Space Colony Form Factors, Part 2: O’Neill Cylinders

By Core77 on August 7, 2015 in Design - Other

For forming a free-floating space colony, the Bernal Sphere we looked at earlier solved the problem of gravity, but didn’t solve the problem of being, like, totally lame. In an effort to not be totally lame, in 1976 American physicist Gerard K. O’Neill proposed an alternate design comprised of two huge cylinders.

I’m American, so I assumed those pods on the outer ring are jail cells; but I read that they’re actually supposed to be farming pods.

These O’Neill Cylinders would each be two miles in diameter and 20 miles long. They would be side-by-side but not directly touching, and would be connected at their ends via rods. Each cylinder would spin to provide internal gravity via centrifugal force, and they would spin in opposite directions. The thinking is that this would keep the collective structure balanced, whereas just one cylinder spinning would cause the craft to veer out of position.

That’s the official reason given for having two cylinders, but the wise among us can see the real benefit. Having two cylinders gives the thousands of people living inside each a perfect way to discriminate against each other. People in Cylinder 1 could think of people in Cylinder 2 as a bunch of uneducated hicks, and give that cylinder a nickname like the Rube Tube. The people in Cylinder 2 could think of the people in Cylinder 1 as a bunch of pseudointellectual jackasses (though they would not be able to think of a clever nickname for Cylinder 1 because they are a bunch of uneducated hicks).

The other brilliant part of this design is the fact it involves huge cylinders. NASA is comprised primarily of men, and certainly was in the 1970s, and we men love funding huge cylinders. We really enjoy building submarines, blimps and foot-long hero sandwiches. No one can say why.

But the weird part about O’Neill’s design is how sunlight is admitted into the interior. Each cylinder is divided into six stripes running lengthwise; in alternating fashion, three of these stripes are habitable land, while the other three are windows to admit sunlight. I call it weird because if the cylinders are constantly spinning, won’t that create a potentially-irritating strobe-light effect? If each cylinder were a 20-mile long nightclub I’d call it efficient, but in most of the renderings it looks pretty parksy.

One alternative O’Neill Cylinder design does away with the lengthwise stripes, and instead covers the entire interior with land and has a huge window in one end of each cylinder. With this design you keep the station oriented so that the sun stays put in this end window and appears stationary. But this might suck if you lived at the other end of the cylinder; you’d always feel like you were in the end of a tunnel with a train coming towards you.

By the way, these cylinders are so large that it’s believed they can actually have clouds and their own weather systems inside.

So while I inexplicably am drawn to the long, shaftlike shape, I have to dismiss this design unless someone can explain to me how to get rid of the strobe effect.

Next we’ll look at a design that combines these first two concepts.