Developing Sound Habitats


Mobile Suit Gundam: High Frontier

Life In The Universal Century

Developing Sound Habitats

The idea of an orbital space habitat was first presented in Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon (Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXIV, Oct–Dec, 1869). It described how a city in space developed by accident when a brick sphere intended as an orbital maritime navigational guide was inadvertently rolled onto the launch catapult with engineers and workers still inside. It was carried on in Jules Verne’s Off On A Comet (1878) and Kurd Lasswitz’ On Two Planets (1879). Konstantin Tsiolkovsky described the concept from a technical viewpoint, first as science fiction in Dreams of Earth and Heaven, Nature and Man (1895). Tsiolkovsky went on to present the first truly scientific rationale for the concept, expanding it to include rotation for artificial gravity, use of solar energy and greenhouses with a closed ecology for food and air in The Rocket Into Cosmic Space (1903, Научное Обозрение [Science Survey]).


Rocketry pioneer Hermann Oberth elaborated on potential uses for space stations in 1923, noting that they could serve as platforms for scientific research. Guido von Pirquet considered a system of three stations—one in near orbit, one distant and a transit station in an intermediate elliptical orbit to link the other two—and suggested that they might serve as refueling depots for deep space flights. In 1929, J. Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) published The World, The Flesh And The Devil, a revolutionary book of predictions, in which he proposed a 500-meter spherical space habitat that used the same ideas set forth by both Hale and Tsiolkovksy.

The idea of a “space station” in geosynchronous orbit was introduced in 1929 by Hermann (Potočnik) Noordung’s The Problem Of Space Flight, which proposed a 30-meter rotating wheel called Wohnrad (“Living Wheel”).

Space stations received some military study in Germany during and after World War II, surfacing in technical circles again as a geosynchronous rotating-boom or “dumbbell” design proposed by H.E. Ross in 1949. This “space wheel” concept was updated and popularized by Wernher von Braun in his article “Crossing The Last Frontier” (Colliers, March 22, 1952), in which he described a 76-meter rotating wheel in a 1,730-kilometer near-Earth polar orbit. It returned to the realms of science fiction at about the same time in Arthur C. Clarke’s Islands In The Sky (1952). It was picked up technically again by Darrell Romick’s paper “Manned Earth-Satellite Terminal Evolving from Earth-to-Orbit Ferry Rockets (METEOR),” presented at the 7th International Astronautical Congress in Rome in September, 1956. Romick advanced an ambitious proposal for the time: a kilometer-long cylinder 300 meters in diameter with hemispherical end caps and a 500-meter rotating disk at one end to be inhabited by 20,000 people. Clarke expanded the idea of orbital habitats to include the L1 and L2 Lagrange libration points in A Fall of Moondust (1961).

In 1963, Dandridge M. Cole and Donald W. Cox presented the idea of hollowing out an ellipsoidal asteroid about 30 kilometers (18 miles) long, spinning it on its major axis for pseudo-gravity, reflecting sunlight inside with mirrors and landscaping the interior. In Islands In Space (Prentice-Hall, 1963), they even proposed a comparatively cheap and easy way to build such habitats than hollowing out a 30-kilometer asteroid. Drill a hole down the middle of a smaller asteroid—about a kilometer (3,280 feet) in diameter—and pack the cavity with water ice. Reseal the ends with the original material and heat the mass with giant mylar-film solar mirrors. By the time the heat reaches the center, the mass will be semi-liquid and the explosively expanding steam that results when the ice at the core is heated to the same degree will inflate the molten asteroid like a balloon.

A small, solid, globular nickel-iron asteroid can thus be reshaped into a large, hollow, cylindrical one in much the same way as a glassblower shapes a small solid lump of molten glass into a large empty bottle.


In April 1966, MIT architect Paolo Soleri designed a solar-powered orbiting city called Asteromo, which he subsequently included on page 116 of his ground-breaking book Arcology: City in the Image of Man (1969, MIT Press, ISBN 0-262-69041-1). Basically, it was a mile-long, double-skinned cylinder with a toroidal equatorial ring, kept inflated by internal pressure and rotation on its main axis. This artificial asteroid could theoretically support 70,000 people in a self-sufficient “artificial ecology” or arcology.


