This material is provided as a public service to support the student Space Settlement Contest. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of NASA or any other government body.
The sky starts at your feet
This book is about how to take Space personally. Gerard O'Neill's vision of Space Colonies has turned the universe inside out for people. Instead of seeing the space program as a "boondoggle for scientists'' (Herman Kahn), suddenly they can see Space as a path, or at least a metaphor, for their own liberation. And those who are critics of high technology - who abound in this book - can leverage their arguments from Space industrialization as the quintessence of what they are fighting. What's new is that people are extrapolating from the future and outside instead of just from the past and inside.
The subject is FREE SPACE. That's the technical term for everyplace outside the Earth's atmosphere. It's a political term - and increasingly, as exploration and argument proceed into orbit, a political reality. Speaking of terms, the use of the term "Space Colony" has been expressly forbidden by the US. State Department because of anti-colonial feelings around the world. So NASA has shrugged and adopted "Space Settlements" - unpoetic terminology since the last thing you do in Space is settle. We're sticking to "Space Colonies". It's more accurate; this time there's a difference in that no Space natives are being colonized; and the term reminds us of things that went badly and went well in previous colonizations.
If we're lucky we may enact a parallel with what happened in Europe when America was being colonized. Intellectual ferment - new lands meant new possibilities; new possibilities meant new ideas. If you can try things you think up things to try.
O'Neill's scheme invites you to give your imagination a Space Colony (see sketch above) of one million inhabitants, each of whom has five acres of "land". Believe that it is readily possible - maybe inevitable - by 2000 AD. Have you any thoughts about how to organize its economy, politics, weather, land use, education, culture? Any thoughts about how to organize your life to get there?
O'Neill invites you to imagine an inside-out planet, cylindrical, with at the end caps mountain ranges which have the interesting property that as you climb higher your weight decreases Near the top (center of rotation) at. 1g (1/10 Earth gravity) you can don wings and take flight Or take a long slow dive into a swimming pool. Or watch someone else's slow-motion splash. At the foot of the mountain you might have a round river allowing you to canoe downstream several miles past the other two "valleys" and back to your home.
The details of the design and of the speculation change constantly, but O'Neill invites anyone to challenge the overall scale, engineering, budget, and schedule of the project. If you can find the fatal flaw you could bring this nonsense to a stop. Or, failing that, participate in the design and imagination of how Space Colonies might, in fact, work.
One thing that impresses me about the Space environment is that, hostile as it is to us pulpy organisms, it is wholly benign for electronic and mechanical machinery, much better for them than this corrosive, weighty Earth's surface. An engineering friend of mine, Michael Callahan, used to speculate that the machines have been longing for years to get into Space. They're using us to get there and when they've succeeded they'll throw us away. Or, maybe they'll give us something wonderful we don't even know we need. In whatever philosophical and technical configuration they are, we shall be obliged to rely upon machines to make Space habitable for us.
Ocean, ocean you'll get me yet--Ken Kesey
What got me interested in Space Colonies a few years ago was a chance remark by a grade-school teacher. She said that most of her kids expected to live in Space. All their lives they'd been seeing "Star Trek" and American and Russian Space activities and drew the obvious conclusions. Suddenly I felt out-of-it. A generation that grew up with Space, I realized, was going to lead to another generation growing up in Space. Where did that leave me?
For these kids there's been a change in scope. They can hold the oceans of the world comfortably in their minds, like large lakes. Space is the ocean now. According to a Navy man (a Commander J. Henry Glazer) I was listening to last night in Govemor Brown's office in Sacramento, it is naval experience that is going to best inform the navigation, construction, command regimes, and life-on-board of spaceships - once we get past the brief airplane-like period of the space shuttle. Astronaut Rusty Schweickart swallowed his Air Force loyalty and agreed.
And for those who long for the harshest freedoms, or who believe with Buckminster Fuller that a culture's creativity requires an Outlaw Area, Free Space becomes what the oceans have ceased to be - Outlaw Area too big and dilute for national control.
What's in it for Earth, then? Well, say the most dogmatic Space Colony proponents, you could solve, in order, the Energy Crisis, the Food Crisis, the Arms Race, the Population Problem, and maybe even the Climatic Shift.
Liberals and environmentalists hoot in derision. Then a year later some of them are back for a second look. And some of those, accurately perceiving possible benefits and possible frightful hazards of Space colonization, begin to participate in the debate and design.
Whenever the universe turns inside-out, as happens from time to time in any civilization, you get a lot of disruption and confusion, but you also can get a fresh angle on old problems, public and personal.
As a nomad once told me, "Think for a while about cows and fences and grazing. It's not just in your mind - the grass IS greener on the other side of the fence."
"Northern Lights" over North America photographed from an Air Force satellite January 5, 1973. The human population centers show up clearly in the infrared photo - the two bright areas at lower left are Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, the bright area at upper right is St. Paul-Minneapolis. Nothing looks the same from Space. If you live in a satellite, the Earth is something that goes on in your sky.