Whatever Happened to Space Colonies?

Artist's concept of the interior of an O'Neill Island Three orbital colony. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center posted on AmericaSpace
Why is it that the concept of orbital colonies, destinations which could alleviate many of the problems here on Earth, have faded away? Image Credit: NASA / Ames

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, it seemed everyone was talking about orbital colonies and emigrating into space with their families. The publication of Gerard K. O’Neill’s “The High Frontier,” especially, came at a time of great enthusiasm about the possibility of mass migration beyond the Earth. So, what happened to those dreams of millions of us moving away from our home planet to live in orbit or elsewhere in the Solar System?

The idea of space colonization has a long history, stretching back to the 19th century when writers like Edward Hale, Jules Verne, and Kurd Lasswitz saw humans spreading out into space just as easily as they’d moved from continent to continent on Earth. In the 1920s, Irish physicist J. D. Bernal became one of the first scientists to describe orbital colonies in detail. As the material and energy needs of the human race grew, Bernal concluded, it would become natural someday to build habitats out in space to harness the Sun’s energy and provide extra living space. He conceived of self-sufficient globes, 10 miles across, that would each be home to 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants.

Almost half a century later, Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill based the scheme for his Island One colony on a small version of the Bernal sphere, some 500 meters in diameter. Rotating twice a minute this would generate an Earth-normal artificial gravity at its equator. O’Neill went on to design much larger orbiting colonies, including his Island Three concept which consisted of two immense rotating cylinders, anywhere from five to 20 miles long. Each cylinder would have six equal-area stripes running the full length of the colony, including three transparent windows and three habitable “land” surfaces. An outer agricultural ring would supply all the colony’s food needs. Materials to build Island Three would be launched into space from the Moon using a magnetic mass driver.

NASA artist's concept of a lunar colony concept posted on AmericaSpace
Until the Obama Administration cancelled the Vision for Space Exploration, NASA had been directed to a lunar colony. Image Credit: NASA

The location chosen for Island Three was L5the fifth Lagrangian pointin the Earth-Moon system. L5 is a point of stable equilibrium in the Moon’s orbit, forming an equilateral triangle with the Earth and the Moon. No effort would be needed to keep the colony in place because the gravitational forces acting on it would always nudge it back into place.

Crucial to the success of such a habitat would be solar power satellites (SPSs), which could also be built from lunar materials. Unhindered by the Earth’s atmosphere, an SPS would collect solar energy non-stop, 24 hours a day, and at a much higher rate than any facility on the ground. Then it would transmit the energy it had gathered to where it was needed as a beam of microwaves. Between 1977 and 1980, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $25 million on research into SPSs and, for a while, it seemed that space colonies might become a reality within a generation or so. But in 1981, in the midst of a world energy crisis, the Carter administration axed the $5.5 million for SPS that had been in the budget for that fiscal year, and it was never restored. With the loss of the SPS program the dream of realizing an L5 colony any time in the foreseeable future effectively died.

Today we talk about returning to the Moon to build a base there, or to colonize Mars. But the emphasis has changed. The colonization of space, if it happens, is seen less as a grand-scale effort by national space agencies and more as an incremental affair building on the successes of private and commercial ventures. And perhaps, in the end, that’s how it should be.


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  1. President Carter cut funding for this program in 1981? After the Department of Energy spent $25 million on research? Who was the POTUS that placed solar panels on the roof of the White House, and who was the POTUS that had them removed? After January 20th, 1981, President Carter was out of office, and Ronald Reagan was President. I think this story needs more fact checking and clarification, as it seemed contradictory within itself.

  2. Both Russia and China have expressed the intent to create a permanent presence on the lunar surface as the first step in human exploration beyond Earth. It may not be soon, but they are planning to make it happen. Perhaps Russia, China, and the ESA will work together in an ISS-style cooperative effort making it less financially burdensome and avoiding duplication. Many Apollo astronauts, Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, et al. believe that we need to return to the Moon. I agree.

  3. Mr. Darling, I have to side with Gary Walters on this one. It is highly unlikely that President Carter himself had anything to do with the cancellation of the SPS project. The pdf you referred to does not support your claim that the cut was made by the Carter administration.

