The Contest

Julia Tcharfas

An artificial sky was created on the ceiling of every module – a giant LCD screen that displayed a classic Earth sky. A fractal geometric program generated clouds to make them look real, and a “weatherman” from Maui’s City Council had the job of mixing up the weather, making it more cloudy and stormy or more clear and sunny every few days and coordinating with the temperature. At night, stars, constellations, planets, and moons sparkled on the ceiling, and the rare shooting star dazzled the Mauans. For special occasions, movies showed on some of the modules’ ceilings at night for entertainment.

This snapshot of the near future is from Maui, the Space Settlement Contest Grand Prize-winning proposal, submitted by a team of high school students in 2013. Co-hosted since the mid-1990s by NASA’s Ames Research Centre and the National Space Society, the Space Settlement Contest has led thousands of 14 to 18 year olds from around the world to develop elaborate master plans for new human settlements in the galaxy. The high school teams compete for a cash prize ($5,000) and a chance to attend the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles, California.
In 2014 alone over 150 projects were submitted, ranging from the eco-friendly Greenspace by a team from Bulgaria, to the metaphysical project GURU (Gateway of Universal Residential Utopia) by students from India. Acronym titles, such as HAMS (Humans Aeronautical Mission for Space Settlement) are popular, as are utopias: Al-Ahsa, SpaceBurg, Schone Welt, Ojasvi, Zenith’s Labyrinth, and Amazing City. Plenty of the projects are named after gods and mythological beings: Helios (God of the Sun) Vishwambhara (the one who bears the weight of the Universe), Minerva (a virgin Goddess of wisdom including medicine, commerce, arts, and magic), and Ouroboros (the world serpent, a mythological dragon who eats his own tail). Then there are the sequels: Renaissance II, Space Settlement 2.0, Twin Earth, Earth II, Mayflower II, New Heliopolis, Terranova, and Space II; and some that sound more like commercial enterprises: Nea Zoi (A New Life), SAVIOR: The Lifesaving Space Settlement, Go Green Frontier, and The Profit Settlement Contract.
The criteria for NASA’s Space Settlement Contest has its origins in the early 1970s, and especially in the work of the American physicist Dr. Gerard O’Neill, whose famous ring planet (know as the O’Neill Cylinder or O’Neill Colony) promised to house millions of people in ‘comfortable apartment homes’ in orbit. As set out in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, the spherical cylinder, 6.2 miles in length and 1.25 miles in diameter, was to feature ‘shops, parks, small rivers, and lush vegetation’, and O’Neill and his students worked out the exact scale and rotation of the cylindrical colony to simulate Earth’s gravitational pull. Although the project was deemed prohibitively expensive and too complex to build at the time, it has since been demonstrated to be technically feasible. This glimmer of possibility has inspired decades of speculative modelling, in the grand tradition of science fiction.
Along the same lines as the O’Neill Cylinder, the Space Settlement Contest defines a space settlement as ‘a permanent community in orbit’ and not a base on the moon or another planet. Student proposals must include detailed mathematical and technical specifications necessary to construct a settlement in space and keep it spinning in orbit, which often result in documents with over 100 pages of drawings, lengthy descriptions, and hypothetical data.
One of the most common technical preoccupations is mining. In an effort to maximize interplanetary resources, fleets of robots are sent from the Earth to harvest the moons, planets, and asteroids. This popular explanation of the technical means of building settlements is one of many variations on O’Neill’s original proposition of mining the cosmos for raw materials.
While a viable plan for both engineering and human survival is a requisite of any successful proposal, O’Neill insisted that human needs extend past the basics of food, air, and water, and the design of a space settlement should also consider emotional and spiritual needs. O’Neill felt that catering for such needs could eliminate mental health problems that might otherwise arise amongst those inhabiting the isolated and sealed environments. His solution was to propose an interior as familiar and as Earthlike as possible. It is in this idyllic Earthlike state, he felt, human settlers would thrive in space. Taking O’Neill’s Cylinder as their model, the Contest guidelines suggest that a space settlement might even be preferable to life on Earth: ‘There are many advantages to living in orbit: zero-g recreation, environmental independence, plentiful solar energy, and terrific views to name a few.’
It was this possibility of a new augmented reality in orbit that caught the attention of the subcultures that formed around scientific speculation in the 20th century. The editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, published an anthology called Space Colonies (1977), based on O’Neill’s question: ‘Is the surface of a planet really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?’ But it was the inherent possibility of starting over that caught the imagination of the radicals. ‘Only in space habitats can humanity return to the village life and pastoral style for which we all long’, wrote Timothy Leary in Neuropolitics: The Sociobiology of Human Metamorphosis (1977). The closed-loop system of the space settlement presented a blank slate for redesigning nature-culture in the image of the classless society. This new-age thinking opened the door to experimentation with life on Earth.
