Space Colonies

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Space Colonies: Living Among the Stars is a documentary on space colonization produced in 1996 by Dr. David Hickman [1] and broadcast in 1999 by Discovery Channel.

The 52-minute documentary examines the scientific basis for the idea that humans can carry our civilization far from Earth. It utilizes a combination of computer graphics, scale models, live action, and archival footage from NASA, including Apollo mission film and Viking probe photos.

It is narrated by Avery Brooks [2]. It features Dr. Hickman’s interviews with:

  • Marshall T. Savage [3]
  • Christopher McKay [4]
  • Robert Zubrin [5]
  • Tasha O’Neill [6]
  • Kim Stanley Robinson [7]
  • James “Jim” Benson [8]


Dr. David Hickman is as of 2018 at the Department of Theatre, Film & Television at the University of York, UK.

Dr. Hickman reflected on this documentary in private correspondence with Michael Currie on 13 September 2018:

Michael Currie: What gave you the idea to create a documentary about space colonies in the first place? It seems like those sorts of ideas were more in vogue in the mid-1990s than they are today, but I am having a hard time figuring out why that would be.

Dr. David Hickman: I can’t remember the exact reason for saying to Discovery that this should be made, but I do recall that a lot of really great science was being done at the time, especially to do with terraforming - and the fact that it was being done at NASA gave it extra credence. And of course I’d read Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy. That was a particular pleasure, interviewing him.

Michael Currie: The fact that you were able to secure Avery Brooks for the narration was also quite exciting.

Dr. David Hickman: Avery Brooks was, at the time, very in demand. I think he was just about to have American History X [9] released, which was (I know) a total nightmare in production.


According to the CV of production assistant Beverly Henry, the budget for this documentary was between 300,000 GBP and 450,000 GBP. Accounting for inflation and converting to US dollars, this is between 700,000 USD and 1,000,000 USD in 2018 US dollars.


Space Colonies: Living Among the Stars. Dr. David Hickman, 1999. [10]


[AVERY BROOKS] Imagine that your home is 100 million miles from Earth. The first human settlements have been built in another part of the solar System and you're one of the pioneers. You live and die there. Welcome to the future of the home the year is 2050 ad the moon now has a large human population living underground and in craters don't over to enclose living breathing Eden's

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] A hundred years from now when my grandchildren go to visit someone on the moon or go there to live they don't live in lifeless airless sterile tin cans any more than we would want to live that way they're gonna live you know and in a beautiful park with 600-foot-tall trees and be able to fly like birds themselves.

[AVERY BROOKS] Life imported from birth is just beginning to take hold on a planet where it has a drain for almost four billion years

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY, NASA] Now we imagine Mars. On Mars, nature as we found it is barren and we have a chance of introducing life and so when I imagine Mars today that's a beautiful and a very interesting world and I would want to study it deeply but when I imagine Mars with life I find that more interesting and more valuable in some in some deep sense.

[AVERY BROOKS] Later still, the city builders have started to work on the Martian surface creating a new home for colonists who've made the biggest one-way journey of their lives.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] When you go to a new place like Mars and you establish a new branch of society there you have an option to take with you the best ideas and then leave as much of the worst behind and that people that settle Mars will not want to return to Earth they will want to live on Mars and develop their future there or perhaps even further out in the solar system.

[AVERY BROOKS] In the late summer of 1976 two identical Viking craft soft landed on Mars the Viking mission was the first to send back a detailed picture of the surface of another planet although it didn't find the evidence of life it went looking for Viking did succeed in carrying out valuable experiments on Martian soil and air it was a scientific trial but Christopher McKay is a NASA biologist who believes that space science is merely a way of preparing for something far more important.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY, NASA] Space exploration is often discussed as if it's only objective is science. If one takes that approach then certainly sending humans to space is is not cost-effective: we can get better science with robots and robotic probes. But I think that misses the whole point why are we doing science why are we exploring space scientifically well I think it's as part of a broader human activity part of a broader human enterprise in anticipation of human settlements the planet it's the closest to the easiest in the sense of being able to be our first step as Mars you're not sending humans to Mars as a tool to do science we're sending humans to Mars one of the things that they'll do when they're there is science they'll also write poetry and they'll also cuss and scream and all the other things that humans do

[AVERY BROOKS] The Viking mission was designed to last only three months, but the orbiters and Landers sent back a stream of data for six years including over 50,000 photographs covering 97% of the Martian surface.

