NASA's Psychedelic Concepts From The 1970s Are Still Inspiring Today

A reminder that NASA needs to remember the powerful force of conceptual design.

Our excitement for space didn’t end when we put a man on the moon in the 1960s. In the late 1970s, we were still obsessed with the voids beyond our atmosphere. A little film called Star Wars came out, of course, but we also had the rise of Carl Sagan as a household name. He was producing a nonfiction series called Cosmos that would be seen by 500 million people worldwide and become the most successful series in PBS history.

Unsurprisingly, it was a time when NASA, too, dreamed on the epic scale.

Amongst their many projects at the time, NASA Ames proposed massive spaceships that would orbit communities of 10,000 people around the earth—planned communities in space—and they commissioned a series fantastical artistic renderings of the vision. "These orbital space settlements could be wonderful places to live; about the size of a California beach town and endowed with weightless recreation, fantastic views, freedom, elbow-room in spades, and great wealth," describes Al Globus, Senior Research Associate for NASA Ames.

The concepts look like America’s post-WWII suburban settlements popped LSD, as if every manicured bush is humming the national anthem while it soars through the galaxy on a psychedelic rainbow. Today, we’re convincing millionaires to book a glorified bus trip into the closest edge of space. In the 1970s, the same efforts could have leased them a two-bed, two-bath condo in the stars, complete with integrated Hi-Fi.

As of late, NASA has lost something that’s a lot bigger than their funding—and a skeptic might say it’s the very reason they’ve lost their funding. Case in point: These jaw-dropping human colony concepts are now outsourced to students.

While our Mars rovers and the newly modified Hubble telescope have represented some of the greatest scientific accomplishments in human history, when is the last time that the common person was inspired by the vision and scope of the space program? When is the last time we got a wide-eyed, multicolor explosion of ideas from some of the greatest thinkers in the world pondering the largest problems in the universe? When is the last time physicists painted a picture of the future that they’d otherwise only glimpse in their mind’s eye?

Though they’re often silly in retrospect, concept designs are a powerful tool. They’re lucid dreaming that the public gets to share in. NASA, sometimes it’s worth coming down from orbit, just to remind us all how very, very high you’re trying to fly.

[Hat tip: It’s Nice That]

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  • School Forever

    The future is a curious thing. In many ways, it is the endless
    repetition of the past, only with different clothes on (simplistic, but
    strangely true), yet in other ways, it unfolds quite differently than
    anyone would have ever imagined. Ever since H.G. Wells and Jules Verne
    gave birth to science fiction in the 19th century, dreaming in literary
    form about fantastical concepts like time travel, visitors from another
    planet, and even traveling to the center of the earth, each generation
    has developed its own concepts of what one day might be possible and
    what the future will bring.

    Science fiction filmmaking in the 20th century became emblematic of
    that generational daydream, each decade serving almost as a dividing
    marker between distinct ‘visions’ of tomorrow unique to their time.


  • Amanda J.F.

    What hasn't been going on for the last four decades ? I may be totally
    mistaken but I cannot recall anything this revolutionary being created
    in the interim. Imagine the stunned responses when Ferrari's Modulo was
    unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in 1970. Absolutely nothing this
    audacious had been attempted until progressive thinker Paolo Martin
    decided to unsettle the automotive establishment with this ground
    breaking design.

    It all came from wacky visions at the time...

  • Whiskey Master

    Vision and dreams for sooo far ahead then. anyone remember "Galaxy Light Whiskey" ad?

  • Greg Jones

    Wow...I recall vivid dreams as a boy after watching "Fantastic Journey"....

    Greg Jones

  • Beer Master

    Hahaha, excellent.

    Add to that the fact that solar panels in space can
    produce up to 10x the energy of terrestrial ones, while costing 10,000x
    as much to get up there, let alone install. Really, the lizards in the
    desert won't mind a little extra shade. 

    Beer Master

  • Jim Hill

    NASA In the 1970s: 10,000-Person Space Colony By the Year 2000!
    Sweet sweet...And what is this about a tower in the middle? That
    makes no sense at all. When you're talking a cable 4oMm in length, a
    tower a meager 2km tall means nothing.


  • Adam Edwards

    Do you remember Future Shock? Toffler argued that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a "super-industrial society". This change overwhelms people, he believed, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock.

    I feel like that a bit now!!!

  • Jonesalan39

    There are so many rather good/wacky/inspirational movies/series made at that time: Space Babes, Outland, Galaxy Of Terror, The Starlost, Battlestar Galactica....


  • Anna Davies

    Always wanted to be there....inside it...Missing those imaginary childhood days.


  • Chris Abbot

    This is my favorite subject, these guys were so way ahead and forward thinking we are only now understanding that The High Frontier is the only place left for mankind to go.
    Gundam was based on these drawing and Syd Mead did indeed do some concepts for this project, but I believe that Don Davis and Rick Guidicce are the main men.
    The tragedy of this is that Dr. Gerard O'Neil whose brainchild this was died in the early 1990's and so to a vision that the likes of Elon Musk and James Cameron would have drooled over had he still been alive.

  • CiaranD uffy

    I was born in the 80s and I remember having books with similar tubular space-station designs. It seemed mind-meltingly amazing AND totally reasonable at the same time that I would get to live on one of these.

  • BongBong

    I remember these old illustrations. The problem would be the impact of the Coriolis effect on the people living in these habitats.

  • Breanna Joy

    What would the impact be? If its orbiting, they don't really need to take into account the destination and altered path to get there.
    I would be worried about being so far from the Earth. I feel off when I'm not able to be grounded for short periods of time. I can't imagine living in space away from the Earth's frequency.

  • Andrew Fung

    These illustrations look a lot like scenes from many of the Gundam series.

  • jones19876

    Tubular worlds kind of remind me of Halo's ring worlds.. perhaps that's where they got the idea.