Without a limit, without a doubt!

Colonies in Space — T.A.Heppenheimer


T. A. Heppenheimer’s Colonies in Space is just one of the many Disco Era books and articles published proposing that the Next Big Step for humans in space would not be settlements on Mars or the Moon, but rather grand space stations. The idea was very popular, at least until reality ensued.

These days, Heppenheimer may be remembered as the spoilsport who pointed out that Bussard ramjets are far more effective at dissipating energy than they are at generating it (which is to say, they’re not propulsion systems but brakes). Yet he too was a space colony enthusiast. I remember his book fondly. What I cannot do is resolve the teeny-tiny font in the paperback edition,

So it was with great glee that I discovered that the National Space Society has made the work available online for free. I like free! It’s even better than cheap!

Chapter 1: Other Life in Space

Heppenheimer sums up what was known about the possibility of life on other worlds in 1977. In general, the prospects are bleak, although there is one bright note:

More recently, Donald Hunten has found that the atmosphere (of Titan) is nearly as thick as that of Earth. He has found it contains a good deal of hydrogen and probably nitrogen as well. These gases quite likely trap heat and raise the surface temperature to the point where Miller-type chemical reactions can proceed.


What caught my eye in this was the section where Heppenheimer confidently dismisses Daniken by citing Heyerdahl. Daniken is in no way credible but neither is the hyperdiffusionist Heyerdahl. Heppenheimer might have been convinced that [quote] We have good reasons today (ever since Thor Heyerdahl’s voyage on the raft Kon-Tiki) to believe that the Polynesians originally came from South America by raft. [/quote] This is not the consensus view then or now, and it is a bit of a red flag that Heppenheimer thought it was.

I am unfamiliar with Donald Hunten. Shame on me, because he seems to have done interesting work.

Chapter 2: Our Life in Space

Heppenheimer provides a thumbnail sketch of the space colony movement: from its early days, when Gerard O’Neill concluded space colonies were a better option than planetary colonies, to the formation of an advocacy group.


It’s all very positive. Heppenheimer has no idea 1977 will have been a peak for public interest in space colonies.

Chapter 3: Power from Space

Low-loss microwave-based wireless transmission of power means it’s possible to generate power in one place and deliver it to another without messy wires! Comparatively mundane applications are set aside for what seems to be a more promising application, given the low-cost access to space NASA’s space shuttle will soon provide: space-based solar power stations, high in eternal light.


The same system for beaming power from space to Earth could beam power from Churchill Falls to New York without needing Quebec’s cooperation! Which is probably a much less sexy application to anyone who did not roleplay Newfoundland in a late Disco-era Federal Provincial conference simulation. Although they were not the focus of his book, Heppenheimer did consider the mundane applications of beamed power:

It would be possible to put nuclear power complexes in Greenland or to build nuclear power complexes on a remote island. The island of New Guinea has swift-flowing rivers which could develop enough hydroelectric power to run much of Australia—if the power could be transported across the Arafura Sea. Or the intense solar energy which falls wastefully upon tropical deserts—the Sahara, the Kalahari in Southwest Africa, the Atacama in Peru and northern Chile—could be used as a source of electricity which otherwise would find only the most limited local market.

The fact nobody has done this suggests there are good reasons why it is not done … whether it’s that the engineering does not scale up nicely, that the capital costs are too high or that nobody wants beamed power badly enough to accept gigawatt radio transmitters.

Chapter 4: Hope for the Future

Is humanity doomed by the limits imposed by a terrestrial existence? Or can innovations allow us to sidestep the coming flint-and-mammoth shortage? And might said innovations include space-based solar power systems? And which (if any) of several competing computer models are correct?


The term “demographic transition” never appears in this chapter, but Heppenheimer is familiar with the basic idea.

The birth rate, in Boyd’s model, would decrease strongly with increasing living standards and would not increase with increasing availability of food.

For reasons that are not clear to me, Forrester (the fellow behind World2) apparently predicted declining birthrates would only make our Inevitable Doom even more DOOMY.

As it turned out, we didn’t need SPS to power the industrialization of the world. Which is good, because we didn’t get it.

Chapter 5: First of the Great Ships

This is a thumbnail history of how NASA went from the glory days of the Apollo Program through a grim nadir and then recovered with the Shuttle Program. And the post-shuttle spacecraft will only be more awesome!