Yet McKay thinks that even for scientific work robots like Viking are ultimately no substitute for human missions

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY, NASA] People talk about sending robots to the other planets to explore and never needing to send humans but I find that very uninteresting I equated to maybe going to Paris but instead of actually going to Paris oneself just sending a camera there getting pictures taking bringing the camera back developing the pictures looking at the pictures and thinking, “well, that was great I've done Paris.”

I think that it's at the human presence the human experience is part of the motivation for going and eventually humans will want to go to these primitive worlds but why would you take the next step and build human settlements on other planets

But why would you take

[AVERY BROOKS] Robert Zubrin is a space engineer was proposed a way of sending the first humans to Mars but he doesn't want to stop there. For him, Mars in the 21st century is the new frontier - a place to be settled by colonists from Earth.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] The frontier on Earth is closed. I think that unless humanity is going to move into an age of stagnation we have to be willing to embrace a new frontier and the new frontier that's out there is that in space and particularly on Mars.

What's settling Mars is fundamentally as an act of creation that what we will be doing is creating a new branch of human civilization a new branch of human culture. In other words, we are not doing this for us. We are doing this for them – the Martians.

[AVERY BROOKS] Is all this possible? Much of the technology to do it was developed in a period of little under 10 years that started in the late 1950s with animals sent into orbit in ballistic missiles this chimpanzee was to make it back safely but at the time little or nothing was known about whether humans could survive in space. Yet by the early 1960s President John Kennedy believed the greatest prize of the decade was within reach. The wagon train to space was about to leave.

Many years ago, the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “because it is there.” Well, space is there. And we're going to climb it and the moon and the planets are there

In 1962 Kennedy this speech at Rice University but it still echoes down you know because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills this is probably the most brilliant speech of American political oratory in the 20th century it hits it right on the nose is that you have to be willing to accept challenges like this okay you have to do that if you're going to grow okay and Kennedy and his generation were willing to do that we choose to go to the moon we choose to go to the moon we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard you choose to go to the moon not because it is easy but because it is hard as an act of faith and vision because we do not know what benefits await us but space is there and we are going to climb it

[AVERY BROOKS] The space program became a high point of 20th century optimism an intoxicating mixture of white-hot technology and human daring made anything seem possible. First the moon; next stop: the Stars.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] What were the benefits of Apollo certainly wasn't the acquisition of a couple of hundred pounds of moon rocks. The real benefit of Apollo was a generation of youth that were inspired to enter science by the offer of the prospect that they could become part of a great adventure of the human pioneering of space. I mean, I know that for a fact - I was one of them. I was nine when Kennedy gave a speech calling for sending us to the moon. I was one of Apollo's children.

[AVERY BROOKS] Human ambition was soaring on top of the most powerful rocket engines ever built and other children of Apollo were having their imaginations rewired by a new future in space - children like Marshall Savage.

[MARSHALL SAVAGE] For me I think the key moment in the whole idea of man in space came with the first orbital fly by of the moon somehow that impressed me more even than the moon landing because it was the idea that these are the first guys who went into outer space. They left the earth they weren't just flying in orbit they were out there in deep space.

My family and I had taken a year off and we're traveling around Europe and on Volkswagen van. I think we're the first yuppie hippy family in history. And we were on the island of Rhodes Christmas Eve 1968. Terrible weather rain pelting down, absolutely black outside. They're all jammed up in our own little life support capsule there, and we're listening to the radio these guys these men. The first true spacemen. And their voice coming disembodied from the depths of space. And I didn't grow up with a religious background but when they started reading from the book of Genesis and you're listening to these guys on Christmas Eve out there in the depths for the first time it just touched me and a vital chord that said this is the future and not just the future of me and kind but your personal future these guys are talking to you

