Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dungeonspiration: Gerard K. O'Neill

 "Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?"

Near the end of the space race, a high energy physicist named Gerard K. O'Neill became interested in space colonization.  He had already expressed his interest in space by applying for NASA's Astronaut Corp in the mid 60's, but papers from his students convinced him that designing self-sustaining space habitats could be a worthwhile endeavor.

In his first paper on the subject, "The Colonization of Space", published in 1974, O'Neill wrote:
"It is important to realize the enormous power of the space-colonization technique. If we begin to use it soon enough, and if we employ it wisely, at least five of the most serious problems now facing the world can be solved without recourse to repression: bringing every human being up to a living standard now enjoyed only by the most fortunate; protecting the biosphere from damage caused by transportation and industrial pollution; finding high quality living space for a world population that is doubling every 35 years; finding clean, practical energy sources; preventing overload of Earth's heat balance."
Soon, NASA became interested in O'Neill's research and began funding his efforts.  O'Neill tied many different concepts and technologies together to come up with feasible ideas for space colonization, including solar power, the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, asteroid mining, and magnetic mass drivers.  NASA enlisted other scientist into investigating space colonization, resulting in a golden age of such research. The U. S. Congress, soured on the high cost of space activities - including the Apollo program - withdrew most of O'Neill's funding before the end of the decade.

The ideas that resulted from O'Neill's research are still fascinating.  They open a door to plausible science fiction.  Simply looking at his designs and reading a bit about them are enough to get the mind going.

The first type of space habitat O'Neill' envisioned is a modified Bernal sphere - an idea for a space station developed in 1929.

The Bernal sphere came in two sizes - Island One, which was the smaller, and Island Two, which was larger.

The first two of O'Neill's 'islands' were relatively  simple affairs - big old spinning balls in space.  Island Three was another matter.  Island Three, which has come to be known as the O'Neill Cylinder, is comprised of two separate space stations.  These two gigantic cylinders spin around each other, creating a much more stable system than just one cylinder, which is apt to start spinning from end to end and squash everyone inside.

Yep - that means that Babylon 5 was inherently unstable.  I suppose Vorlon technology kept it upright.  Not only is the O'Neill Cylinder concept more stable, but look at the view!

When you lump O'Neils designs in with the Stanford Torus style of space station, you get all of the space station you could need for a good hard science fiction setting.  And these puppies - especially the  O'Neill Cylinder, make for absolutely great mega-dungeons and Jim Ward Metamorphosis Alpha style gaming.

So go dig through the Internet and do up a science fiction campaign right.  Screw artificial gravity generators.  Do it the old fashioned way - and build a habitable colony to boot!

Anchors away.

- Ark


  1. I remember an OMNI magazine that was full of these illustrations (or ones quite like them), do you know who the artist is?

    Be interesting to know what a "day" would be like on that last one.

  2. @Bio - After some hunting, it appears that they are by Rick Guidice. Here is some more awesome habitat art:

    - Ark

  3. I think some of them were also in the National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe.

    Thanks for the nostalgia trip!