    You also incorrectly stated that funding for SPS research was never restored. The pdf states that some funding was provided during the Clinton administration in the late 1990s.

  4. Quoting directly from the source I mentioned: “[T]he Department of Energy and NASA funded some studies in the late 1970’s on space solar power options; that ended abruptly with some cuts in President Carter’s DOE budget.”

  5. It’s great to see that articles on AmericaSpace are subjected to such intense “peer review”. If a posting on AmericaSpace passes close scrutiny by so many astute individuals, it must be true!

  6. Yes, cuts to the budget Carter submitted to Congress. Neither President Carter, nor his administration, made the cuts.

    I was alive back then. Energy was one of President Carter’s key issues. He was a nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy. Solar water heating and photovoltaic panels were coming to market because of his energy policies. Wind technology was being developed. Insulation in homes and businesses became a standard building practice in the late 1970s because of the priority given to energy conservation. Though many malign Carter’s legacy, energy was one of the things he addressed aggressively and with innovative thinking.

    President Reagan was a friend to big oil, fossil fuel, and maintaining the status quo. No surprise there. When he assumed office, Reagan dismantled almost every effort (with seeming venomous vigor) President Carter supported to develop new energy and conserve. It’s no coincidence that funding for SPS was cut in 1981. President Reagan was pro-space, but with a heavy emphasis on militarization.

    By the way, I enjoyed the premise of your story. I hope you will investigate this further, get clarification, and cite additional sources.

    • The largest reason Reagan killed Carter’s energy subsidies for solar and other alternative efforts was that they were not nearly cost-effective. One need only look at the depressed oil prices that lasted from the early-80’s through the mid-2000’s to see that the high oil prices of the 1970’s were artificial. Those low oil prices would have made supporting Carter’s energy subsidies obscene. And it turns out that they weren’t necessary, at least as Carter originally premised his alternative energy effort as part of an effort to make America energy independent. According to the IEA, we’re heading there today. And yes, I’m in the fossil energy business, have been since 1990.

      Another legacy of Carter was his attempt at ending the Shuttle program, which was just beginning to bend metal. Sound like an Administration we know? Déjà vu all over again.

      Anyway, as it turned-out, according to press articles Carter couldn’t end Shuttle because it was then the only launch system capable of lifting the KH-11 Keyhole spy satellite, which was needed for verifying the SALT II treaty. So, Carter’s attempt to end the nation’s follow-on to Apollo was stymied. Of course, due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, SALT II was not ratified by the Senate though the treaty was none-the-less followed by both sides. And the KH-11 played a big part in allowing the US to do that.

      • Wow, Jim, I didn’t know that Carter tried to end the Shuttle program! My read of American history needs some updating!

        Damn, it just reminds me of a quote by Metallica’s vocalist, James Hetfield:

        “Politics is the thing that gets in the way, when things need to be done”.

  7. Jack, I too was alive then and I’m familiar with President Carter’s advocacy of green energy — long before it was fashionable. The issue of funding for SPS’s is a specific one and not a commentary on his overall stance with respect to alternative energy. It is simply a matter of public record, not opinion, that the funding for this project was dropped in the budget prepared by his Administration.

    • I, too, was alive back then. Carter was interested in Earth-bound versions of solar power. He, nor his administration, were fans of SPS.

      Mr. Darling is right. All you have to do is read the .pdf document. It clearly states Carter made the cuts to the DOE budget.

  8. Short answer to title question: Reality.

    Long answer:

    What happened to those dreams is that the dreamers were never going to be able to afford it. Still not for a number of reasons.

    Economics rules. Space is affordable, but not if we continue to look at it from the same point of view, over and over. Even Elon Musk, hero to many, does not get it. The wealth that exists for our taking is beyond imagination, but it is exactly lack of imagination that keeps us from reaching it. Even if Musk reaches his goal of $500k per ticket, that is not enough. Taking resources from colonists is exactly the wrong thing we should be doing which includes taking away their freedom.