[AVERY BROOKS] As Apollo 11 left for the moon on July 16 1969 Kennedy's Mount Everest was about to be conquered just eight years after he first announced the race to the lunar surface. But as the astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon on December 14th 1972, the momentum to carry people further out in the solar system was lost. Since then no one has broken free of the Earth's orbit.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] We should have been on Mars already if we had continued the space program in the theme of the Apollo of the late 60s we would have had our people on Mars by 1981. We had the capability to establish people on the Moon. Right then we had 85% of the capability we needed to establish people on Mars. And they burnt the fleet. It's as if Columbus had come back from the new world having made his discovery and Ferdinand and Isabella said, “Well so what? Burn the ships.”

[AVERY BROOKS] In high schools and colleges tens of thousands waited to fulfill their ambitions as astronauts for them space was the future. By his late teens Marshall Savage was convinced he would be signing up for the next and far more dangerous adventure beyond them.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Basically I just wanted to go to Mars. I didn't care if I was the first, or the fiftieth, or the 5,000th; I just wanted to go to Mars. That seemed like a noble and attainable ambition given those times.

There was going to be a hundred-man permanent space station in orbit, a permanent colony on the Moon, and men on Mars in the early 80s, which fit my schedule perfectly. Well, history took a very different turn. The whole post Apollo space program was all scrapped and we weren't going anywhere.

So I didn't know where I was going or how I was going to get there and sort of shuffled off to a little college in Pennsylvania called Swarthmore disillusioned with that whole idea and looking for something else, and lo and behold who should show up to talk to the Astronomy Department but an old Swarthmore alum named Gerard K. O'Neill! And this guy comes in with a slide presentation putting up slides of space colonies the size of cities and that of course relit my candle.

[GERARD K. O’NEILL] if we go into the time frame that might be even as early as the 1990s, I think we may see the first of the medium sized spherical habitats several hundred meters in diameter and with a circumference which might perfectly well be as much as a mile. And interestingly enough in scale not that different from some places which humankind has traditionally regarded as very attractive, like the island of Capri or the town of Carmel, California or the nicer bits of London or whatever your favorite spot happens to be.

[AVERY BROOKS] Gerard Kay O'Neil was a brilliant and respected physics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, but his wife Tasha remembers how his passion for space colonies began in classes he gave for students who had no background in science.

[TASHA O’NEILL] He was teaching a new course for students who were not really interested in physics but they had to take this obligatory course and it was called “Physics for Poets”.

[AVERY BROOKS] As the first men were landing on the moon in 1969 O'Neill began, almost as a joke to ask his students a question about leaving Earth altogether.

[GERARD K. O’NEILL] In the long term is the surface of the Earth really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?

[TASHA O’NEILL] Is a planetary surface the right place for an expanding civilization? And the answer turned out to be no.

[AVERY BROOKS] Gerard O'Neill wanted to build his space cities in an orbit between the Earth and the moon he called this place “The High Frontier”. But first he had to get his idea taken seriously. It would take him taken five years and happened almost by accident after a public meeting in Princeton.

[TASHA O’NEILL] Gerry decided it would be nice to get well as many people as were interested together and Walter Sullivan, who was then the leading science writer for the New York Times, decided that it was newsworthy enough and they put it on the front page of the New York Times. Which instantaneously changed our lives.

[AVERY BROOKS] But his dream of living in human colonies turning three in his face never got beyond artists impressions and models. He died of leukemia in 1992.

[TASHA O’NEILL] Gerry of course he would have loved God we always talked about going together. I wanted to have the first restaurant in space; that was always a dream of mine. [It] probably won't happen… but I do hope that I still get to go and I'm not too old. You never know.

[AVERY BROOKS] In the 30 years since O'Neill first proposed orbiting space colonies, a new idea has emerged: terraforming, or changing planets to suit human habitation.

Marshall Savage believes that our desire to colonize other worlds and to make them like our own is ingrained in the human psyche.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Human beings are programmed with a deep need and love for the natural beauty and splendor of the home planet the trees the flowers the waterfalls the birds the butterflies - these are the things that really move us, and that will characterize the human experience of space colonization from here on out. And the thing that will astonish people I think is how naturalistic and earth-like really even like that form of life will be.

