top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#145 - Frederick Scharmen - Space Habitats - Part 3

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

This week we have a quick rundown of the space habitat history. Discuss the brilliance of Bernal, and the other habitat genius', and have the chance to talk to Frederick Scharmen about his book Space Settlements.


There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learnt to separate them

John Desmond Bernal FRS 10 May 1901 – 15 September 1971

Interview with Fred Sharmen

Associate Professor of the Morgan state University; author of a bunch of papers;

"Highest and Best Use; Subjectivity and Climates Off and After Earth," The Journal of Architectural Education 71:2, Environments, 2017

"Home Tweet Home" in Log 36: ROBOLOG, 2016

"What is a Big Dumb Object?" The Journal of Architectural Education 69:2, S,M,L,XL, 2015

"Ground into Sky - The Topology of Interstellar" in The Avery Review No. 6, 2015


  • Space Settlements, Columbia University Press / Columbia

  • “Skywalk: the Life and Death of Multilevel Urbanism in Downtown Baltimore, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ, 2018

Space Legend of the Month

John Desmond Bernal

An Irish scientist of jewish, Italian and Spanish/Portuguese most famous for his pioneering use of X-ray crystallography in molecular biology,, Educated at Cambridge studying maths and science (crystal structure) then the Royal Institute (graphite) back to cambridge, but refused tenure by Rutherford who disliked him. So he went to Birkbeck, in London.

Known as 'Sage', he was a Polymath, a scientist of huge intellectual ability, a leading figure in the development of X-ray crystallography,

Like many of his ilk at that time a Marxist, and hugely admired worldwide.

He never won a Nobel Prize, but several of his students, Dorothy Hodgkin, Max Perutz, and Aaron Klug did.

Bernal not only changed the course of science, but was witness and participant in historical events a regular visitor to Downing Street, the White House and the Kremlin, he met Churchill, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Louis Mountbatten and Picasso, and obviously all the 20th century's greatest scientists.

So why the heck are we talking about a biologist!!

He amazingly found time to write popular books on science and society, most interestingly;

The World, the Flesh & the Devil :

"the most brilliant attempt at scientific prediction ever made" Arthur C. Clarke,

"book of breathtaking scientific speculation that is probably the single most influential source of science fiction ideas".Robert Scholes

Man is occupied and has been persistently occupied since his separate evolution,

with three kinds of struggle:

  • first with the massive, unintelligent forces of nature, heat and cold, winds, rivers, matter and energy;

  • secondly, with the things closer to him, animals and plants, his own body, its health and disease;

  • lastly, with his desires and fears, his imaginations and stupidities.

  • In each of these divisions in turn we will make the arbitrary assumption that his progress in it will continue while in other respects he remains the same

"The future being unknown and incontrovertible has been a fair ground on which to place all these hopes and desires. But in scientific prediction these desires are the most delusive guides. The opposite danger is as great and more insidious: in our lives we take the present for granted to an extend far greater than we can realize though the future according to our desires, is an illusion, our desire are, paradoxically, already tending to be the chief agent of change in the universe; it is only that the actual change is so rarely the desired change"

"So far, those who have considered spatial navigation have regarded it from the

point of view of exploration and planetary visitation, but the vast importance of

escaping from the earth's gravitational field has been almost entirely overlooked. On earth, even if we should use all the solar energy which we received, we should still be wasting all but one two-billionths of the energy that the sun gives out. Consequently, when we have learnt to live on this solar energy and also to emancipate ourselves from the earth's surface, the possibilities of the spread of humanity will be multiplied accordingly".

Bernal Sphere

Imagine a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow; for this purpose the new molecular materials would be admirably suited.

