Sunday, January 3, 2010

past future dreaming

Considering the fact we just moved another step into the future I thought I'd take one more quick peek into the past to see what it was supposed to by by now. In the 1970's lots of people were very excited by the possibilities that had been made to seem reasonable by the moon landings. The ideas are still far from dead but for the most part they have been either forgotten (ie, by NASA which has become very much a political entity) or simply tossed into the sci-fi 'how could they have been so dumb?' trash heap. Still, it's worth noting there were some very fine minds devoted envisioning how humans could live and work in space colonies as early as 1990 (!).

One of them was Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill who developed the concept of the O'Neill Cylinder with 'Island 3' envisioned as pairs of large rotating space habitats with an Earth-like environment on the inner surfaces with artificial gravity produced by the rotation. O'Neill was one of the first people to ask the question: given current technology (in 1969), how large could such a structure be built in zero gravity? When the calculations came back with an answer in the tens of miles, O'Neill knew he'd found something significant. A key idea in his thinking was that such large structures could be built out of material mined from the Moon or asteroids to avoid the high cost of launching out of Earth's much larger gravity well. The configuration consists of a pair of cylinders, each 20 miles long and 4 miles in diameter. Each cylinder has three land areas alternating with three windows, and three mirrors that open and close to form a day-night cycle inside. The total land area inside a pair of cylinders is about 500 square miles and can house several million people. The cylinders are always in pairs which rotate in opposite directions, canceling out any gyroscopic effect that would otherwise make it difficult to keep them aimed toward the sun.

In 1973, George Hazelrigg, also of Princeton, suggested to O'Neill that the L4 and L5 Lagrangian liberation points might be ideal locations for the large habitats that O'Neill envisioned. L4 and L5 are points of gravitational equilibrium located on the Moon's orbit at equal distances from both the Earth and the Moon. An object placed in orbit around L5 (or L4) would remain there indefinitely without having to expend fuel to keep it in position. Since the orbit around L5 has an average radius of about 90,000 miles there's room for a very large number of space settlements even at this one location.

Abundant solar energy and large amounts of matter from the Moon are keys to successfully establishing a community in space. Not only does the sunshine foster agriculture of unusual productivity, but also it provides energy for industries needed by the colony. Using solar energy to generate electricity and to power solar furnaces the colonists could refine aluminum, titanium and silicon from lunar ores shippped inexpensively into space. With these materials they would be able to manufacture satellite solar power stations and even more new colonies. Power stations would be placed in orbit around the Earth to which they could deliver pretty much limitless electrical energy. In the 60's neither an energy crisis or global climate change had been imagined. Now we're very close to having reached the limit of what the planet will bear from our continued use of fossil fuels so the economic value of space power stations would go far to justify the existence of the colony and the construction of more colonies.

In his 1973 science fiction novel Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke provided a vivid description of a rotating cylindrical spaceship that is about 50% larger than the classic 20-mile long O'Neill Cylinder. Artist Eric Bruneton has created this striking 3D animation of Rama.

In a caption under the famous drawing of an O'Neill cylinder it says, “Human colonies in space — not a luxury, but a necessity. Earth is overcrowded, running out of raw materials, in desperate need of a growing energy supply, and being ecologically destroyed. The problems are worse with each passing day, and there are no solutions to be found on Earth itself. Mankind's destiny — its very survival — is in space.… But a commitment is needed, a decision to go for it and the determination to see it through.”

O'Neill died from leukemia in 1992 but there are still those who continue to be energized by his dreams of a future we could make happen. Of course, it wouldn't be easy but I believe a collective vision is one we need if we're to have any future at all. We have the brains, we have the capacity - all we need is to get our collective heads on straight.


  1. since i cannot keep my own head on straight, how can i expect the collective "me" to keep theirs?

    i know, susan, you are asking me to dream, to inhabit the realm of possibility. but i feel safer on earth.
    i'd worry, being on a machine in space. i'd worry about being hit by an asteroid, or a bomb, or that i'd deflate like a balloon and implode.
    i'd suffocate myself before space gets the opportunity.
    but sure, the more adventurous can go. let them leave. let them have the ticket and go through the security checks; let them take the pills for motion sickness and let them fight for a window seat and space in the overhead compartment.
    i like california. i like the weather here. i like the ocean. i like being only 5 hours from hawaii.
    vacation on the moon? i'm not a rock collector.

    i brace my head with both hands. i pretend i am a planet, and my ears are moons. i blink and it's day; i close my eyes and it's night.

    i orbit the collective me.
    i am gravity.

  2. sera - I believe it's being able to dream of a different collective reality that really counts. Things don't have to be the way they are right now with fear and paranoia as our guiding principles. There are many ways human beings can live up to their potential even if that doesn't include living in a tin can far from the moon. At least working on something that big and meaningful would give the foolhardy something better to do than figuring out more creative ways of slaughtering one another.

    I'd be one of those preferring a ground based life myself. The best way of flying through space is most definitely between our ears and into our hearts. Besides, we just have to look at the way infrastructure crumbles here to be wary of the civic workers up there - never mind the low bid contracts :-)

    It was just a passing fancy on a winter's day.

  3. An utterly fascinating post! So many lost opportunities or at least so many unfulfilled dreams. I wonder where we would be now if we (corporately) had dared to be a bit more adventurous in space

  4. When I was a kid, I had a book called Our Universe (this was when the gas giants still only officially had around a dozen+ moons and not the 49 billion they have now) and I distinctly remember a matte painting of O'Neill's stuff. Very cool. They did some conceptual stuff of what life might be like on Venus and Mars given what we know about their atmospheric conditions.