[AVERY BROOKS] Savage thinks that the moon is capable of sustaining large human settlements. But how did you create an Earth-like world for people to live in on a place as barren and airless as the moon? One way is to transform craters into biospheres: self-contained islands of life.

Under domes made of silicon and water would be Oases of plant life imported from Earth. People living in the moon's gravity would be only one-sixth of their way doctor So in these lightly pressurized domes a primordial dream might become a reality.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] At one-sixth gravity a human being can fly under his own power. You suit up and you strap on your gossamer wings and launch off the branch of one of these gigantic trees. You can stretch out your own wings and by flapping your own arms, actually propel yourself through the air like a gigantic bird.

[AVERY BROOKS] The moon is known to be rich in raw materials like iron aluminum and frozen water enough of everything for Marshal Savage to believe that industries could be built on the Moon.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Once you've got a toehold on a place like the moon growth there can be very rapid and there will be several centuries of just rip-roarin rootin'-tootin industrial activity on the Chicago of the future - the little planet of the Big Shoulders - as people produce industrial infrastructure hell-bent for leather on the moon.

[AVERY BROOKS] Beyond the moon the prime candidate for human colonization is Mars but it's a forbidding place the average global temperature is minus 76 degrees Fahrenheit and at the ice-covered poles it can drop below minus 200 degrees. But there is evidence that Mars was once a wet warmer planet not unlike the earth scarring on the surface suggests that rivers and seas had once existed. So where did the water go?

Some is locked up in the two polar ice caps. But it could be that water is also trapped beneath the surface. Mars has other ingredients too that would make terraforming possible, and not just within the confines of a few domes, but the entire planet.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY] Mars has all the resources needed to support life there on the surface in some accessible form carbon carbon dioxide water frozen now but one can imagine melting at nitrogens their Sun lights there all the resources needed to support a biosphere maybe even to make a self-sustaining planet are there. Then the next challenge is to warm up the planet and get these materials from there frozen cold stayed in the surface out into the atmosphere again. And interestingly we've learned how to do that on Earth. We are releasing into our atmosphere super greenhouse gases that are thousands of times more effective than carbon dioxide and creating a blanket around the Earth to keep it warm. Now on earth that's probably not a good idea but on Mars that's just what one would need to make Mars warm and melt the ice and bring all those materials back into the atmosphere.

[AVERY BROOKS] To make these gases you need carbon hydrogen chlorine and fluorine all of them may be available on Mars they could be mined on the Martian surface mixed in robot factories and then pumped out of chimneys in huge quantities. They would trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. The polar ice caps would melt, and the Martian surface would be transformed into something that looked very Earth-like. Great oceans and lakes would appear and the atmosphere would start to thicken and change. The average surface temperature of Mars would rise from minus 76 degrees to a few degrees above freezing.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY] Having warmed it a little bit so that there's water on the surface, thicker atmosphere, one could then introduce very simple eco systems not unlike the eco systems that exist in the Antarctic and Arctic regions today.

[AVERY BROOKS] The first plant life to take hold out on the Martian surface would be little more than algae, but it would be the advance party for the greening of Mars.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY] Our calculation suggests that Mars could become warm with a fairly thick atmosphere on timescales of 100 years or so. It's remarkably efficient, once we start trapping solar energy and as the atmosphere got thicker and the planet got warmer more and more sophisticated advanced life forms could be introduced, and Mars would recapitulate the evolutionary history of the Earth, only we would do it much faster because it would have the biology of Earth to help jumpstart. It's possible that if Mars was warm enough maybe in a hundred years or so that there could be real for its real one could imagine pine forest like one sees on the side of the mountain growing on Mars.

