High, Higher, Highest Frontiers

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!"

Further Reading:

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


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Heh ! I was given O'Neill's book as a present in 1977. That book and amateur radio put me on the path to completing a PhD in 1991...alas, it's been downhill since then :-(

By In Hell's Kitc… (not verified) on 04 Aug 2011 #permalink

I love this blog (and YACHT, btw). I stumbled upon it several weeks ago, and have enjoyed immensely its entertaining, educational and inspiring output. Especially here, contemplating the different viewpoints of "living in space." Your final point there, from Frank White, kind of blew my fucking mind. Cheers.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about space colonization and what its hypothetical psychological and social impacts could be. Your statement about the "Overview Effect" being credited with kick-starting the environmentalist movement is interesting, and it made me think about the possibility of it having a reverse effect over time. The main goal of the environmentalist/green movement is the preservation of the Earth so future generations will find it livable. Do you think humanity will lose its sense of responsibility for the Earth when off planet colonization makes environmentalism unnecessary? Will then the exploitation of the Earth be filed under the march of progress towards the stars?

By kennedykm (not verified) on 11 Aug 2011 #permalink

kennedykm, this is something I think about often -- what radical changes in perspective will do to the human race. How many generations of space-born people will it take for the Earth to lose its spiritual pull? Stewart Brand wrote, "if you live in a satellite, the Earth is something that goes on in your sky."

Nice work, Claire. Thank you.

By Frank White (not verified) on 13 Aug 2011 #permalink

Mr White! What an honor to have you pass through this humble swath of pixels. Would you be opposed to my getting in touch with you directly? I would love to write something more comprehensive about your work here on Universe.

It would be my pleasure.

Frank White

By Frank White (not verified) on 15 Aug 2011 #permalink

I love this humble swath of pixels.

By Rene Daalder (not verified) on 19 Aug 2011 #permalink

Let's hope it becomes more than just a nice idea. But before we can even fantasize about colonization of either other planets or O'Neill system, our current technological civilization's state with its abundant energy could be critical to achieving the next step. We may all want to see a earth industry powered by windmills, biofuels and solar panels, but it's hard to imagine our being able to blast our way out of the gravity hole we call home with those lighter duty approaches. Once we do get to space we may find that with the low cost (free for all intents and purposes_ of energy in space we'll be able to finally tap into the undiminished, full intensity of the solar energy that bathes space all around us and exploit the asteroids for our metals and other minerals which we now must do down here. It'd be nice to think that without the need to produce energy and materials down here, while getting an abundant supply of both from space, we could start restoring what we've wrecked, and giving Terra a rest.
What is essential is that a suitably large launching system that incorporates the economy of scale, with rockets the size of cruise ships instead of what we now use which are by comparison just essentially re-purposed ballistic defense missile technology from the 50s. Going large we could finally see the cost of getting propellant into space come down a couple orders of magnitude while seeing the scale of our space stations expand a couple orders of magnitude, so that simulated gravity by axial spinning could be used and adequate shielding from cosmic rays would not be an issue, nor would the constant drag of low earth orbit be a factor once we're in the geosynchronous orbits. A re-purposed nuclear powered aircraft carrier designated to work as a power source in order to synthesize fuels (LOX and Hydrogen) out of sea water would be a good use for it as really large rockets would be best launched from an equatorial sea location.