Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Art and the Colonies

Art is powerful. For the vast majority of our history, it was only through art that individual perspectives on the world, from ancient cave paintings to the portraiture of the high Renaissance, could be preserved. Here I'm talking about the hands-on arts as opposed to photography, since although photographs can be art, cameras don't create what they see out of nothing. An artist who works with pencils or paint needs a keen imagination above all, to bring authenticity to a scene that may have no existence of its own.

This kind of art has been associated with space for decades. Before the world's space programs really got going, it was artists like Chesley Bonestell who brought the universe to our doorsteps. Artistic endeavors like these have, I think, made a great influence in the popular conception of space all the way to the modern day.

It's particularly evident for space colonies. Ever since Gerard K. O'Neill published The High Frontier in 1976, the prospect of building worlds in space has been an ideal of many proponents of further space development - despite more recent conclusions that such megaprojects would be far more difficult and expensive to build than it was thought thirty-five years ago. There are many reasons why there are no people living in L5 today, and it's not something that can be blamed just on the design compromises inherent in the Space Shuttle. Still, the ideas of these colonies are staggering; literal worlds designed, engineered, and assembled by humans, islands of life in the darkness. Of course they would inspire artists.

So, in the 1970s, the NASA Ames Research Center got some artists together to make artistic impressions of space colony designs, ranging from cylindrical colonies that would inspire the design of Babylon 5 to massive Bernal spheres. The one thing they have in common, besides being space colonies, is that they're completely outside all human experience - a place where art thrives.

Photo credit: NASA Ames Research Center

It's a good view, isn't it? Powerful and inspiring. When I first saw it, I had a tinge of disbelief - though that was brought about by what the painting implied. See, that's where hands-on art really parts ways with photography. Hands-on art is not limited by reality, or by economic likelihoods. Take a look at that image again, as well as one of the visual anchors: the suspension bridge crossing the lake. It works until you realize that this is a completely engineered environment. Is it really the best use of resources to build a bridge in a space colony? And it's not a small bridge either. From the look of it, it'd have to be at least a kilometer across. There are a lot of implications hidden in that bridge, I think - perhaps an assumption that life in a space colony would be a lot like life on Earth.

It really wouldn't. Space colonies pose problems that a lot of people just don't think of. They're potential paradises for dictators - how many regimes on Earth can turn off dissidents' air supply? Total Recall, of all things, showed us the way forward on this. These colonies may look nice, but the art conceals the vast challenges that would be intrinsic within them.

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