[AVERY BROOKS] For Christopher McKay bringing life to Mars is an obligation placed on humans as a unique intelligent species.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY] I think that life in a microbial and simple forms should be on any planet that has liquid water and even remotely similar to the Earth so I think life is commonplace intelligence I think the case is much weaker. In fact, I would be willing to argue that intelligence is rare, maybe even singular on Earth. I think would be a mistake to give up our intelligence. and to act like just another animal we should say what is our role as the intelligent member of this community what can we do to help contribute and I think the answer is spreading like taking life from its planet of origin here on earth taking it beyond and we as an intelligent species are uniquely capable of doing that. It's a task worthy of us as a species. It would be like building pyramids and cathedrals. It's something that we could do as a gift to the rest of the universe.

[AVERY BROOKS] Mars would be like old frontiers that humans have faced: challenging inhospitable dangerous only more so. But what would drive large numbers of people to embark on a journey that would take them up to a year to a distant colder planet? One answer can be found among the relics of America's recent history.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] In the 19th century an idea took hold people of this country that said hundreds of thousands of people barreling west and wagon trains and it wasn't just to seek their personal fortunes. They became to understand that they could be part of something grand: the establishment of a continental nation based on principles of progress and liberty, and they wanted to be part of it. I believe that when it becomes technologically possible to settle Mars, as it can be very shortly, there'll be any number of people willing to participate in that however the hardships. We are a nation that was created by people who were willing to embrace the challenge of taking on new frontiers. And if we cease to do that, then we will become less than the people who got us here, okay. And that's a prescription for decay, decline, and collapse. That is something we cannot afford to do.

[AVERY BROOKS] Robert Zubrin has devised a way of getting the first humans to Mars relatively cheaply known as Mars direct it's an idea that's been adapted by NASA.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] We use the same technique for exploring Mars that pioneers have used on earth which is: travel light and live off the land. First lunch we launched to Mars and Earth return vehicle with no body in it. It flies out to Mars; takes eight months to get there. You land it on Mars and then you run a pump and you suck in the Martian air which is carbon dioxide gas and they react that with a little bit of hydrogen that you brought from Earth to produce a very large supply of methane oxygen rocket propellants. Now you’ve got a fully fueled earth return vehicle waiting it for you on the surface of Mars. shoot out the next booster and that fires to crew out to Mars and because the return ride is waiting for them on Mars they don't have to fly to Mars in a gigantic Battlestar Galactica spaceship. They land that on Mars near the Earth return vehicle they used that as their house on Mars for a year and a half and at the end of that time they get in the earth return vehicle they take off they fly directly back to Earth. They leave their hab behind on Mars so each time you do this you add another hab to the base and gradually we build up the beginning of the first human settlement On a new world.

[AVERY BROOKS] The huge distance to Mars means that few supplies could be flown in from Earth so the first colonists will have to mine for construction materials, collect water, make oxygen, grow food - all from Mars itself. But they'd soon master the techniques of living off the land.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] So now you'll have a situation perhaps fifty years from now in which we will know how to be self-sufficient on Mars and which you can get to Mars relatively cheaply and at that point I I believe that large-scale immigration to Mars will begin. Who will do this? Well, it could be people seeking adventure. There could be people who are driven there as refugees. It can be people who are members of a religious sect who find that they need to have a place where they can go where they can make their own world. Once it becomes possible to go people will go. I believe that within 50 years after that you'll probably have more than a million people living on Mars.

[KIM STANLEY ROBINSON] I would like to live by the water and with inside of mountains instance on the shore of the sea filling the Hellas basin you would be next to a body of water like the Great Lakes or the Mediterranean and then right next to it would be entire range of mountains that you would have off to the west.

[AVERY BROOKS] From his home in Northern California, science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has imagined what human life would be like on a terraformed Mars. But the inspiration for his novels comes from the images beamed back by Viking of a spectacular wasteland.

[KIM STANLEY ROBINSON] I got interested in Mars as a matter of wilderness that I'm interested in spending time in the mountains above treeline and in the deserts of the American West and so when the Viking data came in what they showed is that Mars is a spectacular landscape, and these features who drew my interests, and I thought this would be a great place to go backpacking.

