Building Utopia in Space

Utopianism is having a moment. Everything from the box office success of big-budget science fiction films like Interstellar and The Martian to the groundswell of support for the Green New Deal ...

Utopianism is having a moment. Everything from the box office success of big-budget science fiction films like Interstellar and The Martian to the groundswell of support for the Green New Deal signals our revival of the utopian imaginary—of our desire to construct and inhabit an idealized world. Already, we can see this impulse reflected in the renderings of the UN-endorsed Oceanix project; the Rebuild by Design competition in New York after Hurricane Sandy; and Bjarke Ingels’s recently released plan for human settlements on Mars. Of course, this renewed public faith in utopian design coincides with the growing recognition that climate change is an inexorable, existential threat to everything we know and care about on this planet.1 The urge to escape our ruined planet and start over has never been greater.

The shame and grief of our great moral failure—the spoiling of a planet some 6 billion years old in a few generations—has given cartoonish megalomaniacs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk the cover they need to propose escapist fantasies in space. Human history is replete with examples of elites and designers working together around the idea that new technologies and spatial forms could undo the devastation wrought by colonialism, capitalism, and climate change, and allow us to literally build utopia atop our ruins. The longer we wait to pursue a moonshot like the Green New Deal here on Earth, the likelier it becomes that the future of our species will depend on settling space—not by choice, but to survive.

Pushing toward utopia might require the threat of an apocalypse, but, as Margaret Atwood reminds us in The Handmaid’s Tale, an ideal society is never ideal for everyone. The difference between utopia and dystopia is often little more than one’s vantage point. Why would life in space—and the dawn of humanity as a multi-planet species—be different?

The moon landing—50 years ago this past Saturday—was an apotheosis of science and technology and government power. In retrospect, one can now view the subsequent environmental movement—including the publications of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, not to mention the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973)—as a reaction to the space program itself. A movement garnering power just as humanity first breached the thermosphere looked back at our tiny blue marble and realized we were well on the way to destroying the only planet we’d ever known. Our descent had begun—one that we’ve yet to arrest.

It’s at this divergence—among the public aspirations of the American space program; the environmental movement’s newfound fears; the rise of global capital, privatization, and the deregulatory agenda of neoliberalism—that Fred Scharmen’s striking new book, Space Settlements, is situated. It tells the story of NASA’s 1975 project to design large-scale habitats for millions of people in space, developed by a team of physicists, engineers, artists, architects, and urban planners. The book itself is beautiful and compelling, replete with provocative images (some of them published for the first time) of cities in orbit. It is expertly narrated, as it wends its way through a set of stories about the coproduction of utopian outer-space imaginaries informed by architecture, science fiction, and the Cold War.

The difference between utopia and dystopia is often little more than one’s vantage point.

Scharmen’s greatest intervention is to give us context: about the ways in which utopian imagery is produced, how speculative design and science fiction operate within an ecosystem of ideation that drives futurist thought, and the ways in which the images within Space Settlements represent something more than civilizational objects themselves. The images have come to signify the ambitions of self-identified “great men” throughout history who’ve endeavored to mask their grief and shame about the health of this planet by investing in a future beyond it, endlessly seeking new frontiers for unfettered capitalist exploitation.

Though it went to press before the public release of Bezos’s Blue Origin project, Space Settlements serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of wild speculation and utopianism, and about the continued relevance of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine in the age of climate change. Klein’s book reminds us that “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure.” The spectacular, provocative ideas found in Space Settlements are now in the hands of global elites. Now that they have set this planet ablaze, men like Bezos are turning their gaze toward outer space as a site of both refuge and profit. And the images in Scharmen’s book have already begun to shape their visions for this future.

If prior plutocratic generations sought to escape ecological collapse through gated communities, private compounds, and fantasies like Peter Thiel’s floating-cities proposal, it’s clear that space settlements are the next frontier of capitalist redevelopment—a site in which the elite will decide who is welcome and who is left behind. We can already hear echoes of this sentiment in the Trump administration’s increasingly cruel immigration policy and in the racist chants of “send her back” delivered by a mostly white crowd at his latest campaign rally. It is not hard to imagine the evolution of that chant, from “lock her up” to “send her back” to “keep her out” of these space settlements.

