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

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