Monday, 26 August 2013

Libra - a film from 1978 about space colonies

I fully expected to be writing a review this weekend of the new film Elysium starring Matt Damon.  Having seen it, I'm happy to report that it's a great science fiction action film. The special effects are extraordinary, especially the depiction of the droids and the interior of the space colony. It's an exciting film with a strong plot, good characters and stunning visually. But it's not really anything directly to do with the concept of the space colony as put forward by Dr O'Neill, Thomas A. Heppenheimer and others.  Gratifyingly though, the release of Elysium has lead to a number of articles appearing online about space colonisation and given the glorious paintings from the seventies that we are familiar with another airing.

Instead and totally unexpectedly I will be reviewing a different film, one that before this weekend I was unaware even existed.  I've long been a reader of a fascinating blog named Paleofuture which looks at depictions of the future created in the past and noted an interesting film on their related youtube channel about Libra, a film about a space colony.

Libra, an Island One space habitat

To my amazement, the film focusses on an Island One space habitat named Libra.  Released in 1978 yet set 25 years in the future, the theme of the film is the economic case for building space colonies. The future of 2003 is one in which the world's economies, even the American, are planned and regulated yet this has lead to misery for the vast majority.

The Paleofuture blog characterised this as a film about trumpeting libertarian values and its easy to see it in those terms.  I can't speak of the American experience of the late seventies but even as a child I was aware of something of the problems that lead to the power cuts, the strikes, the unemployment and so forth and this all shown in Libra.  In 2003, even New York city is plunged into intermittent darkness due to energy rationing.

A shuttle approaches to dock with Libra

In comparison, the space colony Libra is a haven for free marketers and freedom more generally.  The lights can always be on in Libra.  Libra's main industry is the supply of abundant, low cost solar energy to Earth using solar power satellites. These satellites beam down energy as micro wave radiation which is then converted into electricity.

There is a good description of the space colony and its function starting at around seven minutes into the film. We are told that the creation of solar power on Earth is limited by the atmosphere and cut off every night by the rotation of the Earth.  The satellites are fabricated from materials found in space which leads to a brief description of mass-drivers. Thus the heavy lifting costs involved in obtaining materials from Earth are avoided. This is  a factor in the profitability of Libra's energy creation.

There are some rather lovely special effects sequences showing the space colony and the shuttle that flies some of the characters there.  Whilst they may look slightly primitive compared to the over-saturated computer imagery we are used too now, the Island One model is a thing of beauty.  Even more ambitiously perhaps the interior of the colony is seen and again there is the satisfaction that comes with the craftsmanship of the master model maker.

The interior of the Island One space habitat

The interior of the Island One space habitat
Libra is also of great importance as, at around nine minutes in, it appears to contains some very early computer graphic sequences.

Computer graphics from 1978
All this is the setting for the theme of the clashing philosophies of free marketeers of the colonists set against the planned and regulated economies of the earthly governments.  We are told that by 2003 the first space colonies had already paid for themselves. The original creators of the colonies are referred to as having "guts" and being pioneers of the High Frontier.

On Libra, the free market rules and the currency is even referred to as the "Hayek", seemingly a reference to Friedrich Hayek, the economist and philosopher who greatly influenced the Thatcher/Reagan economic revolution of the early eighties.  New words the colonists use include "freecision" and "freesponsibility", denoting the wielding of freedom in different contexts. Would these arguments be different today after the financial crash of the late 2000s?

Docking port at one end of Libra
The film is very much a creation of the late seventies with its soundtrack and the fashion of the times but at this distance this only helps it to be distinctive and adds interest.

Libra is not only a good outline of the role and need for the colonisation of space but also a well thought out discussion of the roles of the free market and economic planning and, as is interestingly hinted at in the characters' dialogue, the practical power that each side of the argument can wield.

Like Elysium, the colonists have more freedom and a better life than those left behind on Earth but here in Libra this is a sign of hope.  I noted with pleasure that Dr O'Neill is listed as a consultant in the credits and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the colonization of space.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Colonies in Space by Thomas Heppenheimer

A book review by Adam Manning

Many people with an interest in the colonization of space will be familiar with the classic work of Dr Gerard O’Neill entitled The High Frontier. Dr O’Neill’s book cogently sets out the need and importance for humanity of reaching out beyond the safety of our home planet into the vastness of space.

