The Ur-Space Colony Popularization

Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids — Dandridge M. Cole & Donald W. Cox


In memoriam: Roy Scarfo, whose art appears in this work, died of pancreatic cancer on December 8th of this year.

1964’s Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, by Dandridge M. Cole and Donald W. Cox, does not seem to have had many editions; I can only find references to two. However, even if you never saw a copy of Islands, if you were ever a space colonization fan you are very likely to have read books by people who were strongly influenced by Cole and Cox’s work.

But first, context! This was published in 1964. The Cold War had just had its closest brush with turning into a Hot War and the Space Age was seven years old, There had been many Firsts in space — alarmingly from the US point of view, many were by the Soviets — but we’re talking about a time when so few people had been to space it was easy to remember all their names, a time when only a few primitive robot probes had tumbled by other worlds. A time when humans knew of sixteen hundred or so asteroids instead of the half-million we know of today.

Foreword (Will Ley)

Ley waxes enthusiastic, drawing a parallel between the islands of the South Pacific and the ideas Cole and Cox have about the asteroids. Alas, in doing so

“Not quite half a millennium ago, Man began to break out of his original home, comprised of Europe, Asia, and Africa.”

he manages to erase the existence of every human outside the Old World prior to 1492. He knew better! Ley was the German rocket scientist who wasn’t a Nazi, raging or otherwise, so this is likely an oversight and not some weird German race thing.


In which the authors defend writing this book at all, in the process taking some shots at Dr. Vannevar Bush, who was the target of space-enthusiast mockery before William Proxmire started giving out Golden Fleece awards. Vannevar Bush was known for bold assertions such as:

There has been a great deal said about a 3000 mile, high-angle rocket. In my opinion such a thing is impossible and will be impossible for many years. [1945]


The days when men will be in space for many days and for varied purposes are so far off that we need not hurry on one aspect of their potential reactions and operations. [1960]

We’re all going to spend a lot of time in the future; why not spend some thinking about it?

Rather tragically, Cole didn’t get to spend a lot of time in the future, because he died in 1965, aged only forty-four. If Donald W. Cox is the same Donald W. Cox who had a KKK cross burned on his lawn for praising MLK, he died in 1998, aged seventy-seven.

Chapter 1: The Challenge of the Planetoids

Why explore space and why the planetoids in particular? Cole and Cox provide six basic reasons:

  • We can gain information about the origins of the Solar System that is available nowhere else.
  • Asteroids are potential impact threat to the Earth.
  • They are potential way stations and oases for interplanetary rockets.
  • Many of them are incredibly easy to reach, compared to the planets.
  • They may be the best sites in the solar system for space colonies.
  • They may offer a practical way to send humans to other stars.

Although the authors make a point of acknowledging that analogies between Terrestrial exploration and space exploration are just that, analogies, they push the “asteroids are islands” trope pretty hard in their book.

Chapter 2: The Legacy of an Italian Goddess

A brief history of humanity’s discovery of the asteroids. This wasn’t considered a very important field in the 1960s; the authors mention that some scientists had proposed abandoning study of the asteroid belt..

Once again my attention is drawn to the fact that estimates of the size of the asteroid 1 Ceres seem to have jumped dramatically at some point in the last half-century.

Chapter 3: Needed — A Long-Range Manned Space-Flight Program

Although America had a pretty clear idea where its manned space program was headed for the next few years, it was not at all clear what was to follow putting men on the Moon. While most people focused on other planets, the authors propose that NASA consider exploring the planetoids.

An interesting detail: they mention that Kuiper had recently estimated the air pressure on Mars as 10 millibars, not the 85 millibars previously thought. If Kuiper was right (and he was actually a bit high), the low pressure meant that aerobraking on Mars would have been more challenging than previously believed.

Through the book, Mars is seen as a world that would be quite hostile to humans but one that very likely had life of its own, perhaps even once its own great civilization. Mariner 4 would not provide the first close-up photos of Mars until July 14, 1965.

Chapter 4: New Knowledge from Space

The authors discuss the scientific knowledge humans may gain from exploring space. In the course of doing this, they underline how much was not known in 1964.

Chapter 5: Islands in a New Sea:

The authors detail what little was then known about the planetoids. It’s not a lot and in the decades since, our body of knowledge has been expanded immensely; this is not a criticism of the book, as science marches ever onwards and no doubt there is much we still do not know. They present a number of explanations for the existence of the asteroids, ranging from “originally one world disrupted by a close encounter with Jupiter” to “left-over debris from the formation of the Solar System”. A number of moons seem to be captured planetoids but the mechanism by which this happened was obscure.

