"What is feasible?" can be finally answered only by future historians
August 6, 2013 1:30 PM   Subscribe

"The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet." Before we get into terraforming, what about the space between worlds? NASA has a website dedicated to discussions of space settlements (previously), many going back to the 1970s, as seen in the CoEvolution Book on space settlement and the NASA Ames/Stanford 1975 Summer Study. There is also concept art from the 1970s by Don Davis (prev: 1, 2, 3) and Rick Guidice. Escaping from that orbit, there's also a toroidal space colony as imagined in the 1982 book Walt Disney's EPCOT, and more recently, a ton of neat imagery on Bryan Versteeg's Spacehabs website.

For more discussion of various stations, here's Wernher von Braun's toroidal station, a spherical "low-tech, walking city" space station, and a bit of history on NASA's space colony research of the 1970s.
posted by filthy light thief (15 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

It's always kind of sad seeing those space colony paintings. I came across some of those in the 1970's, when I was a space-crazy kid, and it seemed so sure that by the year 2000 we would have this kind of thing. All the science fiction writers thought so. OMNI magazine thought so. And so did I.
posted by thelonius at 1:46 PM on August 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

and it seemed so sure that by the year 2000 we would have this kind of thing.

Yeah, I thought the same thing. But it was and probably will not happen for at least decades, maybe a century. The Moon landings were a fluke, a beautiful one to be sure, but a fluke nonetheless. Even as Congress approved the money, steps were taken to make sure nothing grander would happen.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:55 PM on August 6, 2013

I don't even think the Apollo program would have happened without the Cold War.
posted by thelonius at 2:02 PM on August 6, 2013

Be patient, my friends. Like you pointed out, scientific progress isn't linear, nor is history. We could be on a brink of a new discovery that would thrust humanity into a new era. We may break the exascale computing barrier tomorrow thanks to a scientific paper published by an obscure quantum physicist. What do we know? Tomorrow we may discover what dark matter is made of. Tomorrow, Einstein's worthy successor may be born in India, China or Brazil, and he may grasp, one day, what every other scientist failed to see before him, and his theory alone could make interstellar travel a reality.

Either that or we could stagnate for the next millennium, or be wiped out by a bacteria or massive asteroid.
posted by surrendering monkey at 2:31 PM on August 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

A note, and a topical one in the current discussion: the post title comes from the forward of Space Settlements: A Design Study, in which an optimistic James C Fletcher likened the vast future potential for space settlements with the European trans-Atlantic voyages of the 14th and 15th Centuries, in which rulers didn't comprehend the all of the possibilities associated with the new culmination of technologies.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:35 PM on August 6, 2013

Is it science or engineering? Hopefully these guys, or others will be harvesting asteroids for raw materials sometime soon. Then once SpaceX or Scaled Composits start to seriously compete, we will have an affordable ride out to the hotel.

The functional 'actually working for actual residents" space environment will be designed just several miles away, straight up.
posted by sammyo at 2:42 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

It seems like this brand of science fiction, of our place within the stars, is increasingly taking the place of religion. /r/atheism especially used to be peppered with Sagan quotes, fawning over NDT, and jokes about how small Christianity/Islam is in context of the observable universe. I wonder what this will look like in 20 years, if something resembling an institution of worship will crop up and we start Paypal tithing over our smart-monocles.

European rulers had inquired what they should do with this new capability, no man could have been long-headed enough to perceive all the possibilities, nor persuasive enough to communicate his vision to others.

Realizations of space colonies always follow a design where they resemble semi-futuristic city spaces that are exclusively business-oriented and populated by the middle to upper class. The Epcot realizations, especially, remind me of the vast differences between Buckhead here in Atlanta and somewhere like Candler Park. Maybe that's what was so refreshing about Firefly with its focus on the blue collar. History, at least, tells us that a lot of the 14th/15th century innovations in technology led to the mass enslavement and colonization of parts of the world, effects of which are still present now. Will future space stations be built on the back of exploited countries who can't afford space programs? Who are going the be the lucky people who can afford to live in a space station? According to what we know about the SpaceX waiting list, likely only the very very rich. It's really cool stuff but I wonder about that rough transition phase between a modernized nation state and a regularly spacefaring one, if there will ever be one. Will it follow the kinds of political and economic narratives that have been tread over and over again throughout history? Does it incentivize global cooperation? If not, then will it all be privatized? Will capitalism still exist in some form? Will we have learned enough to fully regulate it? To not?

I guess this is why some people choose to write or draw science fiction. The hard science of it is really neat, though. The NASA site is mostly physics with some biology and chemistry but they seem pretty aware of the need for urban (nonterrestrial?) planning and design.
posted by dubusadus at 2:57 PM on August 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

We already have a space colony. It orbits a star at 108,000 km/h, circumnavigates a cluster of 100 to 400 billion stars at 828,000 km/h and the whole mess is speeding along at 630 km/s into the void. There is no possible better vessel for space exploration than ours since we evolved specifically to meet its standards. We simply need to stop pooping on its floor and pissing in the sink...
posted by jim in austin at 3:47 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like the wealth of fabulous links in this post! I desperately want more space stations, settling of other planets and so on. But the question remains in my head: Why build a manned space station? There is nothing in space. You have to bring *everything* you need.
posted by Triplanetary at 4:48 PM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is nothing in space. You have to bring *everything* you need.

Moons, comets and asteroids count, don't they? There are lots of resources there to exploit, and if you've gotten to the point of manufacturing in space the only thing that needs to be sent up from Earth is passengers.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:53 PM on August 6, 2013

There is nothing in space. You have to bring *everything* you need.

This is exactly why we should be mining the Moon or asteroids or whatever to start making stuff in space.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:19 PM on August 6, 2013

There is no possible better vessel for space exploration than ours since we evolved specifically to meet its standards.
The most important thing we evolved was the ability to build artificial environments whose standards suit us better. Without that we'd never have left the tropics and we'd still be having a pretty miserable time of things there.
posted by roystgnr at 7:56 PM on August 6, 2013

OK, here's my proposal to all those tech millionaires and their friends who browse Metafilter:

Set up a Pro-Science PAC. Fund primary challengers and general election competitors to any politician who demonstrates a deep-seated ignorance of and hostility to 1. the general concept of the scientific method 2. basic statistics 3. the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake 4. proper funding of education at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary level. Do you people want to go to the stars? MAKE IT HAPPEN.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:21 PM on August 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I had a book with those Don Davis illustrations too. We're a long way from keeping a small space station from smelling like gym socks, I doubt we can support a toroidal space station with perfect green sod for long.

Entering Space is an almost-compelling argument for economically sustainable space travel. But even it has some hand-waving about a fusion economy and so forth.

But I would really not have predicted we'd have the panoptic surveillance society before we even got to Mars. I mean come on you guys.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:36 PM on August 6, 2013

We don't have to go to space yet, but we don't have to live on the boring crust, either. Build seabed cities in the ocean! Build settlements deep underground! You can have your fancy colony on Earth, too!
posted by Apocryphon at 12:36 PM on August 7, 2013

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