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NASA Space Science

NASA's Space Colony Designs From the '70s 90

New submitter oag2 writes "Discover Magazine has a new slideshow of NASA's pie-in-the-sky (or, rather, toroid-in-the-sky) mock-ups of what space colonies would look like, complete with verdant mountains, flowing rivers, cocktail parties, and a guy on a floating bicycle. Though the designs are retro-futuristic, the artist who made them was prescient in other ways. From the accompanying article: "In the context of the 70s, when we had some sense of momentum from Apollo as far as expanding the human presence in space, it seemed like the kind of thing we could have just picked up and moved with," Davis says. "And it's still possible. It's just a matter of where we decide to spend our money." But Guidice remembers a more telling prophecy from O'Neill. "One of the most memorable things I ever heard him say was, 'If we don't do it right now,' meaning in the next 20 years, and that was 20 years ago, 'then we'll never do it, because we'll be overpopulated and the strain on the natural resources will be the number one priority. We will not have any sort of inclination to see this through."'" The O'Neill referenced above is Gerard K. O'Neill, physicist and founder of the Space Studies Institute. He wrote a book in 1976 called The High Frontier which featured these mock-up paintings, and explained in great detail how the space habitats would function. It's a fascinating book, and well worth reading if the pictures pique your curiosity.
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NASA's Space Colony Designs From the '70s

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  • by tiberus ( 258517 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @05:13PM (#43049213)

    A Dyson sphere and a Ring World?

    • L7 Now!

      This was the core content in early issues of Future Life, a Starlog magazine spinoff by Kerry O'Quinn in the 78-80 years, or so.

      This and the music of Kraftwerk and Tomita... Way before Wired.

    • by Revek ( 133289 )

      Did Dyson or Niven work for NASA?

      • by cusco ( 717999 )
        I think that Ben Bova worked for Lockheed on Apollo, Dyson worked for NASA and General Atomics, mostly on Project Orion (the real Orion nuclear spaceship, not the current abortion).
    • Why not an Alderson Disk []?

  • by Clueless Moron ( 548336 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @05:21PM (#43049271)
    "Rendezvous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke in 1972 featured this heavily. Do a google image search for more eye candy. Oh yeah, and read the book too.
  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @05:23PM (#43049303) Homepage

    Look at the TFA that is. Too depressing.

    It's just a matter of where we decide to spend our money." But Guidice remembers a more telling prophecy from O'Neill. "One of the most memorable things I ever heard him say was, 'If we don't do it right now,' meaning in the next 20 years, and that was 20 years ago, 'then we'll never do it, because we'll be overpopulated and the strain on the natural resources will be the number one priority. We will not have any sort of inclination to see this through.

    Very sad. Very true.

    • by Bodhammer ( 559311 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @06:29PM (#43049921)
      There are no resource shortages, just resource allocation imbalances caused by market and government distortions

      There are no water shortages, only water collection and distribution issues.

      There are no energy shortages, only energy collection and distribution issues.

      There is no doomsday like [] coming. People solve problems. The biggest problem humanity faces today is the increasing fascism of the 1st world governments by their theft of money through taxation and inflation. Governments create problems and they are larges mass murderers the world has ever known: []

      We will get into space when is it "optimum" and the pieces all fall into place. I'm encouraged by SpaceX, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries. Maybe we will have "The Man Who Sold the Moon" in my lifetime. I hope I live long enough to see it. []
    • Very telling. And to think, the only plausible way this gets off the ground now is the chance of the exploitation of asteroidean mineral reserves by corporations for profit. O8....that's the one area in which we truly excel. We'll be fine. Perhaps we are destined to be the Universe's observer.
    • I fear history will regard the past 200-300 years as The Big Waste.

      Up until then, humankind has lived in tune with real-time natural resources (solar power, and it's dependants: water, wind, plants and animals) as energy and food. In a relative blink of an eye of our time on this planet, we've have tapped into and almost exhausted a reserve of natural resources which represent an accumulation of solar energy spanning hundreds to billions of years (effectively non-renewable).

