The Brief History of NASA's Inspirational Space Colony Research

By Wesley Fenlon

NASA and physicist Gerard O'Neill once dreamed of building orbital Earth colonies, but it's the art that accompanied that vision that remains powerful today.

Modern plans for space exploration are dictated by frugality and budget cuts. NASA 3D prints components for future rockets and plans to take a crack at a manned mission to Mars--or perhaps just a near-Earth asteroid--by the 2030s. Meanwhile, independent space organizations like SpaceX are picking up contract work that NASA can't manage itself, flying supplies to the International Space Station. In decades past, NASA had the budget for trips to the moon and near-infinite research into the future of humans in space. Discover Magazine has the results of one of NASA's most fantastic (and idealistic, and likely impossible) projects from the 1970s: Evaluating the prospect of orbiting space colonies expanding Earth's population beyond the stratosphere.

There are two things that make the research so great. One is their mastermind, former Princeton physics professor Gerard O'Neill. O'Neill was so interested in the idea of space colonization that he wrote a paper on the topic and held a small conference at Princeton. He eventually gained NASA's backing and spearheaded a 10 week study at NASA into the feasibility of a colony program.

His study resulted in a few potential designs for space colonies that would follow in the moon's orbit. There were Bernal Spheres, with livable landscape plastered around 360 degrees of interior; toroid colonies, with habitation located in a giant ring orbiting around a central pivot; and cylindrical designs, 20-mile long tubes with structures built all around the interior surface. The ideas seem, today, to be incredibly extravagant and impossibly complex, but at the time O'Neill was proposing a program with the monetary and scientific backing that Apollo had in the 1960s. He predicted it could be done by 1990.

Discover Magazine delves into why nothing ever came of O'Neill's plans, and it's an interesting story. There was that second thing that made the research great, though, and it's likely had a longer-term impact than the technical planning. That thing is the artwork NASA commissioned from artists Don Davis and Rick Guidice. They worked with O'Neill to bring his vision to life, and the resulting images are as striking as the sci-fi propaganda and artwork of decades earlier. Like Chesley Bonestell before them, the two artists tapped into realistic (but still idealistic) depictions of what these proposed colonies would look like.

To excite the public about the colonies, they usually depict fantastic rural landscapes inside the elaborate constructs, rivers and mountains and trees for miles as opposed to the urban landscape that would likely dominate the colony interiors. But the colony designs are, to this day, inspiring visions of a lost future.

And they very clearly have inspired people over the years, though the results show up in science fiction rather than space programs.

In the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime series, released in 1979, the futuristic colonies orbiting Earth are all based on O'Neill's designs. Most are the cylindrical colony designs, but Torus colonies show up as well, and their animated interiors are clearly inspired by Davis' and Guidice's artwork. Thirty years later, other Gundam series still feature colonies based on those designs. It's cool to see them live on in fiction, even if no one remembers the colonies were once imaged as reality.