Review: Space Settlements

Space Settlements
by Fred Scharmen
Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, 2019
paperback, 424 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-94133-249-8

The concept of space colonies (or space settlements, as they’re now more frequently called) has become almost iconic in the space field, even if they’ve advanced little in the last four decades. In the 1970s, there was a burst of energy about developing giant habitats not on the Moon or Mars but instead in free space, like the Earth-Moon L-5 Lagrange point, that could be designed and built to support tens of thousands of people. While NASA support for such studies lasted only briefly, a small but devoted group of space activists continues to carry the torch for space settlements to this day.

But while most people in the space industry don’t pay close attention to space settlements today, or believe they are feasible, they are likely familiar with the imagery associated with them. During that golden era for space settlements in the 1970s, the NASA-supported studies produced an array of artwork illustrating both the exteriors and interiors of space settlements. The interiors were usually the most compelling, suggesting that even in the harsh environment of space—vacuum, radiation, extremes of temperature—one could create an environment that looked like a small town, an upscale suburb, or even a metropolis, complete with a suspension bridge spanning a bay.

Space Settlements, a new book by Fred Scharmen, is not a straightforward history of space settlement designs from the 1970s. Instead, Scharmen, who teaches architecture and urban design at Morgan State University, ties together space settlement concepts from that era with work in topics ranging from architecture to science fiction, showing that, at the very least, space settlements were not developed in isolation.

Gerard K. O’Neill, who popularized the idea of space settlements in the early 1970s, seemed to reject the association with science fiction. Contemporary novels like Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Larry Niven’s Ringworld “contained no useful ideas contributory to a practical scheme for space colonization,” O’Neill wrote in response to one letter asking why those novels weren’t mentioned in his writings on the subject. That may, strictly speaking, be true, but they and works that both preceded and followed those novels certainly inspired interest—and perhaps were inspired by—the work O’Neill did to provide a technical underpinning for space settlements.

The book doesn’t dwell on the technical issues of space settlement development—or their shortcomings—but focuses more on the architectural and related issues, linking designs and their depictions with topics ranging from modern terrestrial architecture to the Club of Rome and its “Limits to Growth” report. Considerable emphasis is on the work of artists like Don Davis and Rick Guidice, who created much of the imagery of space settlement concepts that still resonates today.

But, as the book points out, different artists had different visions of space settlements. Davis, for example, contrasts his work, which includes a variety of houses and landscapes, with others that he said “show the colony crammed with levels of high density housing. Ugh.” A specific example he cited was an illustration by Pierre Mion for a National Geographic article in 1976 that Davis likened to a “dreary mega-shopping mall,” with people riding on escalators surrounded by buildings. (In Mion’s illustration, included in the book, one person is riding on an escalator wearing headphones and a visor; artists’ depictions of space settlements may not have become reality, but they did foresee AirPods and Google Glass, it seems.)

For all the attention to art and design in the subject matter of the book, it’s lacking in one aspect of the book itself. The book’s text is typeset in a bold, sans serif font, laid out in wide, justified columns. Open the book to facing pages without any artwork, and you’re confronted with a dense, uninviting block of text that’s no fun to read. It’s as if the author is saying, “Interested in learning more about space settlements? You’re going to have to work for it!”

The book’s focus is on that early surge of interest in space settlements in the 1970s, so there’s not much attention to what happened once NASA stopped funding studies, or when it became clear that the cheap space access required to even consider space settlements didn’t materialize with the shuttle. (Let alone what a community of, say, 10,000 people would be doing at L-5 that could be financially sustainable.)

Today, perhaps, space settlements are getting a new, if still tenuous, lease on life: Jeff Bezos talked up the potential of such settlements in a speech in May unveiling the Blue Moon lunar lander that Blue Origin, the company he funds, is developing. (See “Blue Moon and the infrastructure of space settlement”, The Space Review, May 13, 2019.) That included new artwork of space settlements clearly inspired by the depictions of four decades earlier. “These are beautiful,” he said. “People are going to want to live here.” Just not, he acknowledged, any time soon.

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