Back to the Future With 1970s Space Colonies

The Photo Blog
Dec. 7 2012 9:30 AM

Back to the Future With 1970s Space Colonies

Bernal_Exterior
Bernal design, exterior View.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Back in the 1970s, NASA’s Ames Research Center conducted three space colony studies, when man was fresh off the moon landing and colonization of space seemed imminent. As part of the project, artists were asked to render the studies’ findings in dazzling color and detail. Together, these images evoke a unique sense of time and place with stunning precision, leaving the viewer with a bizarre feeling that is simultaneously retro and futuristic.

The Bernal design featured above and below was a spherical living area that could hold about 10,000 people.

Bernal_Cutaway
Bernal cutaway view.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Bernal_Agriculture
Bernal agriculture.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Bernal_Interior
Bernal interior view.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Perhaps the most famous of these circular rotating stations were those of Space Station V, depicted in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey—which now seem brilliant: The centrifugal force created by the rotation would have an effect indistinguishable from gravity, as we can see in the scenes in which Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) is merrily jogging around the revolving wheel of a station.

Advertisement

According to Phil Plait, Slate’s in-house (bad) astronomer, these space stations, or O'Neill colonies, “were a big deal” back in the late '60s and early '70s. But our very own and very real International Space Station doesn't look like that, with its straight angles and rectilinear solar panels. Were these designs too whimsical and far-fetched?

Turns out it was because we haven’t actually tried to make space colonies like this. One of the reasons the ISS looks so different from these funky illustrations is that they have different purposes, says Plait. The ISS was purposefully designed minus-gravity to study the effects of weightlessness itself, not to provide a space home for future generations.

That is not the only reason, though. The engineering required to spin something in space is “difficult and takes a lot of know-how,” and no matter how small, any spinning station would be very expensive. And they actually have to be big “or else the Coriolis force —the same thing that makes hurricanes spin on our rotating planet— would make life hard,” Plait says. “Liquid pouring from a container would flow a bit to the side, and just standing up could make you dizzy.” 

If we’re talking about long-term living in space, complete with sustainable food crops, small forests, and modest bodies of water, then these designs might still be oddly on point and beyond their time.

Torus_Model
Torus model.

NASA Ames Research Center.

Toroidal colonies like the one above and the ones below could also house about 10,000 people.

Torus_Cutaway
Torus cutaway view.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Torus_Interior
Torus interiror view.

Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center.

Cylinder colonies were the metropolis of the bunch, capable of housing more than a million people at a time.

Cylinder_Exterior
Cylinder exterior view.

Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center.

Cylinder_Endcap
Cylinder endcap view with suspension bridge.

Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center.

Cylinder_Eclipse
Cylinder design, during an eclipse of the sun, with view of clouds and vegetation.

Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center.

 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 22 2014 11:10 AM Protesters and Counterprotesters at Moscow’s Big Anti-War March
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Science
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.