Space colonies capable of comfortably housing millions counter rotate in pairs, surrounded by cable secured mirrors and agricultural modules.
This is a reworked version, including some trimmed material, of an article initially appearing on the National Space Society 'Ad Astra' site and reprinted by space.com and many others, followed by brief comments on the topic shifted from an earlier essay.
1. The initial surge of interest
It has been three decades since the publication of the scenario for space colonization introduced by Gerard K. O'Neill. A question he asked in his Princeton physics class "Is the surface of a planet the best place for an expanding technological civilization' began the process of examination of the possibilities of space migration in a young generation of thinkers. The results of this initial classroom 'think tank' were incorporated in O'Neill's opening statements on the topic outlined in his 1975 article in 'Physics Today' vol. 27 # 92. Soon afterward his book 'The High Frontier' explored the subject in greater detail. A significant number of articles then appeared in magazines and newspapers as other authors and editors became enthusiastic over the idea.
The height of the 'Space movement' public interest in the post Apollo era was the mid 1970's, where the accomplishments of Apollo were still fresh in our minds and the next steps forward seemed paused but not yet abandoned. We still dared to have great dreams and great choices seemed to be opening up to Mankind. In retrospect the idea of space colonization was given as much exposure in print as the early concepts of human space flight as outlined in the Colliers symposium of the 1950's and the accompanying magazine articles, which were enlarged upon in classic books such as 'Across The Space Frontier', 'The Conquest Of Space', and 'The Exploration Of Mars'. 1975 marked the beginning of dedicated conferences in Princeton University and the Nasa Ames 'Summer Studies', both conducted with input from O'Neill and many other people prominent in space technology. O'Neill never wanted space colonization movement to be a 'One Man Show' and he was only too happy to see the quick proliferation of books on the subject. It is a good sign when a lone voice becomes a cacophony. A couple years later a volume of thoughts on the subject was solicited and compiled by Stuart Brand, of 'Whole Earth Catalog' fame, covering numerous aspects of the subject with ranges of opinion impossible in government and academic writing. This was an earnest effort to bring into the mix numerous cultural figures whose contributions would assist in spreading the merits and pitfalls of such ideas across the network of thinkers Brand had been instrumental in establishing.
In the mid 70's I had occasion to ask one of the contributers, Paul Ehrlich, his opinion of the space colony idea. He laughingly dismissed it with the words 'Maybe the Army Corp of Engineers will build it!". He was skeptical based, as I recall, on early rhetoric to the effect that population problems could be addressed that way, an idea he rightfully dismissed on mathematical grounds alone. A couple years later Paul and Anne Ehrlich published a monumental volume of knowledge and advice 'Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment'. A chapter contained some paragraphs devoted to the topic of space colonies showing a good deal of thought on the subject. His main concern was the problem of creating stable ecosystems from scratch, even in such large volumes. This remains a major challenge, requiring a body of knowledge we have as yet scarcely begun to gather. Just as the Human Genome project is mapping out the intricate details of our genetic code there will have to be the equivalent of a 'Gaia genome project' to take inventory of the inhabitants of the varied ecosystems across the earth and map out their interaction with the environment and with each other. It may be that certain soil bacteria, insects, and plants are critically important in as yet unknown ways. Once the widespread and subtle complexities are sufficiently known efforts can be intelligently made to set into motion functioning closed cycle ecosystems in space. Unfortunately, Human expansion on Earth is in the act of displacing and scraping away widening slices of the ecosystem, so those who would compile such a massive Gaia system study may soon be in the position of trying to copy the pages of a document burning and falling apart before their eyes. Time is of the essence in deciding if there will ever be a space colonization effort, on this and other critical fronts.
Toward the wane of the initial tide of space colony related activity in the late 1970's there was less talk of visionary ideas and more about economic justifications. The main industry was increasingly seen as mass producing solar power satellites which would beam down energy collected by Manhattan Island sized solar power structures to points on Earth covered with antenna arrays which would then distribute the power using conventional methods. By the time the second round of 1970's oil shortages struck America at the end of the decade such ideas looked more attractive than ever, however this was in the days when oil was rising from 15 dollars a barrel to 37 dollars by 1980, only to go back down to 15 dollars by 1986. Now oil routinely costs over 50 dollars a barrel, with only one or two Middle East crises separating us from 100 dollar a barrel oil. When oil remains above such levels novel energy sources may well look more inviting, however the ability to implement such schemes will be hampered by economic downturns associated with climbing energy prices.