Owing to the absence of gravitation its construction would not be

an engineering feat of any magnitude. The source of the material out of which this would be made would only be in small part drawn from the earth; for the great bulk of the structure would be made out of the substance of one or more smaller asteroids, rings of Saturn or other planetary detritus. The initial stages of construction are the

most difficult to imagine. They will probably consist of attaching an asteroid of some hundred yards or so diameter to a space vessel, hollowing it out and using the removed material to build the first protective shell. Afterwards the shell could be re-worked, bit by bit, using elaborated and more suitable substances and at the same

time increasing its size by diminishing its thickness. The globe would fulfill all the functions by which our earth manages to support life. In default of a gravitational field it has, perforce, to keep its atmosphere and the greater portion of its life inside; but as all its nourishment comes in the form of energy through its outer surface it would be forced to resemble on the whole an enormously complicated single-celled plant

Criticism might be made on the ground that life in a globe, say of twenty or thirty thousand inhabitants would be extremely dull, and that the diversity of scene, of animals and plants and historical associations which exist even in the smallest and most isolated country on earth would be lacking. This criticism is valid on the initial assumption that men have not in any way changed. Here, to make globe life plausible, we must anticipate the later chapters and assume men's interests and occupations to have altered. Already the scientist is more immersed in his work and concentrates more on relations with his colleagues than in the immediate life of his

neighborhood. On the other hand, present æsthetic tendencies verge towards the abstract and do not demand so much inspiration from untouched nature. What has made a small town or a small country seem in the past a narrow sphere of interest has

been on the one hand its isolation, and on the other hand the fact that the majority of its inhabitants are at so low a level of culture as to prevent any considerable intellectual interchange within its boundaries. Neither limitation holds for the globes, and the case of ancient Athens is enough to show that small size alone does not

prevent cultural activity. Free communications and voluntary associations of interested persons will be the rule, and for those whose primary interest is in primitive nature there will always remain the earth which, free from the economic necessity of producing vast quantities of agricultural products, could be allowed to revert to a very much more natural state.

We are on the point of being able to see the effects of our actions and their probable consequences in the future; we hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into

the service of the future which they will have to bring about?

History of Space Settlements and where the ideas came from.

So while Bernal was writing this book, there was a new baby boy entering the world in brooklyn Gerard Kitchen O'Neill (February 6, 1927 – April 27, 1992)

And an old man coming to the end of his powers Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who was at this time writing a book called The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence- in 1928 in which he propounded a philosophy of panpsychism., However many years earlier at the turn of the century Tsiolkovsky

In 1903, expanded his description of the manned space station to include rotation for artificial gravity, use of solar energy, and even a space "greenhouse" with a closed ecological system he would also state that he developed the theory of rocketry only as a supplement to philosophical research on the subject. He truly believed humans would eventually colonize the Milky Way galaxy.

"The Brick Moon", a fictional story written in 1869 by Edward Everett Hale predates them all. And Precursors of space habitiats appeared in novels by Jules Verne in 1878 and Kurd Lasswitz in 1897.

  • 1918 - Robert Goddard - nuclear-propelled space ark carrying civilization from a dying solar system toward another star for a new beginning - but kept in a sealed envelope for fear of professional humilitation for over 50 years!!!!

  • 1920 - Goddard - suggested the use of extraterrestrial resources to manufacture propellants and structure

  • In 1923 Hermann Oberth elaborated on potential uses of space stations, noting that they could serve as platforms for scientific research, astronomical observations, and Earth-watch

  • In 1928 Guido von Pirquet considered three stations, one in a near orbit, one more distant, and a transit station in an intermediate elliptical orbit to link the other two; he suggested that they might serve as refueling depots for deep space flights

  • 1929 by Potocnik, writing as Hermann Noordung :The concept of a rotating wheel-shaped "Wohnrad" (living wheel) space station in geo-orbit

  • 1941 Robert A. Heinlein fully expanded the interstellar ark concept

  • 1949 H. E. Rossi - the BIS space suit guy suggested a a geosynchronous rotating-boom concept

  • 1952 Wernher von Braun. updated Noordung's wheel, increased the diameter to 76 m, and suggested a 1730-km orbit

  • 1952- Arthur C CLarke - "Islands in the Sky," a novel involving larger stations

  • 1952- L. R. Shepherd envisioned a nuclear-propelled million-ton interstellar colony shaped as an oblate spheroid, which he called a "Noah's Ark."