A companion volume in many ways, Colonies in Space by space advocate Thomas A. Heppenheimer (born 1947) is a comprehensive vision of the concept as a whole. Written in 1977, and so published shortly after The High Frontier, Heppenheimer, who holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering, takes us through the way a space colony could be constructed.  There is a detailed examination of mass-drivers as the principal way to obtain material for construction.  The moon is considered the most likely source for this as lunar soil contains much of the constituents required but later the possibility of using asteroids is also explored.

Colonies in Space by T.A. Heppenheimer

An interesting account is given of a “construction shack”, a large, spherical module in which much of the fabrication work will take place.  The challenging task of constructing large facilities in space is noted but Heppenheimer’s thesis is that all this expense and effort will be more than amply rewarded once space colonies start delivering on the promise of solar power for Earth’s ever increasing thirst for energy.

One of the particular joys of Colonies in Space as a useful guide to the concept is the number of illustrations liberally found throughout. Ranging from hand drawn sketches to full colour paintings, as always with a subject of this nature illustrations greatly help the reader comprehend the structure and nature of much of what is being described.

Construction Shack, drawing by Don Dixon

Once built, the author looks in detail at the lives of the colonists.  The model of space colony focussed on the most is the Stanford Torus.  Heppenheimer enjoys describing the nature of farming in the colony and what is likely to be the most successful method of feeding the colonists.  A lot of thought is given to the homes the inhabitants might live in, their construction from bricks of lunar soil and the way they might occupy and amuse themselves when not working.

Attention is given to one of the critical problems for a space colony; protection from cosmic rays especially during solar flares.  A number of solutions are suggested but the most practical given is layering the colony in lunar rock.  The less pressing threat of meteorites is also discussed.  Colonies in Space is convincing in part because it calls upon the work of a number of specialists from the time who considered a wide range of topics within the overall concept. 

Following the construction of the initial Stanford Torus colonies, Heppenheimer describes how much larger O’Neill Cylinders might then be built and how different they might be from the initial outposts.  He describes the benefits for the inhabitants including how groups of people might have the freedom to live how they want. The possibilities for new science and even space borne universities that might lead to presently unknown vistas of knowledge and thought are also enthusiastically set out.

Looking much further ahead, Colonies in Space suggests that the large space colonies might be the basis for an even wider dispersal of life from Earth as the colonists set off in them to the nearest stars in search of new homes.  Taking many decades, if not centuries, generations of colonists would succeed each other as the huge cylinders coast through space on their interstellar voyage.

Combining both a wonderful sense of vision with a detailed and practical approach, Colonies in Space is highly recommended for a comprehensive study of the concept.  Copies are available from Amazon and I was able to purchase an original edition with a relatively decent cover to it even after all this time since publication. Fortunately the National Space Society has made a copy available online from their website at which is a great resource for those interested in the subject.

Thomas A. Heppenheimer

Sunday, 18 August 2013

L5 : First City In Space - a review

Considering the exciting vision of space colonies as put forward by such writers as Gerard O’Neill and Thomas A. Heppenheimer, it’s surprising that there are not more films or television series that feature them.  One of the best for a general or family audience is L5 : First City in Space which was first released in 1996 in IMAX format but has since been converted into 2d for a DVD release.

A short film at only 35 minutes long, L5 manages to fit in a lot, a surprise given its gentle, unhurried pace.  A film for the family, it features a family as its main characters. In particular the film’s plot is told through the character of Chieko, a young girl living on the space colony called L5, named after its position in space.  Casting children in a production can be unpredictable but fortunately the role of Chieko is charmingly performed in a beautiful, underplayed manner by the junior actor.

 The film begins by explaining the history leading up to the construction of L5 with a brief overview of the Mir Space Station and the ISS.  L5, the film’s chronology tells us, was created around 100 years after the ISS and a brief overview is given of the colony’s construction and structure.  We are shown vistas of a lush, garden like interior much like the wonderful paintings from the 1970s that are so well known to those interested in the subject. 

A lot of the shots of the colony and other space scenes appear to have been created by computer graphics and in comparison to the creations of the latest Star Trek or Star Wars films, for example, some of them may seem a little dated. Yet they still give a good understanding of the layout of the colony and how the parts fit together.  L5 is a Stanford Torus design with a wide diameter for the actual torus. 

