The Lost Dream of Trippy '70s Space Colonies

Long before NASA's famed Shuttle program came to a close, the biggest space ambitions of many an American had already withered

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"We have put men on the Moon. Can people live in space? Can permanent communities be built and inhabited off the Earth? Not long ago these questions would have been dismissed as science fiction, as fantasy or, at best as the wishful thinking of men ahead of their times," a 1975 NASA design study begins. "Now they are asked seriously not only out of human curiosity, but also because circumstances of the times stimulate the thought that space colonization offers large potential benefits and hopes to an increasingly enclosed and circumscribed humanity."

In the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, the dwindling resources of the Earth were on the minds of many. The solution, for a particular kind of Big Engineering adherent, wasn't to reduce the human footprint on this planet, but to extend it beyond the blue marble.

The space colony (a.k.a. space city for those who didn't like the baggage of the word 'colony') movement probably marks the apex of nominally realistic ambitious thinking about off-world living. The goal was to build a 10,000-person orbiting community with materials and technologies available to people in the 1970s. The wildly ambitious effort was centered at NASA Ames Research Center, a neighbor of Stanford University, which had to be the coolest place in the world during the third quarter of the 20th century.

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In a wonderful bit of mental flexibility, space colonies had a distinct ecotopian bent. I mean the latter adjective to refer specifically to Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach's 1975 fantastical voyage into a near-future in which the upper west coast has seceded to become a paradise for lovers of what was known as "appropriate technology." (Check out those floating wind turbines!) Appropriate technology was supposed to be scaled to human-needs and not energy intensive, though the term quickly came to encompass a bunch of other stuff that was mainly united by its lack of "high technology."

It's fascinating that this vision of appropriate technology, popularized by E.F. Schumacher in a book called Small Is Beautiful, was so easy to beam up to space with so many of its particulars attached. There's even a "human-powered airplane" in one of the illustrations.

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It's not actually hard to see why such a thing was possible, this marriage of high and appropriate technology. Conceptually, the colonies, while they required massive resources to build, would have been self-contained human communities without easy access to Earth's supply chains. They would have been frontier towns in space and as such would have had to prize self-reliance, closed-loop design, and alternative energy. Not only that, but the space colonies would have run satellite solar power stations (an idea that still kicks around now and again), providing them with a reason to be and an income -- and obviating the need to develop the more high-fallutin' forms of nuclear power like breeder reactors.

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