Wed, May 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Private companies revive dream of off-Earth living

Given NASA’s massive budget cuts, a loose agglomeration of private companies may be the main drivers of the old science-fiction fantasy of colonizing other worlds and building cities in space

By Jessa Gamble  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

Science fiction has delivered on many of its promises. Star Trek videophones have become Skype, the Jetsons’ food-on-demand is materializing through 3D printing, and we have done Jules Verne one better and explored mid-ocean trenches at crushing depths. However, the central promise of golden age science-fiction has not yet been kept. Humans have not colonized space.

For a brief moment in the 1970s, the grandeur of the night sky felt interactive. It seemed only decades away that more humans would live off the Earth than on it; in fact, the space shuttle was so named because it was intended to make 50 round trips per year. There were active plans for expanding civilization into space, and any number of serious designs for building entire cities on the moon, Mars and beyond.

The space age proved to be a false dawn, of course. After a sobering interlude, children who had sat rapt at the sight of the moon landings grew up, and accepted that terraforming space — once briefly assumed to be easy — was actually really, really hard. Intense Cold War motivation flagged, and the Challenger and Columbia disasters taught us humility. NASA budgets sagged from 5 percent of the US federal budget to less than 0.5 percent. People even began to doubt that we would ever set foot on the moon: in a 2006 poll, more than one in four Americans between 18 and 25 said they suspected the moon landing was a hoax.

However, now a countercurrent has surfaced. The children of Apollo, educated and entrepreneurial, are making real headway on some of the biggest difficulties. Large-scale settlement, as opposed to drab old scientific exploration, is back on the menu.

Space cities come in three basic models. The classic one is to terraform a nearby Earth-like object, by using massive geo-engineering projects or bio-domes to create a lunar or Martian metropolis.

The second is the low-Earth orbit model: this expands upon the currently inhabited region of space. Think of the International Space Station (ISS) as a government fort, around which commercial trading posts, homesteads and finally urban areas develop.

Then there is the free space model, basically floating cylinders with artificial gravity, surviving by digesting the natural resources of outer space.

As the saying goes in the space community: Once you’re out of Earth’s gravity well, you’re halfway to anywhere.

O’NEILL’S VISION

In the 1970s, Princeton physicist Gerald O’Neill envisioned 100,000-person colonies, stationed at what is known as the fifth Lagrangian libration point (L5) in the moon’s orbit — like a gravitational eddy where things stay put by themselves. Encouraged by fellow physicists Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman, he posited a “planar cluster” housing 4 billion people across 30,000km of space.

“It is orthodox to believe that Earth is the only practical habitat for Man,” he wrote in Physics Today in 1974, but we can “build new habitats far more comfortable, productive and attractive than is most of Earth.”

O’Neill called the classic model of colonizing planets proper a “mental hang-up,” and suggested it lacked imagination for the possibilities of open space.

In O’Neill’s vision, cable cars would connect communities spaced at 200km intervals. Single-family spacecraft — the minivans of the sky — would act as recreational vehicles.

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