Take Two for April 16, 2013

Photos: How NASA imagined life in a space colony would look 40 years ago

Space Colonies

NASA Ames Research Center

The interior of a toroid colony as imagined by Don Davis. Toroids would be immense rotating hoops lined with habitations.

SPACE COLONIES

NASA Ames Research Center

A view inside the inhabited part of the Bernal sphere colony. Guidice's backgrounds show a fanciful view of space: “Nebulae pictures always intrigued me, so I did a painting one time using a very active, exciting background, and it was received real well. In actuality the blackness of space is absolute, where I just threw these more romantic nebulae type images into the context. As an artist I couldn’t help myself. And nobody said not to do it, so away we went.”

Space Colonies

NASA Ames Research Center

Though the space colonies would likely have been much more like shopping malls, Gerard O'Neill and the painters hoped these romantic depictions would convey the grandeur of the proposed colonies, according to Don Davis, who painted this scene. “The idea was that these things are big enough that you could basically build nations in them,” he says. O'Neill had suggested this sort of scene, he continued. “I lived in the Bay Area at the time, with the green hills and such, and I was very enthused to encapsulate that life and that area.”

Space Colonies

NASA Ames Research Center

The interior of a toroid colony, painted by Rick Guidice. The paintings tended to be about 30 by 40 inches, and Guidice would drive them to Ames Research Center himself, a twenty-minute trip from his Los Gatos studio.

Space Colonies

NASA

Rick Guidice got instructions from Gerard O'Neill on how to depict the interiors of colonies. “He wanted it to be very rural farmland kind of thing. Not really high density. But most likely it would not be like that.”

Space Colonies

NASA Ames Research Center

Rick Guidice, the painter who made this image for a NASA report on space colonies, explains what's going on here. The cylinders sport haloes of agriculture pods, he says. The pods "rotate themselves, they have their own gravity, and they pivot on those rings that go all the way around. On the end of these cylinders was a zero-gravity manufacturing area, where manufacturing and producing energy or whatever else they were doing that was best suited for zero gravity took place.” The machinery rendered at the end of the cylinders, though, isn't specific. “I just invented all that. Space-stuff.”

SPACE COLONIES

View of Bernal Sphere agricultural module (multiple toroids) with cutaway to expose interior.

Space Colonies

NASA Ames Research Center

Colony construction crew at work.


NASA's space program is struggling with budget cuts these days, but back in the early 1970s, the sky was the limit. Among a myriad of other projects the agency worked on in the post-Apollo era was a study of what life might be like on space colonies, complete with some amazing, futuristic illustrations.

In 1975, Princeton physicist Gerard O'Neill began work on the 10-week study at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. looking into the feasibility of life in space. To accompany the study's long pages of technical specs explaining how life in orbit could work, artists Rick Giudice and Don Davis were hired to create illustrations of the space colonies described in the report. 

In the paintings you can see long, rolling hills of green, rivers and neighborhoods filled with modern homes and smiling, happy people. They resemble a kind of utopian existence where the inhabitants live in harmony in a perfect, and well-controlled climate. 

"They knew that probably the first space colonies if they ever existed were not going to look like these beautiful scenes that they were painitng," said science writer Veronique Greenwood. "There was some romance that they were injecting into the idea. Honestly I think all three of them knew it was going to be a little bit more like a shopping mall."

Even today, the idea of life in a space colony seems like something that only belongs on the big screen or in books. In 1970, it must have seemed downright insane, but physicist Gerard O'Neill had a pretty convincing explanation. 

"By the time he started working on the idea he was already pretty well established," said science writer Veronique Greenwood. "He knew the math, he knew the physics, he was very pragmatic about this idea, and thus was very inspiring to a lot of people who otherwise may not have bought the idea."


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