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 5,000ºC, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.