Chapter 6: New Tools for the Planetoid Hunter

The authors discuss a time line of seven methods future humans — future Americans! — could use to better their body of knowledge about the planetoids:

  • Improved telescopic photography (1964+)
  • Planetoid fly-bys (1967+)
  • Planetoid belt fly-throughs (perhaps combined with Jupiter probes) (1967+)
  • Planetoid orbiters (1969+)
  • Hard-landing probes (1970+)
  • Soft-landing probes (1972+)
  • Planetoid crawlers (1972+)

The time line is a bit too optimistic but there is no reason that humans couldn’t have accomplished items two and four through seven a lot sooner than they did. It just wasn’t a priority.

Chapter 7: Manned Flight to the Minor Planets

Measured in terms of delta-vee, the change in velocity a particular trip requires, travel to and from select planetoids turns out to be surprisingly easy, at least compared to travel to other planets.

There is in this chapter a chart of space transportation velocity requirements for thirteen different cases. That chart appeared in a number of places (I am 98 percent sure that Stine lifted it for his The Third Industrial Revolution) and if one is a space fan of a certain vintage that chart is seared into one’s brain.

Pity it’s in American units…

The authors point out that while manned flights to and from the surface of Mars might well require nuclear propulsion to be practical, the velocity requirements of a trip to and from a planetoids are within the ability of off-the-shelf rockets.

Although the authors couldn’t have known this in 1964, a transfer orbit from the Apollo asteroid  4660 Nereus to Earth requires a delta vee comparable to Nolan Ryan’s best fastball. Or to put it a different way, a hostile power could, if they chose the right moment, steer the 510 x 330 x 241 m asteroid into the Earth for comparatively little effort. Watch the skies!

Chapter 8: Destination: Eros

The authors go from the abstract to the particular and outline a theoretical visit to the asteroid 433 Eros. They acknowledge various challenges, including solar storms, which they point out should be hitting a peak right about the time Apollo was planning to land on the Moon.

You may ask “how did NASA handle protecting the Apollo astronauts from solar flares?” Basically, they gambled that no major storm would hit while the astronauts were in space and got lucky.

Chapter 9: Life on the Planetoids

The authors discuss some of the challenges that will have to be met if humans are to live in space, with some suggestion for solutions. They see the ability to create biospheres in space as a Next Step in Evolution that they call Macrolife (I think this only caught on with George Zebrowski), a status they do not think applies to humans, whom they see as merely a variation on apes.

There is a Science Marches On moment in this, as one would expect from any speculative non-fiction piece from 1964; Mercury is thought to be tide-locked to the Sun, with one face forever sunlit and the other in perpetual night. The actual case is a bit more complicated and less convenient for humans.

Chapter 10: Goldmine in the Sky

The authors explore the economic potential of the planetoids, which they conclude could be great … if only transportation costs could be brought down.

If only… The economic cases that make sense if you suppose rockets can be made as cheaply as cars don’t work nearly as well if rockets remain as expensive as, well, actual rockets. Plus the price elasticity of demand for space applications is actually pretty awful, around 0.6 if I recall correctly.

Chapter 11: The Need for Colonies

While nobody can say what the limits for growth are on Earth, there must be limits and some day humans will run into them. Exceeding those limits will bring calamity but adopting a lifestyle that stays within them invites stagnation, therefore SPACE!

As a beneficial side-effect, humans might expand their living area to match the post-war million-fold increase in humanity’s ability to blow things up. A nuclear war on Earth would be very, very bad; a nuclear war in space might be less bad for humanity as a whole.

This is one of the sections where one is very aware It Was Another Time:

A large percentage of Orientals are strongly influenced by philosophies such as Buddhism which emphasize conformity with nature and an elimination of desire. [….] If this attitude became universal (we note a rise in conformity, emphasis on the group rather than the individual and a rapid spread of Buddhism in western countries) we might lose our still present drive to explore, to adapt our environment to ourselves, and to colonize the planets.

The doleful picture they paint here is somewhat at odds with their later acknowledgment that space colonies will be fragile and nowhere near as able as Terrestrial societies to tolerate antisocial behavior.

Cole and Cox also discuss population, coming to the conclusion that population policy is a lot like nuclear weapon policy. It’s clear humans have the means to limit their own numbers but in a world divided into nations, nations that limit their numbers may find themselves at a disadvantage with respect to other nations that do not. Their example isn’t France, which, given that the plummeting French-German population ratio was a contributing factor to various unpleasantnesses in the early half of the 20th century, is a bit surprising, but Japan, which the authors suspect may come to regret the population-limiting measures then encouraged by the Japanese government.

(When they talk about the implications of birthrates that vary by group, the authors take time out to explain they don’t intend anything racist when they say that limiting birthrates puts one’s group at risk of being pushed aside by groups that do not limit birthrates)

Chapter 12: Stepping Stones in Space

The authors discuss various stratagems by which planetoids could be exploited to facilitate travel in space, from in situ resource exploitation for fuel to providing anchors for magnetic catapults.