      Most of this has been in a greedy

      • I fear history will regard the past 200-300 years as The Big Waste.

        Up until then, humankind has lived in tune with real-time natural resources

        Don't kid yourself. Wind back the clock on Africa and check out the human influence factor.

    • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @07:03PM (#43050327) Homepage

      I had hoped to work on them while getting a PhD in the 1980s: []

      Still trying to make them on-and-off: [] [] [] []

      The human imagination is the ultimate resource (as economist Julian Simon said). What really killed the 1970s vision was Senator Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award. It's taken a long time to recover from that nastiness politically, coupled with other mistakes like the Shuttle (compared to cheap rockets with a return capsule). Plus computers have absorbed most of the creative energy that was going into the space program in the Apollo era.

      The world itself has plenty of material resources and energy. We'll even probably have both hot and cold fusion soon which will make it easy to recycle everything. The real reason to go into space is about diversity, challenge, curiosity, exploration, community, and just room for more creativity -- to use space resources in space.

      I took an undergrad course with Gerry O'Neill. He called me a "dreamer" for wanting to make self-replicating space habitats. :-) I was inspired by James P. Hogans's sci-fi novel "The Two Faces Of Tomorrow" which has a space habitats with an automated factory. []

      I I later found out J.D. Bernal proposed them in the 1920s: []

      Gerry O'Neill anticipated there would be a slow capitalistic expansion into space, and built his plans around that. Sadly, US capitalism was not kind to any of his business plans (Geostar, LAWN) which he had hoped would fund more space ventures.

      Meanwhile, the non-profit world of cooperation in cyberspace seems to be what is taking off, and what ultimately may get us space habitats (self-replicating or not). I tried a couple times over the past two decades to try to get his legacy non-profit SSI interested in supporting a free and open source effort towards developing space habitats. But I found the core there was still enamored of Gerry's old business plan of creating solar space satellites and using that to fund a slow expansion into space. That plan may have made sense in the 1970s, but it ignore today's reality that such satellites could be used as weapons, and the cost of solar power on Earth is falling exponentially, and local power storage is rapidly improving via batteries and fuel cells, etc.. Once we are in space for other reasons, maybe beamed power might make sense for either facories or to aircraft or laser launch systems.

      Anyway, I'm still trying to keep some of the dream alive. Mostly, in my spare time, for decades I've been focused (too much) on making a triple-based social semantic desktop to organize all the needed information (while the world passed me by on that too, like with RDF and URLs and so on): []

      It's been interesting, even if not too much obvious direct results to show for it.

      • While you're busy watching Star Trek reruns, some of us are trying to keep the current spaceship intact. You know, the one we need in order to launch ourselves off to other places. We don't have fusion yet, our current space tech is incredibly primitive. We need enormous resources to move that along and currently we seem have a real world shortage of same.

        Keep dreaming, it's important. However, paying attention to the short course yields long term dividends. Like survival.

        • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @09:33PM (#43051377) Homepage

          Good points, but my wife and I put more than six person-years on our own dime into making a free garden simulator so people could grow their own food on "Spaceship Earth" -- and it is also a step towards living in space because people in space need to eat too. There is an edited version of one of Rick Guidice's pictures as a backdrop in the add-on pack:

          So a lot of the ideas are complimentary. You're using the internet now to make your point and some of that technology indirectly came out of the space program which pushed technology along, including satellite communications. The picture of Earth seen from space has (arguably) done probably more than any one single thing to unite our planet (especially the image with a small Earth in a sea of darkness)

          Thinking about things on a smaller scale like for a space habitat can focus the mind wonderfully on issues like recycling, meeting essential needs vs. expansive wants, being efficient in resource use, learning to get along with neighbors, sustaining human health without lots of expensive interventions, developing economic paradigms that are sustainable both socially and physically, and so on.

          Anyway, one of the reasons for my not getting further directly on this is, beyond raising a next generation, actually investing significant my time on those topics you point to, for example education about health & nutrition and about transcending militarism & artificial scarcity:

          But as I say, making good places to live in space and on Earth is complementary from a certain perspective, so it is not like that was wasted time in that sense in progressing towards space habitats.