[AVERY BROOKS] Viking revealed Mars to be a tourist’s dream. Valles Marineris is a two and a half-thousand-mile-long chasm that's up to five miles deep a hundred and twenty-five miles wide and up to ten times bigger than the Grand Canyon. Olympus Mons is an extinct volcano that rises sixteen miles above the surrounding Plains. It's almost three times as high as Mount Everest for all its variety Mars today is a huge empty desert should it stay that way Robinson foresees an environmental battle between advocates of an untouched red Mars and those of a living Green Mars

[KIM STANLEY ROBINSON] The red green conflict in my novels has to do with the idea that there will be people who fall in love with Mars as it is right now and the idea of terraforming it would be to them a kind of desecration on the other hand there'd be a lot easier to live on Mars if we alter it to give it an atmosphere and less deadly so the greens and the Reds I believe will come to exist and will come into conflict sooner or later Mars will be literally terraformed and it will be possible for people to live on Mars in the outside in the same way they do on earth except they'll only have one-third of gravity I think that the Martians in the future will wonder why anyone ever wanted to live in 100% gravity such as we'd you er you have to slog along the ground as opposed to be able to leap from story to story of your house like on a gazelle or kangaroo.

[AVERY BROOKS] Wherever humans choose to live - on the moon Mars or beyond one thing is certain if they stay permanently their physical appearance will be altered by different gravitational forces sunlight air and other influences.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Just the occupation of those kind of environments is going to change the people who live there into almost entirely new and distinct species after one or two generations at the most for example people who are native to the moon are apt to be several feet taller than people who are native to the Earth.

And if they don't bother to go through the considerable trouble of maintaining the skeleton and muscular infrastructure they need to support against one gravity and basically say for I live on the moon and you know I'm never going to earth except by video tour or by holographic goggles anyway you know I'm going to be a “Lunarian”. Well, these people are going to grow very tall and very slender with the minimal musculature and after a number of generations of that, we may literally find that the genotypes evolved in their own special directions.

[AVERY BROOKS] To predict what would happen over 10 or 20 generations is beyond science. He would need to be a latter-day Leonardo even to imagine the appearance of the most far-flung and isolated colonists.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Ultimately where we're going with this is the true Star Trek universe you've probably noticed that in Star Trek they fly all over the galaxy and they meet all kinds of alien people but they all have basically two arms and two legs and some funny stuff on their forehead. Well I think in a few thousand or a few million years that'll be an accurate picture but the reason is because all of those species had their original root stock in the earth and then depending on their home environment they will follow a genetic line completely distinct from almost anyone else all of the common origin but otherwise as distinct as Vulcans and Klingons.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] We're going to be introducing variation into the human species. The Earth has become too small to maintain human cultural diversity in nature diversity is the key to species survival and I believe this is hangman you will both maintain and in fact expand its diversity as it expands into the cosmos from here.

[DR. CHRISTOPHER MCKAY] It could be that the exploration of space is inevitable we talk about humans and their natural curiosity and sense to explore but this could be a more fundamental property or property of life itself life can be a phenomenon that like a fire for example must constantly grow in order to maintain itself constantly has to be burning at the edge for a fire to maintain itself life can be that way too it might need to constantly be expanding and growing into new frontiers in order to just stay alive as an overall system

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] What's humanity all about what is our great striving all about what are our epics all about our religions everything they're about a quest for immortality through gods or deities or immortality through acts of immortal importance whether they are the settling of the West or the settling of Mars. And this is more important than bread. This is what people will fight for, this is what people will die for and this is what will send us into space

[JIM BENSON] I believe the only way that we're going to get out into space is by making space pay if you want to go to space to stay space has to pay.

[AVERY BROOKS] In Steamboat Springs Colorado Jim Benson is planning how to make money out of space.

[JIM BENSON] Back in 1990 or 1991 while I was reading a Washington Post I came across a little article asteroid Eldorado found in space and it turned out that it's a solid ball of stainless steel worth 80 trillion dollars they thought well if this one asteroid is worth 80 trillion dollars. And I thought, maybe I should find out if there are more like it or you know what the story is.

[AVERY BROOKS] Nearly 500 asteroids have so far been discovered passing close to the Earth's orbit little is known about them but they could all be immensely rich in minerals.

