Asimov’s article, “The Next Frontier?” and illustrated by Pierre Mion, was written as a first-person account of a visit to an L-5 colony in the far-distant future of 2026. The account is mostly description: the National Geographic reporter is met by the colony’s director George Fenton, who shows him around and explains how everything works. Asimov experiences the gradual onset of simulated gravity as he travels from the arrival hub down a spoke to the colony’s rim. The colony is nearly 1,800 meters in diameter and houses 10,000 people.That seemed possible in 1976. It still seems possible in 2011, but add a century at least before it comes to pass.
Fenton shows him the farms and the industrial areas. He introduces the reporter to a rabbit meat hot dog and goat milk shake. He explains how the population is majority male, but they do have women, and families, and even a thousand children on the station. He shows the reporter a residential area and explains that the streets curve back and forth so that you cannot see them end and become disoriented. Fenton explains how the six segments of the torus are separated by airlocks in case of emergency. The colony is not completely self-contained but is working on it. They still import things from Earth, but most of their raw materials come from the Moon. And of course they recycle everything that they can; the reporter declines Fenton’s offer to tour the sewage plant.
At its best, the space colonization vision was sophisticated daydreaming, not a future that a large number of Americans wanted to make happen. The vision had its shot and never caught on, despite appearing in the pages of a highly reputable magazine and gaining the attention of political decision makers. Gravity, weightlessness, radiation, and economics may all have ultimately made this vision untenable, but its biggest problem was that people didn’t like it.
We are living in the future that National Geographic’s experts speculated about. The cities are all right. World War III is no longer looming overhead. But grand visions of space colonization no longer appear in popular media. They no longer gain attention on news programs or in the halls of Congress. The Future, it was wonderful, but now it survives largely in the pages of faded magazines.
Until we lose a few million, or few thousand million, people from a dirty snowball, showing just how bad an idea it is to have all our eggs in one basket.
Of course some of us would dream the dream anyway, and do whatever we could to see our dreams become reality.