    Asteroid mining companies are a step in the right direction. They only make sense if you realize they are not going to be sending much of their production to earth. The cost of getting things to LEO and beyond is a major factor in keeping us held up. Asteroid mining has a potential to break some of that log jam but even then more is needed.

    Wealth will get us there. The solar system contains enormous wealth. We do not have to look to the universe which has magnitudes more. Just our solar system has more wealth than the earth has ever seen. King Solomon never had so much wealth. But people have no understanding of what wealth is. You can not be wealthy in isolation. Wealth only exists in trade with other people. Wealth is not intrinsic.

    This means wealthy colonists, not bedraggled slaves struggling to survive, should be the goal for tapping into the wealth of the solar system. We need to understand that opportunistic is more important than deterministic in producing wealth.

    Deterministic is THE PLAN. Opportunistic is FREE PEOPLE WITH RESOURCES.

    O’Neill colonies are one of THE PLANS. The people living on them, assuming they could have afforded to get there, would be very limited in their opportunities. All resources would be coming from somewhere else and they would not individually be able to go after them.

    Put a person with nothing on a planet like earth and they could make their own opportunities. Each in their own chosen direction.

    There is only one earth and getting to the closest analogy, mars, is too expensive for colonists, but not too expensive for a company that could make a profit transporting them for free.

    Free your mind and the rest will follow.

    • “Wealth will get us there…”

      So well said!! I’m still awestruck by the inability of the powers that be to see that! I mean, c’mon, it would seem so obvious that everyone would realise the riches of the solar system and would want a piece from all this cosmic wealth out there! Yet, we’re still chasing our tails here on Earth!

      *with a trace of sarcasm* Maybe that’s just evidence that homo sapiens isn’t as intelligent a spieces as we think, after all?

        • Because I was reminded something that Neil deGrasse Tyson once said:

          Aliens talking to one another:
          -Here is the whole Universe at their disposal, and those fool humans are just fighting over some finite deposits of fossil fuel!”

  9. So just like the Mayflower ..those early settlers worked off the cost of transport for a period of time…So it will be the same for going to Mars…

    • Tracy, that’s the mentality we have to break.

      You assume the colonist owe for the transportation. My plan is to turn that around. The transportation companies will owe the colonists for the privilege of securing their claims by tying them to the colonists claims which will more than pay the cost of transportation.

      Making the colonists bond servants is not going to work. Although it might seem to at first. This leads to poverty for all.

      You either swim with the river or against. Making colonist pay (swimming against) means keeping everybody poor including the transportation companies. I’ve told you what the source of wealth is. You don’t get it by limiting trade, but by expanding it (swimming with.)

      • So you give the colonists transportation and an equity position in exchange for …securing the claims of the supporting company because space law states you own only what you occupy?

        • You aren’t giving them an equity position. The right to that is long established law. They already have the right to make reasonable claims. What they don’t have (and never will in large numbers) the funds to get there. Not addressing that means it will never happen. Ever.

          The purpose of the charter is to establish a precedent. That is that the transportation company also has the right to make reasonable claims secured by the claims possessed by others.

          We have to face a reality that will never go away. Settlement will never happen in the numbers that are required if the colonists foot the bill. It will never happen. So we have to break the rigid thinking of central planning and bond servants.

          The Space Settlement Initiative wants to give Alaska sized territories out to a single company. Aren’t the flaws with that idea obvious? My idea allows them to have Alaska sized territories only if they earn it by transporting enough colonists. It guarantees development where the SSI does not.

          So yes, you transport the colonists for free but not without a return on the investment. Yes, space law needs to have this new provision established as a precedent so that anybody can make a profit transporting colonists for free.

  10. Ken,
    As for space station colonies…Won’t Astraoid mining, robotic construction, 3D manufacturing (printing) and strong AI change the scope of and time of the next major industrial revolution? Ken wont all of this start seemingly slow and then acclererate like being shot out of a canon…?

    • It may eventually, but that’s the hard way.

      Don’t fall for strong AI. We can make a computer sound like HAL but not think like HAL. We need a lot more humility regarding thinking about thought.