[JIM BENSON] I was first fascinated by the metallic asteroids because they have very high concentrations of gold and all the platinum group metals in them but when you think about it they would be extremely hard to mine. It would be bumping up against a mountain of stainless steel and chipping away or drilling that would be very difficult. But Benson realized that a few asteroids contained something even more valuable than precious metals: ice, which could be turned into water and hydrogen separated from it to make supplies of rocket fuel out in space. Without the huge cost of lifting fuel from the Earth, colonizing space would become a more realistic proposition.

So Benson set up a public company to build a small probe designed to go prospecting for ice on the asteroids. He wanted something that would be reliable and cheap.

[BENSON] One of the key aspects of our near-earth asteroid prospector is that we're not doing anything new. All the technology that we're using has been used before. It's trailing-edge technology. This makes it better for the investor because we can do it cheaper.

I'm going out to do those two both open up space for humanity but also to make money doing it. I believe that commercial enterprises can make money in space and once we do it, then everybody else will see that can be done, and that will open up the vision of the future for all of people who want to go out and build space colonies and mined the asteroids and live on the Moon and Mars.

[AVERY BROOKS] Jim Benson made his first fortune in the computer business. He's convinced he's going to make his second in space.

[JIM BENSON] if we look back 20 years ago at the beginning of the PC revolution no one knew that was happening no one knew who the winners are the losers would be. But today we have more billionaires than you can shake a stick at. We're at the same place with space commercialization today. Anything can happen, and most things will.

[AVERY BROOKS] Are there limits to how far humans can travel to colonize space the real limits may not be technology but our own mortality we simply couldn't live long enough to get anywhere beyond our own solar system. But even this could be overcome if we could design something that traveled faster.

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] I'm not sure where the ultimate horizon of human limitations is. I believe that travel to the stars is possible. We understand all the fundamental science that is needed to create an interstellar craft. We understand fusion reactions which give us a basic form of power that, once we work out the engineering of how to do it, will allow us to develop ships that are capable of getting up to perhaps 10% speed of light.

[AVERY BROOKS] But even with a spacecraft that traveled at that speed, it would still take over 40 years to reach the nearest star system.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] I think there's a realistic cut-off in terms of what makes interstellar travel feasible look at it this way the fastest human beings have ever traveled was during the Apollo program at that speed getting to the nearest star would take you a million years so you have to go and enormous velocities otherwise it's going to take whole in millennia thousands of years to get to the nearest star system though there are proposals in science fiction for doing that building these gigantic world ships with thousands of people living in self-sufficient communities for thousands of years but if you did that I guarantee by the time you got to the nearest star there would be a new civilization that had already grown up at that star populated by people who stayed behind using the industrial capacity of the home star system to build antimatter rockets or something really good that moves at 50% of the speed of light they would have flown out there in a mere eight years they would have built up an entirely new solar civilization while you were still in transit. So by the time you got there and got off the world ship you'd be like some fossilized Rip Van Winkle and you might get a slot on a morning show, but that would be about your only impact on that solar civilization. So if you can't go fast, stay home.

[AVERY BROOKS] From 1969 to 1972 a selected few left home. Six Apollo missions landed on the moon. Just twelve American astronauts. Memories of a 20th century triumph still haunt those who expected and hoped for so much more. It's as if it all happened yesterday, but these images are a quarter of a century old. Will people come this way again, and this time, will they keep on going?

[ROBERT ZUBRIN] The stars are within reach provided, we don't give up now - provided we don't give up on becoming a spacefaring civilization.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] We're going to be well-entrenched in the stellar environment; there will be 50 growing civilizations out there in the sky. You [will be able to] walk outside at night on the earth and look out in the sky and name physical places - real geography in the night sky - of the stars that are inhabited and the kind of people who live there. And that's going to happen in just the amount of time that's separating us from the Vikings.

[AVERY BROOKS] More than two decades after it arrived on Mars, Viking has been battered by dust storms into an eternal silence. If the human colonization of space doesn't happen, Viking and other craft like it will become lonely memorials to a failed dream.

[MARSHALL T. SAVAGE] Mankind among the stars – that’s what we were born for, that’s where we were going.

[End Title] “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath… face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.


Space Colonies: Living Among the Stars. Medium [11]