Space Colony Art from the 1970s

In “The Colonization of Space”, his 1974 essay for Physics Today, Princeton professor of physics Gerard K. O’Neill (1927–1992) wrote that the key for extraterrestrial habitation is “to treat the region beyond Earth not as a void but as a culture medium, rich in matter and energy”. Were construction to commence shortly, he predicted “nearly all our industrial activity could be moved away from Earth’s fragile biosphere within less than a century from now”. Rather than terraforming Mars, or settling the jungles of Jupiter, O’Neill proposed constructing habitable cylinders — modifications of the environments first designed by John Desmond Bernal in 1929 — that would spin on their axes through space, simulating Earth’s gravity and using a system of mirrors and apertures to approximate tellurian days and seasons. In his High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1977), written as a speculative dispatch from the future, it is the accommodating gyroscopic cylinder, not the planetary sphere, that holds the secret for life freed from earthen ground.

To go on with our situation, it's a comfortable life here. Fresh vegetables and fruit are in season all the time, because there are agricultural cylinders for each month of the year, each with its own day-length. We grow avocados and papayas in our own garden, and never need to use insecticide sprays. Of course we like being able to get a suntan without ever being bitten by a mosquito. To be free of those pests, it's worth it to go through the inspections before getting aboard the shuttle from Earth.

The cylinder becomes a kind of Eden regained in O’Neill’s fantasy, an Arcadia retrofitted with solar panels and cosmic-ray shields. Not only can you slurp personal papayas under a bug-free sun, but laborers tasked with processing raw space materials will have time for “reading magazines” during their zero-gravity commutes. Resource mining will be automated, leaving workers plenty of opportunity for “swapping stories and passing the coffee-pot back and forth”. Even television reception will be better, and “the ubiquitous, ugly TV antenna of American suburbia will vanish”, due to receivers built directly into the cylindrical endcaps.

The images gathered below were created in the mid-1970s during O’Neill’s summer research programs on space colonization held at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The artists include Don Davis, who would later help design the visuals for Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, and Rick Guidice, who illustrated space projects for NASA across fifteen years. In an interview about the project, Davis discusses how his images of O’Neill’s ideas still have a “freshness”, for they continue to embody “the aspirations people have had ever since the space age began”. While this is certainly true — and the artists’ visions of artificial cylindrical worlds have had an outsized influence on science fiction — these psychedelic vistas populated by high-tech homes and cocktail-sipping residents were also a product of their cultural climate.

It was a heady time for both artists and theorists. A report on O’Neill’s 1977 summer study, claiming that space cities would be feasible by 1990, appeared next to Timothy Leary’s unhinged essay about “The Psychological Effects of High Orbital Migration”, in which the hallucinogen researcher expressed his concerns about “the South Americanization of Space (i.e. the emergence of civil-service bureaucracies, military dictatorships, class struggle, centralized monopolies, imposition of standardized life-styles)”. As the space race cooled off during the Cold War’s Détente — symbolized by the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, which saw American and Soviet astronauts shaking hands in outer space — O’Neill lost faith in NASA’s ability and political will to support new ventures in space colonization. From the late 1970s onward, in Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy’s words, “he never stayed from a belief that the private sector would be the only organization capable of opening the space frontier”. It seems one of his students was listening intently. If Jeff Bezos’ mockups of Blue Origin space colonies feel as dated as they do grim, it is because they borrow heavily from Gerard O’Neill, whom he studied under at Princeton in the 1980s, and the artworks featured below.

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