(CNN)It’s early evening and you’re with friends, enjoying a drink or two. The sun is shining after all and it’s been a long week.
The river nearby shimmers in the light. You follow its course, your eyes gradually moving up, up, over your head and then down to the other side. Eventually the water meets in a perfect circle, back where you began. Everything is as it should be. You’re a resident of a Bernal Sphere, floating on the far side of the Moon — you’re used to the artificial gravity by now.
As retrofuturist artwork goes, few reach the outlandish heights of Rick Guidice and Don Davis, commissioned by NASA in 1975 to illustrate potential space colonies.
To view the designs with skepticism is to forget the milieu in which they were created: the last manned mission to the Moon was three years previous and Skylab, the United States’ first space station, was orbiting Earth. The space shuttle program, a giant leap which promised so much, was only around the corner.
The progress of mankind’s space programs must have been a crushing disappointment for O’Neill, who died in 1992. He aimed for lush vistas, but in truth we’ve only just learned how to cultivate lettuce. It will be a while before our space stations have room for combine harvesters — even longer, you’d expect, before you can hand glide inside of one.
Forty years on, O’Neill’s designs continue to intrigue, and have inspired numerous derivatives. Perhaps the most high profile was Cooper Station, a satellite seen in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” — a compact version of the Cylinder Colony, later dubbed the “O’Neill Cylinder”.
It may yet be centuries before an object the size of O’Neill’s colonies is ever constructed in space. For now we’ll have to live with the images of what might have been — and what, just possibly, might still be to come.