          Anyway, there are very few material resources in short supply on Earth. Pretty much all such shortages are politically motivated or the product of competitive economic tragedies or unaccounted for externalities. At the current rates of falling prices for solar, the world will be running off of mostly solar energy in 20 years unless something even better (like hot or cold fusion) is cheaper. As it is, probably at least 95% of the work done on Earth in the industrialized world is either useless or harmful to the common good, so there is plenty of spare capacity; see:

          As I wrote in 2008, (perhaps a bit wishfully as far as OSCOMAK itself, true):
          OSCOMAK supports playful learning communities of individuals and groups chaordically building free and open source knowledge, tools, and simulations which lay the groundwork for humanity's sustainable development on Spaceship Earth and eventual joyful, compassionate, and diverse expansion into space (including Mars, the Moon, the Asteroids, or elsewhere in the Universe).

          You can read an essay on how to to find the financing to create a "Star Trek" like society here.

          A flow into foundations of $55 trillion is expected over the next 25 years: "Is Open Source the Answer To Giving?"

          • by lemur3 ( 997863 )

            Are you a NASCAR driver ?

            that sure is a lot of plugs.

          • Much thought-provoking stuff, Paul; just reading through a handful of the links given above, and then some from the various articles has nicely taken up several hours. Too bad that, "human nature" as it is will preclude the reading of even some of the material by the very people who, one may submit, need most to read it. For me, much of what's on hand resonates with things I've thought over the past forty years or so, thus, a semi-captive audience of one.
            For those who might have t

  • The High Frontier (Score:5, Informative)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @05:29PM (#43049363) Homepage

    Ah, yes, "The High Frontier". Back when NASA thought they could build a shuttle that didn't cost $600 million per flight. The plan was to set up a big moon colony first, mine the moon, build a big catapult, and launch materials from the moon to a Kevlar "catcher" in Earth orbit. (What could possibly go wrong?)

    The 1952 Colliers/Von Braun space program [], with its plans for a big wheel-type space station from which Moon and Mars missions would be launched, was more realistic. What killed it was the Apollo "Man/Moon/Decade" goal. That was achieved, but with technologies useful for little else.

    NASA still thinks that way. Their Mars Direct [] program would have sent a manned mission to Mars as a one-shot mission.

    Space travel with chemical rockets is just too inefficient for big projects in space. Fusion still doesn't work. Fission would work but is rather messy. None of the big fancy hypersonic space plane things really work. (Remember Reagan's hypersonic space plane scheme? Ben Rich, head of Lockheed's Skunk Works and designer of the SR-71's powerplant, refused to bid on that. "We used titanium (on the SR-71). You know of something stronger?")

    • Maglaunch. []

    • Volvonium.
    • Well, maybe if we hadn't wasted all that adamantium on James Howlett...
    • by cusco ( 717999 )
      NASA could almost certainly have built "a shuttle that didn't cost $600 million per flight", if engineers had been allowed to be the project designers. Instead the lawyers and lobbyists in Brainwashington and the Pentagram decided they knew more about designing rocket ships than the rocket scientists did and we ended up with the Space Shuttle. To this day the system still runs pretty much the same, to my eternal distress and disgust.
      • Well... I think it had a lot more to do with NASA knowing that they'd never get the Nixon White House and OMB to sign off on it unless the Air Force was involved, giving the Shuttle a customer. But the Air Force wanted those stupid polar launches from VAFB to put up spy satellites on almost no notice, so that meant a big cargo bay, greater cross range, and the other various compromises that led to the crappy Shuttle we got.

