Skip to main content

The raddest NASA space colony illustrations from the 1970s

At the peak of the Space Race, both the Russian and the United States space agencies were developing plans to establish permanent space colonies in orbit around our planet and beyond. In fact, in 1975, NASA’s Ames Research Center gathered 19 professors at Stanford University for 10 weeks with intention of not only designing what a human space colony would look like, but also figuring out how these systems might function as self-sufficient, long-term human outposts. The team of researchers was given a theoretical budget of roughly $35 billion dollars (or about $200 billion in 2017 when adjusted for inflation) to create these apparatuses.

While these massive structures may seem straight out of vintage pulp fiction, these colonies were well within our technical and engineering capabilities 40 years ago, and it’s even been argued that a series of such permanent colonies could be readily constructed for less than what the U.S. spends annually on its military.

The Ames Research Center studies concluded with three main design concepts: The Bernal sphere, the O’Neill cylinder, and the Stanford torus. While each design has its own unique structural shape, they all rotate to create a centrifugal force to induce gravity for inhabitants inside. Once constructed in-situ, these colonies would revolve around the Earth in the same orbit as the moon in a sliver of space between the Earth and moon known as the Lagrangian libration point.

At the time of these proposals, NASA had just launched the Pioneer 10 probe carrying a “interstellar greeting card” to grant salutations to any extraterrestrial life too haphazardly drifting through the cosmos. It wasn’t so long ago that the future of extended manned space exploration and colonization never seemed more feasible. In just 14 years mankind went from hurling the most rudimentary of satellites into orbit to quite literally teeing off on the moon using a makeshift six-iron — a true testament to the ingenuity and boundless curiosity of our species.

Unfortunately, more than 40 years have passed since this conference and unfortunately we are still without a drifting Logan’s Run-esque colony glinting in orbit or even the most primitive of terraformed bubbles. Perhaps this will change in the near future — especially if Elon Musk has his way. Whether we ever actually leave this space rock and become a multi-planetary species is anyone’s guess. Only time will tell…

Editors' Recommendations

Dallon Adams
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Dallon Adams is a graduate of the University of Louisville and currently lives in Portland, OR. In his free time, Dallon…
NASA switches SpaceX’s Crew-8 launch date again
SpaceX Crew-8 ahead of their flight to the space station.

Just a couple of days after NASA announced it was delaying the launch of SpaceX’s Crew-8 mission to the International Space Station (ISS) by a week, the agency has come back to say it’s pushing back the earliest possible launch date by another two days.

It means the Crew-8 mission will launch no earlier than Friday, March 1.

Read more
The 60 best space photos of all time from Nasa, Hubble, and more
This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.

We're living through a golden age of space exploration, from rovers landing on Mars to astronauts living on board the International Space Station to the most complex and capable telescopes ever devised sending back stunning images of the cosmos. With technology like the high definition cameras on the Perseverance rover and the incredible sensitive infrared detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope, we're getting new views of the world beyond our own planet every day.

Some images of space stay entrenched in the public imagination, like the famous Pale blue Dot photos from 1990. It shows Earth as seen by the Voyager spacecraft just minutes before its camera was turned off. Traveling beyond the orbit of Pluto, the image shows the view when Voyager turned back around and viewed Earth -- the tiny, almost imperceptible dot seen against the emptiness of space.

Read more
NASA video looks ahead to an exciting 2024
NASA's SLS rocket launching at the start of the Artemis I mission.

It’s been a busy 12 months for NASA, with highlights including the space agency’s first-ever return of asteroid material, the launch of the Psyche spacecraft to explore a metallic asteroid, and continued incredible work by the James Webb Space Telescope.

In a new video released by NASA on Wednesday, the space agency looks ahead to what promises to be an even more exciting 2024.

Read more