integrated to the biome of its interior landscapes. But it’s still a set-piece structure, unable to grow incrementally.

    In my own writing on the topic I’ve suggested the possibility of future self-assembling nanomaterials -foam-like complexes that host their own colonies of assemblers and computing resources in synthetic organelles that I call NanoFoam. Such materials would allow such structures to self-evolve, thus allowing them to start as small simple microgravity habitats and grow to support larger communities and eventual transition to rotational artificial gravity -assuming no clinical solution to ‘space wasting’ arrives sooner to preclude the need for gravity.

  17. Anonymous says:

    hey has anyone else here played mass effect 1+2??
    they have a colony you can actually roam around in that directly mirrors this!! its effectively where the bulk of the campaign takes place in the first one! check it out!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Toroidally awesome!

  19. IamInnocent says:

    Psychedelic much?

  20. cordwainer_s says:

    For those interested in the O’Neill cylinders there is a hard science fiction project getting started in which they figure prominently.

    http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hemogoblin/l5-a-hard-science-fiction-miniseries

    Sounds like a worthwhile project. I kicked in a few bucks.

    O’Neill’s vision of how we could live in such habitats with the gravity and climate of our choice is a much more humanity-friendly future. Much better than we could ever expect living on a terraformed Mars.

  21. sardonicus says:

    There was this book in the school library when I was a small one, I can’t remember the name of it but it had drawings of ‘future’ spacecraft. One for controlling and mining asteriods, etc. And a space colony like one of these where they were showing like a leisure deck or something. Because of the microgravity, the diving boards were as talk as buildings and children threw ‘bubbles’ of water at each other in a water fight. I wanted to live there…

  22. Dr Dalton says:

    To all the ‘why don’t we fix our own problems down here’ people.just to set the record straight.

    I thought part of the reasoning behind the habitats is trying to fix all our problems here on earth. I think O’Neill’s argument was that the jobs of people living on space colonies was to build giant solar farms which would generate electricity from sunlight and transmit it down to the earth. I suspect the idea was to remove the burden of industrial production from the earth. Hence it could be a big contributor to solving global warming.

    I think that the basic cost was relatively quite low ( your using materials from the moon for most things). The problems were
    a) having a cheap way to launch people into space. (Virgin Galactic any one )
    b) We don’t know how to create a self sustaining ecology. ( Bring back BIOS-3)
    c) Radiation shielding is heavy and tricky.

    I liked them because I like the notion that everyone on earth could look forward to a future were their descendants had decent standard of living not just perpetuate a world full of haves and have nots for eternity. I agree with those think that once we live even partly off planet, humanity and biology will be effectively indestructible. From that point of view we live in the most critical and exciting period humanities history and arguably for all life in general.

  23. Nelson.C says:

    I remember nearly all of these, they were all over the place back in the day. The L5 buzz all went kind of quiet after O”Neill died. It makes me feel old to realize that there are adults who this is all new to.

    • Nadreck says:

      Do tell. I think a lot of these pictures were on the cover of the L5 Magazine cover. I used to have all of the issues but ended up donating them to a local (Canadian Astronaut themed) high school library.

      The whole idea died out in the 90s due to decisions to pour the money in to other things: the War On Some People Who Use Some Drugs; agricultural subsidies; the farce of Nuclear Fusion research (which has yet to generate an erg of power); and, more recently, covering the losses of the Very Important Gamblers on Wall Street.

  24. birdman007 says:

    the hopi of the southwest talked of the new beginning when man would talk to other men with a rock they pull from their pouches and are conected across the world through a great spider WEB. its not too late to believe we cannot escape this planet/world we inhabit. perhaps it is a test of the rest of the universe whether or not we can do it without blowing it to bits first, one world, one race, one objective: SURVIVE.

  25. Anonymous says:

    formidable

  26. Anonymous says:

    So how come they all look like Connecticut? Is there some strange obsession that says that the real good world is in New England. Or are they all in truth some mildly circular version of the American Dream. How dull.

  27. M says:

    Beautiful! Specially the Don Davis ones.

  28. Anonymous says:

    The accuracy of the future is an interesting study. We got the 150 mph cars by 2000 prediction at the 1964 World’s Fair wrong, and of course the accompanying illustrations show that we totally bobbled the space thing. Space Odyssey 2001 seemed and probably could have been done, but we just decided to lose our vision.

    And we missed the computer running our lives or semiconductors so small and powerful our telephones are portable and have great color screens that connect with everyone else on the planet.

