Artist Chesley Bonestell worked from rocket scientist Wernher von Braun's original designs to paint this view of a space station hovering above Central America, together with a resuable shuttle vehicle, space taxi, and telescope.
In ancient Greece, Aristophanes' comedy The Birds described a farcical utopia in the sky called Cloudcuckooland. In 1726, the hero of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels visited the flying city of Laputa. In 1869, Edward Everett Hale's "The Brick Moon" depicted an artificial satellite accidentally launched with people on board who adapt to life in orbit. Though some have cited these stories as early visions of a space station, the tales were only fantasies, reflecting no understanding of conditions in outer space or the problems involved in living there. Hard scientific work would be needed to make dreams of cities in the sky into realistic possibilities. Nevertheless, in the decades preceding the advent of the International Space Station (ISS), the dialogue between space scientists and space fantasizers was richer than you might think.
The first person to offer a blueprint for a functional space station was Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who designed a cylindrical facility with a greenhouse, laboratory, living quarters, and docking area for spacecraft. His didactic novel Beyond the Planet Earth (1920) remarkably anticipated the ISS by picturing a space station with a crew of six people from Russia, America, France, England, Germany, and Italy, all of which (save for England) are now involved in its construction. In the 1920s, members of the German Rocket Society (GRS) discussed space stations in nonfictional works: Hermann Oberth's The Rocket into Interplanetary Space (1923) introduced the term "space station," while Hermann von Noordung's The Problems of Space Flying (1929) went into detail about space station design and construction. More extravagantly, Englishman J. D. Bernal's short book The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1929) predicted gigantic spheres in space as future homes for humanity. However, these proposals bore no immediate fruit: In the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler diverted GRS activities to war preparations, and except for the lonely experiments of American Robert Goddard, people the world over generally displayed no interest in space travel.
The writers and readers of American science fiction, devoted as they were to garish magazines filled with space adventures, were the exception. When the magazine Science Wonder Stories republished The Problems of Space Flying, with a striking cover by Frank R. Paul, sci-fi authors got their first taste of space stations, which subsequently became regular elements in their stories. As stopovers for weary space travelers, one space station floated halfway between Earth and Mars, another halfway between the Sun and Alpha Centauri. Murray Leinster's "The Power Planet" (1931) proposed space stations as sources of energy for Earth; Basil Wells's "Factory in the Sky" (1941) demonstrated the potential benefits of space factories; and George O. Smith's "Venus Equilateral" stories (1942-45) featured an inhabited communications satellite. In effect, science-fiction writers critically examined the concept of space stations and concluded that they would be practical and helpful in various ways.
Nothing illustrated the burgeoning collaboration between space scientists and the creators of science fiction better than the March 22, 1952 issue of Collier's magazine, whose cover was graced by this Bonestell painting of von Braun's three-stage launch vehicle.
After World War II, German rocket scientists emigrated to America and the Soviet Union, whose governments coveted their expertise. One German scientist, Wernher von Braun, took a leading role in America's space program, and following the logic of former GRS colleagues and science-fiction writers, he decided that a space station was an essential first step in conquering space. In the March 22, 1952 issue of Collier's magazine, von Braun and other scientists contributed articles describing and advocating construction of an American space station. Illustrated by space artist Chesley Bonestell and others, this issue publicized the wheel- or doughnut-shaped design that became the most popular image of the space station, most memorably displayed in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Impressed by the articles in Collier's, science-fiction writers began promoting the space station as a necessary base for further expeditions into space. Novels like Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky (1952) celebrated the people who built and inhabited space stations, and space stations began to appear in science-fiction films such as Project Moonbase (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). At the height of the Cold War, works of fiction and nonfiction alike often emphasized the military value of space stations: Vigilant Westerners could establish observation posts and prevent Communists from building orbital launching pads for deadly missiles. However, Cold War tensions of a different sort soon canceled von Braun's plans for a space station. In 1961, after Russians launched the first man into space, U.S. President John F. Kennedy felt the need to announce an impressive goal to re-establish American superiority, and he chose landing on the Moon over constructing a space station.
Collier's artist Fred Freeman painted this cutaway view of von Braun's vision of a doughnut-shaped space station.
With official plans for a space station on hold, the dreamers again came to the forefront. While science fiction characteristically featured the smaller space stations favored by Tsiolkovsky and von Noordung, writers also imagined grander structures. Some envisioned space stations thousands of miles in diameter with millions of inhabitants, perhaps traveling through space as "generation starships" like the one in Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" (1941). One recurring theme was a literal city in space, resembling a city on Earth, under a protective transparent dome. Engineer Dandridge Cole argued in the 1960s that huge space colonies might evolve into new organisms called "Macro-Life" composed of innumerable living creatures.
Such visions of space communities became attractive in the early 1970s, because new evidence indicated that all other worlds in our solar system were barren, lifeless, and ill-suited for human settlements. Scientist Gerard O'Neill, for one, built upon Bernal's and Cole's expansive projections to propose huge space habitats to house human colonies. A typical design was an enclosed cylinder, rotating to simulate Earth gravity by means of centrifugal force, with landscapes and buildings on the interior surface. People, it was argued, might establish utopian communities inside such cylinders that were powered by solar energy and offered unique pleasures like zero-gravity "flying" at the center of the cylinder. Organizations emerged to advocate building a space habitat at one of the five LaGrange points, where the gravitational forces of the Earth and Moon are in balance.
A detail from Freeman's painting showing astronauts working aboard von Braun's project space station.
Science-fiction writers, always seeking new settings for stories, soon portrayed space habitats in their novels. Examples include Ben Bova's Colony (1978), Mack Reynolds' Chaos in Lagrangia (1984), and Isaac Asimov's Nemesis (1989). But their tone was often critical. Knowledgeable writers recognized that constructing a successful space habitat would be far more difficult and expensive than proponents claimed. They noted that these structures would be incredibly vulnerable, since even a tiny breach in the hull could kill every occupant. They envisioned insular, frightened communities plunging into madness or civil war. In short, while science-fiction writers examined and embraced small space stations, they examined and rejected plans for large space habitats, at least in our immediate future. Correspondingly, space scientists' interest in these ambitious proposals waned, and they refocused their attention on the ISS and other modest-sized initiatives.
Still, while the facility now under construction (see Astronauts in Hard Hats) may seem unrelated to the spectacular predictions of science fiction, the latter's hold on the popular imagination remains strong. Because the film Mission to Mars (2000) describes a Mars expedition that takes place only two decades from now, the astronauts in the movie should be shown departing from the ISS or an expanded version. Instead, the filmmakers created an entirely different World Space Station with a rotating wheel—exactly the sort of "doughnut in the sky" that Bonestell painted long ago. To many, such a construct still represents the only true "space station." In the future, both space-station realities and space station fantasies will undoubtedly continue to exert a powerful influence on humanity's actual and wishful journeys into space.
Gary Westfahl, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside, has written or co-edited ten books on science fiction and fantasy.
Images: (1-4) Frederick I. Ordway III Collection at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center