Daniel Carrapa is an architect and a blogger. He is the editor of the architecture blog THE BELLY OF AN ARCHITECT (A Barriga de um Arquitecto), written in bilingual Portuguese-English. Interested in Contributing to Architizer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Space stations have been a part of sci-fi iconography for more than a century. Propelled by the technological innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution—including the automobile, the airplane, electrification, and modern communication systems—the idea of living in space inspired a new era of science fiction.
The first manifestation of a space habitat appeared in Edward Everett Hale’s “The Brick Moon,” a short story in which a spherical satellite entirely built of bricks is inadvertently launched into orbit with people on board. Written in the form of a journal, “The Brick Moon” was originally published as a series in The Atlantic Monthly, starting in 1869, and is the earliest known reference to an inhabited structure in outer space.
An illustration for "The Brick Moon"
Despite this idea, the term “space station” didn’t take off until the 1930s, coinciding with the emergence of sci-fi pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and New Worlds. The decades following confirmed the rising prominence of science fiction in popular culture; these stories served as inspiration for countless architectural visions. Examples range from functional manmade structures like the Venus Equilateral relay station, idealized by American author George O. Smith, to large-scale habitats of human and alien origin like the iconic Rama, a mysterious extraterrestrial vessel described by Arthur C. Clarke in his masterpiece Rendezvous with Rama.
Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke, 1972.
Space stations have served as platforms for numerous developments in sci-fi history: Earth-orbiting satellites, interplanetary communication hubs, research facilities orbiting over hostile planetary environments, transportation vessels for large colonies and even as relics of extraterrestrial civilizations long lost in the galaxy. But perhaps some of the most interesting space stations are visions of interstellar cities, fantastic creations that often venture into the realm of architectural conjecture, experimenting with the physics of huge, self-contained, and self-sustained artificial environments.
Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, 2013.
It’s been a long journey from 1869’s “The Brick Moon” to 2013’s Elysium. That summer-blockbuster extravaganza introduced the world to a new conceptual design, a utopian space habitat orbiting Earth during the 22nd century. The station itself is a technological marvel; it is a rotating structure 125 kilometers (77.7 miles) in diameter that includes buildings, landscaping, and water features, fully supported by an artificially enclosed atmosphere and centrifugal pseudo-gravity.
Concept art for Elysium.
This is not the first time a space station is proposed as a settlement for the privileged of the world. Satellite City, written by Mack Reynolds in 1975, is set in a luxurious orbital resort that operates as a tax-free haven for the rich, the sci-fi equivalent to Las Vegas. But whereas Satellite City is no more than a futuristic high-end cruise ship, Elysium proposes a permanent dwelling for the mega-wealthy, far away from the tragic realities of our agonizing home planet. Its residential architecture replicates some the most clichéd luxury home design trends, with ostentatious decorations and idyllic gardens that resemble the scenic villas of fashionable gated communities—some of its most detailed surface views actually incorporate real locations, like modern-day Malibu and Miami. This reinvented vision of upper-class utopia contrasts with the sea of poverty into which Earth has apparently submerged in the year 2154.
Visual effects rendering from Elysium: left – original plate; right – final shot.
Elysium, Neill Blomkamp, 2013.
The scientific plausibility of Elysium has been thoroughly dissected, but its design follows a rather familiar concept. Ring-shaped structures have been considered by astronomers all throughout the 20th century, and sci-fi authors have played with the idea numerous times.
One of the most popular renditions of a circular space station can be seen in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968. A few years later, hard sci-fi author Larry Niven proposed one of the most iconic ring-shaped megastructures ever imagined. His novel Ringworld envisioned a monumental space habitat created by an advanced alien civilization, an enigmatic torus with a diameter of nearly 300 million kilometers (186 million miles), roughly the equivalent to Earth’s orbit. This gigantic space arc has a habitable, flat inner surface, and the interior is filled with an atmosphere, water, and plant life. The centrifugal force produced by the ring’s rotation keeps the environment from leaking into space.
2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968.
Ringworld, Larry Niven, 1970.
If the idea of living in an ancient alien artifact seems too intimidating, perhaps it would be better to consider the benefits of an intergalactic space station, complete with all the commodities required for multi-species interaction. Babylon 5, the famous "space opera" television series debuted in 1993, was set in an interstellar mega-city with 250,000 inhabitants. The station was composed of multiple sectors including a command center, housing, shopping and recreation areas, a large agricultural facility referred to as the "garden," technical areas and an underground sector located in the deepest, unused sections of the structure. Launched in the same year, Deep Space Nine, a Star Trek spin-off, was developed around a similar concept.
Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, 1993.
Valerian and Laureline: Ambassador of Shadows, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières, 1975.
Space stations are often imagined as a diplomatic center for extraterrestrial civilizations. The sci-fi comic book series Valerian and Laureline had already proposed a similar concept in 1975. In "Ambassador of Shadows," the heroic duo of interplanetary agents travels to Point Central, a gigantic space hub composed of multiple ships and structures of many different origins. The capital of all known worlds, Point Central is a huge artificial planet of organic design, growing in size with its ever-changing population. In this extravagant environment, different species from all parts of the galaxy come to trade and negotiate. It has become the home of the galactic parliament, rendered as a multicultural environment, populated by adventurers, mercenaries, ambassadors, merchants and mediators of all sorts and provenances. With over a thousand different species conjugating there, Point Central is as alluring as it is corrupt and treacherous.
Mass Effect (video game), BioWare, 2007.
Concept art for Mass Effect.
A more recent representation of an interplanetary city can be seen in the sci-fi video game series Mass Effect. Here we can find the magnificent Citadel, the nexus of the galactic community. This massive space station of unknown origins acts as the political, cultural, and financial capital of the universe. The Citadel is a hybrid composition inspired by the Stanford Torus design and the O’Neill Cylinder. As in previous concepts, gravity is simulated by the rotation of its structure, providing a comfortable 1.02 standard G’s on its inner surface. Five “arms” known as "the wards" extend from the main ring. These superstructures have been built into cities, populated by millions of inhabitants from across the galaxy.
Assemblage of a Stanford Torus, concept art by Donald Davis (NASA/public domain), originally published in the book «The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space» by Gerard K. O’Neill, 1976.
All these visions of imaginary futures share a common desire to transcend our limitations. It is in our nature as human beings to explore unknown territories and set new foundations. Maybe the day will come when we will build space cities of a similar nature, homes for entire communities, colossal structures journeying into the far reaches of the galaxy for thousands of years. But science fiction, no matter how extreme, is also a representation of our contemporary condition. These fantastical creations seem familiar and believable because they represent the contradictions of modern-day society, our current successes and failures, our dreams and fears. As Carl Sagan gracefully showed us, we venture into outer space so that we can look into ourselves, to contemplate the improbable set of circumstances that makes human life possible and speculate on where we can go from here.
Concept art by Donald Davis.