      3D printing (I’ve got my eye on a model myself) is a step backward in some ways. Injection molding will produce a thousand parts in the time it takes a 3D printer to produce one. But don’t get me wrong, for limited runs and prototyping they’re great. Just don’t buy all the hype. For example, that 3D printed gun turned out to be a zip gun that would not hold up to reuse (not that it had to be such. Another design might have overcome those problems.) It is encouraging that printers designed to work in zero g are being developed.

      Asteroid mining has to happen, but the motivation for it today is fuel for mars colonists because that’s where the near term profits are. Other construction we will need to learn and I’m certain we are in for some surprises. It will be a great time to be alive.

      Robot construction is nothing new. It should be used everywhere. It is a capital investment to increase productivity very similar in many ways to employee training.

      What really makes an industrial revolution? That’s something to think deeply about. I haven’t yet. It’s not going to be 3D printing although that may have a small part.

      • I am not thinking HAL but Watson from IBM and Jeprody fame….Ya I get that 3D printing is still in its infancy and if you need the replacement part in 2 min. or the ship blows up and it will take 7 hours to fabricate …but it is a start…I think Astroid Mining will be the big surprise, easy and implemented quickly…

        • Watson did no more thinking than a rock. It was simply an algorithm… not thinking.

          I agree that once we really get down to it, asteroid mining is going to show a huge profit… but not because of earth exports which may provide needed cash flow but not profits.

          Once they have a rock in orbit around the moon, yes it gets quick after that. The biggest news was Bechtel getting involved with Planetary Resources.

          • Oh sh** , I missed the Bechtel announcement! …. Well then this is going to happen sooner rather than later…First Watson is 178 Algorithms that run concurrently…Much less can drive a car….

            So here we have a major heavy hitter in Bechtel that does mining…So now I completely understand why NASA has just decided to capture an asteriod as their next project….And will turn it over after scientific study to Bechtel er ..Planetary Resources for a dollar…

            • Yes, Bechtel is the big news. It isn’t a hobby for them.

              Algorithms are explicitly NOT thinking, no matter how many of them run concurrently. You’re not alone in not understanding this. There is a profound misunderstanding by almost everyone regarding what thinking is.

              Touring, a brilliant man, sent us down this wrong road by giving up on figuring out what thinking really is, instead saying it didn’t matter. If a computer could fool a person that was enough.

              It isn’t. People have been fooled for a long time (early chess playing machines which actually had a person hidden inside.)

              The important thing to understand is that algorithms are the exact opposite of thinking. It does take thinking to produce them. But they themselves are not thinking at all. They are simply a mechanical response to input.

              The singularity will never happen if it has to rely on non-thinking algorithms.

              Researchers are beginner to learn what thinking is. We do know that quantum probabilities are involved (another reason an algorithm never, and will never, get there.)

              An algorithm can make a thinker smarter. Google makes everyone a genius.

  11. Look, none of it will happen unless some way is found to lower the cost of transport to leo and beyond. This appears to need some sort of approach consisting of: reusable systems, reduced labour in all systems via design simplification and improved manufacturing techniques, advanced system research and development for the ‘missing’ beo (exploration) pieces, as well as higher flight rates, to name a few. NASA is not working with any consistency or significant level of effort on any of these to the best of my knowledge.

    Not their fault as they take direction from Congress.

    Congress through NASA seems not to want to invest in or understand these requirements and consequently are not interested in funding, if indeed they (collectively) understand them.

    NASA’s primary mission is job creation and then secondly finding value to add for the taxpayer. This is a statement from the NASA Administrator and is on public record. They’re pretty good at the first, can’t see much evidence for the second given their recent efforts. Here I’m simply using as evidence, their large flagship missions discussed in the GAO Selected Large Projects Report of recent.

    Anyway, the future appears IMO, to be pretty bleak wrt any space colonies per se unless NASA can take something from the recent Bigelow SAA report (yet to be finalised) and form some meaningful partnerships with those commercial companies interested in ‘getting out there’.