The positioning of the space colony at L5 refers to one of a series of points in space known as the Langrangian points (also known as Langrange, libration or L points). These are special points in a two body system where the two combined gravitational pulls of the larger masses act in such a way that a much smaller body placed at one of the points will orbit with them.  So, a space craft could be placed at L5 and it would not need, comparatively speaking, a lot of energy to remain stable at that point.  L5 is a particular point at the same distance as the Moon’s orbit from the Earth but set at sixty degrees behind the Moon.  As a result, an equilateral triangle could be drawn between the three points of the centres of the Earth, the Moon and the space craft at L5.

The construction of the colony notes the need to encase it in a thick layer of Moon rock to protect the inhabitants from cosmic rays.  Like most plans for the first space colonies, a population of 10,000 is given and the colony is modelled on a small town.  Chieko enjoys visiting the hydroponic farms that feed the colony and notes that compared to most farms they do not have many cows.  There are some good shots of the interior of the colony which are again inspired by the paintings from the seventies that we are familiar with.

The plot centres on the colony running out of water and an audacious plan to harvest ice from a comet whose orbit has to be altered to ensure it nears the colony sufficiently closely (albeit not too closely presumably as this would entail the comet coming close to Earth as well, a potentially very dangerous situation).  Finally, after all this is concluded we see some really wonderful shots of the whole of the colony now in orbit in tandem with a second.

L5 : First City In Space is a refreshingly optimistic view of the future of humanity and its expansion into the solar system.  It works as an easy, accessible introduction to the concept and is highly recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about space colonisation and its scope and nature.

Monday, 12 August 2013

An Interview with Space Advocate Jerry Stone

Jerry Stone is a well known space advocate who works freelance as a presenter and workshop leader, looking at many different aspects of space exploration.  His website Spaceflight UK has details concerning his activities and I have got to know him thanks to his leadership of a study project with the British Interplanetary Society on space colonies.  I recently spent a very enjoyable few hours with him and learned a great deal about the subject from him. He kindly agreed to answer some questions on the subject and his answers are set out below.

1. As a space expert, you’ve been interviewed on the radio and TV about all sorts of subjects related to the exploration of space. What interests you about space colonies in particular?

I grew up in the 1960s, so I am one of the children of Apollo.  This was exploration completely beyond anything that had happened before, and I regard myself as privileged to have watched - live - as men from Earth walked for the first time on the surface of another world.

At the time, people assumed that before long there would be bases on the Moon and we would reach Mars, but unfortunately it didn't happen.

Then in the mid-1970s I heard about studies that were being carried out about the colonisation of space, and this seemed to me to be not only incredibly exciting but also a logical way of moving into space.  This would not simply be space exploration, but the spread of mankind out into space on a massive scale, and for a large portion of humanity space would be their home.

2. How did you first learn about the concept of space colonies as proposed by Dr Gerard O’Neill?

As far as I recall, I first heard about this on a TV programme, and this led me to buy a copy of O'Neill's book "The High Frontier".

In September 1977 O'Neill was in the UK and gave a presentation to the  British Interplanetary Society - this was before the Society had its current HQ and the meeting took place at University College in Gower Street.  After the meeting a small group of us took him for a meal, and I had the opportunity to discuss the subject further with him.

I still have my copy of "The High Frontier", signed by Gerard O'Neill.

3. What are the advantages of building colonies in space rather than say on the surface of the Moon or Mars?

This goes back to the question that O'Neill originally put to a group of new students: "Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding technological civilisation?"  The surprising answer from their studies was "No".

One of the main advantages of a colony in space over one on the surface of a planet is the availability of solar energy.  Using a curved reflector, this can be concentrated to heat materials to around 5,000ÂșC, or it can be converted into electricity.  This solar energy is constantly available and is free, whereas on a planetary surface the Sun is hidden for half of the time and only at full strength for part of the day.

In addition, manufacturing can take place in weightlessness, which can allow us to produce things that cannot be made on Earth; alternatively by rotating the manufacturing unit we can have gravity at any level we want.

Together these give considerable advantages over a ground-based installation.

4. Do you think the large space colonies proposed by Dr Gerard O’Neill and others are capable of being constructed within say the next hundred years?

Definitely.  O'Neill didn't give a specific timescale for the construction of the colonies, but he believed that major work could be done within 15-25 years of the studies being carried out, with the construction of the first colony taking about 6 years. This is all dependent on a suitable space launch infrastructure to ferry people and initial materials into space, which unfortunately the space shuttle was unable to provide.

Now, with the development of a completely reusable launcher in the form of Skylon - which is being produce by Reaction Engines in the UK - the situation will change.  It doesn't make sense to wait until Skylon is about to fly before coming up with projects for it, and that is why I have started a project to re-examine the colony studies from the 1970s and bring them up to date, so we will have plans ready when Skyon goes into service.