  29. jjsaul says:

    That reminds me of a question I had for an old abandoned screenplay that included some military action on an O’Neil cylinder. What would be the compensation formula for snipers firing across the cylinder, including from different “heights” and some distance farther down the spin axis?

    Please show your work for full credit. ;)

  30. Astragali says:

    I think the ones where you can see buildings above your head are nothing short of terrifying… The rational part of my brain is saying, “They’re fine: they’re held in place”, but the less rational part is screaming, “That’s all going to fall on me!

    My own preference is for the tubular-type stations.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Sentosa in space.

  32. OhMeadhbh says:

    this takes me back a few decades. when i was a kid i somehow got a copy of “NASA SP-413 : Space Settlements, A Design Study” (i still have it, btw.) it had a number of these remarkable paintings in it. NASA now has an online version of it. it’s worth a read; it goes into details of how you would construct and operate space settlements like this.

    http://www.nas.nasa.gov/Services/Education/SpaceSettlement/75SummerStudy/Table_of_Contents1.html

  33. Drew from Zhrodague says:

    I believe I had the Kid’s Whole Future Catalog, which had many if not all of these images contained within it. That was a very inspirational book for me, and I still remember what it said about building a living house out of live trees and such.

  34. VagabondAstronomer says:

    A good many of the comments here have moved from the “oh wow” factor of youth to the harsh reality of the situation. I weighed in earlier about how I felt as a kid; that would of course change.
    I was active in space activism for a good chunk of the 1990’s, even belonging to the National Space Society as well as being a member of the International Association of Astronomical Artists. The argument has been made plenty of times that if humanity is to survive then we must learn to conquer the high frontier. Certainly sounds bold, a bit romantic. I could even go on to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke and state that “if humanity lives as long as the least lived dinosaur… then the word “ship” will surely mean “spaceship.””
    Do I think it will happen? Yes. But we will all be dust by that time. Space exploration really is new to humanity, let’s be honest. The engineering to accomplish feats of this nature are a long time off, and has been oft stated here, there are plenty of problems afoot on Earth.
    However, there will always be problems on Earth. Waiting for things to be “perfect” is simply out of the question, as they will never be. We’re splitting hairs looking for justification either way.
    If humanity is destined for the stars, then it will be and perhaps this isn’t the time. For all we know, the true inheritors of our Solar System may be a species other than humanity at some yet undisclosed point many millenia distant.

  35. Pipenta says:

    Looking at these illustrations and all their gleaming promise brings to mind the lessons of Biosphere II, namely that ecosystems are difficult to maintain. The glittery hardware is the easy part.

  36. jjsaul says:

    Arguing against space development is as logical as arguing that a chicken’s best strategy is to stay in the egg. It’s a big universe out there.

  37. Pipenta says:

    I’m not quite of the “fix all problems here first”, but there is certainly an element of, “Oh, we’ve totally shit on our planet, so we have to move into space to get a clean start.”

    Only, however trashed the planet is, it is still a better place to live than in space.

    I wish we’d’ve spent the money we put into the space program into exploring the deep ocean. Or put in into cataloging and understanding life on Earth. If you dig species diversity, space is not where it’s at.

    A bit off topic, a friend of mine who is a pilot told me that when NASA has a launch, there falls from the sky a litter that looks like ash. Only it isn’t ash, it is dead birds. During a launch, you see, the wild life sanctuary is a dangerous place to be. But no mention is made of this. Instead, the street sweepers of Cape Canaveral come and clean up the mess. Shhhhh, don’t talk about this. It’s not good publicity.

  38. Apreche says:

    Those designs were totally used in various Gundam shows.

  39. Brainspore says:

    I propose we start by trying to build a self-sustaining orbital ant colony and see how things go from there.

  40. PaulR says:

    On the fourth image from the top, the artist should have drawn those farms with all the soil, the animals, and the gas-powered (!) car smashed up against the right walls.

    Centripetal force anyone?

    • Anonymous says:

      Perspective, anyone?

    • Chris Tucker says:

      Look again at the image. Closely.

      Particularly the curve of the structure.

      Centripetal force is doing just what it’s supposed to do.

      • Donald Petersen says:

        Yeah, like he said. The perspective has fooled you a bit. The structure isn’t shaped like an LP record, where the axis is to the left. It’s shaped like a series of bicycle innertubes stacked side-by-side (or like a cross-section of a recumbent Michelin Man), and the axis is “up.”