        If you haven't read it, Jenkins' Space Shuttle book is the definitive resource. (Sadl

    • Unobtainium. []

    • Just to put $600 million into perspective, it's only 1/7000th of the cost of the Iraq War alone. Please don't tell me that the problem is cost. You could fund NASA for literally 200 years just from the money blown on the Iraq War. And now we have companies like SpaceX who are bringing down costs much further still. Mars One estimate they can put people on Mars for just $6 billion. That's 1/700th the cost of the Iraq War. Hell, $6 billion is much smaller than the Star Wars (movie) franchise value. It's less
      • There are other potential areas of savings too. The estimated cost of the War on Drugs is $76 billion a year. That's more than 4 times NASA's annual budget. . But no, space is "too expensive". We've spent over $60 billion on the TSA, which has caught zero terrorists. But no, space is "too expensive". Something is deeply wrong with human priorities.
    • " could build a shuttle that didn't cost $600 million per flight. "

      To be fair the shuttle program was intended to be deployed on a much larger scale (dozen(s) of them with over 60 flights per year), which would have brought down the cost per flight significantly. Also the "shuttle program" was not limited to launches & shuttle refurb like it should have been, everything was thrown in with it, grounds maintenance, R&D, security, training, etc. I've heard that the costs to actually take a flown shut

  • by madhatter256 ( 443326 ) on Friday March 01, 2013 @05:39PM (#43049449)

    ...with these images for their cover when I was in middle school.

    I went to middle school in the late 90s, the textbooks were circa 1980s. Goes to show how outdated Florida textbooks were at that time and probably still are somewhat outdated.

    I loved glazing over the cover as it made my imagination wonder how they would go about building those mega colonies.

    • by cusco ( 717999 )
      I went to school in the 1960s and '70s, and literally no one that I knew could have imagined that in the year 2013 not only would we **NOT** have space colonies, but that the Untied States couldn't even put a man in orbit without leasing space on a Russian or Chinese rocket to get there. We watched '2001, A Space Odyssey' when it was first on TV (Mom let me stay up late), and I was temporarily in love with the stewardess on the Pan Am space shuttle. That future could have been ours if it were not for the
  • I think the only way such massively huge structures could be built is by having armies of autonomous, or semi-autonomous, robotic machines that could mine asteroids for raw supplies, and be factories to turning those raw materials into finished construction supplies, and then assemble the components. That technology didn't exist in the 1970's and any attempt at stuff like this back then would have been futile. It reminds me of someone who told me about a project that started in the late 50's to create an

    • One technique I've seen in science fiction is to get an asteroid of the appropriate size and composition, use large mirrors heat it to a molten state with solar energy, blow a large air bubble in the middle of the molten blob then let it cool. That gives you a nice robust outer shell to base your habitat on.

      • i'd never head that idea before, but it actually makes a lot of sense. minimal effort creating maximal usable space, with little lost material.
      • Not quite. You core the centre, fill it will water-ice, and re-seal it. When the heat from the molten rock reaches the centre, the ice turns into steam, and that is what blows the bubble. Then you introduce air (it already has water), spin for gravity, and build your settlement/colony.

    • by aix tom ( 902140 )

      Ah, but those computers that made the automated card file system obsolete where basically created by other "create an automated system" projects that were going on in parallel. When all of them had said "Na, it's to complicated, we just wait for a better solution to come along" that better solution most likely would never have shown up.

      Most "big leaps in progress" were made when hundreds of people (or teams) try do do something, and ONE of them creates a new an ingenious solution while the other 99 basicall

      • Leading to my statement "The sum total of human knowledge is less a list of 'how to do things' but is more a much larger list of 'The many ways to do things that do not work.' "
        Don't believe me? Just try teaching someone how to do some technical task; inevitably, they will eventually ask 'why don't you just do X?' and there is usually an answer to the effect of "because it makes Y happen, and Y tends to remove your eyebrows' or some such. We know a thousand ways that are ineffective at sending a person t
    • There's no way nor reason to launch most of the building material from Earth. In a boot-strappy way, we'll be mining the moon to build orbital solar power stations. The power stations and mining efforts will need larger and better living quarters for the workers, so we'll build habitats in the Earth-Moon area. The first big habitats will be built mostly out of crud launched from the Moon. Pulverized rock will be sintered into great tubes using focused sunlight, like a gigantic 3D printer. Unlimited material

  • All evidence of human population dynamics suggests that human population on earth is about to peak and begin to decline. Not only that it does not appear that this will happen as a result of resource exhaustion, but rather as a result of some natural population dynamic. Just about every (if not every) demographic group on the planet is showing decreased levels of birth per person (actually the statistics are actually number of births per woman).
    • by Tom ( 822 )

      Just about every (if not every) demographic group on the planet is showing decreased levels of birth per person

      In which reality? []

      Every other source I've checked also agrees that the world population is still growing rapidly. Even optimistic estimates expect it to peak at 10 billion. That's almost 50% more than we have today.