  • 1961- Arthur C CLarke suggested placing large stations at the Lagrangian libration points where they would maintain a fixed position relative to both the Earth and the Moon

  • In 1956 Darrell Romick advanced a more ambitious proposal for a cylinder I km long and 300 m in diameter with hemispherical end-caps having a 500-m-diam rotating disc at one end to be inhabited by 20,000 people

  • 1960 - Dyson -A shell-like accumulation of myriads of such habitats in their orbits has been called a Dyson sphere - using all that solar energy

  • 1963 Dandridge Cole suggested hollowing out an ellipsoidal asteroid about 30 km long, rotating it about the major axis to simulate gravity, reflecting sunlight inside with mirrors, and creating on the inner shell a pastoral setting as a permanent habitat for a colony

  • 1969 - Moon landing

  • 1969 - O’neill set his students the task of designing large structures in outer space .

  • O’Neil was a rejected Astronaunt candidate

  • Inventer of the particle storage ring for high-energy physics experiments

  • Hugely important with the mass driver (did he invent it or did Arthur C Clarke)

  • 1970 - O’Neill writes "The Colonization of Space" but has a painful 4 years to get published. In the mean time “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke … and “Ringworld” by Larry Niven came out.

  • 1974 - two-day conference in May 1974 at Princeton to discuss the possibility of colonizing outer space.” First Conference on Space Colonization” Drexler and Dyson wre present. Making front page news on the New York Times; O'Neill, "the profound difference between this and everything else done in space is the potential of generating large amounts of new wealth"

  • 1975 - L5 society set up and a much larger conference again in May titled Princeton University Conference on Space Manufacturing

  • June 1975, O'Neill led a ten-week study of permanent space habitats at NASA Ames,

  • Testify to the House Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications

  • 1976 - O’neil presents his “Solar Power from Satellites” a case for an Apollo-style program for building power plants in space.

  • 1977 - O’Neill at Nasa Ames developed detailed plans to establish bases on the Moon where space-suited workers would mine the mineral resources needed to build space colonies and solar power satellites

  • 1977 - Despite getting ½ million dollars of grants a year from Nasa, O’neill leaves and with his wife sets up Space Studies Institute, a non-profit organization, at Princeton University, and would inititally work on O’Neills mass driver concepts.

  • 1977, peak of interest in space colonization, along with the publication of O’neill’s first book, The High Frontier., he quoted Space SHuttle cost of $10m would go on to be 4 times that even with government subsidy. (probably 20 times that in reality by 2011)

  • 1985 O'Neill was appointed by United States President Ronald Reagan to the National Commission on Space, The commission, led by former NASA administrator Thomas Paine, proposed that government should commit to opening the inner Solar System for human settlement within 50 years. Their report was released in May 1986, four months after the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up on ascent

Quick synopsis of possible space habitat designs form 1975 study

  • Design a habitat to meet all the physiological requirements of a permanent population and to foster a viable social community.

  • Obtain an adequate supply of raw materials and provide the capability to process them.

  • Provide an adequate transport system to carry people, raw materials, and items of trade.

  • Develop commercial activity sufficient to attract capital and to produce goods and services for trade with Earth

  • For a large general population, many of whom must commute between zero g and a rotating environment, it seems desirable to minimize the rotation rate. Because Coriolis forces not only influence locomotion but also create cross-coupled angular accelerations in the semicircular canals of the ear when the head is turned out of the plane of rotation. Consequently motion sickness can result even at low rotation rates although people can eventually adapt to rates below 3 rpm after prolonged exposure

  • For the conditions of the space colony a general consensus is that not more than several rpm is acceptable, and for general population rates significantly greater than 1 rpm should be avoided. Therefore, 1 rpm is set as the upper limit of permissible rotation rate for the principal living quarters of the colonists, again reflecting the conservative design criteria..

  • Atmosphere-

  • human life can be safely and comfortably supported at a pressure well below that of a normal Earth atmosphere

  • temperatures around 22 degrees C and a relative humidity of about 40 percent

  • The presence and the various benefits of nitrogen gas dictate its inclusion in the atmosphere

  • There must be enough water to sustain life and to maintain sanitation

  • Heavy workload requires about 3000 Cal/day. It should consist of 2000 g of water, 470 g dry weight of various carbohydrates and fats, 60 to 70 g dry weight of proteins, and adequate quantities of various minerals and vitamins

  • Environmanetal Achitechture to reduce stress.

