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.

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