Reviews / January 8, 2020
You’ve seen the images before: interiors of massive cylindrical and spherical space habitats, where posh-looking off-world colonists attend catered cocktail parties and sip coffee on their (seemingly) tilted verandas; where space-suited construction workers navigate through zero-g miles above an immaculate suburbia, complete with backyard swimming pools; where elongated ribbons of verdant frontier alternate with windows admitting both sunlight and views of the looming Earth and Moon. Given the apocalyptic witlessness of our current politics, it’s hard to imagine that these brazenly idealistic renderings are anything more than cover art for an old series of Heinlein paperbacks, but in fact they are conceptual designs commissioned by NASA in 1975 “to assess the human and economic implications as well as technical feasibility” of space colonies. They pop up every year on various sites and publications, discovered anew with expressions of bewildered glee and filed under what we now call retrofuturism. But in Space Settlements, Fred Scharmen ventures far beyond the surface appeal of these enduring artifacts, exploring how they “mediate anxieties about the American city, about technology, and about the changing role of human beings within space and architecture more generally.”
The story begins with Princeton professor Gerard O’Neill, who, in 1969, invited his best students to question whether planetary surfaces were “the right place for an expanding technological civilization.” Things did not seem to be going well on Earth, after all, and young people, even young Ivy Leaguers, increasingly viewed science as a tool of destruction and subterfuge owned and operated by the military and political establishment. (Theodore Roszak makes this skeptical attitude central to the same year’s The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition, where he defines technocracy as a “paternalism of expertise… which has learned a thousand ways to manipulate our acquiescence with an imperceptible subtlety.”) O’Neill and his students worked on the engineering and physics of rotating orbital habitats, and O’Neill, at least, decided that space might be a better fit for us—some of us, anyway—and that he was on to “something very important.” The leading scientific magazines and journals did not immediately agree, repeatedly rejecting O’Neill’s paper on the subject; it wasn’t until four years later that he saw any progress—a grant from Merry Prankster and Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand. This resulted in two conferences at Princeton (May 1974 and May 1975), which led to the 1975 NASA Summer Study at Stanford University. Although hundreds of schematics and illustrations pepper 1977’s summary report, Space Settlements: A Design Study, it’s the 13 large paintings illustrated by American artists Don Davis and Rick Guidice that frame Scharmen’s narrative (and appear in detail throughout the book, along with hundreds of photos and a lengthy appendix of never-before-seen sketches from the personal libraries of Davis and Guidice).
The idea of orbiting space colonies, and the visualization thereof, did not emerge from a vacuum. Scharmen discusses in compelling depth the architectural and philosophical foundations of the “inside-out planets,” as Brand called them, including (this is not a complete list) an 1883 sketch by Russian space scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky that Scharmen remarks is “the earliest known visual depiction of humans living in free-fall,” John Bernal’s 1929 pamphlet The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, in which the Bernal sphere is postulated, Le Corbusier’s landmark The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning (1929) and his “ideal” Radiant City, Wernher von Braun’s “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” articles for Collier’s in the early ’50s, Space Race-fueled futurist depictions of hollow asteroid colonies capable of supporting up to a million intrepid souls, and, of course, NASA’s short-lived Skylab. Scharmen contrasts these predecessors with fictional models like the Death Star and Space Station V from 2001: A Space Odyssey and contemporary megastructures like the International Space Station and Apple Park, always with an eye to exploring “the relationships between architecture and speculative disciplines.”
Although O’Neill and the study participants instructed Davis and Guidice on the visual designs meant to “sell” the space settlement concept, the artists (Scharmen interviewed both extensively) brought their own touches and notions to the final product, culled largely from the increasingly popular science fiction genre (one of Davis’s pre-Summer Study paintings had been inspired by Larry Niven’s 1970 novel Ringworld) and the counterculture’s ecological experiments with modular and communal living: Scharmen notes that in one of Davis’s paintings, which appeared on the cover of a 1977 Whole Earth Catalog book (edited by Brand) called Space Colonies, a Golden Gate Bridge stand-in runs parallel to the axis of a cylinder habitat designed to emulate the San Francisco Bay Area (where Davis was raised); in the lush foreground, parents and their children sunbathe, cavort in a stream, and play Frisbee, their solar-powered, dome-like cabin nearby. O’Neill himself claimed, somewhat disingenuously, that he hadn’t been influenced by sci-fi (the “stories,” he said, provided “no useful ideas contributory to a practical scheme for space colonization”), and probably came to resent the influence of Brand and his acolytes, though he seemed to understand that buy-in from both communities was necessary.
