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How NASA's 1970s Vision of Space Colonies Inspired Neill Blomkamp's Elysium

NASA's 1975 vision for ringed space cities still shapes sci-fi today.

by Brian Merchant
Apr 12 2013, 2:30pm
Image: Elysium promo

The trailer for Elysium, the upcoming sci-fi flick from Neill Blomkamp, the guy who made District 9,  blew the minds of space nerds everywhere. And while it may be yet another entry in a promising string of dystopian sci-fi films—it will come on the heels of Oblivion and After Earth—it's probably the only one that was inspired by the space colonies NASA designed in the 1970s.

First, Elysium. The film promises to give the struggle of the have-nots the space opera treatment—the poor are stuck on a smoldering Earth, and the rich comfortably circle the planet tucked inside a luxurious space palace. Matt Damon, a poor sunburned Earth-dweller, has to climb the proverbial ladder between the two worlds. We're not quite sure why yet—all we know is he's going to have to fight some robots in the process.

The first time I saw that trailer, I immediately thought—NASA. Space colonies. 70s sci-fi. See, that omnipresent space station Matt Damon's aspiring to board looks an awful lot like the one that a team of scientists at NASA came up with in 1975.

Around that time, NASA began hosting a 'Summer Studies' program that invited scientists, engineers, academics and designers to work with the space agency to develop a vision for off-planet living. And they were dead serious.

The idea eventually proposed in 1975 was called the Stanford Torus. It wasn't the first ring-shaped space station to be conceived—and sci-fi writer Larry Niven had come up with a similar construct in his 1971 Ringworld, and Herman Potocnik had discussed ring-shaped colonies as early as 1929but the Torus was the most elaborate. I wrote a full rundown of NASA's space colony plans a few years back, but the basics go something like this:

The team decided that the best bet for the first space colonies would be to place them in Earth's orbit; it'd be easiest to keep climate control manageable that way—space stations on other moons or planets would be too hot, too cold, and exposed to too much radiation.

Images: NASA

The scientists aimed to build giant stations that could hold tens of thousands of people, and they figured they would build them using minerals mined from the moon. The station would be round and comprised of a giant band on the outer ring; the centrifugal force created as it spun in orbit would simulate gravity for the colonists.

Initial stages of the space colony's development would be funded by space tourism, and then by asteroid mining operations. Eventually, the rich would vie to buy up that prime real estate: free from earthly pollution, strife, and home to the best views ever.

And there you've got yourself the beginnings of a pretty solid back-story for how the ultimate divide—hundreds of miles of atmosphere and space itself—between rich and poor was erected in the first place. Wonder if Elysium will use that, too.

Blomkamp himself doesn't site the NASA plans as an inspiration for the film's visuals—in an interview with io9, he discusses wanting to portray "the level of opulence and wealth, where they've actually recreated Bel-Air on a space station," and that the colonists have "pulled all of that wealth and those resources out of Earth."

And that's sort of what the Stanford Torus engineers did as well, just with trees, greenery, and big suburban buildings. NASA imagined taking earth as we know it into orbit, too. That vision for cylindrical cities became a sci-fi and space art mainstay, and has clearly persisted until today; from Ringworld to Deep Space Nine to Halo to Elysium.

But when those scientists sketched out their plans in the 1970s, they did so during the height of space age optimism—NASA was dead serious about these ideas, about its vision for orbital utopian colonies. Small wonder then, that nearly forty years later, as its budget is being gutted, the only remnants of NASA's grand vision is a dystopian Hollywood film.