Thoughts & Insights

Perception and Reality

After intensifying my treatment of space colony prototypes, I stumbled upon a topic of another kind entirely in recent weeks.

All Orbiter concepts dealing with permanent colonization of space by people are based on the idea of a hollow object floating freely in space that is home to the colonizing humans. This concept ties in not only physical, technical and architectonic challenges of a very special kind, but also radical elementary social and psychological challenges. This has less to do with floating through space in a sphere than with the daily real perception of the material limits of this living space within a sphere.

People who live as a huge societal unit within a materially limited hollow space, which is experienced daily as such, develop not only another relationship to themselves, but also to the universe, and one that is different from the one we currently know. Attempting to imagine the form that this change in awareness might have among the colonizers, and its impact in the distant future, may be bold since a limit is involved that, for practical purposes, we are unable to cross in any other form of daily experience. But the attempt is very exciting.

We of course know since Parmenides that the Earth is round and not flat, and this perception is anchored in our current awareness. Photographs taken by space travelers of planet Earth prove that this is really true. In our daily lives, however, we are still at the stage of believing that the Earth is flat. We perceive the surface that we walk on as flat and see the horizon at the edge of our field of vision as confirmation of this perception. The sky above us, meanwhile, suggests an endlessness that does not tally with reality.

The living conditions needed to exist on the outer surface of a sphere is necessarily linked to the human perception that it is a flat surface and not a sphere by the sphere’s very curvature. Our knowledge of the world’s convexity is abstract and mathematic, and does not tie in with our everyday experience. That was of course clear to Einstein when he spoke of our difficulties in presenting the “curved space” in his Theory of Relativity.

Only in absolutely exceptional moments have people so far been able to experience the material limits of their habitat on Earth. The highly recommended movie “The Right Stuff” shows just such a borderline situation when the jet fighter pilot penetrates the Earth’s atmosphere to its outer limits, in an extremely exciting sequence. Astronauts who have visited space have their own experiences with this limit. And the coming years and decades will see the number of people who share this experience grow.

But it will probably take another few decades until larger communities of people live permanently in space colonies and this borderline experience becomes part of everyday life.