Picnics in Space


In 1976, NASA Administrator James Fletcher noted that "The question, 'What is feasible?' can be finally answered only by future historians." He was talking about the elaborate plans for space habitats the agency had spent a summer noodling over, but the same remark could have been made to the incredulous before the first moon landing, for example -- or before the birth of transoceanic voyages in the 14th and 15th Centuries.

So begins of one of my favorite pieces of utopist NASA detritus, a document called Space Settlements: A Design Study, made over the course of a 10-week workshop at the Ames research center in 1976. Among those involved: Gerard K. O'Neill, physicist and author of High Frontier, a very groovy (and seminal) book about space colonization. The study, under O'Neill's leadership, proposes all kinds of wild and wooly space environments, from Bernal spheres to giant spinning cylinders, with acres of plants and false clouds hanging halfway in the sky, massive windows and mirrors to catch the sun, green capsules in the black depths of space.

What's particularly interesting about the 1976 study is not the fantastically romantic schematic drawings (although those are a plus), but the rare attention the team paid to what they called "psychological and cultural considerations." The engineering constraints of a functional space colony are overwhelming, but technically achievable -- while delicate psychological imbalances can destroy an extra-terrestrial community from the inside out. Look at what happened with the Biosphere 2, for example. And that was on Earth!

According to the NASA study, one of the fundamental problems posed to survival in an outer-space colony environment is the general feeling of un-reality of the whole operation. As a species, we are far from being flexible enough to normalize the feeling of floating in space; a space colony is the kind of environment which could trigger our brains to feel that everything is a dream and nothing outside of our own mind is real. Psychologists call this dissociative mental state "solipsism syndrome," and it occurs in people who live in strenuous psychological environments, like the Arctic winter. Waking up every morning to dazzling vistas of interstellar space might produce the same effect, with day-to-day life becoming an unending dream with no tether to waking reality. Quoth the study: "this state of mind can be easily produced in an environment where everything is artificial, where everything is like a theater stage, where every wish can be fulfilled by a push-button, and where there is nothing beyond the theater stage and beyond an individual's control."

A fantastic problem.

Is it possible to trick our brains into getting over it?


The NASA study suggests a variety of options, from factoring controlled unpredictability into everyday life to ensuring that everyone feels able to contribute to something which grows (namely children and vegetables). Most importantly, however, the illusion that life is taking place inside of a kind of self-contained "theater stage" must be shattered: "it is important to have 'something beyond the horizon' which gives the feeling that the world is larger than what is seen." In fact, again and again, the study emphasizes the need for a long line of sight, for a sense of massive space and openness, to counter the claustrophobia and bring the erratic (and hence reassuring) processes of nature into clear view.

These three factors -- unpredictability, growth, and mystery -- could define the psychological needs of the human Id in a nutshell, right?

Check out Space Settlements: A Design Study here.

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"These three factors -- unpredictability, growth, and mystery -- could define the psychological needs of the human Id in a nutshell, right?"

With "growth" doing most of the semantic heavy lifting. I think the id desires social intimacy, too; it wants its subjective self confirmed outwardly. (Theatrically, a name in lights might do.)

Cool post! I love that NASA so invested in utopianist thought during the 70s, an age where other traditions were tearing it down. Where's a good source for details on NASA's 70's era skunkworks projects? (I should ask my Dad!)

I recently encountered an anti-depressant that had "a sense or feeling of unreality" as a side effect. If space tube living and anti-depressants can cause solipsism syndrome, they'll probably make some drugs that cause a sense or feeling of reality.