The O’Neill Cylinder

Welcome all to another post that explores the world of conceptual sci-fi! In keeping with the trend of explaining concepts which helped inspire my group’s most recent project, the space colonization story Yuva, I’ve decided to talk about what is known as an O’Neill Cylinder.

Named in honor of Gerard K. O’Neill in his 1976 book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, the concept deals with the idea of placing a large cylinder in space that would rotate to provide gravity. Habitats within the cylinder would be built along the walls to ensure uniform gravity.

Some of the more interesting features of this design, aside from the curious layout, is the fact that in such a setting, windows placed in the hull can provide natural illumination, thus cutting down on the electricity bill. If the cylinder is particularly large, in which case one side is invisible to the other, then the rotation can provide periodic light, simulating day and night. And being a single volume of space, it can be pressurized, the gravity increasing pressure near the surface.

Fans of Rendezvous with Rama will recognize this concept right off the bat. The alien vessel in the story, dubbed Rama, was one big O’Neill Cylinder that floated through space, with a city built directly into the interior. A circular lake was also placed at the midway point, known as the Cylindrical Sea. At the far ends of the ship, an entrance and a gravitational drive were placed.

Another example is to be found in the Gibson novel Neuromancer, where a space station known as “Freeside” became the focal point in part III of the story. According to Gibson’s own descriptions, the station was a large cylinder in space owned by the Tessier-Ashpool clan. Their own villa was located at the very tip, a place known as “Straylight”, with luxury apartments, hotels, and vacation spots lining the interior. Artificial illumination was provided by a long band that ran down the middle and obscured a clear view of the other side.

And last, and my personal favorite, is the eponymously named space station of Babylon 5. Built along the same lines as Rama and Freeside, this space station was one giant rotating cylinder which housed over a quarter million humans and aliens. The interior surface was divided between several sectors, each one coded by color.

B5_interiorBrown Sector was designated for trade facilities, Blue Sector for personnel facilities, Green for diplomats, Gray for manufacturing, Red for resident habitation, and Yellow for environmental control. Transport along the length of the station was handled by a long rail that was frequented by a transport shuttle. At this point in the station, the gravity was virtually nil and atmospheric pressure was also substantially less.

All of this was consistent with an O’Neill Cylinder and applied to far more than just the station itself. Just about all Earth ships and installations in the B5 universe contained rotating sections to provide gravity since humanity had not yet stumbled onto the secret of artificial gravity.

When it comes right down to it, the concept of a rotating space cylinder is a very eloquent idea for simulating gravity, consistent with hard science and realism. Artificial gravity is often used in science fiction as a sort of given, mainly because its convenient and simpler from a design standpoint. Ships that have cylinders and rotation sections are bulky compared to sleek, unrealistic space concepts – space barges compared to flying works of art.

But that’s really not realistic, especially where near-future science fiction is concerned. Like it or not, artificial gravity just isn’t a plausible concept yet, not unless we find that troublesome graviton particle and learn how to harness it in a stable way. Which is why you can tell that a franchise is particularly inspired when you see ships and stations relying on rotation sections to simulate gravity. Not only is it more realistic, its shows that the conceptual artists and writers are doing their homework.

And that’s precisely why the Yuva ships feature them! And I hope people will find that it is indicative of the kind of mindset me and my group have. We like sci-fi, we like realism, and its especially good when hard science and hard fiction come together. Can’t wait until the book is done, all these teasers are driving me nuts!

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