John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Not content with putting a man on the moon in 1969, the aeronautics agency once aimed to create an entire space-based neighborhood.
Newt Gingrich has grabbed headlines for promising to build a moonbase by 2020. But wait a second – is he skipping a step here?
Sure looks like it. According to NASA's "Space Colonization Basics," a lunar outpost should be the second stage in the process of totally dominating the galaxy. The moon comes loaded with an arsenal of design problems that NASA has yet to conquer. It's -387 Fahrenheit at night and well above boiling by day, creating serious problems when it comes to walking outside to fetch the morning's Moon News from your lawn. Also, at any given time about half of the moon is always dark, severely restricting the precious solar power available to moonizens.
Gingrich should instead direct his thoughts to an easier kind of long-term space exploration: the orbiting city. These structures are able to spin to gather scads of solar electricity and are closer to the Earth should they need supplies or advanced repair. This idea has already been vetted by astroscientists, who viewed it as the first logical step in colonizing the skies.
So where did the serious consideration of space cities begin? Some might say when NASA plonked a man on the moon in 1969, although the real brainstorming began in the 1970s, when the aeronautics agency kicked off an ambitious project to launch a man's entire neighborhood up into space.
During this conceptual project, scientists at the Ames Research Center worked up groovy models of massive, orbiting cities that were shown to be theoretically feasible by Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill. Soulless worlds of steel and plastic these were not: The circling 'burgs, which were designed to sustain as many as 10,000 people, featured all the usual creature comforts of home – shopping, swimming, hang gliding and even a trip to a zoo.
To the space brains of the '70s, these titanic urban structures represented a possible escape from our “sphere of finite resources and ominous pollution.” NASA was serious about building them, predicting that at least one would be making the rounds of our planet by the beginning of the 21st century. While the International Space Station has partly fulfilled that dream, mankind is still sadly without a permanent place to whack golfballs over an astro-course.
But imagining what could have been is pretty fun. (If you have a black light at hand, now is the time to turn it on.) Below, find the mind-scrambling concept art that flowed out of a 1975 summer seminar on orbiting cities organized by the Ames center and Stanford University. These outlandish paintings, many the fine work of space artist Donald Davis, have made the rounds of the Internet before. But if you haven't seen them yet, get ready for a real treat for the eyes, and possibly something to hang in your hazy dorm room, as well.
The artwork focuses on three imaginary cities. First, let's explore the O'Neill Cylinder, dreamed up by Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill. The craft is composed of two 20-mile-long cylinders that float side by side like gargantuan test tubes. The colony rests at a comfortable place between the Earth and the moon – the wonderfully named “Lagrangian libration point” – to facilitate shipping and vacations.
Here are two views of O'Neill's baby. The ring of cup-shaped rooms around the end of each tube are meant for agriculture. Each room could have its own humidity and temperature adjusted to suit what's growing (or chomping alfalfa) inside:
With 500 square miles of land and thousands of residents, NASA decided that the settlement would need a robust urban design to prevent chaos and/or mass fatalities from developing. Onto the list of indispensable features went houses and businesses, hospitals, schools, churches, public parks with recreation opportunities, a “light service industry” for personal goods and “handicrafts,” a transportation system as well as cropland for the sustainable growing of superintelligent watermelons (just my suspicion).
Days inside an O'Neill cylinder would pass much like days on earth. To prevent colonists from bouncing around inside the orbiting utopia like lotto balls in an air mix, the structures would rotate fast enough to create “pseudogravity,” akin to what you experience when taking an abrupt corner in a car. Thus people could walk around feeling what almost seemed like gravity, but not quite. Barfbags would probably be a hot seller at the handicrafts store until people found their space legs.
Some other design imperatives: Because the city is a hermetic environment, all oxygen, water and waste materials must undergo continual recycling. The walls would be well padded with earthy material, perhaps lunar soil, to keep inhabitants from getting scorched to death by solar radiation. That protective dirt layer would create a fertile bio-carpet for grasses and trees, as seen here:
How huge is the O'Neill Cylinder? Well, there's a large suspension bridge spanning a lake in the below painting. With that thick cloud cover, the sealed city also appears to enjoy its own weather:
Vast windows along the sides of the tubes allowed epic views of the home planet and the glowing gases of the deep galaxy. These windows were not a design afterthought. Notes NASA in those settlement basics: “Space colonization is, at its core, a real estate business.” How the colony designers planned to shield tourists gawking out of these windows from the above-mentioned deadly radiation is a mystery.
Bend one of these cylinders around into a ring and you get a second type of orbiting city, the Stanford Torus. This doughnut-shaped colony was much smaller, with an inside ring diameter of one mile compared to the cylindrical colony's 4 miles, but was still expansive enough to promote the growth of a vibrant space society.
Just what kind of society it would be is an open question. NASA thought of all kinds of possible uses for orbiting cities, from penal institutions to refuges for political dissidents to friendly environments for the disabled, where paraplegics could zoom around on ADA-compliant hovercrafts. The space agency called these cities the “ultimate gated community,” explaining:
On Earth it is essential that diverse groups learn to live in close proximity. It's hard to live with five or six billion homo sapiens, and some people can't seem to do it gracefully. Space settlements offer an alternative to changing human nature or endless conflict – the ability to live in fairly homogeneous groups, as has been the norm throughout hundreds of thousands of years of human existence. Those who can't get along can be separated by millions of miles of hard vacuum, which in some cases seems necessary. All entry into a space settlement must be through an airlock, so controlling immigration should be trivial.
Score one for diversity! Anyway, here's the Stanford Torus. The lidlike item at right is a gigantic mirror that focuses life-giving sunlight onto the colonists:
These ultra-exclusive toroidal cities feature luxurious residential areas and underground outlet malls stocking the latest in nanofiber couture. How's the society financing all this good living? By capitalizing on the spoils of space, my friend. The amount of nickel and cobalt in nearby asteroids is estimated to be worth trillions. All that's needed to harvest this precious metal is a robust space-mining industry:
Couldn't get past Toroid Security to make your space homestead? Then there's a third variety of orbiting city that NASA conjured up in the summer of '75. It's called a Bernal Sphere, and nerds will recognize it as the inspiration for the vessel in Babylon 5. This city's heart is a rotating orb whose insides are painted with homes and gardens:
As with the torus, life inside the sphere is pretty sweet, at least judging by these artist renditions. Check out the guy flying in a futuristic hang glider. Also observe the vacuous grins of the colonists, who seem unaware that there is a terrifyingly huge metal valve looming above that looks primed to suck them out into space:
The Bernal Sphere's agricultural module has several layers, the upper one meant for growing crops and the lower, higher-gravity levels meant for animal husbandry:
The low-gravity conditions at the center of these orbiting colonies – the pseudogravity only kicks in around the outer edges of the spinning structures – were seen as a big selling point. Boasts NASA on the benefits of low-g recreation:
Consider circular swimming pools around and near the axis of rotation. You should be able to dive up into the water! Sports and dance at low or zero-g will be fantastic. For dancers, note that in sufficiently low gravity, always available near the axis of rotation, anyone can jump ten times higher than Baryshnikov ever dreamed.
Seriously, why hasn't anyone built these things yet? Get on it, Obama!
All images courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center