In the mid-1970s, the U.S. State Department prohibited the internal use of the term “space colony,” due to the global bad reputation of colonialism. Instead, the government opted for “space settlement.” Of course, as Stewart Brand pointed out at the time, the last thing you do in space is settle. Quite the opposite! Making the decision to explore space — and live there — is just about the most unsettled act a human can commit.
There have always been two camps on this issue. First, the unsettled, like Brand: the science-fiction aficionados, capitalists, rocketry geeks, macrocosmic thinkers, and Whole Earthers for whom space travel represents a profound philosophical commitment to the outward longevity and dissemination of the species. For these, the jump from Gaia to Cosma is logical. Second, the settled: politicians and pragmatists who see the very idea as a folly, particularly considering that we, as a species, seem incapable of tending to our home planet. Let the universe come when it is ready, this latter group proposes (still a third is unaware of the question).
Where do I stand? Somewhere in between. Of course, I dream of seeing, from a distant planet, three moons rise over the horizon at night. Of course, my pace quickens at the thought of a radical change in vantage — the Earth a blue marble at my feet. And yet I believe our patronage of the Earth, and the cultures which populate it, is lacking. I’m not entirely sure we can have nice things.
Perhaps, however, like a child entrusted with a family heirloom, our nice things might change us. Much has been written about the “overview effect,” the altered perspective induced by perceiving the Earth as a whole. Astronauts return changed, with a sudden, universal insight: the Earth is a tiny system, impossibly fragile in the void of night. To wit, the first image of the Earth from space — “Earhrise,” taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission — is often credited with kickstarting the environmentalist movement of the 1970s.
If this image alone can wield such power, imagine seeing it each morning out your window. Yes, living in space. Why not? The provocative futurist Gerard O’Neill, whose book The High Frontier serves as the catalyst for this particular rant, suggested massive colonies of human habitation in space — self-sustaining environments capable of hosting hundreds of thousands of people. These colonies, housed in massive spinning wheels called O’Neill cylinders, would float in space at Lagrangian points, points of stable gravitational equilibrium located along the path of the moon’s orbit. O’Neill’s surreal habitats were seriously considered in the 1970s — he held a ten-week study of space habitats at NASA Ames in ’75 and testified before the Senate subcommittee on Space Science and Applications in ’76 — largely because of his emphasis on the colonies’ ability to gather direct solar power and shoot it down to Earth.
After the energy crisis of that decade waned, so did big-money interest in O’Neill’s ideas, leaving those he inspired — Stewart Brand, science writers, astronauts, and future members of the L5 society — to champion the cause largely as a philosophical idea. One can see why. Space colonies, O’Neill argued, could single-handedly solve the world’s biggest problems “without recourse to repression:” no more pollution, overpopulation, or global warming when most of the human race lives in space!
Short of migrating the race to cosmic Bernal spheres, however, might a newly concerted effort into space, at this particular crisis point in time, force us to reevaluate our stewardship of the Earth? In attempting to replicate habitable environments in space, might Homo Spaciens be a gentler sort, more aware of the delicate tensile webs that keep our terrestrial ecosystems functional?
Possibly. But beyond our relationship to the home planet, we haven’t yet discussed the ramifications of long-term space habitation on human culture. Carl Sagan, in the excellent Creative Quarterly tome “Space Colonies,” makes a brief but excellent point: with room to breathe, space cities could provide an environment for human affinity groups to “develop alternative cultural, social, political, economic, and technological lifestyles.” Not just an overview effect, but an effect of cultural mutation! This is something that science fiction has been dabbling in for decades; without the planet-imposed constraints of national boundaries, how might human beings fragment into groups? Conceivably, along religious, cultural, subcultural, or aesthetic lines; religious zealots in the United States already speak of themselves as a “Christian Nation.” Why not a Christian planet?
Or, on a lighter note, space colonies for goths, Valley girls, cyberpunks, men? Periods of expansion into new territory have always triggered periods of synchronous intellectual fermentation. Then, cultural metamorphosis. The New World made Americans out of British people, after all. And, like high tea in the Wild West, doubtless even our most engrained cultural rituals would eventually seem absurd and useless when ported into space. They’d promptly be replaced with new ideas, new possibilities.
Then again, we already live in space, so perhaps all we need is renewed awareness of our position in the void. Writes Frank White, incidentally the man who coined the term “overview effect:”
“In asking the question of whether people living in space will think or act differently from those living on Earth, we must first begin with a definition of what we mean by “living in space.” The truth is that we are all living in space right now. The Earth is in space, it has always been in space, and it will always be in space. When we talk about “going into space,” or “living in space,” we are really talking about leaving the Earth and seeing the universe from a different point of view, a non-terrestrial one.
Those who leave the Earth and live in space habitats, on planetary surfaces, or in generational starships will not be different from those who remain on Earth because they are living in space, but more likely because they will be far more aware of that fact!”
The High Frontier, by Gerard O’Neill
The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, by Frank White
Living in Space, by G. Harry Stine
Space Colonies: A Coevolution Book, ed. Stewart Brand
Picnics In Space, a 2009 Universe article about O’Neill’s NASA Study