Space Settlements traces the provenance and legacy of what was known as the “Summer Study”—a 1975 conference organized by Gerard O’Neill to bring designers, engineers, scientists, artists, physicists, and urban planners together around the challenge of designing an extraplanetary civilization. The book covers the origin story of O’Neill’s work in space-habitat design; the colonialist and frontier attitudes underpinning much of that work; the environmental psychology and urbanism of life in orbit; the through line between O’Neill’s speculative project and those in science fiction, apocalyptic fiction, dystopian fiction, and design research; the practice and politics of designing an extraplanetary civilization; and the unwavering impulse—and inevitable decision—to leave this planet behind and settle space.

O’Neill, a physicist, viewed the topic as a means of reviving the prestige and optimism of science and engineering: as the high of the 1969 moon landing faded, his “students were seeing the Vietnam War continue abroad while cities at home suffered from racism and disinvestment …[and] technology seemed at best inadequate to address racial and social inequality. … At worst, it served a war machine.” The Summer Study became a vehicle for accelerating the work O’Neill and his Princeton graduate students had begun in 1969 to design a series of industrial factories and worker housing facilities stationed between Earth and the moon. Their work produced three prototypical habitats: the O’Neill Cylinder (featured in Interstellar), the Bernal Sphere (Babylon 5), and the Stanford Torus (Elysium)—designs that have accounted for nearly every imagined space settlement in the last half-century of science fiction.


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A central theme throughout Space Settlements is the contested language of colonialism and frontier ideology in O’Neill’s extraplanetary imaginaries. For O’Neill, Scharmen writes, “the frontier is a concept, a speculation made accessible and thus buildable by technology. If the International Space Station orients itself relative to Earth’s surface as a building looking down, then the rocket ship is just an elevator with a higher top floor.” O’Neill even, at one point, sought to frame the focus of the Summer Study’s work as “space colonies.”

Carl Sagan, famed astronomer and colleague of Gerard O’Neill, disagreed with this framing altogether, arguing that their colonialist approach would undermine the project, distracting their audience from its broader aims and realities. Sagan argued instead for the term “space cities.” But, of course, these tensions were a product of rhetoric more than reality—branding more than substance. As Scharmen goes on to write, “Colonialism is a worldview … that encompasses the control of territory, the extraction of resources, and the creation of new technologies and new markets, all of which are explicit aspects of the Summer Study project.” Colonialist practices are not ameliorated through lexical elisions.

It is hard to imagine a functional difference between O’Neill’s space colonies and Sagan’s space cities. The logic of their spatial fix is mostly the same. As geographer and critical theorist David Harvey tells us, the “production, reproduction, and reconfiguration of [physical] space have always been central to understanding the political economy of capitalism.”2 And no site is more primed for capitalist intervention now than the vast emptiness of outer space—the only place, in Bezos’s own telling, where the cost of intervention is high enough for him to notice the expenditure.

The shame and grief of our great moral failure has given cartoonish megalomaniacs the cover they need to propose escapist fantasies in space.

O’Neill even concedes that his scheme is not for everyone. “If the new option is taken, it would be naive to assume that its benefits will be initially shared equably among all of humankind. The world has never worked that way, and since people do not change there is no reason to suppose that it will work that way in this case.”

Scharmen writes that “the design of these habitats, especially as promoted by Stewart Brand, is linked to a broader idea about the conquest—and invention—of new frontiers.”3 It’s worth emphasizing here just how striking the visuals in Space Settlements are: lush, verdant cities careening through space, full of people and plants and water and every aspect of bucolic Romanticism that one can cram into a cylindrical spaceship halfway to the moon. The renderings project a very particular, Western aesthetic—markers of where capital might flow when its redevelopment projects across Africa and South America are complete. They’re also clear precedents for the work released by Bezos through Blue Origin; he has simply swapped the Romanticism of O’Neill’s parks and suburban landscapes for the hyper-capitalist skylines of Singapore. Everything else remains the same.