There were early concerns expressed about the idea of microwave beams pointing at Earth and wandering astray and associated environmental harm from microwaves, although so long as the antennae was collecting the microwave beam practically none would actually reach the ground. Other concerns about the advisability of providing greater amounts of energy instead of trying to do more with less were expressed, as well as the alternative philosophy of decentralized power methods. Later the dreams of space colonies faded under the harsh realities of the Shuttle not living up to its selling points, the space stations protracted birth agonies, and the continued lack of prospects of going beyond Earth orbit. The very name 'High Frontier' was hijacked by General Daniel Graham in 1981 for his 'think tank' promoting Strategic Defense Initiative technology.
2. The High Frontier and the slumbering pioneer spirit
The time is upon us for a new generation to be made aware of the possibilities of space colonization. I believe the motivation they will find compelling will not be the energy production aspects, worthy as they are, or even the thrill of being out there, but the idea of living in a small but independent world of their choosing. Much has been written about the 'pioneering spirit' of Humanity as justification for human expansion into space, however I do not believe in this rationale. One must be wary of defining human nature based on wishful thinking, however worthy the goal, although I admittedly dabble in this myself. Human expansion across the continents has probably taken place by following game herds and wild crops over vast stretches of time. Random diffusion alone can account for Human presence across all available land masses, although small populations of South Pacific islanders earned the ideals of the 'pioneering spirit' sentiments, by learning to travel across immense stretches of ocean navigating by the stars and the subtlties of nature around them. It may not be genetically programmed into us but our ability to learn, ponder and act upon the future is.
Here and there in Human history people have decided to assert identities and create communities to their liking. The wars surrounding much of this activity unfortunately define much if not most of Human history. Nations once formed invariably spend much of their resources in defending against nation states with competing interests, but the distinct culture can exist lawfully within their area. As population density increases wider nets of laws and libilities wrap themselves around the spirit of the original ideals like the bandages around a decaying mummy. Human society, even in so-called 'free nations', through organizational necessity allows less individual freedom the denser the population becomes, and there are now practically no new nations created on Earth without episodes of bloodshed. Short of starting revolutions and probably getting killed there are few options available besides moving to other established countries with less perceived such problems. People are now discouraged from dreaming about setting up a new land somewhere as various ideological and religious groups have historically done. The very concept seems ridiculous now at best and inviting government surveillance at worst, and yet the initial stages of past such efforts are revered by many. As society tries to assimilate anything counter to its interests and gets better at enforcing its demands upon individuals we will steadily have the initiative which once made us great bred and burned out of us. Social circles actively opposed to such assimilation will find more of their time devoted to avoiding measures to detect and eradicate them. Attempts to live in an anternate society are repressed by government agencies in cities as well as the distant desert playa.
There are at the present time many individuals who would welcome a place to go where new ways of life could be tried, just as the early European settlers of the United States often desired to start anew without the religious and legal impositions of the places they were tired of living in. If enough people could be convinced that there was a chance to leave whatever things you hate about society behind and help start over with a new nation aligned to your passions, I submit this could stir the remnants of the pioneer spirit still slumbering in many. Space nations representing the interests of any group large enough to establish a society could proliferate, forming isolated societies drifting physically and socially on their own paths with no one but themselves to blame if they can't manage things. If freedom is considered the greatest ideal of Human existence, the time to look for it on Earth is dwindling, but it is not yet an impossible ideal to strive for if we seek it in a novel way.
I regard this dream of starting new societies with widespread space migration into multiplying space habitats as the greatest long term hope for Humanity for this reason above all. This is the best long term prospect for people who hope to preserve some kind of cultural identity and personal freedom in the future, in a kind of 'frontier life' within vast habitats ultimately able to comfortably house millions. Once large colonies are self replicating, a lot of 'open space' will open up for settlement and I think people who have an interest in 'starting anew' with whatever society a group can agree upon should be encouraged to rally to this cause. As such future societies inevitably subdivide in their views those who wish can simply move into the next O'Neill colony on the assembly line rather than fight over territory as we do on Earth. Presumably many diverse groups would like a chance to live the way they want and some of these would opt for severe religious societies I would want no part of, such as the Puritans or the Teliban. Because I think some societies are not for me are no grounds for saying they shouldn't exist, indeed having 'hard core' movements migrate off world may be the best solution to mutual problems between factions of society rather than living with simmering hatreds and periodic warfare.
