[t]hey knew that probably the first colonies if they ever existed were….going to be a little bit more like [shopping malls]”6. Indeed, other pieces produced for this study, such as Rick Guidice’s work (fig. 2), depict a more structured interior. By contrast to Davis’s landscape, Guidice’s piece focuses on the architecture of the torus, populated by densely packed houses only bracketed with domesticated plants. Thusly aware of this, Don Davis comments on his own painting, writing, “I refused to fill the interior with the ‘shopping mall gone mad’ clutter of other drawings. Again the challenge of sustaining something like a closed ecosystem was a theme I wanted to emphasize”7. Clearly Davis found the idea of an austere, metallic space habitat repugnant. Instead, he introduced the concept of space colony living as involving a potentially lush environment, rich with vegetation and bodies of water that would be spacious enough to evoke an ideal outdoorsy landscape. Yet, despite its romantic overtones, Davis’s work still approaches a level of realism due to the heavy research done on the concept of the torus, and Davis himself later comments that as a space artist, saying,
“[Space artists] base…things on the reality, [so that they] can show a hint on what is known about the subject matter in a given work of space art, as well as what it is that inspires us and what it is that intrigues us about one of these places that we can share visually through our work.”8
In this way, Davis, together with O’Neill and his team of scientists, worked to inspired people to a positive concept of colonizing space that was at once realistic and idealistic, thereby positing a bright, new world by which to live and thrive.
Going back a few years in time, in 1968, Stanley Kubrick debuted his landmark film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Iconic to this film is Space Station V, a toroidal structure that orbits the Earth. Interestingly, Kubrick’s space station predates the NASA Ames 1975 Summer Study, and one may wonder if the NASA researchers were inspired by Kubrick’s concept. However, to be entirely accurate, the general concept of a ring-shaped rotating space station goes back to various sources: first, from 1929 when Herman Potočnik Noordung published The Problem of Space Travel 9, and then in 1952, when Wernher von Braun proposed the idea in a series of articles published in Collier’s Weekly10. Kubrick’s reasoning for choosing such a popular idea was simple: “Kubrick wanted absolute realism: he wanted the hardware on screen to look as though it really worked”11. Intent on depicting a realistic future, Kubrick then hired Harry Lange and Frederick Ordway, two men from a space consultancy company who happened to be in New York when he began working on the film. The resulting concept for Space Station V bears numerous external similarities to Davis’s torus, sporting rotating wheels with four spokes that lead to a transit center. Piers Bizony elaborates on the process of deciding on this shape, writing:
“The rotating space station owed its shape to the most serious proposals made by [Harry] Lange’s illustrious colleague and friend at NASA, Wernher von Braun. Lange and Kubrick agree on the famous two-wheel shape so that the rear part of the station could be seen as if still under construction by space workers, with ribs and girders exposed.”12
The realism that Kubrick sought is brought home by working with Wernher von Braun himself. Beyond its toroidal appearance however, Space Station V is quite the opposite to Davis’s torus. Space Station V is very austere in its interior, with white halls punctuated merely with black outlines defining doors and shapes, while red chairs populate a sterile meeting area (fig. 3). Perhaps it was this aesthetic Davis was reacting against when he sought an alternative to the “shopping mall” of strict white walls and arbitrary red chairs. Space Station V is, of course, understandably sparse, as it is in a state prior to full completion, and functions only as a layover stop for traveling space-goers. In this way, the two concepts of Kubrick and Davis are at once opposite and complementary, offering visions of the beginnings of space habitats as well as the more developed dwellings of the future. From Kubrick’s Space Station V, to Davis’s Stanford Torus, science fiction enthusiasts of the 1970’s were given two ends of the spectrum by which to ignite the imagination towards space life.