What shape is most suitable to house this colony of 10,000 people? - seeing the form is believing - although it is only one part of a much larger system.

  • The Spheres of Bernal?

  • Rotating cylinders proposed by O'Neil?l

  • The torus of Von Braun?

  • The science fiction shapes of Arthur C. Clarke?

Some General Considerations

  • Must supply enough living space (670,000 m^2)

  • meet the physiological and psychological needs of people in space,

  • aluminum is often assumed as the principal structural material.

  • The Habitat Must Hold an Atmosphere

  • Iit is essential that large shells holding gas at some pressure must act as membranes in pure tension.

  • There is, a direct relationship between the internal loading and the shape of the surface curve of such a membrane configuration.

  • Also when the major internal loads are pressure and spin-induced pseudogravity along the major radius of rotation, R. the possible membrane shapes must be doubly symmetric closed shells of revolution

Four fundamental configurations arise:

A sphere rotating about either axis

A cylinder rotating about the z axis

A torus rotating about the r axis

A dumbbell rotating about the z axis


A Rotating System With 1 g at Less Than 1 rpm, only systems with radii of rotation greater than 895 m can lie on the line g= 1 below 1 rpm.

  • An aluminum O’Neill cylinder (his C-3) would weigh about 42,300 kt and have a projected area of 55 X I0^6 m^2, enough to hold 800,000 people -

  • sphere of radius 895 m would hold 75,000 people and weigh more than 3500 kt if made of aluminum.

  • A dumbbell shape holds 10,000 people with 670,000 m^2 of projected area the spheres would have to be 326.5 m in radius. Together they would weigh about 380 kt.

  • A torus also permits control of the radius that contains the atmosphere separately from the radius of rotation. Moreover, the torus can distribute its habitable area in a large ring. Consequently, the radius needed to enclose the 670,000 m^2 of projected area can be quite small, with a correspondingly small mass-about l50 kt for a torus of major radius 830 m and minor radius 65 m (where the mass of internal structure is neglected).

  • The important point is that for a given radius of rotation about four times more mass is required to provide a unit of projected area in a cylinder or a sphere than in a torus of small aspect ratio. Thus, among the simple, basic shapes the torus is clearly superior in economy of structural mass.

  • If minimum structural mass were the only concern, composite structures would be the choice. Twenty-five pairs of dumbbells would supply 670,000 m^2 with spheres 65 m in radius and a total mass of 72 kt. The spheres could be made smaller still and formed into a ring to make a beaded torus. Alternatively, the toruses themselves could be made with quite small minor radii and either stacked and connected together to form a kind of banded torus, or built separately to form a group of small, independent habitats.

  • However, as pointed out in the previous chapter, it is desirable to compensate for the artificial and crowded nature of the habitat by designing it to give a sense of spaciousness. Composite structures are rejected largely on architectural criteria of environmental perception. Not only would they be more difficult to build than the simpler shapes, but also their short lines of sight, little free volume and internal arrays of closely-spaced cables and supporting members would produce an oppressive ambience.

  • If the colony were composed of a number of small structures, there would be problems of communication and transport between them as well as the drawbacks of small scale. Nevertheless, as table 4-1 shows, multiple structures (and composite ones too) offer substantial savings in mass, and it might well be that some of their undesirable aspects could be reduced by clever design. It would be an attractive option to be able to build up a colony gradually out of smaller units rather than to start off with an initial large scale structure. The subject of multiple and composite structures is worthy of more consideration. The various properties of possible configurations are summarized in table 4-1. The parameters show the mass requirements and indicate the degree of openness of the different structures. The single torus, although not the best design in many respects, seems to give the most desirable balance of qualities. Relative to the sphere and cylinder it is economical in its requirements for structural and atmospheric mass; relative to the composite structures it offers better esthetic and architectural properties.

  • Because of its good habitability properties, large volume, a variety of possible internal arrangements, the possibility of incremental construction, a clear circulation pattern, access to zero gravity docks and recreation at the hub, agriculture as an integral part of the living area, and a clear visual horizon for orientation, the torus is adopted as the basic form of the habitat.

151 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page