    • Bringing down cost to LEO is mom and apple pie. You can’t argue with that, but that’s not the prime mover.

      Costs always start too high. What gets cost down is the horse, not the cart. Getting costs down happens with frequency and competition. But the very first thing is comparing costs to return. If you don’t have return it doesn’t matter how low the costs go. BUT if you have return, it doesn’t matter how high costs are.

      Do you remember when a home computer cost $10k and had less power than your phone? I do. How would the costs have come down if nobody bought those expensive doorstops? If they didn’t sell, that IBM guy that said the entire world could only use a handful of computers would have been proven right.

      Space is no different. Profit potential exists. At today’s costs.

      Commercial revenues from [private] space … totaled $225.87 billion in 2012. That’s almost three times the amount that governments

      Just one percent of the revenue from one year would allow us to start the exploitation of an entire world with tremendous profit potential.

      A profit at today’s cost. It just a matter of the right lightbulb (mine doesn’t come with $2b unfortunately.)

      NASA isn’t going to give us a new world but they can help in their way.

  12. Hi Ken. Not sure quite what you’re driving at or how you plan to proceed. Perhaps you could break it up into bite-sized chunks for me without all the extra verbage?


    • I can try. It will [NOT] happen unless…

      It is economically viable. Economics includes PIE. Profit=Income-Expense.

      You can not look at costs in isolation. The fact that they are so high makes that difficult, but it has to be done. So…

      We take baby steps. How can we get returns that justify the current costs? That is the only question because saying we have to get costs down doesn’t actually get cost down any faster. Economic growth does get costs down faster.

      The space industry is profitable. Right now at existing costs. That is an amazing statement considering the high costs but not something to be ignored. We just need to continue looking for more ways to make profits.

      Baby steps. We put another station in orbit because the I.S.S. doesn’t fill the demand of nations that want to put research crew in orbit. This new station goes up for a one time cost of about $400m (two launches on the Falcon Heavy) and returns a profit every year after break even which happens in 9 to 18 months. Other baby steps to follow.

      • Let me keep it simple…

        How can we get returns that justify the current costs?

        We just need to focus on that. Costs will come down.

        • Ok thanks for that Ken but I’d like to suggest that it’s really a two pronged approach.

          We need to grow new space business and some of that, we’re not sure what returns are available if any. So cheap space habitats are a requirement as the ISS is expensive and capacity limited. Also it’s aging so limited life. Bigelow should continue to develop his space habitats and the signs are promising.

          You’re right in that SpaceX is driving down launch costs and hopefully will continue to do so. CCiCap is hopefully driving down crew access costs. If neither of these cost reductions happen, then I’d say it’s doubtful that you’d get new investment unless you can demonstrate a strong business case.

          I think little R&D would be undertaken and forget additional space habitats as they need people and Bigelow indicated his seat cost to make his business case viable. IIRC something in the order of $20 million or so. Russia charges $63 million last contract extension I think.

          So to sum up, I agree that you need profits but I think that much of the future new space business relies on continued reducing access costs.

          Baby steps are the way to go. This is something I don’t really think Congress and at least parts of NASA don’t understand hence the flagship mission approaches or actually have any interest in pursuing since small step approaches hardly ever generate thousands of jobs that flagship missions do.

          With respect to your last statement, I also don’t think there is any incentive in the U.S. for cost reduction other than SpaceX and none exists in Europe all other things being equal. Europe even ran away from Arienne 6 preferring to go the more costly evolved Arienne 5 upgrade route. Elon advised them that was a wrong move but you know governements. Even the Chinese have expressed doubts on how SpaceX can get their costs down to where they are. That should tell us something.

          All the existing space organisations have legacy systems that they’ve tinkered with around the edges. Only SpaceX has created clean-sheet designs and manufacturing, etc. They have been the major change agent and continue to be so in the space launch business and also in cargo. It remains to be seen whether they can do the same with their DragonRider Program. I sure hope so and that they aren’t smothered in red tape.


          • I think that much of the future new space business relies on continued reducing access costs.

            Of course. Look at the history of satellites. It’s not the government that made it into the billions of dollars industry that it is.

