Scientists, engineers, and academics teamed up to envision three different types of space colonies, some holding as many as a million people. If NASA’s audacious dreams had come true, handfuls of these colonies would be orbiting the Earth right now.
Here’s a look at the variety of space colonies NASA has dreamed up in the past–and the ones they’re planning for our future:
Space Colonies Of The Past: The Stanford Torus
The Stanford Torus was—comparatively speaking—the most feasible of all the space colonies proposed during the summer studies. It would have held 10,000 people in a one-mile long donut-shaped ring.
The Torus would have paired an overhead mirror with mirrors on the colony’s inner ring to pull sunlight into the inhabited outer ring. And by rotating constantly, the colony would create artificial gravity for those inside it.
According to the concept art, the Torus would also have contained a colony-wide monorail as well as trees, grass, and a water reservoir–nothing says ambitious like a lake in space.
Thanks to budget cuts from Congress, the Stanford Torus never came to be. However, the ideas behind the structure are still relevant, as proven by artist Dan Roam’s sleeker, more efficient 2006 take on the basic design, presented above.
Space Colonies Of The Past: The Bernal Sphere
The Bernal Sphere was the second space colony proposed by NASA in 1975. It follows design principles similar to the Stanford Torus, but with a cylinder rather than a donut shape. Once again, a series of adjustable mirrors would provide sunlight to roughly 10,000 inhabitants.
According to an exuberantly optimistic 1977 prediction, the Bernal Spheres would perhaps be functional by the 1990s, when the space-centric workforce was estimated to be large enough to churn out a new Bernal Sphere every two years.
Needless to say, the money wasn’t there and the dream didn’t come true, but, first, NASA produced a fascinating array of concept art. How would NASA have supported their multi-billion-dollar projects? Through a number of lucrative industries they predicted would result from space colonization: space tourism, asteroid mining, zero-gravity manufacturing, and solar power, which would be transmitted to Earth via microwaves.
Space Colonies Of The Past: The O’Neill Cylinder
Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill was the visionary behind the most ambitious of NASA’s space colonies: the O’Neill Cylinder. The 20-mile-wide structure would house a million people in Earth’s orbit. 1970s NASA scientists referred to it as “Island 3,” meaning that it would be a third generation space colony not operable until far into the 21st century.
In NASA’s vision, entire generations of people would live on the colony. For them, curved landscapes leading to an entire land directly above their heads would appear normal. They might even be able to vote on what weather they would prefer.
Different modules would be tailored for the growth of different foods, and each cylinder would be paired with another one in order to cancel out the gyroscopic forces that might otherwise keep the space colonies spinning away from the sun.
Space Colonies Of The Future: Mars
In addition to creating viable space colonies, 1970s-era NASA sought to develop interplanetary travel. Coming off of their big 1969 moon-landing win, NASA set its sights on the natural next target: Mars.
The Apollo Extensions Program explored possible plans: a manned lunar colony, Earth-orbiting space station, and space probe fly-bys for the entire outer solar system. A spin-off of that program, the Apollo Applications Program, was NASA’s push for a manned fly-by of Mars in 1978.
Sadly, Congress was more interested in defense spending, and the budget for any 1970s plans was cut short by half a billion dollars in 1967. NASA still managed to send unmanned probes past Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury, but no space stations got off the ground.
Still, the future looks bright for NASA: They’re working on the manned Mars mission once more, with a landing planned for the 2030s.
This time, they’re looking beyond their 1970s plans to orbit the Earth with space stations, with the lofty goal of starting a colony on the surface of the Red Planet. A planned 2035 Mars landing could establish a small greenhouse, a prerequisite for future colonization.
To prep for a Mars mission, the agency will complete a series of tough missions in the next two decades, including an “asteroid mission” that will capture an asteroid, redirect its orbit around the moon, and land astronauts on it. NASA’s chief scientist Dr. Ellen Stofan has even speculated on NASA’s goals after reaching Mars, saying that a trip to the Jupiter moon Europa is “clearly our next step.”
NASA’s dreams for a multi-billion-dollar industry in Earth’s orbit might have fallen though, but the agency’s ambition and optimism clearly can’t be killed.