Read the full article "The Men Who Made Space Colonies Look Like Home" here.
In the mid-1970s, to a visionary few, space colonies seemed like the future of humanity. One of the colony types deemed feasible was the cylinder colony, here shown in a double-cylinder version envisioned by Gerard O'Neill, a Princeton physicist.
Rick Guidice, the painter who made this image for a NASA report on space colonies, explains what's going on here. The cylinders sport haloes of agriculture pods, he says. The pods "rotate themselves, they have their own gravity, and they pivot on those rings that go all the way around. On the end of these cylinders was a zero-gravity manufacturing area, where manufacturing and producing energy or whatever else they were doing that was best suited for zero gravity took place.” The machinery rendered at the end of the cylinders, though, isn't specific. “I just invented all that. Space-stuff.”
The cylinders are fitted with long glass windows and matching mirrors that angle outwards. “The idea with the big mirrors and the windows is that they’re opening and closing to create night and day. The cylinders point directly at the sun, so there’s no sun going directly in the windows. At night these large reflectors close up and can protect the glass and stop the sunlight to create night. Then they open up slowly to create day, open more and more until it’s finally open about noon, and then start closing down slowly in the afternoon to replicate the sun throughout the day.”
Guidice got instructions from O'Neill on how to depict the interiors of colonies. “He wanted it to be very rural farmland kind of thing. Not really high density. But most likely it would not be like that.”
How did O'Neill and other space colony proponents think to justify the immense cost of building these colonies?
“It became a stepping stone—people who lived there would be free of the earth’s gravity and would be free to travel and do other things, like asteroid mining. They would go out on a large mission and capture an asteroid and mine all the valuable ores out of it. [They'd] then shoot them through a linear accelerator that would decay the orbit and would bring this mass of material closer and closer to the Sun until it got to the orbit of the Earth. They would then unload, reverse the process to stabilize the orbit, and take all the material, using it to built whatever was required, or returning it to the Earth as an economic commodity.”
Though the space colonies would likely have been much more like shopping malls, O'Neill and the painters hoped these romantic depictions would convey the grandeur of the proposed colonies, according to Don Davis, who painted this scene.
“The idea was that these things are big enough that you could basically build nations in them,” he says. O'Neill had suggested this sort of scene, he continued. “I lived in the Bay Area at the time, with the green hills and such, and I was very enthused to encapsulate that life and that area.”
Was there ever any possibility that the colonies might eventually evolve into these lush landscapes, hundreds of years after their founding?
Davis's response is optimistic. “The first ones might not—they’re going to be very austere—but as they get bigger, more elaborate, then it will happen. Part of the project of what we have to bite off to begin to contemplate something like this is the ability to create our own ecosystems.”
This Davis painting of a cylinder colony shows an unusual event: “Every once in a while, the Sun will move behind the Earth, causing an eclipse [from the colony's perspective]. During that time, the lighting gets all red.”
“The earth is shown reflected in one of those mirrors, with the last bit of sunlight disappearing.”
The interior of a toroid colony, painted by Rick Guidice. The paintings tended to be about 30 by 40 inches, and Guidice would drive them to Ames Research Center himself, a twenty-minute trip from his Los Gatos studio.
Guidice describes this Bernal sphere colony: “Way out at the end is the industrial package, then we have our giant solar panels to gather energy, then there’s a polished tube that goes down the center into the inside and these tire-like cylinders that go on down.
"The green inside is the agriculture area. The round sphere beyond that had the habitat inside. Those mirrors that are at different angles shine down on those other mirrors that are right next to the sphere and then shine through a window into the inside of the colony.”
Guidice: “This is a cutaway of those tubes we were looking at. Inside you see the sheep, and the cows, and the pigs, and the farmer with the tractors, and people harvesting. Lettuce and broccoli, I guess, and tomatoes and cucumbers.”
A view inside the inhabited part of the Bernal sphere colony.
Guidice's backgrounds show a fanciful view of space: “Nebulae pictures always intrigued me, so I did a painting one time using a very active, exciting background, and it was received real well. In actuality the blackness of space is absolute, where I just threw these more romantic nebulae type images into the context. As an artist I couldn’t help myself. And nobody said not to do it, so away we went.”
Zooming to the Bernal sphere, a scene with cocktail drinkers and a flying cyclist.
Guidice on the cyclist: “You could technically free yourself from gravity there, if you just stopped rotating—if you got off the ground. The rotation creates the gravity, but if you were to match the speed of the rotation, it would become zero. So you could float off and float around in there quite easily.”
See more NASA space colony artwork here.