Three Visions of Human Space Settlement: 1970s

How NASA Imagined Life in Space


You may have seen images of NASA’s 1970s space colony artwork. But you’ve never seen them like this, in full size, high resolution scans.

Note: These are fairly large images, they may take a moment to load. So read through the text, or grab a cup of coffee, and they should be ready for you.

In the 1970s, NASA Ames Research Center (ARC) conducted space colony summer studies on Toroidal Colonies and Bernal Spheres which could hold population of up to 10,000 humans living in space, and on Cylindrical Colonies which could hold a population of 1,000,000.

These are the artistic renderings of those concepts. Grouped together into the three kinds of space settlement concepts they illustrate:

I. Torus Colony — II. Bernal Sphere — III. Cylindrical Colony

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.”

-Carl Sagan (Cosmos)


I. The Torus Colony

This colony is a torus, or doughnut-shaped ring, that is 1.8 km in diameter and rotates once per minute to provide artificial gravity on the inside of the outer ring via centrifugal force.


Toroidal Colony —Construction along the torus rim. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
Sunlight is provided to the interior of the torus by a system of mirrors. The ring is connected to a hub via a number of “spokes”, which serve as conduits for people and materials travelling to and from the hub.
Toroidal Colony —Exterior view. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
Since the hub is at the rotational axis of the station, it experiences the least artificial gravity and is the easiest location for spacecraft to dock.
Toroidal Colony — Cutaway view, exposing the interior. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

The interior space of the torus itself is used as living space, and is large enough that a “natural” environment can be simulated; the torus appears similar to a long, narrow, straight glacial valley whose ends curve upward and eventually meet overhead to form a complete circle.

Toroidal Colony — Interior view. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
The population density is similar to a dense suburb, with part of the ring dedicated to agriculture and part to housing.
Model of torus colony. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

II. The Bernal Sphere

In a series of studies at Stanford University in 1975 and 1976 with the purpose of speculating on designs for future space colonies, Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill proposed Island One, a modified Bernal sphere with a diameter of 500m rotating at 1.9 RPM to produce a full Earth artificial gravity at the sphere’s equator.


Bernal Sphere — Exterior view. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
The interior landscape that would resemble a large valley running all the way around the equator of the sphere.
Bernal Sphere — Interior including human powered flight. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
A Bernal Sphere would be capable of providing living and recreation space for a population of approximately ten thousand people.
Bernal Sphere — Construction crew at work on the colony. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
A “Crystal Palace” habitat would be used for agriculture.
Bernal Sphere — Agricultural modules in cutaway view (multiple toroids). Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
Sunlight was to be provided to the interior of the sphere using external mirrors to direct it in through large windows near the poles.
Bernal Sphere — Cutaway view of Bernal Sphere. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
The form of a sphere was chosen for its optimum ability to contain air pressure and its optimum mass-efficiency at providing radiation shielding.
Model of a Bernal Sphere. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

III. The Cylindrical Colony

This double cylinder colony is the most ambitious and awe inspiring vision of human futures in space.


Cylinder Colony — Exterior view of a double cylinder colony. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
Contained within each cylinder is an entire world built for human habitation. Each one is a planet in a bottle.
Cylinder Colony — Endcap view with suspension bridge. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
The Cylindrical Colony has forests, rivers, seas, the entire ecosystem of Earth.
Cylinder Colony — Interior view looking out through large windows. Art work: Rick Guidice. Image: NASA Ames Research Center
The scale of this project is such that a million people could live in one cylinder. Multiple cylinders could house millions and millions.
Cylinder Colony — Multiple two-cylinder colonies aimed toward the sun. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

Aimed at the sun, generations of humans could live out their lives in collections of colonies, all their hopes and dreams, in a world where the clouds float across the backdrop of space.

Imagine, the sun eclipsed by the Earth.
Cylinder Colony — Eclipse of the sun with view of clouds and vegetation. Art work: Don Davis. Image: NASA Ames Research Center

Please Cite as: Oman-Reagan, Michael P. 2015. “Three Visions of Human Space Settlement.” Space+Anthropology, March 22.


Michael Oman-Reagan is an anthropologist and PhD candidate. His doctoral research looks at exploration beyond our solar system, science, interstellar space, SETI, imagination, futures, and science fiction.

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High-resolution scans were made by David Brandt-Erichsen, a long-time space activist and are made available here by NASA Ames Research Center. Some text descriptions adapted from Wikipedia.

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