The shuttle will lift over thirty tons on each flight at a cost of $10.5 million, or $160 per pound as the freight rate to orbit. (…)This is not the end, however. (various technical details deleted) What results then is an HLLV with payload of 300,000 pounds and a freight rate of only $67 per pound. This is the launch system which the NASA study on space colonization, in the summer of 1975, recommended as the basic vehicle for use in space colonization.


Multiply prices by about four to get 2016 prices.

As we know, the Shuttle failed to deliver cheap, reliable access to space. While hindsight is 20/20, it seems obvious that the same challenges that led NASA to abandon plans for a fully reusable shuttle

calculations showed that any cost overruns would mean the design would fail to meet its economic goals. The question of overruns was tied closely to the risks involved in developing what in 1971 was a very advanced system

applied to the semi-reusable version as well.

Heppenheimer is far more charitable towards Apollo-era NASA and its confidence that Congress would continue to fund grand space schemes than I would be. NASA really misread the signals from the government.

Chapter 6: The Moon-Miners

Heppenheimer outlines how a comparatively small foothold on the Moon could be used to fling megatons of material into space, using only simple nuclear reactors, magnetic accelerators (using liquid helium, back in the days when helium was cheaper), and the fact that the Moon has a low escape velocity.


It might seem odd that nuclear power is a key part of a solar power project, but the accelerators need power 24/7, the Moon’s nights last two weeks and Hogg Fuel does not deliver to the Moon. The Moon’s Peaks of Eternal Light were not on people’s radar at this time.

Chapter 7: Construction Shack

How workers in space will turn regolith into space power stations and habitats.


This passage concerning demographics jumped out at me:

affirmative-action hiring procedures will ensure that about half of (the workers) are women.

Thanks to the collapse in oil prices coupled with the shuttle’s failure to launch, we never got near to trying this. Passages like this one

The smelting of metals, their extraction from lunar rocks and soil, represents a problem quite different and novel. Our terrestrial experience with aluminum production or steelmaking will be of only limited use. On Earth, metals usually are smelted from their oxides or from other simple compounds. Then the metals can be extracted through essentially a single chemical step. For iron the ore is heated together with carbon and limestone. For aluminum a current is passed through a solution of alumina in molten cryolite.

In these industrial operations, air and water are available free or at low cost, and disposal of wastes is not usually a problem.In the construction shack, everything will be different. The “ores” are complex chemical substances similar to ordinary rocks or clays. Water will be available only in limited quantities and all materials will have to be recycled. It is entirely hopeless to use the processes of Earth directly, and the processes which are used must operate in an environment where even gravity must be manufactured.

do not fill me with optimism about the time scales it would take to master the new techniques needed.

Chapter 8: The Highest Home

Where will the first habitats be located? And what form will they take?


Constraint on location: the need to facilitate transfer orbits. Constraint on form: the need to prevent Coriolis-force-induced motion sickness.

Chapter 9: Up on the Farm

The colonies require entirely closed artificial ecosystems. Heppenheimer does not predict any show-stoppers.


As I recall, the public discussion about this issue had two distinct camps: engineers who were pretty sure this was an easy problem to solve, and people with applicable experience who were pretty sure it was not going to be easy at all. Heppenheimer falls in the first camp.

Chapter 10: Ventura Highway Revisited

Heppenheimer discusses the internal architecture of the first colonies, which will be driven by a need to minimize the footprint of colonist housing. Think high rises, not the ’burbs.

He also discusses other amenities, such as the weekly magazine deliveries on which modern society depends.


Disco-era pundits tended to be dubious at best about high population density living, but Heppenheimer accepts the math: there’s no way to accomplish what he wants to accomplish with the resources at hand and not end up with population densities comparable to Venice’s. Or if you really want to maximize colonist population, Hong Kong or Kowloon Walled City.

Chapter 11: What’s Happening on Saturday Night?

How will the colonists amuse themselves in their space colony? With mix of mundane and exotic entertainments! Like sex! And Space Sex!


On the whole I prefer futurist vision whose subjects are allowed to smile and laugh.

Chapter 12: The Shell of the Torus

Dealing with the hazards of space, some of which (giant meteor impacts) are probably unlikely enough that they can be ignored and some of which (like radiation) require careful thought.


Anything heavier than a few hundred pounds would produce severe damage when striking the colony, about the same effect as setting off a fair-size bomb in the World Trade Center.

