Science fiction has delivered on many of its promises. Star Trek videophones have become Skype, the Jetsons' food-on-demand is materialising through 3-D printing, and we have done Jules Verne one better and explored mid-ocean trenches at crushing depths. But the central promise of golden age sci-fi has not yet been kept. Humans have not colonised space.
For a brief moment in the 1970s, the grandeur of the night sky felt interactive. It seemed only decades away that more humans would live off the Earth than on it; in fact, the Space Shuttle was so named because it was intended to make 50 round trips per year. There were active plans for expanding civilisation into space, and any number of serious designs for building entire cities on the moon, Mars and beyond.
The space age proved to be a false dawn, of course. After a sobering interlude, children who had sat rapt at the sight of the moon landings grew up, and accepted that terraforming space – once briefly assumed to be easy – was actually really, really hard. Intense cold war motivation flagged, and the Challenger and Columbia disasters taught us humility. Nasa budgets sagged from 5% of the US federal budget to less than 0.5%. People even began to doubt that we'd ever set foot on the moon: in a 2006 poll, more than one in four Americans between 18 and 25 said they suspected the moon landing was a hoax.
But now a countercurrent has surfaced. The children of Apollo, educated and entrepreneurial, are making real headway on some of the biggest difficulties. Large-scale settlement, as opposed to drab old scientific exploration, is back on the menu.
Space cities come in three basic models. The classic one is to terraform a nearby Earth-like object, by using massive geo-engineering projects or bio-domes to create a lunar or Martian metropolis. The second is the low-Earth orbit model: this expands upon the currently inhabited region of space. Think of the International Space Station as a government fort, around which commercial trading posts, homesteads and finally urban areas develop. Then there is the free space model, basically floating cylinders with artificial gravity, surviving by digesting the natural resources of outer space. As the saying goes in the space community: once you're out of Earth's gravity well, you're halfway to anywhere.
In the 1970s, Princeton physicist Gerald K O'Neill envisioned 100,000-person colonies, stationed at what is known as the fifth Lagrangian libration point (L5) in the moon's orbit – like a gravitational eddy where things stay put by themselves. Encouraged by fellow physicists Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman, he posited a "planar cluster" housing four billion people across 30,000km of space. "It is orthodox to believe that Earth is the only practical habitat for Man," he wrote in Physics Today in 1974, but we can "build new habitats far more comfortable, productive and attractive than is most of Earth." O'Neill called the classic model of colonising planets proper a "mental hang-up", and suggested it lacked imagination for the possibilities of open space.
In O'Neill's vision, cable cars would connect communities spaced at 200km intervals. Single-family spacecraft – the minivans of the sky – would act as recreational vehicles. On the inner surface of what would be rotating habitats, strips of land would alternate with windows to let in sunlight. That same sun would provide all of our energy needs (a much bolder statement in the 70s than it is now), while the moon would be mined for aluminum and titanium to use in habitat construction. Asteroids, containing water and other material, could be towed along behind the city in the vacuum. His idea to build such cities in the moon's L5 orbital point inspired the influential L5 Society, which aimed to realise his vision by 1995. Their motto: L5 in '95!
O'Neill's dream did not come to pass – not because it was inherently flawed, but because it was an idea before its time. Spaceflight infrastructure was in its infancy, and costs were prohibitive. We simply didn't know enough of the basics to jump straight into urban design.
The central challenge to building a city in space is to create a closed system that can sustain itself for the long haul. Urban areas on Earth survive only by relying on a much larger footprint than their metropolitan boundaries. The more isolated a space city is – the farther from external resupply resources – the more closed its oxygen, food and water loops must be. The ISS, for example, has about 40% efficiency in its oxygen recycling, and even so its ambient CO2 levels are perpetually high. (Nasa is working on how to convert that CO2 directly into oxygen.) As for food, any space-based urban plan would require rolling out high-yield agriculture on an unprecedented scale – though 3D printers could, given some fresh ingredients, print a pizza.
