Archive Gallery: PopSci's Most Fantastic Space Colonies

An igloo-shaped lunar base, a train on the moon, a satellite housing 20,000 residents, and other places to live and play in space

Let's face it, sometime within the next century or so, overpopulation, the exhaustion of natural resources, an alien invasion -- or perhaps the optimistic spirit of adventure -- will force us to leave Earth in search of a new habitat. Earlier this week, NASA and DARPA announced a preliminary "Hundred-Year Starship" program for sending pioneers on permanent missions to Mars. To many, relocation from Earth sounds like a glorified exile, but some retro-futuristic eye candy from the Popular Science archives will surely change their minds.

People living in the mid-1950's were famously optimistic about the future of space exploration and colonization. Establishing cities outside of earth would not only prolong the survival of our species, but it would allow us to sow a legacy of art and technology into the universe.

Renowned science fiction authors like Arthur C. Clarke produced literature that only fueled the public's excitement at the thought of living in orbiting space habitats or on lunar colonies. Someday we would land on the moon, and after that, we would pitch plastic bases resembling igloos. Lunar dust piled atop our residences would protect us from extreme temperatures, while algae farms would provide nutrition.

In the mid-1980's, Gerard K. O'Neill, an experimental physicist famous for his cylindrical space colony designs, merged his L5 society group with Wernher von Braun's National Space Institute to form the National Space Society. The era saw developments like the Biosphere II, an enclosed, self-sustaining habitat touted as a model for future space colonies.

As you can imagine, building space habitats is a complicated, politicized business, and at this rate, it'll take a few decades -- if not lifetimes -- before we voyage en masse to communities outside of our planet. In his novel Islands in the Sky, which we featured in 1953, Arthur C. Clarke briefly mentions a teenager born on Mars who visits Earth for the first time when entering college. As much as we enjoy watching sunsets and breathing fresh oxygen here on Earth, we can't be the only ones who read that without a strange sense of wonder and longing.

Click through our gallery to see the moon city, the booster tank houses, and more fantastic proposals for lunar colonies and orbital settlements.

City on the Moon: April 1952

What would people do on a lunar base? In a condensed version of his book, The Exploration of Space, Arthur C. Clarke described how space workers establish pressurized, permanent colonies so they could mine the moon for mineral resources. Initial bases made of plastic material or reinforced plastic would resemble igloos. Since a lunar night is equivalent to 14 Earth days, settlers would eventually build an observatory used for studying astronomy under stronger seeing conditions. If inhabitants found frozen water in caves, they could electrify it to produce hydrogen and oxygen, which could in turn provide rocket fuel for spaceships stopping over on voyages to other planets. Read the full story in "What Will We Do with the Moon?"

There and Back Again: August 1952

Of course, not everybody was keen on relocating from Planet Earth. Many would rather survey the solar system for a couple of weeks before heading home. More than 15 years before Apollo 11 completed its mission, 24,000 people had already signed up at New York's Hayden Planetarium for an interplanetary tour. We even provided a cut-out card for readers interested in a luxury flight to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter or Saturn. The stay on the Moon would be one lunar day, or about two weeks of Earth time. At 80 Fahrenheit, Mars would be a summer destination, while Venus "would be the complete surprise-package tour," as people did not know what kind of secrets the planet held. Applicants ranged from an 85 year-old man with high hopes and to a New York fur trapper who wanted to establish a fur-trapping business on various planets. Read the full story in "The Line Forms Here For Trip to the Moon"

Islands in the Sky: May 1953

As big Arthur C. Clarke fans, we published a condensed version of his novel Islands in the Sky in our June 1953 issue. The novel tells the story of Roy Malcolm, a young man who visits the permanent satellites use for telecommunications, refueling, and stopovers to other planets. The doughnut-shaped Residential Station served as an acclimatization center for people traveling between Mars, the moon, and Earth. Clarke imagined that the station's constant spin would provide earth gravity at its rim. The cylindrical lower halves in the cocoon-like spacesuits pictured left contained pedals for mobility. Islands in the Sky, while fictional, reflects the optimism people held in our space exploration programs. Read the full story in "Next Month: Islands in the Sky"

Moon Pioneers: July 1955

The moon's first settlers would face numerous environmental challenges, including the lack of water and oxygen, as well as extreme temperatures. Ralph A. Smith, an English rocket scientist and illustrator, provided these imaginings of lunar life. On the far left, pioneer space workers set up solar-powered generators and a radio mast. On the right, rock domes house an atomic-powered moon city where residents farm algae and ride trains to other colonies. Read the full story in "Rocket Experts Show How We Can Live On the Moon"

