The Next Frontier? (Jul, 1976)
The Next Frontier?
Shape of things to come? Even as Apollo and orbiting Skylab recede into history, American scientists consider a more awesome enterprise—a permanent colony in space.
By ISAAC ASIMOV Paintings by PIERRE MION
I DID NOT REALLY UNDERSTAND what L-5 was like, on this July day in A.D. 2026, until I no longer saw it from my vantage point in space.
On the shuttle flight I had observed by telescope the torus that we all recognize, much like a bicycle wheel, gleaming in the direct light of the sun and in the light reflected from the large mirror floating free above. The six spokes and the central hub were visible too, of course.
The shuttle craft was built for durability, not comfort, and I welcomed the end of our journey—a three-day flight. As we moved in toward the docking module, L-5 stopped being a torus in space and became a habitat, a world with 10,000 people. The hub is a sphere 130 meters in diameter, which seemed huge when we were immediately above it. The six spokes led out to the torus proper, the nearer edge of which was 765 meters away. What it amounted to in older units of measurement was that L-5 was a little more than 1.1 miles across.
There were the usual complications of docking, establishing an airtight seal, and getting through an air lock. Then I underwent a brief medical examination. Finally George Fenton greeted me. The head of L-5 was a stocky man with a shock of brown hair and a swarthy complexion. He was dressed lightly and loosely, but not exotically. His personal attention, I gathered, was not unusual; a freelance writer for National Geographic was treated with the same courtesy as any arriving visitor.
Hub’s Low Gravity an Aid to Research
“The day will come, sir,” Fenton said, “when there will be colonies large enough to take in the shuttles whole. It will be much easier when that day comes.”
I protested that it had been no trouble and looked about. Somehow I had expected to get into the hub and see a cavernous vista. Instead, I found myself in a corridor very much like that in any large office building back on earth—except for the bars and handholds one requires at low gravity.
“There are no living quarters in the hub,” Fenton said. “There’s a small hospital here for cardiac cases and orthopedic problems. There are also research laboratories. Some of these are biological, studying the effect of low gravity on living systems; some are industrial and engineering….”
“You mean it’s here that you grow crystals and manufacture electronic components?”
Fenton smiled. “No, not here. Not enough room and, besides, we need a vacuum for that. Our manufacturing plants are out in near space, and are attached to the main body of L-5 by transport tubes.
“Of course we are not yet self-supporting. We depend on earth for much of our high technology as well as our culture, education, and medicine. However, we have already become an important part of earth’s computer industry and a source of many of the microminiature circuits it uses.”
“To say nothing of your manufacturing solar-energy stations?”
Fenton shrugged. “That’s an old story. The first solar power station was operative and sent into orbit around earth even before L-5 was entirely habitable.
“We will want to go out to the torus, and the third elevator bank is nearest. Do you mind starting there?”
He took my agreement for granted, for he seized the nearest handhold, pushed off, and went shooting along the corridor. I followed, but with far less expertise. There wasn’t quite the sensation of shooting upward that one gets in the zero gravity of a coasting shuttle. The weak gravity was enough to make the flight seem horizontal but to have me sinking slowly. I caught another handhold and brought myself to a yanking halt. I walked the last few meters, rubbing my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” said Fenton. “I know you’ve had space experience, and I rather thought you were used to this.”
“I am,” I said. “Just not quite enough.”
Elevator Picks Up Speed — Sideways
The elevator door opened, and I stepped into a semicircular chamber about five meters deep and rather more than that across.
Fenton said, “This elevator car fills about one-third of the spoke, and there’s room for another one.”
Fenton hooked an arm around one of the six vertical bars spaced through the car, and I took another, assuming there was some purpose for that.
I said, after a time, “Aren’t we moving rather slowly?”
“Yes, we are. Two reasons. First, the gravity effect gets stronger as we move down, and the body adjusts more easily if the change isn’t too rapid. After all, we go from nearly nothing to full gravity in a matter of just about a kilometer. Second, there is the Coriolis force that results when you move from a region of one sideways speed to another that is much faster or much slower. You know about it?”
I nodded, a little abashed. “I know about it, but I tend to forget.”