Didn’t 1974’s The Curve of Binding Energy also talk about smashing the WTC? Did people start thinking about how to bring the complex down as soon as it was erected?

Chapter 13: University of Space

Space colonies offer unparalleled opportunities for research.


Some of these projects (like the space telescopes) do not require space colonies. Some of them (like the space telescopes) might be directly impeded by proximity to colonies.

Chapter 14: The Next Million Years

Are we as doomed as we suspect or is there room for optimism?


Once again, Heppenheimer never mentions the term demographic transition, but he appears to be familiar with the essential concepts:

The long-term prospect for the developed world seems to be similar to what France has experienced for the past two centuries. At the time of the French Revolution, its population of 25 million made France the most populous state in Europe. It easily stood off invasion by a coalition of powers determined to overthrow the Republic, and under Napoleon proceeded to a career of conquest. But in all the nineteenth century, its population grew by only 12 million. Germany quickly surpassed France, with unfortunate results for the peace of Europe. Today, at 52 million, France has maintained an average growth rate of only 0.4 per cent per year since 1789.

Nor does he see this as peculiar to the developed world: birthrates in the developing world were also falling. And he acknowledges that. What an unexpected detail to encounter in a popular science book only a few years after The Population Bomb hit the best seller lists.

(Heppenheimer does mention “population control” but that seems to mean “arranging the economy so that fewer kids makes sense,” not Known Space-style Fertility Cops.)

Sadly for the space fans, it turned out we didn’t need space colonies to industrialize the world. Happily for the human population, it turned out we didn’t need space colonies to industrialize the world.

Chapter 15: Ring Around the Sun

The lunar-space colony complex is only a first step. Near Earth Asteroids offer accessible resources to scale up the habitats to Brobdingnagian size.


And thus we finally reach the stage where people recreate Ohio and the Bay Area In Space. Although (as Heppenheimer acknowledges) while space communities might draw their inspiration from Earth, environmental restrictions will ensure that the habits be their own new thing. New San Francisco will be as like the original as New Georgia is like Georgia. Either Georgia.

Chapter 16: Colonizing the Stars

Speculations on interstellar travel in the context of a developed space economy. The one detail that seems assured is that interstellar travel will be time-consuming. Human star travel may eat lifetimes.


This map, showing opportunities to visit multiple systems with one space probe, was the stuff of dreams for sixteen-year-old me.



Personal experience suggests to me that one of the factors that drove public interest in space colonies was the art. The economics might have been pretty crazy, but the art (particularly the art by Don Dixon and Donald E. Davis) was shiny.

It’s my belief that since there’s no rational economic case to be made (at least at present) for colonizing space, the arguments for it reveal contemporary anxieties. For example, a regular on one of the sci.space.* groups wanted space colonies so that he could turn his back on Iraqis inexplicably ungrateful for American intervention1. Cole and Cox wanted space colonies to mitigate the risk presented by nuclear weapons. Space colonies are a Rorschach test. A trillion dollar Rorschach test.

What Colonies in Space says to me is that during the 1970s Americans like Heppenheimer (which is not all Americans) were obsessed with energy and resources, population and sustainability. War and the Clash of Civilizations are preoccupations of later times. Heppenheimer also goes out of his way to underline that women were part of his grand vision, that Women’s Lib an essential element of a civilized future. Which makes sense, given that the era of the space colony is also the era of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It is possible that space colonization will become a generic subject, something like Ecology or Women’s Lib, which everyone knows something about and has an opinion on. Then it will become part of political campaigns. Once an administration is elected with space colonization in the platform, or if Congress should pick up the idea, the twenty-year program begins.

Well, none of that happened: the ERA was defeated and followed by a long war on women, public discussion of ecology was deliberately sabotaged, and the two fundamental requirements for space colonies (the ability to build them and the need to built them) never materialized. Which is a depressing note for an ending, but that’s how things are.

Colonies in Space is available for free here.

1: No link because Google’s Usenet archive is beyond useless. “They will greet us as liberators!” has a long and glorious tradition in the US, from the invaders who expected Canadians to flock to the American side to Union soldiers who expected Mormon women to throw themselves into the arms of the men rescuing them from dreadful polygamy during the Utah War. Long story short, mistakes were made.

Please note: comments will be read-only for the next week or two; Livefyre has ceased service, and we are doing some site maintenance.