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

by Michelle Lanz and Steve Proffitt | Take Two®

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

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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