The authors use the term “space DC3” to describe a theoretical utilitarian manned rocket. This is a reference to the DC3 plane, which revolutionized air travel less than two generations before this book was written. To date, nobody has worked out how to build a space DC3, which hasn’t kept me from stealing the term.

Chapter 13: Capturing a Planetoid

The authors run the numbers for capturing small planetoids into orbits around Earth and conclude that such an undertaking is surprisingly doable, given a willingness to invest a sufficient number of thermonuclear explosive devices. Just how many depends on the characteristics of the planetoid in question and on how efficiently the energy of the bomb can be coupled to the planetoid but even the high estimate, while a significant fraction of humanity’s supply of thermonuclear explosives, is within the realm of opportunity.

The authors do acknowledge that some asteroids may be of a nature where changing their course with nuclear explosives is impractical — do it to a rubble pile asteroid and you may just turn it into a shotgun blast of debris — and they are well aware that any planetoid that could be turned into an Earth-orbiter can also be turned into an Earth-impacter.

Chapter 14: The Off-Shore Islands of Mars

Are Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos artificial? Maybe! Are the two moons useful as off-planet docking ports? Not really! But they could provide a useful source of raw materials that could be supplied to Mars orbiters for not much in the way of delta vee.

The Martians are presumed to have wiped themselves out with nuclear war, which kind of undermines the whole “space colonies will increase our living space until it matches the area we can destroy with nuclear weapons” angle.

Chapter 15: Inside-Out Worlds

The authors discuss how planetoids could be turned into inside-out worlds, inflated, spun up for centrifugal effect, filled with soil, air and life and populated by humans. While the authors acknowledge that such a world would be comparative fragile, with the social consequences that implies, they are sure that not only might they not be doleful totalitarian regimes, their methods of self-rule might well look quite familiar to Americans.

The need to protect minorities from majorities comes up a number of times in this book, which leads me to think it is not impossible that this Donald W. Cox is the same one who so pissed off the KKK.

A number of authors picked up on the whole “inflato-planetoid” short cut to space colonies. A significant subset failed to notice that Cole and Cox were talking about iron asteroids. Even so, I’ve tossed cans of beans into campfires (for Science!) and on the basis of the results am skeptical it would work the way Cole and Cox have it working. No shortcuts, I am afraid.

Chapter 16: War and Peace in Space

Planetoids can be weaponized, thus offering the potential of nuclear-weapon-level damage without the radioactive fallout. Ignoring the planetoids means giving those darn Reds, who are already clearly in the lead in the space race, the chance to drop rocks on America and other, less important, nations. The moral is America needs a decent planetoid research program.

The authors also discuss orbiting bombs. Low orbit nuclear weapons are inherently threatening and destabilizing but an arsenal sufficiently far out could not be attacked or dropped on targets without a lot of warning and therefore might provide the same kind of stability that solid-fuel and hardened silos previously provided.

Chapter 17: By Planetoid to the Stars

After wrestling with relativity in the manner of engineers, expressing some hope that maybe the decades of support for that model are based on factors that might not apply to rockets, the authors then point out that as long as one never intends to come home, it doesn’t matter if the speed of light can be exceeded. Planetoids might not just provide the homes in which people travel to the stars; the same techniques that allow exploitation of Sol’s planetoids could be used on the planetoids of any stars. Since planetoids seem likely to be a common feature, this means human expansion across the Milky Way is in no way limited by the number of habitable planets. Take that, Stephen H. Dole!

The authors provide a useful glossary and a decent index, as well as these three appendices:

Appendix A: Asteroids of Major Interest

Appendix B: A Table of the Minor Planets — Orbital Elements

Appendix C: Planetoid Belt Fly-Through Orbits

The middle of the book has a number of plates illustrating what space travel might be like. Some are uncredited but others are credited to Roy Scarfo, whose recent death inspired me to reread this book. His site is here.

This work was very much of its time (and a lot shorter than I remembered: those appendixes take up a lot of space) but I got a lot out of Islands in Space as a teen. I am not alone; later books on space exploitation were clearly influenced by Cole and Cox (Harry Stine lifted some of his tables either directly from Cole and Cox or from the same source that they using). Although astronomy has definitely marched on since this was published, space propulsion (at least for crewed space craft) has advanced only incrementally. Still, planetoids offer the same advantages as potential targets of exploration as they did in 1964.

Many of the justifications for space colonization will be very familiar to fans of that endeavour, and not just those fans who, like me, are the beneficiaries of the passage of time. This is because space colonization boosterism has stagnated for decades. There are fewer intermediary steps between Cole and Cox and modern authors in this field than one might expect.

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