In preparation for the future, some self-organized communities rehearsed new models of reality, new cultures, new sleeping patterns, new diets, new languages, and new forms of dress. These rehearsals for the New Age were often shaped by supernatural and occult beliefs. At the dawn of the space programme, while the rocket engineer Jack Parsons worked on the technology that would eventually help NASA get to the Moon, his home in Pasadena became a hub for lodgers searching for societal transformation through magic, sex, and religion.
Other groups were more closely oriented towards apocalyptic planetary thinking. In particular the Institute of Ecotechnics, founded in 1973 and still in operation, have established live/work research facilities across the globe in an effort to teach themselves about ecological systems and to prepare for the upcoming environmental apocalypse, when, they hope, their group may be ready to migrate to space. By the 1980s the group had begun building a model Martian space base known as Biosphere 2, complete with diverse ecological biomes where people would be able to live within a complex natural environment, sustaining their biological and emotional needs.
Decades later, the student-participants of the Space Settlement Contest approach some of the same problems but seem to have a decidedly different interpretation of the emotional and spiritual needs of humanity. In sections variously titled ‘The Human Element’, ‘Social Infrastructure’, or ‘Designing Human Life’, they outline the social structure of their settlements; starting not from the premise of a radical blank slate for experimental communities, but the familiar categories of housing, education, government, law, enterprise, and entertainment. On the one hand, this is inherent to the way that NASA has presented the competition, but on the other, it seems to come from the students themselves, as they reflect on the components of their own societies.
In many of the proposals, we get an iconic description of suburbia, with pre-fab bungalows for nuclear families nestled within tranquil green yards, and the occasional executive apartment building for singles and workaholics. Located in the town centres are the organizations that make up the ‘cultural’ and ‘spiritual’ hearts of the colonies. Sports gymnasiums and stadiums are the multiplex cathedrals of social welfare, playing host to the most important community events, including numerous competitive sports performed with and without gravity, Space Olympics, and mandatory general fitness regimes. Strip malls seem to run through the settlements like great rivers, replete with nightlife districts: zero-gravity discothèques and restaurants, providing the experiences of ‘fly dancing’ and free-floating, dehydrated cryogenic food.
Locals and tourists alike enjoy long walks through the various simulated environments: replica wilderness areas as well as financial districts. Last year’s award-winning team from Florida (USA) proposed what is essentially a multi-faceted entertainment complex, the aforementioned space settlement called Maui. The introduction to their proposal begins with, ‘The story of how extraterrestrial colonies may grow and develop from ramshackle frontier towns to bustling cities’ complete with ‘a New York-Las Vegas type of atmosphere with casinos, spas, diverse groups of people, many numerous shopping malls, and large productions of the theatre and the movies.’
Maui thrives on tourism: ‘5-star hotels become a necessity’, while the newly built ‘Disney Galaxy’ theme park in Maui imports ‘Mickey and all of his friends, along with classic Disney princesses’ to attract tourists from across the solar system and ‘share the happiness and magic of Disney that people on Earth enjoy. No space settlement is complete without Mickey.’
However, many of the settlement proposals also have well developed, if slightly disturbing ideas about economy, law, and order. Projects like Greenspace find a moral value in the workforce. For the space settler who, they anticipate, might ask themselves the troubling question, ‘For God’s sake, why the hell do I work?!’ the Greenspace developers provide the answer: ‘So that I can live comfortably with everything I need and a little bit more.’ The preference for commerce over other professions is evident, as many other skilled jobs are outsourced to robots: nurse robots, teacher robots, doctor robots, and justice robots; the Greenspace colony is overrun with robot professionals. Every resident is given a robot assistant, and as computers take over the schools, the Greenspace settlement, amongst many others, will replace its teachers with robots, and its schools with laptops. ‘Human-like robots will tutor students one-on-one to become future scientists or robo-controllers.’
The recurring idea of ‘Earthlike’ appearances includes not only the simulation of an Earthlike climate – day and night cycles, seasons – but also an ‘Earthlike law-and-order system’. The law enforces safety with ‘nonlethal electrical stun guns’, jail, and even executions in airlocks. In most cases, the head of the space colony is a democratically elected human, but an ‘artificial intellect, the Main computer’ has been put in place to avoid and, if necessary, to put an end to any abuse of political power in Greenspace.
Despite their strict birth control measures, the growth of settler population still worried the Maui team.

