Looking for the Past in the Future

Are you a fan of science fiction? A space enthusiast? A historian of technology? All three? Chances are you may have seen this image:

Standard cut-away of the inside of a Torus space colony,

In the 1970s, NASA commissioned a number of hypothetical images to help determine what space colonies might look like. In 1977, NASA sponsored the NASA Ames 1977 Summer Study, where space colony inventor Gerard K. O’Neill and colleagues worked together to determine if space colonies could feasibly be created in the near future. O’Neill had already confidently asserted that the large habitats, meant to hold up to 10,000 people, could be built if not immediately using current technology, then in the near future. But despite NASA’s serious interest and the support of many enthusiasts, ranging from experts to hippies, space colonies never came to be.

Though certain groups, like the National Space Society, still actively pursue the building of space colonies, when the ubiquitous image above flashes around the internet, it is usually attached to nostalgia and gentle amusement. So why would historians like W. Patrick McCray, De Witt Douglass Kilgore, and myself, choose to make space colonies a topic of study? Why do historians study things that fail?

In history, sometimes the end of the story is far less important than the process. The study of space colonies reveals a process or way of imagining the world. Not only that, plans for space colonies and images like the imagined rendering above can teach us about the way our historical actors thought the world should be. And the historical moments they lived in always shaped these imaginings of the future.

For example, we’ll deconstruct our image to demonstrate the process historians use to read texts, as well as what can be extricated from this text about the way our space colonists imagined the future. Knowing the shape of that future can tell us about how our historical actors conceived of their present.

On the most basic level, what we see is an image of a space colony shaped like a torus, or wheel. The artist has rendered it so that we can see it arc through space, but has also cut away the colony’s hull to reveal its interior, placing it in the foreground. This emphasizes to us that this image is about the way space colonies look on the inside. In other words, this is the way life looks when it is situated in space.

Even upon first glance it is clear that life in space looks a lot like life on Earth. The two most dominant images are greenery and trees, and those of houses. Both of these images tell us important things about the way space colonists envisioned the future.

Firstly, the abundance of plant life indicates that space colonists envisioned habitats as resembling forested or landscaped places on earth. Specifically, they imagined green spaces, not arid or arctic or other landscapes. Though some space colonists envisioned habitats large enough to hold mountain ranges and have their own weather systems, this artist has chosen to emphasize a less extreme environment.

The absolute control over the environment in this habitat is made clear when coupled with the carefully arranged houses. These houses are much remarked upon by historians of space colonies, mainly because they bear a striking resemblance to an idealized middle-class, suburban American landscape. Just glancing over this image we have learned the type of economic class that space colonists value – the suburbs and the middle class are what’s worth saving along with all the shrubbery.

We can also learn about how race played a role in space. In the most immediate foreground of the image are the only people visible in the illustration. Looking very affluent as they lounge on their patio, they are all white. Because we cannot see inside the other houses, it is impossible to know what their inhabitants look like. But we do know that among all the images generated of space colonies, only one includes an African American. No other minorities are represented.

Gerard K. O’Neill believed there would be diversity among the stars. But De Witt Douglass Kilgore has rightly pointed out that O’Neill’s vision amounted to a homogenization of space, as O’Neill believed groups would separate from each other based on their differences, living like with like.

So now that we have done a basic deconstruction of this image, what does all this information amount to? This is where we must put on our historian’s cap and remember that this image has a historical context. That means this historical context influenced the illustrator’s vision of the future. And this is why we can read imagined futures to learn about the historical time periods in which they were created.

Let’s take the issue of homogeneous suburbanization for example. The ideal of a middle-class suburb had been a part of the American Dream for decades by the 1970s, and Americas were just beginning to recognize that this dream might include people other than whites. It’s also true, however, that the social movements of the 1960s powerfully questioned the validity or even attainability of this ideal. So why would Gerard O’Neill in his writings and these artists in their drawings imagine the suburban ideal to be worth preserving in the future?

Remember, space colonists tried to sell these plans not only to the public, but also to Congress. Someone had to fund their dreams. That means they thought their ideas about the future and what to preserve in it had to have cache, and so they chose images that appealed to them personally and that they also hoped appealed to a wider audience.

But we still haven’t answered our question. What’s the appeal of saving white, middle-class suburbs while life on earth goes to rot? This is the exact question I hope to answer as I begin work on my dissertation. It will mean reaching back into cultural sources to examine the changing role of the American Dream and its orientation in the 1970s. It might also mean doing oral histories with members of the community who supported space colonies or created these images. In short, it will mean putting the image above in particular, and space colonies in general, back into their historical context. It means seeing them as important and instructive historical texts as opposed to interesting but quaint relics of a goal still not obtained. It means bringing them back down to earth.

History can hide in the most surprising of places. This time it was hiding in the future. Who knows where it will be next.


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