  41. Anonymous says:

    So that’s what Vavatch would look like…

  42. alllie says:

    What happens if the orbit degrades? Wouldn’t we get another dinosaur extinction type event? The Chicxulub impactor that killed the dinosaurs was about 10km in diameter. Most of the space habitats visualized are that big. Do we trust our enemies, or even ourselves, to never let it drop?

    Still it’s a nice Utopian fantasy. I recently read Mack Reynolds’s Lagrange Five about such a habitat. It produced so much energy and so many goods that the oil sheiks (and others who found their wealth endangered) tried to destroy it.

    • Anonymous says:

      This is more-or-less the plot of Gundam Wing, which as previously mentioned seems to have taken its space colony designs from these NASA paintings.

      I think it would be interesting to see some fictional media portrayals of space colonies compared to these pictures. It seems that they’ve had a really big influence.

      • ramengirl says:

        The original Mobile Suit Gundam also had Sides that looked this. And almost all the subsequent Gundam series did too. Macross 7 and Macross Frontier also had terraformed city modules that people lived in connected to the capital ships.

  43. Anonymous says:

    the seventh one from the bottom looks like the presidium ring from mass effect

  44. lvdata says:

    I love the look, and wanted to move there when I was younger, but now I can’t help to think what would happen in the event of a blow out? Not a pin hole leak, but a large panel popping out. Houses I would think would have a safe room, but not the farms and many other parts of the “open air” ecosystem. It would seem to be a safety nightmare. Looks great.

  45. Daedalus says:

    These things are impractical and ridiculous.

    That is often the case with things that are crazy frickin’ awesome.

    It was the case with the space shuttle and the ISS, too!

  46. Editz says:

    Colony destroyed by orbital space debris in 3…2…

  47. Daemon_of_Waffle says:

    This is like the Rama series by Arthur C Clarke.

  48. brianlmerritt says:

    These pictures are beautiful, but what are we doing today to make it real?

    Do we really have to fix every problem here on earth before we get around to making a significant space habitat?

  49. Anonymous says:

    And then Ronald Reagen got elected

  50. VagabondAstronomer says:

    It was early summer 1975 when I first heard the idea of space colonies. It had only been a few months before when I had seen the finalized space shuttle design via Popular Science, and now the same magazine was introducing this concept. Suffice to say, my 12 year old model rocket building, space addicted mind was blown away.
    In early 1978, NOVA aired an episode dealing with the subject again (I made an audio cassette recording of it), and I was even more sold on the idea, and its justifications. It seemed plausible.
    Around late summer of 1978, after I had personal copies of O’Neill’s “The High Frontier” and T.A. Heppenheimer’s “Colonies in Space” (and had worn out the local copy of NASA’s “Space Settlements: A Design Study”), “60 Minutes” aired a segment about the “L5 Society” and some of their antics. It ended with a congressman explaining in no uncertain terms that he would never fund such nonsense.
    Guess they won.

  51. popvoid says:

    These pictures remind me of the old L5 News–a magazine devoted to the colonization of space (the L5 Society merged in the late eighties with the National Space Institute).

  52. Anonymous says:

    The space colony art from the Cowboy Bebop anime series looks inspired by this stuff.

  53. Anonymous says:

    Why do all the houses have tiled or shingled roofs? What would be the point? A waste of mass, when a thin sheet would work as well. It’s not like there will be heavy rain or wind, unless there’s a breach, then your roof is the least of your problems…

  54. gobo says:

    Several of these were featured in “Charlie Brown’s Second Super Book of Questions & Answers”, which was my science bible as a very small child. I was convinced I’d be living in one of these toroids when I was grown-up. There’s still time, guys!!

    http://www.amazon.com/Charlie-Browns-Second-Questions-Answers/dp/0394834917/ref=pd_sim_b_1

  55. Anonymous says:

    My first job (73?) was working on a film about L5, called “Space For Man” Completed on the Scanimate (look it up), it was designed to pry some research money out of congress. I saw most of this artwork at or near that time. Even in my optimistic youth, it was clear that this whole idea was based on dozens of engineering pipe-dreams, stacked one atop the other. Lunar extraction of materials through mass spectroscopy on an industrial scale, Delivery of materials by mass driver, with no though given to the energy cost of deceleration. And don’t even mention radiation issues or the fact a single puncture could de-pressurize the whole thing.
    A pretty fantasy. I want a permanent space presence for man also, but let’s start with something that at least makes sense on paper?? Like a half-buried lunar city. Lunar-based solar power could be it’s principle export and business model. Follow the money!
    -Mike S