Quotas were set in place to limit the number of people coming from Earth, Mars, and other major colonies. Patrols heavily guarded the airlocks connecting the entrances from the space dock to keep people from flying in, which was not too difficult to do in space.

The synthetic societies played out in many of the proposals seem to suggest hyper-real dystopias where risk and human error have been replaced by automated systems, including rationalized simulations of nature. Detailed descriptions of landscape design in the proposals conjure a primal connection to the ecosystems of the Earth, but even these have been made fit for purpose in a post-Earth society.

[It] has a small stream for meditation and is only disturbed by a small road. Wild animals such as birds and insects would disrupt the settlement’s daily operations, so they are not included in the forest. However, an intricate audio system pipes in birdsong and insect chirps in order to add to the natural ambiance of the module. A series of small cabins is located in an isolated corner of the module. These cabins are used as a retreat for mental patients and are used every year to hold a summer camp for the onboard children. When cabins are not being used residents can rent them out and take vacations. This provides a further escape from the normal routine of life aboard.

Here, in this ‘recreation module’, they also propose to scatter the ashes of their dead.
The Space Settlement Contest proposals are simultaneously familiar and bizarre in their synthesis of ordinary conditions in extraordinary circumstances. These settlements seem to be designed by a youth culture whose ideas of the future are primarily based on fantasy, desire, and media images of the world of today. Their settlements sit awkwardly alongside the radical experimental communities that initially embraced the idea of space colonization as one of human transformation. Rather, what we seem to see in so many of these contemporary proposals are reflections of our own societies: societies of control. Having asked the question of what our future world might look like, they have mimicked our own.
One question permeates all of these various proposals. Why do we need space settlements in the first place? In the speculative tradition of science fiction, this question has been more than a place for the calculation of technocratic solutions or the projection of existing conditions. For the counterculture of the late 20th century, the question was an opportunity to experiment with both practical and metaphysical solutions for a civilization that was quickly destroying its own planet and an important forum for rethinking society. However, for the time being, projects such as the Space Settlement Contest appear to have been overwhelmed by the logic of a consumer society: technology, entertainment, and design. If the potential for stimulating new models and alternative visions within a technologically advanced society can still be achieved, this potential must be reclaimed.

Julia Tcharfas (born Donetsk, Ukraine) is an artist and curator. Recent projects include Systems Learning from the Inside, Chisenhale Gallery; Recent Work By Artists, Auto Italia; and Render, Hilary Crisp Gallery. Tcharfas is also the assistant curator of the Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age exhibition at the Science Museum in London.