Soleri never actually intended for anyone to build Asteromo, which was not so much a space project as a declaration of Soleri’s beliefs about solar energy, living matter and the human spirit. Having proposed the improbable in a practical manner, he went on to build the practical in an improbable manner. Working only with his enthusiastic young MIT architectural and engineering students, he built the famous Arcosanti arcology in the desert near Phoenix AZ in 1979.

This city-state-in-a-building inspired several SF futuristic communities, most notably the mile-high octahedral arcology in Science Ninja Team Technovoyager (adapted from Japanese to English as Thunderbirds 2086) and the Todos Santos arcology in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (1981, Pocket Books, ISBN 0-671-53227-8).

Long before Soleri started building Arcosanti, his Arcology concept inspired hundreds of Utopian architectural schemes, including Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) Center at Disneyworld in Orlando FL.

Science and the popular press, however, continued to concentrate on Von Braunian “Space Wheels,” which had been given a new lease on life by Stanley Kubrick’s epic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In 1971, Henry Gray proposed expanding the hub of such a station into a cylindrical habitat, which called a “Vivarium” and patented under that name (U.S. Patent 3,749,332 dated 31 July 1973).

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel” and Clarke had returned the favor by writing a novelization of the film that was published concurrently with its release. This seemed to have gotten him thinking along grander lines for, about the time that Gray was patenting his Vivarium design, Clarke was bringing space habitats back into science fiction in a big way. His novel Rendezvous With Rama (1973, Morrow Press; reprinted 1990, Bantam, ISBN 0-553-28789-3) took Romick’s kilometer-long cylindrical habitat and increased its size by an order of magnitude, combining it with the concept of the “generation ship” as a vehicle for interstellar travel at an achievable velocity. The vehicle itself was still beyond human technology, but Clarke got around that by making it an alien artifact.

The object originally catalogued as 2131/439 and later christened “Rama” was a dome-ended cylinder 50 kilometers long and 16 kilometers in diameter, rotating at one revolution every four minutes (¼-RPM) to produce a near-Terrestrial acceleration on the interior of its hull. Huge banks of lights in three vast trenches running the length the cylinder, 120° apart, lighted that interior. A ten-kilometer-wide “Cylindrical Sea” at its equator divided it into two sections. Clarke’s alien “space ark” sparked fire with both his science-fiction readership and the scientific community. Suddenly, mere space stations like the NASA Skylab were no longer enough. Once-conservative scientists began setting their sights higher and their goals loftier. Artificial worlds were now the order of the day.

The first formal studies into the feasibility of man-made worlds were conducted in 1975 with a 10-week program in systems engineering design conducted by NASA and the American Society for Engineering Education. This resulted in a 185-page report called Space Settlements: A Design Study (1977, NASA SP-413). It proposed several types of space habitats: an updated version of the Bernal sphere, a domed cylindrical design inspired by Clarke’s Rama and a doughnut design that expanded Von Braun’s space wheel into a self-sufficient “space island.”


NASA selected the new space wheel or “toroidial habitat”design, submitted by Stanford University students and later dubbed the “Stanford torus” to recognize their contribution, as the most feasible of the proposed designs, making it the focus of the study.

Deemed both ambitious and achievable, the Stanford torus was a cylindrical tube 130 meters in diameter and 5.6 kilometers long, bent into a circle and joined end-to-end to form a wheel 1.8 kilometers across.

Spinning at exactly one RPM, it would accommodate 80,000 people in a near-Terrestrial environment complete with suburban villages, parks and woodlands with free-running streams.

Rick Guidice illustrated the designs in full-page paintings, which were later reprinted in mainstream magazines ranging from Life and The Saturday Evening Post to National Geographic and Popular Science.

But it was still viewed as science fiction.

The technical director for the NASA design program, Princeton University professor Gerard K. O’Neill, expanded these ideas even further and popularized them in The High Frontier: Human Colonies In Space (1977, Bantam, ISBN 0-553-11016-0). O’Neill presented three designs, which he characterized as evolutionary stages: Island One, Island Two and Island Three.