  56. sackdean says:

    I was just telling my intern about space cylinders a couple of weeks ago. When I was a kid in the early 80s, there was all this talk of population explosions, shrinking natural resources, looming famine. Being the concerned 13 year old I was, for our 8th grade science fair, I built a space cylinder. It was complete with handmade houses, train set trees, grass and crops. I explained centrifugal force and its use as means of artificial gravity. I got 3rd place… The kid who got first place did an experiment on the R values of three types of insulation… which I felt was better “hard” science, but boring… plus she was cuter than me… dam her! dam those visionless judges!

  57. Anonymous says:

    I also had a book when I was a kid about space colonies that had all these pictures in it. I remember thinking then that they could be a utopian paradise. Now, however, if ever built, they would be the ultimate rich person escape from a devastated planet (but still funded by the proletarians.) Ah, the idealism of youth and the cynicism of middle age.

  58. Chan Lee Meng says:

    I was immediately reminded of Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke) and Ringworld (Larry Niven).

    I wonder who inspired who? Both novels also came out around 1970.

  59. Vnend says:

    While these are nice, the NASA web page at http://settlement.arc.nasa.gov/index.html is the real meat of their archive.

    Thanks!

  60. Anonymous says:

    I think the problem the citizens of past-world had is that they lacked foresight to realize the exponential compounding effect of human laziness in relation to human advancement in technology. The more efficient our technology becomes, the less motivated we become. Its a pattern that will ultimately lead to social stagnancy. Why do more when you don’t have to? Is progress merely for the sake of progress really progress at all? Someone should write a book or something…

  61. Anonymous says:

    Funny how hard it must have been on the artists’ imagination – they never got the perspective right.

  62. Jonam says:

    I spent my teenage years in the late 70s and early 80s reading books like “The world of tomorrow” and sf such as “Colony” by Ben Bova in which concepts such as these massive space colonies were discussed. I was totally convinced that by 2000, things such as space stations, interplanetary travel and moon colonies would be close to being realised.

    However, here I am in 2010 still waiting for a half-baked space station to be completed with the shuttle programme close to shut down and inter-planetary travel reduced to sending robots on cheaper-faster-better missions.

    It seems to me that humanity in general has become more inward looking (as in Earth bound) and our politicians spend their efforts in trying to scare us about terrorists so they can spend all our taxes on controlling our lives and fighting wars in foreign lands over resources. What a waste!

  63. jdsharp says:

    I think the original poster forgot to use the search functions. I saw these pictures on boing boing about 4 or 5 years ago.

  64. Willie McBride says:

    They remind me of the Mare Serenitatis Circumlunar Corporate Republic.

  65. Anonymous says:

    These are from the late 50s, I recall one of them on the cover of LOOK or was it LIFE magazine in about 1957

  66. Flying_Monkey says:

    Beautiful and in many ways inspiring especially in an age where humanity seems to have lost all its verve and ambition with regards to space travel.

    However, at the same time, what it also striking about these is just how very conventional and unimaginative the pictures are. Basically bucolic US / European landscapes with nuclear family homes like some kind of heavenly American suburbia or garden cities in space.

    An intriguing combination.

  67. Anonymous says:

    I had a kid’s book about space with these images in them; it seriously got me wanting to become an astronaut just for the chance to live on one of these things! Too bad real life, economics and politics made building these an impossibility.

  68. Anonymous says:

    Larry Niven

    So Larry Niven.

  69. Anonymous says:

    so this is where halo came from

  70. ethancoop says:

    I’m not sure it’s a case of losing our verve & ambition for space travel, but more of a reality check. How many shuttle missions/rocket launches would it take to get 1/100th of that material into orbit? How much does each launch cost? How many millions of dollars are you willing to spend to launch a single truck load of dirt up there knowing you’ll need 1000’s of such launches just to have enough soil to grow some food on that scale. Want water too? Oh, well there’s another few 1000 launches unless we’ve figured out a way to synthesize water in space.

    I loved these types of illustrations as a kid but reality dictates that at this point in time they’re completely out of our reach.

    • Prufrock451 says:

      Oh, all of these habitats are Phase Two. Phase One is launching Von Neumann miners to the asteroid belt.

    • uildaan says:

      thats where a moon colony would help. If we can set that up we have access to a bunch of building materials without having to deal with earths pesky mass.