3. Long term prospects for initiating space migration
Trends can be noted suggesting there is a limited window of opportunity in which to act on these possibilities. Attempts to understand and optimize conditions influencing human living standards need to think increasingly in the long term, and in the face of competing interests and resource demands. Commonly expressed utopian speculations featuring 'the unity of Man' are hopelessly outdated and disconnected from ongoing developments. A glance at world maps of today and those of a century ago shows dramatic subdivision of lands grabbed by the major powers into groups better reflecting the distinguishing character of nation sized groups. As time passes most new nations are split from larger units, with many emerging only after bloody struggles, such as the situation of the Kurds whose lands straddle three volitile nations. One significant historical trend seems to be a subdividing of the interests of the public within the industrialized world as the greater complexity of advancing civilization promotes narrower individual areas of interest. Even views of reality shared by great masses of Humanity are drawing apart and going their own ways. What is important and worth doing is thus increasingly difficult to define by a meaningful consensus. This process of subdivision of social realities in the West became really noticeable during the 'Cultural transformation of the late1960's'. and has since continued unabated. There will never be more than a modest portion of the population which would be willing to spend as much on Space related matters as, for instance, on military related projects.
The process of beginning space colonization starts with the idea appealing to influential circles, especially those who advise the leaders. Several 'Great Themes' have successfully circulated among the leaders of the industrial societies, such as the need to avoid nuclear war, the importance of economic ties, and the need to make and honor international agreements. The need to take a decent sample of Humanity off the Earth as a 'cultural safety valve', as a 'back up' of all the knowledge and ways of life one wants preserved, and as a source for energy to maintain high standards of living for growing populations, may well become a guiding principal behind vital policy decisions if enough important people think so. During the Kennedy era many influential people recalled the Colliers symposium articles and the Disney space television specials when the idea of Project Apollo was presented to them. The idea was made real to them so instinctively they knew it could be done, it was just a matter of priorities. If the idea of Space colonization has engineering validity it deserves to be kept ready to be considered as an option when the times become ready for it. Since the days of Napoleon the English Channel Tunnel was such an idea gathering dust in shelves, long thought never to happen. Suddenly the work was done and it is taken for granted now as if it had always existed.
The Human race probably has not thousands of years, but only a few decades in which to act toward establishing a significant Human presence in space, an interval which has probably run nearly half way through its life. As China and India demand more energy resources the living standards of Western nations will drop as those of other 'up and coming' nations rise. Already ominous differences in living standards can be seen between now and a few decades ago in the US. The very progress of space technology itself has shared the 'curve of diminishing returns' seen in military hardware development. The resources which turned out hundreds of planes at a time during the Second World War now go into a single aircraft, with all the consolidation and risk implied. Recent efforts to develop a 'space plane' able to take off and land on a runway, and indeed any other kind of space plane other than the Shuttle, have died the sad deaths of inability or unwillingness to break such new technological ground. Recent efforts to begin new manned spacecraft programs to take us to the Moon again will be highly revealing for our hopes in the future of Human space flight. Having a technological civilization continually able to afford nice things like space travel depends on the infrastructure not being destroyed in a major war. The two major military square-offs currently in the works for Mankind seem to be radical Islam vs. the West, and in the longer term China vs. the U.S. and allied nations. The opening salvoes of the former have already been fired, the latter scenario seems to be declining in probability as business ties proceed to dominate relations between the nations involved, and indeed may dissolve as future alliences involving the first one sort themselves out. The next horseman of the apocalypse, that of disease, always hovers like a 'wild card' as remaining habitats are made to submit to Human habitation and as agricultural animals pass mutating diseases to us. Being able to 'back up' something of living populations and the gathered knowledge is an inviting idea, however the problem is a bit like that of a mountain climber at Base Camp whose first aid kit is at the top of Mt. Everest: When you really need it you won't be able to get to it.
