1970s NASA video about colonizing space

[Video Link] More from the Ames Research Center's mid-1970s gathering of artists and academics, tasked with designing space colonies able to accomodate 10,000 people. Scientific optimism wears tinted shades indoors. [SpaceRip via Metafilter] Previously: Totally awesome space colonies


  1. Give or take a century.

    Something tells me our first Stanford torus won’t be nearly a mile in diameter, though. Even with tethers lift shuttles into Earth orbit and mass drivers on the moon, that’s a lot of mass to get out of a gravity well.

    Hope it happens in my lifetime.

    L-5 or bust!

  2. A long time ago this film would have seemed wonderful and possible. But now as the U.S. is politically sliding into the nineteenth century and our manned space program is over, it just looks silly.

    The anti-science contingent is happy about this and spends their days voting against the future. “I’ll give you my florescent light bulb when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!”

    1. To paraphrase Heinlein, there are other countries on Earth willing to go to space even if we aren’t. Besides, space colonization won’t be done by any one single nation alone. But I think, barring civilization-wrecking catastrophe, it will happen. Technology progresses despite the luddites, and there are a lot of resources in space where we can gather and use them without destabilizing our biosphere. Just because it didn’t happen quick and easy doesn’t mean it won’t happen. An undertaking as momentous as space colonization is a centuries-spanning multi-generational endeavor.

  3. @crateish: It’s the incandescent bulbs they want to hang onto, not the fluorescent ones. But we knew what you meant. :-)

  4. More from our collective “Days of Future Passed”. I saw this video in 1978, but first learnt of space colonies in 1975, courtesy Popular Science. For the budding space enthusiast that I was, this was like fuel for the fire. In early 1978, Nova presented an episode dedicated to the idea as well (there was even a lengthy critique of the space shuttle; to some space colony supporters, it was a ship without a mission, and building large platforms in space seemed like a good one). I spent the rest of the year with my nose in books such as “Colonies in Space” by T.A. Heppenhemier, “Space Settlements: A Design Study” by NASA, and the classic “High Frontier” by Gerard K. O’Neil. Late that same year, as I entered my sophomore year in high school, 60 Minutes had a segment about the subject as well, but this time included some of the discussion from the floor of the Senate; it was contentious, and pointed out to me the political frailty of the idea. A week later, during the letters portion of the same program, they read a letter from a senator who, in no uncertain terms, said he would vote down any such idea.
    Even then, to my unknowing fifteen year old eyes, political powers were busy reducing what NASA would do, making it choose between which programs to keep. Thirty three years later, and it seems bitter sweet and ever more distant.
    The space age now feels like history. It’s almost as if we’re rolling backwards. One wonders when the great days of sail will return.

  5. Even if we aged without changing and iota, well, especially if we didn’t change at all, we would still look, and be old. Thank you God for death. :)

  6. Gerard K. O’Neil, who popularized these ideas in the 1970s, created this slogan to motivate the scientific community: “Lunar mine by ’89.”
    Unfortunately, he and his ideas are now rarely mentioned. – except on Star Trek!

    1. Ah, I remember that slogan. In retrospect, I can’t help but notice he left out which century; 1989? 2089? 3089?!?

  7. Ahh the optimistic 70s, before we got mugged by realpolitik and the epistemological crisis.

    Given that this meatbag gets nausea just by flying if I don’t take scop beforehand, the idea of going into space kind of makes me queasy.

    But I do like the line (I think I heard KSR say this but it’s a pretty obvious concept) that if we can sort out the mess we’re currently in, we’ll learn a lot about what we’ll need to do to colonise other planets. But we won’t be in a position to do that until well into this century (after I’m dead, probably), let’s fix this one up first.

    I can see the same legislative attitude that’s reduced NASA to a rump of its former glory also impacting on the attempts to do something about that. Maybe because a lot of the research we’ve gained through space programs, particularly in the environmental sciences, have delivered too much bad news for the people paying the bills, and they would rather shoot the messenger than act on the message.

    I sometimes wonder if we’ve just developed too quickly to comprehend that we are in very real danger of making the lives of the next few generations very very miserable because we didn’t want to make a few changes.

  8. Anybody got anything to add to the idea that solar energy could be collected in space and transmitted via “microwave” beams to earth?

    I thought that’s where Tesla fell off…he wanted to be able to transfer energy-supply level energy wirelessly, but I thought it turned out that only information-transfer level energy could be transfered thusly.

    Cause I totally thought of this! But, after reading about Tesla, I thought the only option was something dumb like a big fat cable and a solar bank in geosynchronous orbit.