As we go forward into our own, nonfictional future, one must wonder whatever happened to the dreams of the past–of conquering the great unknown and settling in space. Neill Blomkamp’s recent film Elysium offers a peek into our current psyche, depicting a world segregated harshly between those of avarice and those in need. With Elysium, here too one is offered an example of a toroidal space habitat in the idyllic Elysium, however this time it is reserved only for the rich. One of the key concept artists, Ben Mauro, worked on an image remarkably similar to Don Davis’s older work (fig. 4). Here, we see two residents of Elysium in the foreground, enjoying a sunny day. The background shows us a clean, modular house, and a cascade of green recedes behind the house until out of view. However, the reality of the Elysium habitat is much harsher than Don Davis’ torus–where one was an ideal lifestyle for all, Elysium is a haven only for the rich13. In its contrast conceptually to the idealism of Don Davis’s torus, and the austere realism of Kubrick’s Space Station V, Elysium speaks to a grittier future. However, as with any form of art and illustration, such a standpoint is indicative of our time, where we have now become more aware of social strata and widespread violence since the 1970’s. However, with the resurfacing of the concept of the Stanford Torus in such a mainstream film, perhaps there is some hope after all. Such a large scale film has the potential of reaching the imaginations of a newer generation of space enthusiasts. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn by Elysium is one of caution against economic separatism, and coming from such a gritty narrative may inspire a push for the betterment of our current state of living.
Through images of the Stanford Torus–from Kubrick’s Space Station V, to Davis’s illustration in 1975, and Mauro’s recent concept art for Elysium–one is offered three varied visions of the future. Davis’s image is one of a truly paradisal future, Kubrick’s a vision of a future in the works, and Mauro’s one of a gritty dystopia. From all three might one draw their own conclusions regarding the potential path of humanity, as dependent on its moral decisions as a whole people. Indeed, science fiction has always acted as a vehicle to deliver the endnote that a better life will only become reality by the result of our actions. Perhaps this is the titular point in requiring a level of realism to science fiction–if one cannot project a space station as a potentially real and logical outcome of humanity’s actions, how then can we logically arrive at a prediction of our own future, be it a future worth living in or a future better left to fiction?
1. T. A. Heppenheimer, “Our Life in Space.” in Colonies in space (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1977): 31.
2. Ibid., 114.
3. Ibid., 118.
4. Don Davis, “Why Create Space Art? – Panel Discussion” The Planetary Society video, 6:45. August 4, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ7T7zWBOoA
5. Ibid., 6:54.
6. “Photos: How NASA imagined life in a space colony would look 40 years ago.” 89.3 KPCC Southern California Public Radio. https://www.scpr.org/programs/take-two/ 2013/04/16/31362/how-nasa-imagined-life-in-a-space-colony-would-loo/?slide=3 (accessed December 9, 2013).
7. Don Davis, “Public Domain paintings by Don Davis” Don Davis: Space Artist and Animator. https://www.donaldedavis.com/PARTS/allyours.html (accessed December 9, 2013).
8. Don Davis, “Why Create Space Art? – Panel Discussion.” The Planetary Society video, 7:25. August 4, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ7T7zWBOoA
9. Noordung, Hermann, Ernst Stuhlinger, J. D. Hunley, and Jennifer Garland. The problem of space travel the rocket motor (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA History Office, 1995)
10. Werner von Braun, Man Will Conquer Space Soon (New York: Collier’s Weekly, 1952)
11. Piers Bizony and Stephanie Schwam, “Shipbuilding” in The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: Modern Library, 2000): 43.
12. Ibid., 12.
13. Elysium, Film. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2013.
Fig. 1. Don Davis, Stanford Torus Interior View. 1975. Oil on board. NASA Ames. From: Public Domain Works Done for NASA, https://www.donaldedavis.com/PARTS/allyours.html (accessed December 9, 2013).
Fig. 2. Rick Guidice, Stanford Torus Cutaway View. 1975. Oil on board. NASA Ames. From: Space Colony Art from the 1970s, https://www.nss.org/settlement/nasa/70sArt/art.html (accessed December 9, 2013).
Fig. 3. Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. 1968. Screenshot from: 27:32.
Fig. 4. Ben Mauro, Elysium Concept Art. 2010. Digital. Available from: Ben Mauro, https://www.artofben.com/ELYSIUM (accessed December 9, 2013).