Tech UPTechnologyIs the surface of a planet the right place...

Is the surface of a planet the right place for a sprawling technological civilization?

Although near-Earth space is primarily occupied by the world of telecommunications, installing space stations in Earth orbit offers a whole world of possibilities. Of all of them, the most promising is that of the orbital laboratories. Zero gravity and the vacuum offer a unique opportunity for the development of new products and materials that are very expensive to obtain on the surface of our planet. The International Space Station is the forefront of this new vision of space, which includes the establishment of industries, hotels or, as Chuck Lauer – who developed shopping malls and business parks on Earth – stated, a mixed business park. Lauer created his own company, Orbital Properties , to develop his idea. It is not about defining a business, but about creating the necessary infrastructure to host it. If it is built, they will come – at least, that’s what he said. Unfortunately his dream will not be able to see it: Lauer died in March 2021.

cities in space

In 1969 a Princeton professor named Gerard O’Neill posed this question to his students: Is the surface of a planet the right place for an expanding technological civilization? The answer they arrived at was a resounding ‘no’; the correct place is space. This is how O’Neill devised his Island One, a space colony capable of housing 10,000 people in an effort that, once the necessary technology was developed, would not be greater than the cost of placing a man on the Moon. Isla Uno is a 480 m diameter sphere known as the Bernal Sphere. It would rotate at a rate of two revolutions per minute, providing an artificial gravity at the equator similar to that on Earth. With an approximate cost of three times the Apollo program, the only problem is where to get the necessary materials to build them. Obviously, the appropriate place is our planet, but the cost of sending them into space would be excessive. Therefore, the only option is to obtain them from a nearby place where they are found in abundance: the Moon. For O’Neill, the construction of space bases passes, first, by establishing a mining base on our satellite .

For his part, Marshall Thomas Savage, author of The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps and founder of the First Millennial Foundation, proposes a totally different environment: waterproof silicone bubbles . Without artificial gravity, Savage has the full potential of living in three-dimensional space at his fingertips: each inhabitant would have a spherical room with a radius of 6.5 meters. It may seem small, but in space you have to think in cubic meters and not squares: in Savage’s bubbles each one will have 1,130, like a big mansion on Earth.

Each bubble would be part of a larger composite grouping, each of twelve bubbles arranged as follows: six of them would be placed at the vertices of a hexagon, and three of them would fit above and three below. The twelve would form a large “superbubble”, so that twelve of these could be arranged in the same way, in turn forming superstructures in the same way that Russian nesting dolls fit inside each other.

The problem with living in space, or on a planet without an atmosphere, is that you are exposed to cosmic radiation and meteorites. The solution to the first is to use an external shield covered with a very fine layer of gold -which reflects a large part of the ultraviolet radiation but allows visible light to pass-, and under it, a layer of 5 meters of water, to absorb the radiation. harmful Meteorites are also a problem that would be solved by -of course!- the appropriate laser cannons.

Moon Base Alpha

For other scientists, such as Robert Zubrin, space stations are not a good option: they involve too many technological problems, too many risks, and are dramatically dependent on supplies . Ground is needed underfoot. Perhaps that is why the lunar base is one of our first steps in space. In it we can find all the materials that a technological society needs. Even oxygen, which would be obtained as a by-product when treating the metal oxides necessary for industry.

The uses of a permanent lunar base would be diverse . On the one hand, we would have the vacuum industry, which ranges from vacuum-cast alloys to the production of plastics, including the construction of optical components. Astronomers would be in good luck: on a planet without an atmosphere, telescopes and radio telescopes would discover new wonders in our universe. And even hospitals, where thanks to the low gravity, arthritis and rheumatism patients would see their pain relieved. When biologist JBS Haldane was dying of cancer, he wrote an emotional letter to science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke: “I and a million other surgical cases would be quite satisfied with lunar surface gravity.” The Moon would also be an excellent nursing home.

But the most important thing is that our satellite would be an excellent spaceport to colonize the Solar System: fuel costs would be much lower due to low gravity. From there we could launch ourselves into the mining of asteroids

mines in space

Since the astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the asteroid Ceres on January 1, 1801, the number of these bodies that we have been discovering has grown exponentially: there are several tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Ceres-sized asteroids swarming around the solar system. And there we have incalculable reserves. Just to give an example: from a typical asteroid of about 10 kilometers on a side and taking into account current consumption, we could obtain the necessary aluminum for 23,000 years, mercury for almost 300 years and the rare molybdenum for 10. The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is a real mine that is waiting for us. The mining colonies will also be excellent places for the appearance of completely different social structures. Hundreds of new worlds, with their particular idiosyncrasies, will emerge millions of kilometers from Earth.


Lewis, J.S. (1997) Mining the sky, Basic Books

Savage, MT (1994) The Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps, Little, brown and co.

Sivolella, D. (2019) Space Mining and Manufacturing, Springer

Zubrin, R. (200) Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization, Tarcher Perigee

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