Satellite City: May 1956

Darrell C. Romick, an aerophysics scientists for the Goodyear Aircraft Company, designed a satellite capable of housing 20,000 inhabitants. The gravity-free facility would accommodate laboratories, telescopes, rocket ship docks, and even spaceship construction centers. Most impressive, perhaps is the gigantic, continuously rotating gravity wheel. In addition to providing gravity adjusted to Earth's, the wheel would provide an elevator and 4,000,000 cubic feet of living quarters. Balance weights would run up and down shafts in the wheel in order to maintain the balance of gravity. Romick imagined that the space station's construction would take roughly three and a half years to grow from a simple satellite into a full-blown city in outer space. Read the full story in "Now They're Planning a City in Space"

How to Live on the Moon: July 1959

In between finding water and figuring out how to grow crops, adjusting to life on the moon ain't easy, which is why the Martin Company designed a 32-foot lunar simulator to prepare would-be moon settlers for the drastic change in environment. In addition to providing living quarters, the "moon-on-earth" would provide hydroponic gardens, an animal colony, a science laboratory, and tanks of algae that would remove carbon dioxide while producing oxygen. A steel globe would trap the lunar simulator in a near-vacuum sphere to reproduce the moon's lack of atmosphere. Five men would live in the globe for a month, while wearing spacesuits and growing vegetables, so they would be better equipped for the problems of living in on a moon settlement. Read the full story in "Globe Will Train Men To Live on the Moon"

Lunar Housing: April 1963

The North American Aviation's Space Systems Division proposed that a self-sufficient lunar colony constructed from rocket-booster tanks. Like any other city on Earth, the colony would contain medical units, shopping facilities, and even recreation centers. The booster-tank shelters would be arranged around a central communication hub like spokes, while underground facilities would house oxygen converters and gardens for growing food. Meanwhile a water conversion plan would extract water from mined, crushed, and heated volcanic rock. Not bad for an otherwise barren, rocky environment! Read the full story in "Lunar Housing For Early Arrivals"

Building a Moon Base: August 1965

Once again, Dr. Wernher von Braun graced our pages with his fantastic conceptions of life in the forthcoming centuries. Like any reasonable scientist, Dr. von Braun knew that pitching a moon bases would be considerably more complicated than building a city on Earth. Before working on a base, researchers would need to develop vehicles and machinery powerful enough to withstand the conditions of outer space. Dr. von Braun suggested that fuel cells would replace the silver-zinc batteries commonly used for powering spacecraft. Future space vehicles, such as the ones built for constructing lunar bases, could also draw energy from electric-power sources like chemical batteries, solar cells, atomic batteries, and nuclear reactors. Read the full story in "Electric Power in Space"

Cargo Landers: November 1966

By 1966, we knew it'd be a long time before people relocated from Earth to the moon, but that doesn't mean we couldn't have fun imagining how we'd send people there. Dr. von Braun envisioned lunar bases originating from cone-shaped unmanned cargo landers. At the time, lunar modules couldn't survive the lunar environment for more than 48 hours, but given enough time and developments in technology, research camps modeled on the ones set up in Antarctica could house intrepid scientists. Read the full story in "What We'll Do on the Moon"

Space Village: August 1982

After NASA enlisted them to design space residences that could accommodate 100 workers, researchers at the University of Houston unveiled Spacehab, a bevy of inflatable, pod-like modules containing kitchens, dining areas, sleeping cubicles, exercise rooms, and even entertainment centers to ease the boredom of floating through space. Spacehab would be assembled on Earth and sent to space in 10 shuttle trips. Since Spacehab wouldn't use gravity, walls, ceilings, and floors would be interchangeable. Inhabitants would hit the sack in sleeping bags pinned to the walls. Instead of eating around dinner tables, people would hitch their trays to circular anchors before digging in. Read the full story in "Living at Zero G"

Biosphere II: December 1986

Remember the Martin Company's Lunar Simulator? Fast-forward twenty years and you have the Biosphere II, yet another enclosed environment designed as a model for space colonies. The 3.5-acre enclosure, located in Arizona, contained five areas inspired by natural biomes, including a rainforest and a savannah grassland. The eight inhabitants selected to live in the biosphere for two years would farm their own crops, recycle their own waste, and maintain the atmosphere. The first mission lasted from 1991 to 1993, wherein the crew tended a number of animals while dealing with weight loss and an adjusted diet. In the end, Biosophere II changed hands between its original owners, Columbia University, the University of Arizona, and other corporations. It is currently managed by the University of Arizona, which has converted it into a facility for researching climate change. Read the full story in "Biosphere"

Bonus Spaceport: January 1952

Okay, so the words "space colony" aren't explicitly stated in this article about civilian space travel, but how could we not include this retro-futuristic spaceport in a gallery about space colonies? In the mid-1950's, we boldly declared that by the year 2032, a trip around the world would take only two hours. Who needs airplanes when you can hop on a rocket capable of circling the globe 12 times a day? Like airports, the satellite could serve as a stopover facility for spaceships in need of refueling or repair. Rockets in need of refueling would attach their noses to the station's outer rim, while researchers and inhabitants would go about daily life inside of it. The central sphere would house living quarters, laboratories, observatories, and more that we can only imagine. Read the full story in "How the World Is Shrinking"