The other big problem for a space city is how humans would function physiologically. The neighborhood gym would be a popular destination: though the human species is ill-suited for some aspects of deep space, 14 years of continuous presence on the ISS have advanced our understanding of how to adapt physically for a lifetime among the stars. Early astronauts paid for this knowledge the hard way, as it were, with their bone density. Today's ISS crew train for 2.5 hours a day on a jury-rigged zero-gravity exercise contraption in order to keep their bone density at normal levels. Still, with longer stays in zero gravity, new problems seem to crop up. For example, your cerebrospinal fluid – the clear liquid found in the brain and spine – drifts upward, where it engorges your retina and flattens your eyeball. "I lost two diopters in my eyes," recalls former astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who spent 215 consecutive days on the ISS. "It's also pretty easy to get something in your eye up there. You just walk into something."
City walls would be required to shield space citizens from the brutal radiation bombardment of deep space. "Aluminum shielding can actually be part of the problem," says Vince Michaud, Nasa's deputy chief health and medical officer. "Radiation that makes it through takes some of the aluminum with it." Nasa spends $28m every year in radiation research alone, including pharmaceutical and nutriceutical countermeasures and magnetic shielding. Bill Paloski, director of Nasa's Space Life and Physical Sciences division, believes that by 2024 his team will be able to mitigate the health risks of space.
As for actually getting people to the space cities in the first place, it won't be using rockets – basic physics doesn't cooperate. Rather, space elevators, or "beanstalks", promise to close that gap. Vehicles would climb out of the gravity well along a cable anchored to the equator and held under tension by centrifugal force on a counterweight tens of thousands of kilometers high. Until now, materials science hadn't produced the kind of tensile strength required for a space elevator cable – even carbon nanotubes are too weak by themselves – but in 2010 the Nobel prize in physics was awarded for experiments on graphene. A one-atom sheet of pure carbon that is 100 times stronger than steel, graphene is a promising candidate for space elevator cable material.
"We can colonise the moon, Mars … wherever people want, really," SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk (of Tesla Motors fame) told documentary-makers on the film Orphans of Apollo. "I think Mars is the logical place to go." Musk's company, specialists in space transport, are one of the most serious around; none of this conversation would be happening without SpaceX, and Musk is not alone in thinking of colonising Mars first. But though it may be easier to generate excitement around the Red Planet, insofar as the moon feels like an achievement already under our belts, several characteristics make Mars harder to colonise.
Martian gravity is three-eighths that of Earth, making landings more hazardous than in the moon's one-sixth gravity. On the Apollo missions, lunar dust got everywhere – the crews inhaled it and got it in their eyes, and it wreaked mechanical havoc – and on Mars the dust is even more problematic, because it is highly oxidised, chemically reactive, electrically charged and windblown. Mars's chlorinated soils would be toxic, for example, to the human thyroid gland.
There was some early speculation that a space city could be buried under the Martian surface to protect its inhabitants from radiation. Pamela Conrad, an astrobiologist with Mars Science Laboratory, contends that we would be digging from a rock into a hard place. "Trying to drill down to shield from ionising radiation might be okay for bacteria, but materials in the core are radiating, too," she warns.
A lunar city, on the other hand, has the advantage of being up to a thousand times closer – practically next door – and as such could participate in Earth's economy to some extent. Possible anchor industries could include space tourism and titanium mining, as well as pharmaceutical factories that require microgravity. The moon is also rich in helium 3, which is rare on Earth and thought to be a potential fuel source for future fusion reactors.