I therefore believe that large space colonies could be constructed within the next 50 years, never mind 100.

But will they? We have the technology to do this, and the project could provide services which means that it could recover its costs in less than 30 years.  It only requires the will to proceed.  I believe that the benefits that are offered - in particular the provision of energy to Earth - will prove to be what results in this going ahead.

5. What benefits could these sorts of space colonies have for people – both in the colonies themselves and those back on Earth?

For the colonists, a habitat with a controlled climate and no hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes could provide living conditions that may be better than in many places on Earth.  The abundance of energy available would also contribute to high living standards. Within the colonies there would be no need for combustion engines; electric vehicles would be perfectly adequate, which also means that the colonies will be somewhat quieter and far less polluted than the Earth's towns and cities.

We could take bees - to make honey - but we could leave wasps behind, so we can enjoy picnics and barbecues in safety!  Plant and animal life that is threatened on the Earth could find safe havens in the colonies.

As I've just mentioned, a major benefit for those on Earth will be energy from space.  A major role for the colonies will be the construction of solar power satellites which will be moved to appropriate orbits around the Earth to intercept sunlight and beam the power to Earth where it will be converted into electricity.

I have also mentioned the advantages of manufacturing in space, especially unlimited power.  O'Neill estimated that within a century most of our heavy manufacturing could be moved off the surface of the Earth, which would reduce pollution and the overloading of the planet's heat balance.  This was many years before we had become familiar with the idea of global warming.

Those who say that we should "sort things out on Earth before going into space" may be surprised to find that the greatest way of benefiting the Earth is to go into space!

6. You may have heard of the film Elysium which is being released soon which features a large space colony which is only inhabited by a very rich elite. Do you consider this might be an issue for real space colonies, especially given how expensive their construction will be?

The reason the colonies will be expensive to build is because of their vast size; the smallest is designed to house 10,000  people, and the largest would be home to millions, so actually the cost per person will be relatively low. The main point is that because of the huge number of inhabitants they will not be composed of an elite.

The astronauts who make up crews on the International Space Station are among the most highly trained people there are, but although special training will be needed for those who will build the structures, the colonies will need the people that would be found in most towns and cities on Earth. We will need engineers of course, but also farmers, builders, electricians, teachers, doctors and landscape gardeners. We'll need people to administer the colony, monitor its ecology, produce food and deal with waste.  The list of skills required goes on and on ...

7. If you could make a presentation about space colonies to anyone, who would you most like to speak to?

If this was a project to build something like the International Space Station then I would want to address the aerospace companies that would build the units, the organisations that would organise the project and arrange the funding, and the companies and research institutions that would want to do research on it.

The colonies are a completely different case. As the project is so wide-ranging, involving people with such a huge spread of skills, I would want to speak to anyone who is interested in seeing the project become a reality.  Of course the people from the organisations that could be involved in the construction would be very important, but so would the potential inhabitants.

If Skylon begins operations in 2020 and colony construction begins 5 years later, then that is only 12 years away.  With the project continuing for decades, audiences could include people who might be directly involved themselves - or whose children will be.

8. What do you enjoy most about being a space advocate and presenter?

It's always good when you are doing something that you find interesting and enjoyable, and dealing with space exploration has to be the best!  In this case, it means much more when you're doing something that could actually help mankind's expansion into space!  I said at the beginning how exciting space exploration is. Also space is an activity that has no limits and has incredible promise for the future.  I tell audiences that I have found that not only do I enjoy learning about space, but I also enjoy telling people about it.  In my "Mission To Mars" workshop, I can tell pupils that they are the right age to be amongst the early people who might actually travel to Mars!

As our space activities expand they become much more inclusive and there is more opportunity for people to be involved.  The space colonies project does this on a much greater scale than anything we have done before.

The project that I am leading to revise the studies from the 1970s is primarily being carried out by members of the British Interplanetary Society, but we don't expect to have the required expertise in all of the many topics that the project will cover, so if you are interested and can provide advice then please contact me at

A very big thanks to Jerry for taking the time to provide these answers. His passion for the subject is very catching and I would urge anyone with an interest to get in touch.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

New work on 3d Island One model

I'm currently working on a new 3d model for the Island One.  Here's the first rendering. I'm working on the basic structure of the model at present.  The next step is to add in the larger radiators at either end.