One talks about gravity on L-5, but it’s a centrifugal effect and that’s not quite the same thing. The torus makes one revolution per minute. This means that the edge of the hub, which we had just left, sweeps out a circle of about 400 meters in that minute. The outer edge of the torus, making a much larger circle, moves 5,600 meters in that same minute, creating greater centrifugal force—a workable substitute for gravity. The elevator car moving downward is accelerated sideways—the Coriolis force—and I felt myself being pulled backward against the curved wall by my own inertia. I held on to the vertical bar and wished we were moving more slowly still.
Earthlike Vista Stuns a Newcomer
When the elevator came to a halt, I had regained full gravitational effect for the first time since I had left earth. That meant not only the three days spent in actual spaceflight, barring brief acceleration periods, but the two-day period of medical examination and quarantine while in low earth orbit. It was with only a faint nausea, however, that I stepped out, just a little unsteadily, into the sunlight streaming through the long line of windows above.
I stopped and stared. It was not just that the gravity was like that of earth. It was everything else as well. I had stepped into a compact American community with glass and aluminum buildings on every side.
My thoughts were easy to read, for Fenton said, “There are differences. No automobiles.”
“Not many pedestrians, either, I see.” The few that passed, all lightly clothed, greeted Fenton, and he lifted his arm, smiling. The greetings seemed to include me.
“Most of us know each other,” said Fenton.
“L-5 is a world, but it’s also a town of 10,000.
“The torus is divided into six separate sectors, alternating between residential and agricultural. More than half the population lives in this particular sector, so you might say this is our city.
“The next residential area in the direction of rotation has most of our cultural units— theater, movie house, sports areas. The third has our schools and our library.
“Sunlight is filtered and dispersed by a series of mirrors overhead. Without earthly atmosphere, we have to be particularly careful of radiation. We can produce an eight-hour night every 24 hours by tilting the mirrors. It’s part of making L-5 as earthlike as possible. The streets, you may see, curve a bit.”
“Why is that?”
“So that you don’t see to the end of any of them. If they were straight, they would end too soon, and you would have a claustrophobic feeling.”
I was watching the pedestrians. Most were men in early maturity. I said, “Do the women and children stay indoors?”
Fenton said, “No, there just aren’t many. We are still a pioneer community, you know, and our population is as yet unbalanced. Fewer than half of our more or less permanent residents are women. Nevertheless, there are families. We have nearly a thousand youngsters on L-5, some colony-born. My own daughter was born here five years ago.”
Goat-milk Shake and Hare of the Dog
“What do the single people do?” I asked.
“Some stay single. Some go back to earth to try to find a mate. Some stay on earth, and some bring a spouse to L-5. Of course, there are no jobs on L-5 that can’t be done equally well by either sex. Nevertheless, there are still old cultural habits that die hard, and we receive more male applicants than female. But as time goes by, we expect to have a normally distributed population.
“Come, let me take you to one of the sun-decks on top of this building.”
The whole atmosphere changed when we went inside. Now there was the bustle of people coming and going in the corridors. Fenton led me past what was obviously a schoolroom. There were children on L-5. I even saw an infant occasionally, in a thoroughly earthlike baby carriage.
There were shops on the building’s lower floors, small ones, but of considerable variety.
“Do you have department stores?”
“No,” he said. “We find that anything too large tends to dwarf the torus. Psychologically, it is better to work with many small units. Would you like something to eat?”
I wasn’t very hungry, but it seemed polite to have a frankfurter and milk shake. They were dispensed by token-operated machines.
“Did you like it?” asked Fenton.
“Oh, yes,” I said cautiously. (Good enough, but I was used to better on earth.)
“That frankfurter is what we call ‘Hare of the Dog.’ H-A-R-E. It’s made from rabbit meat. We are just establishing beef cattle on L-5 and haven’t slaughtered any yet.”
“And what about the milk shake?”
We went up in a crowded elevator. Most of those on it got off at intermediate floors. Two men and a woman, scantily covered, stayed to the end. The area we entered was an unshaded terrace where about a dozen men and women were sunning themselves.
I followed Fenton to a railed edge and looked out over the rooftops.
“We’re about 65 meters up,” he said, “and gravitational pull is only 90 percent that at the surface. That’s not enough to be aware of. But there…,” he pointed outward, “is where you can see that you are not on earth.”
He was right. At that height I could see the curve of the torus from within. There was no horizon in the earthly sense. The line of buildings stretching out below me seemed to—no, did—curve upward. They came to an end and were replaced by greenery (the neighboring agricultural section) that continued the upward curve into a blur.
“Earth is different,” I said.