And industry is very much at the top of the agenda. Today the biggest space operation in the world is neither Nasa's nor that of the US defense department, but DirecTV, valued at more than $48bn. Low-Earth orbit is quickly becoming the realm of the private sector – including the loose agglomeration of companies known collectively as NewSpace, which have shaken human spaceflight progress out of a sluggish period. Using the window created by the withdrawal of public funds from space programmes, NewSpace has fostered trust with government and increasingly enjoys the blessing of the US State Department, which controls export permits for objects being launched into orbit. Public sector clients like Nasa and the Air Force Space Command purchase equipment and supplies, and depend on the ingenuity and dexterity of the market. Indeed, Nasa has an $800m program to develop the commercial space market. Costs have come down dramatically as a result.
One figure in NewSpace taking advantage of this new flexibility is hotel tycoon Robert Bigelow. In 2015, the owner of Budget Suites of America will use a SpaceX rocket to send one of his inflatable space habitat modules up for testing at the ISS. These ingenious blow-up houses are capable of operating independently as space stations, and Bigelow wants to lease them as hotel suites (no surprise there), laboratories or for whatever else you might want. Nasa, having no current plans of their own for a moon mission, have given their blessing to Bigelow to use similar inflatable modules to build a lunar base.
If he doesn't get there soon, the Chinese may beat him to it. Whereas Russia has been integrated into the global space community fairly effectively since the end of the cold war, China does not partner with the other big players. Instead, it plays its own game: in December of last year, as part of the country's 12th Five-Year Plan, China's lunar rover Chang'e 3 made the first soft landing the moon has seen since 1976. China is somewhat secretive about its space progress, but among its stated goals is to establish a crewed lunar base.
Rick Tumlinson is head of the asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, which aims to be the gas station, building-supply centre and the air-and-water provider for space settlements. In the 1970s, a young Tumlinson worked at the Princeton Space Studies Institute, where he came under the influence of Gerard O'Neill and science fiction author Arthur C Clark (known to them as "Uncle Arthur"). He even led the New York chapter of the L5 Society. Deep Space is playing the long game out of a commitment he says he made in 1986 with several NewSpace entrepreneurs. According to Tumlinson, they pledged their lives and fortunes to "making the human breakout into space happen in our lifetimes".
Tumlinson was one of a group that leased the Mir Space Station commercially from the Russian government for a few months in 1999. Calling it MirCorp, they gave their venture a countercultural, tongue-in-cheek personality, and sent up a Jolly Roger flag with the first commercial cosmonauts. Nasa and the State Department were not amused. They placed heavy pressure on the Russians to de-orbit Mir in order to focus on the ISS, then under construction. The current crop of space entrepreneurs, like Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, watched Mir's firey re-entry and breakup in 2001. They have learned from this and dedicate a lot of effort toward diplomacy and government cooperation.
Speaking at the Humans to Mars conference in Washington last month, Nasa chief Charles Bolden laid out a vision for bringing the US space programme out of its first stage, exploration, and into pioneering, even homesteading. "We are, right now, an Earth-reliant species," he said. "But only multi-planet species survive for a long period of time." Nasa plans to start with an asteroid capture and redirect by 2025, then pick up skills in the proving ground near Earth before venturing to a destination a thousand times farther than the moon. When humans get to Mars in the 2030s (the much-mocked Mars One group aims for the rather optimistic goal of a proper human settlement by 2024, or 10 years from now), the implication is that we will be there to stay.
If large-scale space settlement still sounds a little crazy, consider that from the passing of the Space Settlement Act 1988 until its quiet demise in the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, establishing extraterrestrial civilisation was the official goal of the US in space. The Space Settlement and Development Act of 2015, currently under draft, would promote economic development in space and work to reverse current strictures against property ownership in space.
Which brings us to what might be the biggest obstacle close to being hurdled: who would move to a city on Mars? Well, lots of people claim to be interested, signing up to Mars One's non-binding longlist of candidates to emigrate to the Red Planet. But López-Alegría, the former ISS resident, says that while he could imagine our space presence being scalable, he wouldn't volunteer to live permanently in a space city. "The experience of being in space is magnificent," he says, "but only in the context of being an Earthling and knowing that you're coming back to Earth."