    1. It’s mostly an issue of capture/transfer efficiency, and lift cost. You couldn’t do it cheaply with a shuttle, and it would be nice to have cells generating at more then 15%.

      The advantage being that they could produce obscene amounts of power. Given our track record though, you’re probably more likely to see fusion first.

      1. And there would be the same (significant) losses through the grid as land-based generation. As cool as the tech is, we really need decentralized power systems more than anything.

    2. I think travtastic has the right idea. At present, it is much much cheaper to build solar power on the ground (as well as storage infrastructure, like flow batteries or compressed air or thermal storage) than to launch solar panels into space and beam power down.

      Increasing panel efficiency wouldn’t change much: it would make ground-based solar more attractive by just as much. If access to space becomes cheaper than energy storage (seem unlikely to me), or if we start needing to *use* power in space (moving manufacturing or mining or computing off-world, or in-orbit refueling of spacecraft) then we’ll need space-based solar power.

      I worry about beaming large amounts of power down to earth. Right now global electricity demand is only a few TW, so that would be fine of course. But it won’t be long (200 years or so) before humans are thinking about PW demand. Beaming several additional PW of power down to earth would mean global warming all over again, but from direct heating instead of GHGs. Note: this would also apply to fission and fusion.

  9. How well I remember my joy at finding O’Neill’s book The High Frontier in my Junior High School library a few years after it was published. I spent the rest of grade 8 designing my own versions of the L5 colony.

    The composition of moon rock, high in Aluminum and Oxygen, really made the whole idea tick, i.e. solar powered electric rail gun launchers on the surface of the moon,easily reaching muzzle velocities above lunar escape of about 2.5 km/sec, firing hundreds of tons a day of raw moon rock out into inter earth-moon space where solar powered smelters would extract the metals and oxygen from the rock.

    But what O’Neill could never figure out back then in the 70’s was where to get enough Hydrogen to make water without hauling it all from earth. The discovery of unlimited amounts of ice trapped in the perpetual darkness at the bottom of the craters on the Lunar poles solves this missing piece of the puzzle.

    Finally, the rise of semi-autonomous robots brings this all into easy economic reach. The cost of building the moon mines and the L5 colony drops by over 95% when done primarily by robots without need for human life support.

    Lunar Mine By 2029 !!

  10. They talk about farming on shelves, with high carbon dioxide and sunshine levels to boost growth. Then, about 3:32 they mention ‘dairy farms’.

    “Hey, you stupid bovines! Reckon you’ll make it to the Mooooon?”.

    I missed most of the rest, distracted by happy, Gary Larsen thoughts.

  11. I know this joke is kind of a reach, but…

    I hear if Rick can get you appointed to #22 Black Sector on the station, you’ll be able to afford an exit visa to the New Lisbon colony.

  12. after viewing this, i believe nasa was idiotic in passing over doug michels’ project bluestar for consideration. maybe sir richard branson will have the guts to do what is right.

  13. watched the james may’s programme on his dream to reconstruct a spitfire
    in life-size airfix style he did not know that the ‘lollypop’ plane-on-a-stick
    planes on display outside certain aerodromes have become too value-able
    to have out have been replaced by a fibreglass replica [had a metal framework
    that was as heavy as the real thing…
    in comes the designer of these replicas who’s asked to make a press ‘airfix’
    type ‘lifesize’ item was found too flimzy the answer was a strengthened embedded
    glass framework was still flimzy but it sort of worked..
    ..so when you have a large weighted object it’s a process just to move the god-dammed-thing

  14. At the time this was made, the only way we could imagine there being industry was to have people doing it. Telepresence, robotic factories, and truly autonomous robots were not even on the horizon.

    Nowadays, our imaginations haven’t yet caught up to the possibilities. The only real advantage to having a flimsy human around now, is to sidestep the radio time lag.

    What Spirit, Opportunity, and Sojourner have shown us, is that we don’t have to put a human on the scene in order to feel like humanity has touched another world. Our vision of what to *do* out there is still stuck in Manned Orbital Laboratory style thinking.

    It may well be we have to come home to this planet before we can really take the next step outward.

  15. Those were the days, weren’t they? Of course, the whole enterprise was grotesquely uneconomic and without government interference we wouldn’t have done as much in space as we have. This and the associated libertarian movement to create anarchist communities away from the clutches of earthly governments came unglued when it was realized that none of this was going to happen until nanotechnology was developed and made the economics less ridiculous. For now the libertarian strain of this idea lives on in hopes for seasteads. While I’m waiting for all that to happen I keep pawing my old non-fiction treatises (“The High Fronteir” and others as mentioned ) and Mack Reynolds trilogies.


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