Entry updated 14 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.
Stories of space stations or artificial satellites appear early in sf, the first example being Edward Everett Hale's extraordinary "The Brick Moon" (October-December 1869 Atlantic Monthly) and its sequel "Life in the Brick Moon" (February 1870 Atlantic), in which the satellite of the title consists of many brick spheres connected by brick arches, and is launched, with people on board, by gigantic flywheels. Kurd Laßwitz's Auf Zwei Planeten (1897; cut trans as Two Planets 1971) has Martian space stations shaped like spoked wheels floating above the poles, but these are kept hovering by gravity-control devices of a somewhat implausible kind. The first detailed and thoroughly scientific treatment is in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's Vne zemli (written 1896-1920; 1920; trans as "Out of the Earth" in The Call of the Cosmos 1963), a semifictionalized didactic speculation; it deals with free fall, space greenhouses for growing food, communication via space mirrors, and artificial Gravity effected by spinning the station on its axis – indeed, much of the spectrum of Space-Habitat ideas that would first begin to appear in any profusion after World War Two, at a time when space travel by Rockets was generally realized to be something actually likely to happen.
A highly influential book of popular science, dealing with (among other things) the construction of space stations was The Conquest of Space (1949) by Willy Ley, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, and it was after this that the space-station story began to appear commonly in Genre SF. However, the idea was not new to the genre, a celebrated earlier example being George O Smith's Venus Equilateral stories, published in Astounding from October 1942, about a Communications space station in a Trojan position (60° ahead of the planet; see Lagrange Point) in the orbit of Venus; this relays messages between Earth, Venus and Mars and is permanently staffed until rendered obsolete by technological progress within the series. Likewise, the space-station complex of Arthur C Clarke's Islands in the Sky (1952) is largely concerned with the maintenance and operation of three geostationary Communications satellites. Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet (1948) features the huge, iconically wheel-shaped "Terra Station" which offers all the facilities – including entertainment – of a small City in orbit.
The image of the space station presented through the 1950s was usually (though not always) as a way station, a stopping-off point prior to flights deeper into space. Another book by Ley was titled Space Stations (1958). Such stations were envisaged as being in Earth orbit, the first place you reach after leaving Earth. We see this image of the stopping-off place quite often in movies, an early example being Conquest of Space (1955) and a later one 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); and of course in books, as in Arthur C Clarke's already-cited children's novel Islands in the Sky (1952). Other 1950s books and stories in which the space station is totemic include Rafe Bernard's The Wheel in the Sky (1954); Jeffery Lloyd Castle's Satellite E One (1954); Damon Knight's psychological melodrama about the trauma of meeting an Alien, "Stranger Station" (December 1956 F&SF); Frank Belknap Long's Space Station No 1 (1957 dos); and James E Gunn's Station in Space (1958).
One version of the theme that might have been expected to play a far greater role than it actually has in genre sf is the space station as menace, as a Weapons-delivery platform in space easily able to target any point on Earth's surface; Wernher von Braun suggested precisely this during the Cold War. The notion has popped up occasionally in films, such as Moonraker (1979) with biological warfare and Primal Scream (1988; vt Hellfire UK) with a new Power Source that can fry people. An early novel to use the theme is C M Kornbluth's Not This August (14 May-1 June 1955 Maclean's Magazine; 1955; vt Christmas Eve 1956), in which it is hoped that a military space station will evict the Russians occupying the USA. In David McDaniel's Technothriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E. #8: The Monster Wheel Affair (1967), the villainous organization T.H.R.U.S.H. seems set to blackmail the world with a space station mounting thermonuclear weapons, though this proves to be a bluff involving an orbiting balloon in the shape of a classic Big Wheel. It is not made clear in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that the famous jump-cut from thrown bone to satellite shows (briefly, before shifting to a Spaceship) what is intended to be an orbital weapons platform – instruments of violence on both sides of the Time Abyss. The point is clarified in The Making of Kubrick's 2001 (anth 1970) edited by Jerome Agel.
Although the Earth-orbit phase of the space-station story has now largely been superseded, at least as a simplistic generator of Sense of Wonder, there is still in Hard SF a sense of real nuts-and-bolts excitement when the actual building of one is envisaged, and books are still written on the theme; notable examples from the later twentieth century include Donald Kingsbury's The Moon Goddess and the Son (December 1979 Analog; exp 1986) and Allen Steele's Orbital Decay (1989). Though more specialist in purpose, the defensive solar shield of Sunstorm (2005) by Arthur C Clarke and Stephen Baxter has similar qualities and generates a similar problem-solving thrill. Meanwhile, as the space station became absorbed into Genre SF as one of its primary icons, these artefacts tended to pop up all over the place, not just in Earth orbit and not usually as the primary focus of a story. The setting of Louis Charbonneau's Antic Earth (1967; vt Down to Earth 1967) proves to be a space-station refuge from now-uninhabitable Earth. Unfortunately real-world constraints on what can feasibly be boosted into orbit led to Skylab (1973-1979), and its various successors up to and including the International Space Station (1998-current), being somewhat anticlimactic after the grandiose Big Wheel designs so often assumed in sf, perhaps most famously in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
One iconic space-station motif has the space platform representing the anthropological observers in the sky, looking down at the primitives below, as in Patricia McKillip's Moon-Flash (1984), where the superstitiously regarded flash of the title turns out to be the firing retro-rockets of spacecraft visiting the station. A particularly good example is Brian W Aldiss's Helliconia trilogy (1982-1985), whose observing space station, ironically named "Avernus", is central to the structure of the whole long tale, its "superior" observers standing for a civilization that is played out. The observers in Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook), – twice filmed as Solaris (1971, 2002) – are also played out and receive the come-uppance due to people who try to hold themselves aloof: their space station (not in fact orbital but held above the planetary surface by Antigravity) becomes a shambles as the Living World beneath reconstructs in the flesh their most feared and desired memories and nightmares.
A more benign watch from Earth orbit is maintained by International Rescue's Thunderbird 5 space station in Thunderbirds, and by those of the alien Monitor (later Monitors) and the Justice League of America Superhero team during various periods of DC Comics continuity. Further television space stations appear Star Cops (1987) and form the actual settings of the rejected series pilot Earth II (1971), Babylon 5 (1993-1998) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999).
From the late 1970s the traditional space station – laboratory, observation post and jumping-off place – was at least partly eclipsed by the influence of Gerard K O'Neill, who in The High Frontier (1977) advocated much larger space colonies intended to support a substantial permanent population: Space Habitats (which see). J G Ballard's allegorical "Report on an Unidentified Space Station" (10 December 1982 City Limits) explores a station that cannot be mapped since it is forever expanding towards isomorphism with the universe itself. [PN/DRL]
- Martin H Greenberg and John Helfers, editors. Space Stations (New York: DAW Books, 2004) [anth: pb/Corbis and Getty Images]
- Gary Westfahl. "Space Stations in Fact and Fiction" (May 2011 New York Review of Science Fiction #273) [pp6-7: mag/]
- Gary Westfahl. Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1996) [nonfiction: preface by Gregory Benford: hb/]
- Gary Westfahl. Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature. Second Edition, Revised and Updated (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009) [nonfiction: rev of the above: pb/]
- Gary Westfahl. The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (Rockville, Maryland: Wildside Press/Borgo Press, 2009) [nonfiction: pb/Innovari]
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