“I know,” said Fenton, reflectively. “I was born in Memphis; came to L-5 when I was 35.”
“Do you miss earth?”
“Sometimes, but not very often. We try to keep the colony like earth, you see, but actually it’s all moon dust. Almost everything you see was once on the moon. We’ve got L-5 people there right now, several hundred of them, mining moon material and sending it to the foundries in the neighborhood of L-5. We get endless quantities of aluminum, titanium, glass, iron, and oxygen from the lunar crust.
“Then, too, the soil in which we grow our plant life is moon soil, a little modified. In fact, the only raw materials of importance that we must still get from earth are light elements: hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon. The imported hydrogen combines with our own oxygen to give us our water supplies. Actually, we import only small quantities since we cycle very tightly. But come, I don’t want you up here too long.”
He said, when we were back in the comparative emptiness of the streets: “The shielding helps keep out cosmic rays, but perhaps not quite efficiently enough. There’s some controversy there. We have enough lunar slag built up outside the walls of the torus to give us safety, but the hub and spokes are less well protected.”
We were walking leisurely, and he said: “L-5 is a transitional world only. It probably has a lifetime of no more than fifty years. At this very moment we of L-5 are engaged in building a second colony, which will be larger and more elaborate than the first. Before it is ready, we will have begun a third. We expect many colonies to be built—in fact, aside from solar-energy stations, colony building will be the chief task of colonials for a long time to come.
“Larger colonies will afford even better protection against cosmic rays, give us a lower rate of gravitational change as we move up and down, a better horizon effect, more natural atmospheric phenomena—perhaps clouds and rainfall. Eventually, we will even have artificial hills and mountains.”
Colonies Won’t Ease Overcrowding
I said, “Could there ever be more colonists than earthmen?”
“That prospect is far in the future, if ever. For centuries at least, the number of colonists will be only a tiny fraction of earth’s population, so that the mother planet will have to continue efforts to control population…. Be careful now, we’re passing through one of the air locks.”
“Where?” I said involuntarily, as I walked up a flight of stairs and over a low barrier.
“The titanium seal is not drawn across right now,” Fenton said. “Each of the six sectors is cut off from its neighbors by an airtight seal. It reduces the problem in case of puncture by meteoroids or accidents within. Any vibration of the torus wall, any small drop in atmospheric pressure will sound an alarm and then automatically close all the locks. Of course, the locks close during the eight-hour night period to prevent light leaks from the agricultural sectors, some of which are under perpetual sunlight.”
“Has it ever happened? Accidents, I mean?”
“No. The probability is small, actually. Meteoroids large enough to penetrate the radiation shield are quite rare, and we offer a very small target. Even if we were punctured, air loss would be slow because of the large volume. Air pressure is only half that on earth though there’s just as much oxygen,” continued Fenton, “but we’ve cut down the nitrogen to slightly under half the earthly level. Visitors aren’t even aware of the difference, except to say that the air is clearer than on earth.”
Vision of a New Land of Plenty
I was walking on a catwalk, and on either side were closely planted tiers.
“This one is our diversified sector,” said Fenton. “Here we have vegetables, chickens, goats, as well as rabbit hutches and fish pools. We depend on recycled water, and this sector contains one of our chief cycling stations.”
He pointed to a windowless metal structure.
“Yes, of course. We retrieve water from organic wastes. What’s left is fertilizer. Would you care to go inside?”
I shook my head, “Perhaps not.”
Fenton nodded. “Visitors rarely seem to want to. You understand, don’t you, that recycling proceeds on earth too? There it is a larger circle—less noticeable, but more dangerous. We exclude the pathogenic bacteria from L-5, as you must know from your own physical examination before you came. Frankly, there is far less odor in the cycling station than in the area with the chickens and goats.”
“Even so,” I said, smiling.
“All right. We’ll keep on walking. There are plenty of other things to see. The other agricultural sectors have our grainfields: wheat, rice, corn. Under uniform and controlled sunlight, with unfailing water and fertilizer, equable temperature, and a slightly higher carbon dioxide content in the air, the yields are many times what they are on earth.”
For the moment, I wasn’t listening. We were skirting a long fish pool, and there were small machines moving busily among rows of vegetables. L-5 might be just a pin-wheel in space when viewed from outside, but it was a world once one was inside.
It was the first of many others that would be larger—and better—and that might someday in the far future (who knows?) bear within their graceful bodies the major portion of mankind’s numbers.