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]