    And c'mon, you don't think outer space electrical work wouldn't go swimmingly if we contracted out to KBR? ;-)

  5. What a very cool post!

    I'm still waiting to get one of those packs for my back that will let me fly around. Look at all the hassle I would save by not having to go through airport security! Just think...a bomber wants to set off a bomb, they can only blow themselves up!

  6. Hi Susan – A highly interesting post and, like you, I was excited over what seemed like the endless space possibilities to which you refer. Only a small part of that dream has been realized of the envisaged new golden age for space exploration and colonization.

    ‘It’s enough that we seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge,witness beauty for the sake of beauty, perhaps achieves a measure of truth while unlocking the secrets of the Universe.’ – Eric J Chaisson – Director, Wright Centre for Science Education, Tufts University.

    Best wishes

  7. Fascinating post! I, however, am still holding out hope for solutions for our Earthly problems to be developed, on accounta I kinda like it here.


  8. So lets start thinking space! Pass this along to Lynn Taggart and her Intention experiments. One of the most sad things about the last twenty years has been our lack of imagination when it comes to space.

  9. jams - There's no knowing but I'm hoping the opportunity will come round again when we're more mature. God knows what we'd do to the solar system in our current state.

    randal - One of the cooler artists I found was Rick Guidice who worked for NASA for many years. Space travel is a pretty neat concept but I'm not so ready to go now as I would have been then. Heck, potholes are bad enough.

    nunly - I can just see you as a rocket powered flying nun :-) Randal would be thrilled.

    lindsay - Yes, at the time it seemed as though we were ready for the Cosmos but perhaps it wasn't quite ready for us. Seeing those first photographs of the Earth from space and comprehending just how beautiful and fragile it is was life changing. I still believe humanity (and the planet) would be well served by us focusing on a grander plan.

    cr - Back then I was ready to get fitted an Emma Peel spacesuit but not so much now. I like it here too and there's no denying we and the world evolved together. It's home. Nevertheless, the possibilities of our race understanding its importance might be enhanced by travel :-)

    nancy - It's a worthy thought, isn't it? We shouldn't be able to conceive of such ideas if we weren't meant to explore them.

  10. i know susan.
    where are the dreams today?
    they probably offshored
    to china and india.
    i love, though, that you asked the question
    and played with it.
    without passing fancies, a winter day would just be more winter.

  11. Don't hear much about the space program lately. O'Neill was ahead of his time, no doubt.
    Funny what you remember. His cylinders were 20 miles long. In the movie that featured Robbie the Robot from the movie, Forbidden Planet, which came out in 1956, there was a scene when the travelers from earth were being shown the heart and bowels of the system that sustained life on the planet Altair IV. In the scene, the host points into the cylinder and says, "Twenty miles".
    Anyway, stuff to think about. I would not hesitate to go with the aliens if they came, as long as Barb and the Grand kids came along too.


  12. And just think--we spend our tax dollars bombing the moon instead!

    We can use solar power right here on Earth and not need anything else for power if we wanted to I believe.

  13. If there was a human colony in space would Crow like to live there?

    Happy New Year to both you and Crow!

  14. sera - Dreams may be dying but there are always soft new nights and feather beds and perhaps worthier paths for us to tread.

    spadoman - I wonder if there is a large alien audience gathered out there in some invisible dimension watching to see if we'll ever grow up and figure out what we're meant to be doing. I think you're well on your way to providing a good example.

    liberality - Even worse we spend our tax dollars bombing innocent people. I can't think of a worse pollution than that.

    belette - Well, you see there'd be low gravity and zero gravity areas near the end caps so we'd be able to fly with Crow too :-)

  15. speaking of worthy paths, it must be fun moving back across the continent.
    i saw on reuters that canada was ranked fifth in the world for happiness. costa rica was ranked first, followed by denmark, iceland and switzerland.
    i was mildly surprised the usa was ranked in the top 20 for happiness, but we were (20th).
    mexico was ranked 7th, so i wonder whom the border fence is really trying to keep in/out?

  16. space...the final frontier...its still possible, like you said, we juss have to get our heads on straight.

  17. sera - I think it will be a lot of fun moving to NS but it's still slow while we wait the sponsorship business. Halifax is a small city but has 4 universities so that always means fun. Meanwhile, we're still working as usual :-(

    I've always had suspicions myself about that fence being built to keep people in.

    l.a. - Asimov always made a lot of sense when he talked about what humanity should be doing. Thanks for visiting :-)

  18. great post, love the 'Rama', it looks idylic.....but if its just moving the same people there as we have here then the problems start all over again...

  19. claire - I'm thinking humanity is straining at the bit to more up the evolutionary ladder a few more steps. If we don't we'll tear ourselves apart.. but not the world.

  20. Larry Niven mentioned, in a recent Sci-fi novel I read, the idea of taking an asteroid, heating it all over (probably with heat from fission or fusion reactions), and then blowing the whole thing up like a giant glass blowing exercise, spinning the mass during he process (as glass blowers do) to create such a cylinder... Like Rama, it had farms and so on, inside, as well as a ring lake from which irrigation was pulled.

  21. steve - That sounds like something that could be incredibly beautiful - form and function to the nth degree, eh? The ideas about habitats other than planets for human beings have made for some very interesting sci-fi concepts in the past couple of decades. Niven's Ring Worlds have been used more than once but the concept of Dyson spheres is pretty wild too. I may have to do a post or two about some of the themes that have caught my imagination.

  22. I am trying to catch up Susan.
    I utterly enjoyed to read all the comments to your fine post, in particular Sera's ( ..."I am not a rock collector")

  23. zee - I know it's hard to keep up with posts - something I'm always behind with too.
    Yes, Sera always has thoughtful and witty things to say. She's a very cool lady.