For O’Neill, and for many others inside and outside the Summer Study bubble, the space settlements were “part Eden, part Ark,” Scharmen says—“the frontier without hardship and the city without difference.” They thus represent a distinctly American brand of utopianism—Carl Sagan called O’Neill’s proposals “America in the skies,” one of “the few places to which the discontent cutting edge of mankind can emigrate”—that has cropped up and fizzled out in communities from New Haven to New Harmony to Drop City to Zuccotti Park. O’Neill wrote in 1974 that “we have now reached the point where we can, if we so choose, build new habitats far more comfortable, productive and attractive than is most of Earth,” and in his 1977 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, he made a bolder claim: these new frontier settlements also would solve a “nonmaterial problem… not to be reckoned in dollars: the opportunity for increased human options and diversity of development.”
O’Neill may have been bright-eyed and full of blue sky, but he was also canny. In July 1975, as the Summer Study got going at Stanford, he testified before the House Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications about the possibility, logistics, and strategic advantage of American colonies in space. Against the backdrop of the energy crisis, turmoil in the Middle East, deepening recession, fear of imminent overpopulation (O’Neill’s project was partly a “refutation” of and solution to the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth, a report concluding that the world’s human inhabitants would consume the resources needed to sustain themselves within a few decades), his pitch was couched in a language of entrepreneurship and nationalism that Congress could understand: we would build a “beachhead in space” that would soon grant the US “energy independence” through production of profitable synthetic fuels, as well as room to breathe and grow. “Earthlike human communities” in space represent “a product for which there is a big market, and which satisfies a need.” For a small initial investment (the “Spartan” tier cost $33 billion, while the “Luxurious” tier needed $200 billion), there would be a “direct-dollar” return, and, in 25 years or so, “total payback.” Utopia, it seems, just like everything else, can be bought.
Although a good part of Scharmen’s book is necessarily devoted to the technical concepts of space science and urban design (it’s to his credit, not mine, that I was able to follow along on feedback systems, spin gravity, Cartesian skyscrapers, and so on), Space Settlements is at heart a book about “the necessary investigations into the political and social agendas embedded” in the Summer Study’s particular “acts of design”—embedded in all acts of design, really. “If the environment is designed,” Scharmen writes, “then the population is designed.” Nearly all depictions of future space habitats and future living from the Cold War era feature a certain type of human: white, young, thin, manicured, lively, happy; one young black woman appears in the Summer Study paintings (at the cocktail party), likely based on a model from Guidice’s stock art collection. Both Carl Sagan and Stewart Brand recognized that the very idea of a space “colony,” of a new “frontier” or “settlement,” carried with it “language… hard to extricate from a history of violence, expropriation, and displacement”—but ultimately “colony” is what stuck. Was O’Neill’s project “about the creation of an inclusive, or exclusive, space?” Scharmen asks. “Who is invited into the rooms where these future spaces will be designed? Who is the space for?” It’s a timely question, given that the richest man in the world plans to build and run his own O’Neill cylinder, given all of these millionaires and billionaires reserving private flights to the Moon, given all this talk of mining Mars while, here on the old Blue Marble, our cities rust and our wilderness and wildlife burn.
To me, the Summer Study imagery recalls not so much an idealized future, but a mythical past. After so many wistful viewings over the course of the years, it occurs to me that the best of the paintings have something in common with classical landscapes (O’Neill instructed Guidice to make the habitat in his first illustration look like the “French countryside”). In the work of Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin and hundreds of others, tiny foreground figures cavort, bathe, trade, play, work, and rest, engulfed by the indifferent grandeur of divine nature and, at times, the looming Greek and Roman temples and towers—the advanced technology—of a bygone Golden Age. The scenes are fantasy: imaginary places and mythopoetic expressions designed to instill in the viewer a sense of harmony and order and humility. The difference in Davis and Guidice is that technology has conquered nature, finally, and there is nothing left to fear. What is grander or more implacable or closer to heaven than the endless void of star-flecked outer space? And what is more comforting and idyllic than the first-generation colonist in his white tennis shirt basking in the garden sunshine refracted from the translucent skin of his cylindrical womb? Here there is no decay, no disease, no disparity, no privation, no regrets—and no way for the huddled masses to get in. What is so heartbreaking about O’Neill’s “islands in space” is not that we don’t have them, but that we shouldn’t need them.