Fred Scharmen teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University in Baltimore and is the author of Space Settlements (Columbia University Press, July 2019).
One afternoon in Washington, D.C., a man delivered a high-stakes presentation about the future of humans in outer space. We would need to go and live there, he told his audience, because the expansion of human life beyond Earth was the only alternative to stagnation and stasis.
It was a turbulent time: Cultural change had seemed to slow down, and people were newly aware that resources on Earth were shrinking, while pollution and environmental destruction were growing. If our horizons didn’t expand, the man warned, they might end up limited forever.
His plan to change these trends started with an outpost on the Moon. There, a small number of people could begin a mining operation that would support the next phase—the construction of large-scale, rotating habitats in orbit that would contain reconstructions of Earth’s cities and landscapes, becoming home to millions.
This presentation took place in the summer of 1975, when Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill (1927-1992) briefed Congress about a plan he was working on with NASA. The description of O’Neill’s presentation, though, could apply note for note to a talk that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave on May 9 in D.C., unveiling his spaceflight company Blue Origin’s design for a lunar lander and a longer-term vision of space habitats. Some of the technology and the people have changed (Bezos’s talk was live-tweeted), but the overall goals, methods, and rationale for moving to space have remained the same.
With so many similarities evident between these two visions, it’s worth asking: Have we really learned anything in the past 50 years about how to plan for a better human future?
O’Neill’s project began in 1969. Despite the success of the Apollo moon landing, his physics students at Princeton were becoming disillusioned about the prospects of engineering to change the world for the better. The Vietnam War was dragging on, and persistent social and racial inequality made technology seem inadequate to address political change. O’Neill asked an advanced group of students to study a direct question: “Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?”
The “O’Neill colonies” that he designed in response to this question, first with his students, and later with teams of architects, planners, engineers, and artists, were huge cylinders, spheres, and toruses with new surfaces for new kinds of civilizations inside. O’Neill’s book about this work, The High Frontier, was read by millions and has remained in print almost continuously.
Jeff Bezos was one of Gerard O’Neill’s students at Princeton in the mid-1980s. By then, cultural interest, and NASA funding, for O’Neill’s ideas had peaked. Gerard O’Neill had pitched his huge habitats as the solution for overpopulation, industrial pollution, ecosystem extinction, the energy crisis, and the culture wars. But in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, economic expansion on Earth’s surface—without any thought for consequences—seemed to be back on the menu. Meanwhile, the appetite for large-scale public expenditures had soured.
Now, in 2019, Jeff Bezos wants his private space company to take over the public imagination about life in space. Bezos is the head of a retail empire, and he knows how to sell an image, but what he’s offering today is a watered-down version of nostalgia for yesterday’s future. Bezos’s proposal is a version of O’Neill’s project that somehow manages to look and feel less futuristic than its predecessor.
The renderings produced for O’Neill’s 1970s project were painted by Rick Guidice, who trained as an architect and graphic artist, and Don Davis, who had a background illustrating planetary science. Both men had roots in the counterculture, and they filled their space-habitat interiors with Buckminster Fuller’s domes and Reyner Banham’s architectural megastructures. In 1975, this was still what the future looked like.
But Bezos’ renderings, like his bigger ideas, don’t contain anything new. One is a pastiche of the skyline of Singapore. Another shows what looks like Amazon’s home city of Seattle. (Maybe after his search for HQ2 is over, he’ll build Amazon HQ3 in orbit, to spec.) There’s a train (with two tracks, so don’t call it a monorail) running past a university campus, and a deadpan portrayal of an American family farm, complete with grain silos and red clapboard barns.
A third rendering reproduces medieval Florence, and in the distance we see a copy of Beijing’s Forbidden City—perhaps a nod to Amazon’s Chinese competitor, Alibaba.
Blue Origin’s inclusion in renderings of architect Moshe Safdie’s Singapore hotel Marina Bay Sands (2010) and the Brutalist Geisel Library (1970) at the University of California, San Diego, are tough reminders of how far we’ve fallen since the heyday of the architectural megastructure. Before he was designing luxury hotels, Safdie had demonstrated, in his Habitat 67 project in Montreal, that megastructures could produce a human-scaled environment that ordinary people would flock to, and the Geisel is a monument to the memorability of public architecture and public institutions. In Bezos’s imagination, older, more future-forward buildings become parodied, privatized, and zombified. The spaces are drenched in thick rays of light, as if to preserve all of this architecture in a giant jar of treacly honey.
It’s not just the imagery that’s stale. The framing and assumptions behind the whole enterprise are outdated, too. From the viewpoint of 2019, the simple optimism of 1975 seems quaint. O’Neill overlooked the complex tangles of unintended consequences that make ecosystem design far more intractable as a field than it seemed at first—problems pointed out a decade before him by the biologist, science writer, and cultural critic Rachel Carson. Bezos doesn’t grapple with those complexities and unknowns either. Even though political divisions are wider than they’ve been since the 1960s, and a climate crisis is upon us, we have so far not met these challenges with any meaningful concerted action.
At his talk last week, to illustrate O’Neill’s concepts, Bezos played a video clip of a 1975 television interview with the physicist, alongside the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Tellingly, he left out a moment late in the interview, when an ironic Asimov speculates about ending conflict on Earth by building “an Israel in space, a Palestine in space, a Northern Ireland in space … .” Later in the same interview, O’Neill joked that the real question was whether his wife would go to space with him. He said she would, because she loved to cook and would want to run the restaurants there. Bezos didn’t show that part, either.
These moments highlight the lingering uncertainties in the larger project. Is it even possible to build new worlds from scratch, and if so, who would they be built for? Bezos is as much a real-estate developer as he is a tech leader. He mentions that Earth, in his scenario, would be “zoned light industrial and commercial,” but what, specifically, would happen to the old world?
At his presentation, Bezos showed a slide with a simple binary: “Our Choice: Stasis & Rationing or Dynamism & Growth.” The motives behind this false choice seem suspicious when presented by the head of a company notorious for its ravenous pursuit of expansion at any cost. But there’s another contradiction here: Bezos sees himself coming down squarely on the side of dynamism and change, when really, he’s the standard bearer for an old status quo.