            PIE is inescapable. Profit always equals Income minus Expense. The thing is we are on the brink of it happening in commercial space beyond satellites. Bigelow’s Alpha Station will be the first break in the dam. It could be in orbit in as little as two or three years. Operating at continuous profit after the first year.

            Then it’s all incremental from there (if we do it the right way which means not charging colonists. There is plenty of profit available to companies taking the colonist for free.)

            I expect they will do it the hard way anyway. Breaking that mental model is not going to be easy.

  13. I look at the square kilometers of window proposed by O’Neill and shudder. They would leak- a lot. They would let in plenty of radiation, anyone who looked out of them would get giddy seeing the moon and earth whirling around outside and in all probability they could never have been built at all. Even without those problems they occupy half the surface area of the habitat, so would greatly reduce the usable space.

    The solution is not to have any windows, but to rely artificial lighting- much like that proposed by Arthur C Clark in his design for Rama- and to power it all by solar energy. Fully controllable, no radiation (assuming a thick enough outer structure), no leaks, and all of the surface areas available for use. Much better.

    • Absolutely right. Picture windows and space do not get along.

      Light can be guided in. Cameras give you most of your observations, but plastic observation bubbles will also be desired.

      The thing is, big ships in space (that’s what an O’Neill colony is) are not going to be economically viable before mars will be. A ship needs constant resupply. That means infrastructure we are in no way close to providing now.

      Mars does not need that level of infrastructure. Plans to put tin cans on the surface demonstrate a severe lack of understand about what a planet is. A planet is an enormous store of supplies for doing anything, all within walking distance (but they’ll use trucks.)

      Given resources and independence, colonists will figure out by themselves how to do more than any top down plan attempted. Only four of five dozen people with the right skills creates an entire industrial base (not everything, but enough to eventually get everything.)

      The most important thing they need after they get there costs almost nothing to provide: designs. Designs that they can manufacture because the colonists will include machinists with the skill. Designs that will be shaped by the feedback from the colonists. Designs that do not require costly rockets to get to mars. A few dozen colonists will have the entire earth to provide them with designs. Not designs regarding how to get there. But all the little designs required for living there.

      • All this presumes colonies will be granted independence. Terrestrial Colonialism defined is the control or governing influence of a nation over a dependent country, territory, or people. Therefore, it is likely outer space colonies will have the same influences, especially since Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty grants continuing jurisdiction over the outer space activities of its private citizens.

        • Michael,
          This is interesting considering all of the talk about going to Mars, NASA just released a report that said the radiation was to dangerous to traverse space to Mars so all of this talk is really Nonsense …Let us the Government handle this lest you hurt yourself…When in reality per the Space Treaty says …We have oversight over all of our citizens and we are NOT granting you permission to go to Mars…And most certainly you will NOT be granted Independence!!!

          Well that I say it is inevietable as it is either 1618 and the people want to go the new world or it is 1858 and We want to live seperately from the USA….Take your pick…

          • For the Martians to get there and start making little Martians the signers of the OST have to grant them permission to go there in the first place.

  14. The chief reason colonies didn’t happen is because they were *dumb*. They were 10,000 person condos a long way from where the real money was – GEO, the Moon and the Asteroids. Essentially the O’Neill Work-Shacks would have done the job of building SPS on-site in GEO without all the silly messing around in L 4 & L 5. And none of the absurd expense of building landscaped homes in the vacuum.

    As much as I love the concepts, its economics is ALL WRONG.

  15. Radiation would be a massive issue for a construction like this. No protection from solar storms etc.

  16. The pursuit of economic sense kills a lot of worthy concepts. And it is time Profit was no longer king. The microchip and comsat-only mentality is hurting spaceflight.

    The goal should be to make LVs larger and larger for their own sake and do these projects out of the same sense of community that gave us TVA

  17. All,
    Apparently some of you have forgotten that AmericaSpace is a troll-free zone. If you have to resort to talking down, insulting or attacking your “opponents” to “win” the debate – your comments will be deleted. Do it with enough disrespect or frequency & you’ll be banned.
    Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

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