      • The myopic person views their microcosm as indicative of the greater whole. They typically could not be more wrong.

        The declining birth-rates are in populations where such population controls / methods / pamphletting has been put into action. Elsewhere, far away from these influences, other populations continue to explode. The first group wishes to convince the second group to cut down on reproduction, the second group realizes that it has no reason to negotiate with a dwindling power that bet it all on what

      • Just because world population is still growing, does not mean that it is growing as fast as in the past. Even the most pessimistic estimations say that world population will stabilize (and perhaps begin to fall) somewhere between 9 and 11 billion people. There are several demographics which have shown sharp declines in birth rates over the last several years. These are demographics that up until that point had been expected to be among the last to show birth rate declines (for example, Muslims).
  • As a child I could not wait for the year 2000 to come....

    When it came I was dissapointed.

    Still am.

  • ...who looked at that illustration and instantly thought of what would happen if it got punctured by a micrometeor or similar fast moving small object.

    lack of compartmentalization and emergency airtight shelters would probably ruin that cocktail party for sure

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

      ...who looked at that illustration and instantly thought of what would happen if it got punctured by a micrometeor or similar fast moving small object.

      Uh, no. O'Neill covered that in his book.

      If I remember correctly, losing a single window panel would leave several hours to fix it before pressure dropped to dangerous levels. These things have to be built with huge amounts of shielding against radiation, so they would have little to fear from a passing small object; I think the shielding would have been around 90% of the mass of the habitat.

    • They are so big, with so much air inside, that it would take weeks for the air to all go out, leaving plenty of time for repairs (according to one of O'Neill's books IIRC).

      • Thats the thing people don't get about space stations. In a space station, the difference in pressure between the inside and the outside is 1 atmosphere. It is *NOT* like a balloon, its more like a bucket. You add air until it is full, and then you stop. Because the station is a rigid body (mostly) the air just sits inside it. The ISS leaks about a pound of air a day incidentally, and when they had a 'bad' leak they could not find, it was leaking 5 Lbs. of air a day. At that rate of air loss, it was descri
    • That's not an issue, as others have said. The real issue is the stupidity of replicating the lowest density suburban housing in purely artificial structure. It makes no sense. Open suburbs develop when you have lots of low-cost flat land. In a space settlement you have to manufacture every square metre of land, and every cubic metre of sky. A real settlement would be much more like a high-rise Tokyo apartment block than a '70s LA outer suburb.

      Even if they had the wealth to build so much volume-per-person, w

  • Can I get "things we've been capable of doing for decades but haven't" for $1000 please.

    On a serious note, we do recognize that things like "the skywheel" (e.g. halo?) will be plausible once space mining finally gets going, right?
  • Overpopulation (Score:2, Offtopic)

    by FridayBob ( 619244 )

    'If we don't do it right now, ... then we'll never do it, because we'll be overpopulated and the strain on the natural resources will be the number one priority.

    O'Neill was right. The world population recently passed 7 billion people and its growth does not seem to be slowing down. As I see it, if we don't come to grips with this and learn to regulate our own numbers, mother nature will eventually do it for us, but then through war, famine and disease, in which case space colonies will be a lot less like

  • #7 looks a lot like a Soviet Venus lander: []

  • If it is a govt publication, use "Space Settlements" (NASA SP-413). If it is a non-govt publication, OK to title "Space Colonies" (Stewart Brand). Colonies is a bad word for many third world countries, and in 1970s NASA didn't want to stir the pot on this.

    Artwork (big Mb files, great for posters) at [] (including vintage 1970s rogallo hang-glider. Oops, that C word appears)

    NASA SP-413 at []

Vitamin C deficiency is apauling.