From the emergence of the Human race it took until the 1800's to reach one billion people. A billion people were added to the population in the last dozen years. The efforts in past decades by environmental groups to encourage zero population growth seem to have been quietly laid aside for fear of practicing 'Cultural Imperialism' and possibly offending someone. Fortunately mass awareness of the economic opportunities small families allow has been established in most countries not living under religious tyrannies. Unfortunately the religious tyrannies will thus one day outnumber the industrialised lower birth rate world, who justifiably chose quality of life over quantity. Decades of good living standards have been bought within which ideas and progress have bloomed along with the choices available to people. However well we have so far beaten back the 'horseman' of famine, so long as we are in a game where limited resources have to be allocated among growing numbers we are ultimately doomed. The efforts to increase food production and extend individual longevity will ultimately trade a nearer catastrophe of one intensity for a later catastrophe of far greater scope. We are so far succeeding in playing a kind of 'pyramid scheme' delaying action using the resources of Earth to sustain greater masses of Human societies in varied qualities of life, however in time the pressure of human numbers will drain the discretionary resources of governments and finally bring about misery of a magnitude unknown today. The best we can hope for with severe regulation of societies to meet such future population and resource crises is a future which, after repeated cycles of catastrophes, eventually settles into a bare subsistence level just maintaining unimaginably crowded and squalid masses. This 'final steady state condition' of the Human Race, perhaps thousands of years from now, could resemble what we see in modern day Calcutta spread across virtually the entire world. Under such conditions the planet could sustain perhaps a trillion people if the full resources of civilization was turned away from war and toward maintaining some standard of healthy Human existence. The divergence of interests now in progress would likely have to be reversed by the time the future world of a trillion people exists. Due to likely episodes of small groups causing mass casualties lashing out at societies at home and abroad, It would likely be a world where individual ideas and dissension would long since be bred out of the thinking process and individual careers directed toward maintaining stability and predictability.
It is highly likely that well before such a state can settle into place pandemics will drastically reduce human population, perhaps Gaia still has some tricks up her sleeve! Beyond the protracted suffering, the longer term problem is if modern civilization is ever allowed to disintegrate not only would people depending on our advances in medicine die off, the survivors trying to regather civilization would find most of the easy to get (and non radioactive) petroleum reserves will have been used up, and an uphill struggle to use alternate energy methods with whatever technology remains could prove a grim and protracted struggle.
If civilization is to be allowed to spread beyond the Earth, it must take place before the world's resources are forcibly redistributed or squandered and disrupted by major wars. We have seen in recent history discresionary funds such as those used to reach the Moon vanish under political indifference and in order to pay for a massive military effort which ended up delaying the communist takeover of South Vietnam 10 years. The loss of precious decades of establishing a 'beachhead in space' has continued due to wavering priorities and economic downturns. One cannot assume conditions will always exist for such bold ventures as space travel. Instabilities tug at the house of cards which is civilization. There is still time to accomplish the miracles we dream of but we will not be able to say this much longer.
We have the power to make a better destiny for ourselves than what may eventually be forced upon us. Enough of a collective effort must be made to bring the space colony option into the forum of active concerns, and continue to stress the nation building possibilities as we can dare to concieve and act upon them.
Space colonies are a far more practical means of preserving at least part of Humanity than trying to 'terraform' Venus or Mars so people can live on them. My reasoning against the practicality of terraforming Mars or Venus rests not on the invariably myopic apprasials of limitations of technology, but in the established patterns of civilization over the time frames being considered. Any scheme requiring tens of thousands of years of continuous effort by coexisting superpowers as the empires grow, shrink, and 'overwrite' each other in the victor's history books seems incompatible with historical precedent. Attempts to modify another world's environment is more likely to plunge out of control and end up as a toxic mess rather than anything tailored to our narrowly defined physical needs. I believe if an artificial sustained ecosystem can be created off the Earth it will first be done in large but relatively manageable floating space colony 'terrariums'.
It was said by science fiction
writer Robert Heinlein that once you're in Earth orbit you're
half way to almost anywhere. This applies especially to free floating
colonies, and as the proposed wave of of space migration proceeds
the steps would grow steadily bolder. Human exploration would
spread across planetary then interstellar distances, even operating
under the assumption that the currently known laws of physics
will have to be worked with into the indefinite future. In the
end we will carry human nature with us, let us hope we can also
bring humanity's lessons. We will by that time have effectively
'backed up' all that we have cherished of civilization, well removed
from possible terrestrial catastrophes. As peoples and nations
divide and change, as they do here, the portion of their industrial
output devoted to creating more space colonies will serve as the
safety valve for established cultures as well as a peaceful means
to nurture new ways of life.