But, for all their focus on the beautification of space and the constructed systems of maintenance and replenishment necessary to sustain human and ecological life, it’s clear that O’Neill and his colleagues envisioned a very particular kind of person occupying these habitats. One does not reproduce the aesthetic of white suburbia and Romantic nature for a population other than white suburbanites and settlers. The project is as much about prefiguring who would be invited to inhabit these space settlements as it is about what these places would look like and how they would perform.

We need utopian visions for the future of life on and beyond this planet. Scharmen’s Space Settlements is an essential text in that project—opening up the possibility of developing radical, speculative visions for the future and pursuing them, not through the whims of benevolent billionaires, but through democratic means that enable us to learn from mistakes, not simply to reproduce them beyond the thermosphere.

It is striking to read this book as Bezos, a former Princeton student, unveils his long-term plans for settling space. In an interview announcing his extraplanetary intentions, Bezos said:

I’m pursuing this work because I believe if we don’t, we will eventually end up with a civilization of stasis. … Now if you take baseline energy usage globally across the whole world and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells. … Now take the scenario where you move out into the solar system … [which] can easily support a trillion humans.

In a half-century-old rebuttal to the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, O’Neill offered a similar sentiment to Bezos’s. As Scharmen puts it, “Any limits to growth, he implies, would be anti-American, and the way out from under those limits is to pursue his plan for space settlement.”

We’ve already seen this cycle of escapist utopianism unfolding on Earth with this spring’s unveiling of the Oceanix island community for climate refugees—the fruition of a concept popularized by Peter Thiel in the 2000s and now adopted by the United Nations. Designed by Bjarke Ingels, Oceanix is intended to be a credible solution to the coming refugee crisis that climate change is sure to unleash. It is both a simpler idea than reducing and sequestering carbon and a more profitable one—it permits polluting industries to continue, largely unabated, on the understanding that the UN and others will bail them out by building new land to absorb the people displaced by their business practices.

This, too, is the seduction of planetary geoengineering—which comprises a set of ideas that range from spraying sulfates throughout the atmosphere to trigger a round of global cooling to far more technologically complex systems intended to regulate carbon, temperature, and precipitation in lieu of more politically challenging propositions like the Green New Deal. The logic of each scheme is to rebuild atop our capitalist ruins, rather than attempting to subvert the forces of pollution and destruction necessitating them.

These ideas—Oceanix, a geoengineered planet, and the O’Neill Cylinder, Stanford Torus, and Bernal Sphere of O’Neill’s Summer Study—are now developed, fully imagined, and primed for implementation. Each is simply waiting for the right crisis and the right elite proponent to transform them—haphazardly, unequally—into real places. That crisis may already be here. And men like  Bezos stand ready to build it all by and for themselves, practically making an argument for both a maximum income and a reinvigorated public sector—the living justification for a Green New Deal.

I am forced to ask: Why might any one person or small set of people be entrusted to geoengineer the planet? Or, in this case, to settle space? How might we avoid reproducing in space what we’ve spent millennia constructing here on Earth? Why would we continue to support a system that permits men like Bezos to abandon the planet they’ve destroyed and invest their fortunes in space rather than on Earth? Radical visions for the future have never been more necessary. But we need them here, on Earth, too. We need them in our homes and communities, in our energy systems and our political and economic systems. The march to settle space may be inevitable, but the need to reimagine our collective future on this planet is undeniable. For both eventualities, Scharmen’s Space Settlements is essential reading.


This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. icon

  1. See the recent publications of David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth, Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, and Nathaniel Rich’s Losing Earth, among others.
  2. David Harvey, “Globalization and the Spatial Fix,” Geographische Revue, vol. 2, no. 3 (2001), pp. 23–24.
  3. Brand is best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, a post–moon landing publication that capitalized on the “blue marble” imagery of Earth to argue for—and provide instruction about—living low-impact, closed-loop lives attuned to one’s local ecology.
Featured image: Don Davis, Toroidal Colony: Interior View (1970s). NASA Ames Research Center