“Our apartment is about the same size as our old house on Earth and it has a garden. Alpha was one of the first habitats to be built, so our trees have had the time to grow to a good size. For a town of 10,000 people we’re in rather good shape for entertainment, four small cinemas, quite a few good restaurants and many amateur theatrical and musical groups. It takes only a few minutes to travel over to neighbouring communities, so we visit them often for movies, concerts or just a change in climate. In Alpha we have our own low-gravity swimming pools. Quite often, Jenny and I climb the path to the ‘North Pole’ and pedal out along the zero-gravity axis of the sphere for half an hour or so, especially after sunset, when we can see the soft lights from the pathways below.”
It’s easy to figure out that this passage is from a sci-fi novel. It may be tempting to dismiss such lives lived in space modules orbiting the earth, as too fancy and futuristic. No longer. This extract about spending a whole life orbiting earth is from High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space written by a Princeton physicist Gerard K O’ Neill in 1976. This novel today stands apart from others in the genre because it is the basis or inspiration of the utopian dream being brought closer to reality by Amazon’s Jeff Bezoz with his space company Blue Origin.
Bezos got obsessed with the idea of human colonies orbiting in space and leaving the earth behind. According to Franklin Foer’s writing in The Atlantic in November 2019, a local newspaper reported a speech Bezos made in school in which he said that his intention was “to get all people off the Earth and see it turned into a huge national park.” Bezoz got the idea from O’ Neill’s novel.
Bezos's moon mission is scheduled for 2024 and his larger idea is not to send vehicles to and from the moon but to set up colonies there, which according to various estimates, is just about a 100 years away. But the idea of huge space modules orbiting the earth will be closer in time. Such giant modules can be used by communities to escape viruses like Covid-19 that threaten to wipe out entire populations. Such modules are self-sustained and the atmosphere inside replicates the earth in many ways. The present International Space Station has already spent over 7,800 days in space and more than 230 people have lived in them for various durations so the science and the data for long duration stay is easily available. Clearly, O’Neill’s dream and Bezos’s space module project is coming closer to reality.
Along with Bezos on the forefront of such space projects are two other private companies, Virgin Atlantic and Elon Musk’s Space X. In September 2019, Musk unveiled his latest idea in space travel with the prototype for Space X, a massive reusable launch system: According to Musk, the new version of his Starship will be able to carry up to 100 people to the moon. It will be 387 feet long and will be totally reusable. In its first trip just a couple of years from now, the spaceship will take a few people who have already paid and booked seats for the trip, close to the moon and back.
“Starship will allow us to inhabit other worlds. To make life as we know it, interplanetary,” Musk wrote on Twitter in September last year. Bezos, Musk and the other space entrepreneur, Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, have all the money, the dream, and the technology to make possible life beyond Earth and maybe permanent life in modules like O’ Neill visualised in High Frontiers. Virgin Atlantic’s commercial space travel programme, Virgin Orbit, did not have a good start when its mighty Launcher One rocket released at 36,000 ft, from its carrier vehicle, a decommissioned Boeing 747, failed to ignite this week on May 25, after take-off from California. But that is not seen as a setback since launching technology has already been perfected.
“Our goal is to find ways in which all of humanity can share in the benefits that have come from the rapid expansion of human knowledge and yet present the material aspects of that expansion from fouling the worldwide nest in which we live,” O’ Neill wrote in the forward to his novel. But it almost reads like a present day document. Bezos’s large plan or belief is that the Earth must be left alone with no interference from degrading habits of humans.
Never has such a search for living away from earth for long periods sounded so urgent and doable.