We’ve all been planet chauvinists

Wednesday, October 17th, 2018

Gerard K. O’Neill (The High Frontier) and Isaac Asimov appeared in a 1975 Roundtable TV interview, where Asimov noted that he and his fellow science-fiction writers failed to imagine free-floating space colonies:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon. So have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the Asteroid Belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the Earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Steven Levy was able to interview Jeff Bezos — head of Amazon, of course, but also Blue Origin — only after watching that O’Neill-Asimov interview.

That vision captivated a generation of space nerds, including Bezos, who believed it back then, as a brainy schoolkid. And he believes it now, with “increasing conviction” every passing year. Earth is destined to run out of resources, he explains patiently to anyone questioning his priorities. Humans need a plan B. While he readily concedes that building a space company qualifies as a cool adventure, the ultimate point, he always insists, is getting people to live in space. He often remarks with astonishment and disgust that there have never been more than 13 humans in space at one time. He’s out to change that, by creating the backbone needed for O’Neill’s millions, billions, maybe even a trillion people to reside off-planet.


  1. Borepatch says:

    LaGrange points are a dandy spot to build space houses, if you don’t have a planet.

  2. Graham says:

    And here I assumed they meant Earth-firsters who deride multi-species federations, at least as first preferences.

    We prefer the term “Humanists”…

  3. Buckethead says:

    There’s no question but that space habitats are a vastly more efficient use of mass than a planet. If we go into space on a serious basis, constructing comfortable living space is going to be much easier than terraforming planets.

    But the planetary chauvinism isn’t crazy. If we developed an FTL drive that allowed us to get to other stars in a modestly timely fashion and habitable worlds are common I don’t doubt that we’d remain a planet-bound species. Except for special needs (military bases, shipyards, mining perhaps), we wouldn’t bother laboriously creating vast habitats in space when we can just plop down on a virgin world and just start living there.

  4. Graham says:

    Buckethead’s framing seems right to me too, though I could see civilian space habitats being part of the mix; it would be heavily influenced by the “space geography” as it were.

    Say, inhabitable planets are relatively rare and scattered around. They’d be used if reachable and probably hold the bulk of settlers/colonists. But then we’d maybe have habitats with civilians at transit nodes, trade points.

    All that would actually depend pretty heavily on the actual mechanics of interstellar travel, too.

    The other consideration would be the definition of habitable. I’m just casually assuming that an alien biosphere would have no biologicals that were evolved to harm us at the microbial level, but it could have chemical environmental factors that would not be obvious enough to cause us to declare “uninhabitable” right away but might sneak up on us. We might have impressive analysis capabilities, but it’d still be an alien world.

  5. Kirk says:

    Habitats are always going to suffer from the problems of maintaining stable life support systems, compared to planets. As temporary things, sure… But, when you look at planetary-scale ecosystems, you are talking stability on a geologic timescale. And, mass, which isn’t unimportant. Habitats that we can realistically build, in the foreseeable future? Too small, not redundant enough, and require too much maintenance. They will play a role, but at any scale less than “pervasive”, we’re not putting most of the species on them.

  6. Sam J. says:

    “…Habitats are always going to suffer from the problems of maintaining stable life support systems, compared to planets…”

    but…there’s no more planets. None that any attempt to colonize the same effort would give you vast, super vast, living space in terms of habitats compared to a planet.

    If we think about whats already been done keeping them stable ceases to be seen as undo-able. Many small aquatic sealed habitats that fit on desktops exist with plants and animals in the same habitat.



    Aquariums can be mostly self contained. Large aquariums often fluctuate at first wildly but at some point they seem to “pop”, the used frequently to describe it, and they keep their equilibrium very easily. I suspect if we want build habitats we’ll need a lot of water as a buffer. Lots of soil with plants actively exchanging gasses with the soil and the biota that lives in it.

    I suspect that buckhead is right if we had a cheap faster than light we would just settle on planets. I suspect that doesn’t exist because any civilization that has this would go around killing off all the others before they could compete and we’re still here.

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