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A Real High-Rise in Space

Gerard O'Neill first popularized the idea of enormous colonies built in space in the 1970s. The concept arose from a question he asked his students in a special freshman physics seminar at Princeton in 1969, the same year Man first set foot on the Moon: "Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?"

Though getting us there is going to be hard -- just overcoming political lassitude and the worn-out old smokescreen that suggests we'd be better off fixing our problems on Earth before we try to move to space will be major problems -- once we have a permanent foothold in space, the clear answer to the above question is "NO!" At the top of Earth's gravity well, instead of smothered down here at the bottom, we will, in terms of necessary energy, be literally halfway to anyplace in the solar system we'd care to go. Energy harvested from the sun will be free, clean, and abundant after the initial investments. Asteroids and the lunar surface will provide us with most of what we need in the way of building material, including the necessary compounds for life -- carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen -- mined from carbonaceous chondrites. In microgravity, we will be able to build BIG.

Illustrated is O'Neill's "Island Three" concept, an enormous cylinder four miles across and twenty miles long, rotating on its long axis to provide spin gravity on the cylinder's inner surface. Agricultural and industrial facilities are located in the ring to the left. Long, adjustable mirror panels reflect sunlight into the colony's interior, where it can mimic a normal day-night cycle. The colony's land area is sufficient to house several million colonists. The spherical objects in the foreground are 5,000-ton spacecraft bringing more hopeful immigrants up from Earth.

Don't know about you, but I'm ready to go right now. Where do I sign up?...

All text and artwork copyright (c) William H. Keith
This page was last updated on 05/29/2011