Island One was a 500-meter Bernal sphere capable of supporting 10,000 people.

Island Two was a 1.8-kilometer Bernal sphere or, alternatively, a domed cylinder 1.8 kilometers in diameter and nine kilometers long for a population of 140,000 (sphere) to 820,000 (cylinder).

Island Three was the classic “sunflower” design (now commonly known as the “O’Neill Cylinder”) that would accommodate tens of millions of people in a picturesque near-Terrestrial environment.


The O’Neill Cylinder design was further popularized by T.A. Heppenheimer’s Colonies In Space (1977, Warner Books, ISBN 0-811-70397-5), Stewart Brand’s Space Colonies (1977, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-140-04805-7), Don DeNevi’s To The Edges Of The Universe (1978, Celestial Arts, ISBN 0-890-87212-0), Nigel Calder’s Spaceships Of The Mind (1979, Penguin Books, ISBN 0-140-05231-3), and Linda Timko Gonzalez’s Exploring Space (1979, Derrydale Books, ISBN 0-517-29545-8). These were unfortunately promoted as children’s books.

The stunning visualizations of life in space in wide-open spaces rather than cramped little capsules and stations began to capture the popular imagination, however, and triggered a round of “hard SF” stories. Pre-eminent among them was Ben Bova’s Colony (1978, reprinted 1988, Tor, ISBN 0-812-53245-7; reprinted 1998, Avon Eos, ISBN 0-380-79315-6), which was set in 2028 AD and featured O’Neill habitats built in L4 to provide relief from overpopulation below.

Mack Reynolds’ Lagrange Five (1979, Bantam, ISBN 0-553-12806-X) was more accurate, featuring O’Neill cylinders in linked pairs built in L5. O’Neill habitats have since become a staple of SF literature, although very little has been done with them in film or TV, with the notable exception of Gundam, its sister series Metal Armor Dragonar and, to a lesser degree, the American live-action series Babylon 5. The given dimensions of the latter correspond almost exactly to O’Neill’s cylindrical Island Two, even if its actual design does not.

The best description of life in an O’Neill Cylinder to date is Dana Stabenow’s Second Star (1991, reprinted 1994, Ace, ISBN 0-441-75722-7).

The less ambitious Stanford torus got a similar treatment in Grant Callin’s SaturnAlia (1986, Baen, ISBN 0-167-65546-9), James P. Hogan’s Endgame Enigma (1987, reprinted 1997, Baen, ISBN 0-671-87796-8) and The Two Faces Of Tomorrow (1987, reprinted 1997, Baen, ISBN 0-671-87848-4) and Vonda McIntyre’s Barbary (1988, Ace, ISBN 0-441-04886-2). It was also highlighted in the 1996 IMAX 3D film, L5: City in Space.

The least ambitious—and thus most achievable—Bernal sphere has received attention of late, most notably in Allen Steele’s Clark County, Space (1990, Ace, ISBN 0-441-11044-4) and Dana Stabenow’s A Handful Of Stars (1991, Ace, ISBN 0-441-31615-8).

(For an alternative view, demonstrating that the O’Neill design is inherently flawed and that life in a “space island” would be far from idyllic due to certain basic laws of physics and human nature, see Trojan Orbit by Mack Reynolds with Dean Ing (1985, Tor, ISBN 0-671-55942-7).)

The High Frontier, Colonies In Space and Exploring Space reprinted Rick Guidice’s paintings. Tomino drew heavily on this material for the background of the Gundam Saga. Some of the backgrounds in the original series appear to be direct “swipes” of Guidice’s paintings. The O’Neill Cylinder became the basis for the original “open type” space colony design of the first wave of construction in L5 and L4 circa “Universal Century” Year 0035. Gray’s Vivarium (and, to some extent, Clarke’s Rama) became the basis for more efficient “closed type” space colonies constructed by the breakaway Zeon colonies of Side 3 in L2 circa UC 0045.

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Last Update: 01 January 2017

Copyright © 1999–2017 by Dafydd Neal Dyar


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