  71. EricT says:

    “The Ring World is Unstable!”

  72. mr.overkill says:

    Nice concept, but i think you would need another planets worth of raw materials to build such a gargantuan structure. Even if it’s actually built, it would probably be equipped with every single piece of state of the art weaponry to combat “space terrorists”. Then we’ll have our selves a beautiful shiny circle of doom thats ready to wipe us all out…..death star anyone?

  73. bassplayinben says:

    Space elevator. When we build a space elevator, we’ll be able to build orbital colonies like these.

    Good thing we’ve dumped billions and billions into the War On Drugs!

    • bob d says:

      Considering something like this would cost trillions and trillions, the drug war savings wouldn’t go very far towards paying for it. (Just getting something the same mass as the world trade center towers into space would alone cost over $10 trillion. Let’s not talk about cheap Moon manufacturing, either: we’d have to transport equipment to the Moon, as well as any food/water/air needed to keep human workers alive, and you still have to get the dirt and water, at the very least, from Earth. It’s not going to be any cheaper.)

      Seriously though, why are people bemoaning the fact that this hasn’t happened? What’s the benefit to us? There isn’t even the lure of doing research/manufacturing in micro-gravity to justify the mind-boggling cost. It’s just moving an Earth-like environment just outside Earth’s environment. Setting up an artificial environment in Antarctica or on the bottom of the Mariana trench would have the same benefits but be cheaper (and safer). I mean, sure, a space colony would be “cool” but so would a giant statue of, say, a lion made of gold… in orbit. It’d be cheaper, too, and about as useful. Is it because space habitats fulfill science-fiction narratives about the future? Are the writings of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven like some sort of Biblical prophecy for sci-fi nerds? Hallelujah, I have seen the coming of the Ring World?

      • bassplayinben says:

        Money spent on The War On Drugs could fund a space elevator within 10 years.

        As for why…why not? Here’s a whole page of why, including my favorite.

        http://spacequotes.com/

        “There are three reasons why, quite apart from scientific considerations, mankind needs to travel in space. The first reason is garbage disposal; we need to transfer industrial processes into space so that the earth may remain a green and pleasant place for our grandchildren to live in. The second reason is to escape material impoverishment: the resources of this planet are finite, and we shall not forego forever the abundance of solar energy and minerals and living space that are spread out all around us. The third reason is our spiritual need for an open frontier.”
        Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979

        • bob d says:

          Yeah, but none of the reasons given there are remotely fulfilled by an orbital colony. The orbital colony isn’t even a first step in exploring the “open frontier;” it’s a teenager saying he’s leaving home and then building a house in his parent’s back yard (i.e. he’s spent a lot of resources *not* going anywhere). Space as the “last frontier” is fraught with so much mythology I’d rather not even go there, anyways; it’s a religious discussion.

          Space exploration is one issue; human colonization, or even travel, another. Humans evolved on Earth, to live anywhere other than Earth is to live in an ersatz ecosystem at best, a sub-optimal environment. We could spend resources trying to develop a sustainable lifestyle and technologies here on Earth (that may involve space exploration), or we could crap all over everything and move somewhere else, which is the implicit narrative of many space evangelists.

          • bassplayinben says:

            You’re against it, just say it. That’s fine.

            Industrial processes could not be transferred to an orbital colony?

            Religious discussion? Survival and evolution is religion?

            You’re in the “fix all problems here first” camp, that’s fine. Just say it. Fix all of your problems at home before you go on your next outing to get to the office.

          • bob d says:

            “You’re against it, just say it. That’s fine.”
            I just have yet to see any compelling reason to spend that much money on such a project. The justifications given are either completely unrelated or are things that can be done much more easily/cheaply/usefully through other means.

            “Industrial processes could not be transferred to an orbital colony?”
            Of course they could – but what would be the benefit? It’d make everything many, many times more expensive. And if you were doing industry in space, you build a factory, not a giant simulation of the Earth’s surface. If we examine the (unrelated) issue of mining for materials in space – it sounds appealing, but in reality, the costs would be so astronomical (no pun intended) that even the most ridiculous recycling programs here on Earth would be cheaper.

