Space Shuttle in space.

Space Colonies: What Happened To Those Massive Space Habitats Planned By NASA?

Remember when space colonies seem like they were just around the corner? Back in the ’60s and ’70s, NASA scientists and others had elaborate dreams about massive rotating space colonies positioned between the Earth and the moon, as well as lunar bases that would ultimately grow into cities. Whatever happened to that?

Even in the 1950s, Collier’s magazine was featuring detailed diagrams of rotating space stations on its covers. Yet they never materialized.

What Kind of Space Colonies?

In the heady days of the ’60s and ’70s, it still seemed as though America’s space program was heading on a direct line toward the kind of colonization of outer space that was carried out on Earth during the Age of Exploration. One of the first scientists to come up with reasonable plans for what are – essentially – cities in space was American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill.

According to O’Neill, NASA could use materials mined from the moon and from asteroids to construct huge rotating cylinders at the Lagrange points between the Earth and the moon where the gravitational pull of either body would have little or no effect on the space colony. As noted by the National Space Society, it was O’Neill’s view that the cost of transporting the millions of tons of material necessary for such a space station would be reduced by getting materials from the moon or asteroids.

This is because it costs so much to lift even a few pounds of cargo through the Earth’s 1G gravity field. But the moon’s gravity is only a fraction of the Earth’s, which would mean far less fuel or energy would be required to lift a given amount of mass from the moon to the aforementioned Lagrange point.

As noted by AmericaSpace, magnetic accelerators similar to those used in particle accelerators on Earth could be used to essentially shoot tons of ore or processed materials into space where it could then be collected and carried to the space colony construction site. Vast qualities would be required, since the habitat would need thick radiation shielding.

Mining asteroids would be even easier, since these bodies would offer virtually no gravitational resistance at all. Of course, it would be necessary to mine the correct ones for whatever materials were required. A carbonaceous chondrite asteroid could provide water for extraction, but a metal heavy asteroid would be needed for construction materials.

Once constructed, these huge colonies would rotate to provide simulated gravity for the inhabitants of the colony. Hundreds of thousands – or depending on the size – even millions of people could live on the interior of such a colony.

So What Happened?

During the 1960s, and even into the early ’70s, the United States poured a significant – but still quite small – percentage of its yearly budget into NASA and space exploration. But by the time the Nixon administration was winding down and heading toward Watergate, the government slashed funding for NASA and all future programs. As Nixon put it:

Space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities. … What we do in space from here on in must become a normal and regular part of our national life and must therefore be planned in conjunction with all of the other undertakings which are important to us.

As it was, NASA barely got the funding to pay for the space shuttle. Certainly, wild, pie-in-the-sky fantasies about massive space colonies rotating in space were going to get funding from pragmatic – one could say cynical – politicians thinking about short-term political gain. Even today, the Congress is reluctant to pay for a moon mission.

[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]