Back in the 60s and 70s, the researchers at NASA weren’t just set on getting into space — they were anticipating a part of humanity to permanently take up residence there, too. Which is why, starting in 1975, NASA hosted a number of ‘Summer Studies’, inviting scientists, designers, and academics to envision and plan out orbital space colonies. These cities were designed to become home to tens of thousands of people, and NASA was quite serious about the undertaking. Astrophysics collided with urban planning, and the result was a detailed projection of what it’d be like to live in a city in space.
After the sessions, artists would render (by hand, of course), the scientists’ vision for the space colonies. As you can see, they were probably reading Asimov and listening to a lot of prog rock at the time, too (via Gajit):
But even cooler than these drawings is the idea behind the space colonization effort. The first colonies would be around Earth’s orbit — all space colonies should be built in orbit, the scientists argued, because planets are either too hot, too cold, or too far away to trade with earth. Mining operations could be established both to provide raw materials for the colony, and to sell to business back on earth. One report specifically notes “that the current market value of the metals in 3554 Amun, one small nearby asteroid, is about $20 Trillion.” Solar power would also be used to benefit both the colonies and cities back on Earth.
And why would anyone want to live in a space colony? Why, it’d be prime real estate, of course. You can’t beat the views! Seriously. the NASA scientists predicated the colonies largely on the idea that people would pay top dollar to live among the stars.
At first glance, it seems like a very consumerist conception: real estate, energy production, and resource harvesting as the chief drivers of the first space cities? But when you realize that these scientists are actually creating something of a sales pitch for this vision — they’re trying to sell the idea to the world, in hopes of actually making it happen.
This would make a pretty pragmatic pitch to venture capitalists, when you think about it. They even planned on financing the initial stages of the project through orbital tourism — an idea that has, of course, now come to fruition. Virgin Galactic has already undertaken space tourism in earnest.
Nonetheless, at the core of the vision lies an odd, but touching, Utopian thrust:
Why build space settlements? Why do weeds grow through cracks in sidewalks? Why did life crawl out of the oceans and colonize land? Because living things want to grow and expand. We have the ability to live in space (see the bibliography), therefore we will — but not this fiscal year.
The key advantage of space settlements is the ability to build new land, rather than take it from someone else. This allows a huge expansion of humanity without war or destruction of Earth’s biosphere. The asteroids alone provide enough material to make new orbital land hundreds of times greater than the surface of the Earth, divided into millions of colonies. This land can easily support trillions of people.
There’s even this bit of technoutopian naivete: “In the past, societies which have grown by colonization have gained wealth and power at the expense of those who were subjugated. Unlike previous colonization programs, space colonization will build new land, not steal it from the natives. Thus, the power and wealth born of space colonization will not come at the expense of others, but rather represent the fruits of great labors”
Alas, I have a hunch that the space colonists of tomorrow will nonetheless find a way to subjugate the have-nots. Even so, it’s a grand vision — and fascinating to look at what NASA’s vision for the future of colonization was in the 1970s.
Explore the 1970s Utopian visions of NASA scientists for yourself in their Space Settlement archives.