            “Survival and evolution is religion?”
            I have no idea how evolution fits in here, but the “survival” argument is a bit of a red herring when talking about orbital habitats. They’d be far more vulnerable than life on Earth: space debris, solar radiation, etc. all would have a higher likelihood of completely wiping out orbital colonists. Asteroids big enough to cause extinctions on Earth would be seen, and could be moved, long before they hit. Gamma-rays from nearby supernovas could cause extinctions on Earth (and have been implicated in past extinctions); the only way to escape that would be to have a colony thousands of light years away from Earth. But that’s fantasy, and if we’re going to fantasize about being able to do that, we could also fantasize about shielding the Earth from such forces.
            There’s a lot of irrationality involved in manned space programs in general, often entering into the realm of religious dogma, especially in the U.S. where myths about “the frontier” are such a part of our culture.

            “You’re in the “fix all problems here first” camp, that’s fine. Just say it. Fix all of your problems at home before you go on your next outing to get to the office.”
            I can’t even see how that analogy works, but if we’re going to use broken analogies, how about this one: building an orbital habitat is like me using the majority of my income to build a jumbo-jet in my backyard, despite being unable to fly it.
            I believe in the space program – there’s important science that can be done in space, and regardless of whether or not it has immediate impacts on our quality of life on Earth, I feel it’s valuable in-and-of-itself. Historically the _manned_ space program has been about PR more than science, though. So the question is: how many tens of billions or even trillions of dollars are we willing to spend on what is essentially PR when that money could be used to make actual scientific breakthroughs or resolve serious actual problems.

      • cmpalmer says:

        While idyllic park lands and vacation homes in an orbiting O’Neill style space station aren’t particular useful or feasible, I think (and I think most SF fans think) we’re gonna have to get off this rock someday or we’ll go extinct and, when we do, it would be nice to have the knowledge and technology to create a livable environment.

        Of course, you can take the sort of post-singularity approach and say that by the time we can move off the Earth (and by the time we’ll be forced to), we’ll all just upload ourselves into quantum computer microcrystals that we’ll send out to the stars to explore while we “live” forever in whatever virtual worlds we simulate.

        That’s cool and all, but the painting would be a bit more boring and incomprehensible. These are pretty.

        • bob d says:

          Don’t get me wrong – I, too, am moved when I look at the images, I just don’t understand the need to make it real, given the costs and the vague, limited, theoretical benefits. We’re part of the biosphere, and talking about leaving it to live somewhere artificial makes about as much sense as the fantasy of removing healthy limbs to replace them with plastic prosthetics. (As for avoiding extinction, we’d have to leave the solar system to avoid several likely extinction scenarios, and right now that’s more fantasy than sci-fi.)
          I think you’ve confirmed my feeling that this is religious art for secular sci-fi nerds (such as myself).

          • Unanimous Cowherd says:

            How’s this for a reason? Asteroids collide with the earth.

            True, we have not seen a 1-2 Km wide asteroid impact on earth within the time span of human history.

            But we have seen multiple impacts on other planets, like Jupiter and Neptune. Granted, those are bigger planets, and bigger targets, so maybe earth is less likely to be hit. But a humanity-ending asteroid impact is not an “if” proposition; it is a “when”.

            I for one would like to see humans not keep all of our eggs in one basket. So to speak.

    • invictus says:

      See this on an extensive discussion of the impracticalities of space elevators.

      • bassplayinben says:

        A lot of talk about “unobtainium”.

        Kelly Johnson eventually obtained what he needed.

        There was a time when steel was a material of mythical properties.

        There were so many who said that the idea of a man flying through the air was complete and utter bullsh*t.

        Someone always finds a way to do the impossible, and then the detractors say “I knew it would work all along!”

        • invictus says:

          Yeah yeah, and 500 years ago, everyone thought the earth was flat (except they didn’t).

          Congratulations, you’ve replaced unobtainium with the much more accessible handwaivium.

          The point is, you have yet to produce anything concrete to support your incredible claim of “a space elevator within 10 years.”

          I’m a big fan of space exploration, really. I’d love to see cheap and accessible ways to escape the gravity well. But your closing your eyes and wishing extra hard doesn’t make it reality.

          • bob d says:

            I love the idea of space elevators, but besides the technical issues that, as you so rightly point out need to be resolved to make it a reality, there’s also the social issues. It would be a target for every religious wacko on the planet (the world’s tallest target, in fact). I’ve already read Christian fundamentalists talking about how God struck down the space shuttle as it was the modern “tower of Babel.” Imagine when someone actually builds a structure that rises “into the heavens.” There are plenty of people who wouldn’t be waiting for God to do the demolition work. The security needed to keep the elevator in one piece for any length of time would be huge.

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