Image for Elysium - a review

Like many movies out of Hollywood, Elysium, directed by Neill Blomkamp, offers a grand vision of the future, spectacularly set out with high quality special effects, where the wealthy people have moved into space, leaving everyone else to struggle on an Earth gone to hell.

We see the large torus space station that was imagined in the 1970s by visionaries like Gerard K. O’Neill, but we are shown a very edited edition of this future, with no explanation of where the energy comes from, where the building materials are mined, or why there is only one space habitat beyond Earth.

Two technical details may haunt the knowledgeable space advocate, with the space settlement being located so close to Earth and the inside of the torus being open to space.

Placing Elysium close to Earth so that people can see it increases the dramatic impact and this may be accepted with the story-telling, but having the inside of the torus open to space has never, to my knowledge, been raised as a possibility for space habitats.

The open habitat allows for dramatic story-telling, so that shuttlecraft can fly directly from space to the surface of Elysium.

When it is considered that Elysium would be generating an Earth gravity via rotation, there would be an outward force to keep the air in the torus, so just like the air stays on the Earth, we may now wonder if this approach to space habitat design and access would be practical.

Space engineers may be able to tell us if this design innovation would work.

Of greater concern for the future of orbital space settlement, will be the need to provide protection from solar and cosmic radiation and especially being hardened against the impact of a large solar flare from the Sun.

Elysium demonstrates rather dramatically a point that I made in my 2006 document Creating A Solar Civilization, where I point out that we needed to deal with our problems on Earth, to build a more peaceful world, to be able to deliver security in space.

The basic fact is, that space settlements will be fragile bubbles in a vacuum, all too easily burst from within or without by conflict and or terrorism and if we run away from problems on Earth, they will chase us into space.

Elysium has a fairy tale ending, when the hero of the story, Max, played by Matt Damon, enables a people-smuggler to gain control of Elysium and make all people on Earth citizens of the space community, so that they too could benefit from space development and advanced medical technology.

In a real world future, it is hard to imagine that the wealthy denizens of Elysium would not rise to defend their world from an invasion of people from an Earth that has gone to hell.

The demands of the new arrivals would soon overwhelm the ability of Elysium to deliver and despite its advanced technology, Elysium might also go to hell in civil conflict.

Elysium is a simple story, a fantasy that in some ways offers hope.

This hope, however, may not be realised in the future described in Elysium, but it may hopefully get us thinking about the options that orbital space settlements offer for our future beyond Earth.

ELYSIUM - Official Trailer #2 (2013)

ELYSIUM - “The World of Elysium” Official Featurette (2013)

Orbital Space Settlements ~ the Real World Options

The 1970s vision of Gerard K. O’Neill was quite simple and direct, to make a giant leap in space development and to achieve this by building solar power stations in space to sell the energy to Earth to pay the bills to get the game going.

As a physics professor, with Princeton University resources and a research team to assist, he could see what was possible using materials mined on the Moon and energy from the Sun.

O’Neill envisaged orbital space settlements of various designs being located anywhere in the Solar System, where the Asteroid Belt alone could provide the raw material to build orbital land with 3,000 times the land area of Earth [1] and there is as much raw material again in the orbital Lagrange points of Jupiter.

Though space development is expensive, there is a simple fact that a point would one day be reached where there would be no further cost to Earth, which I have called the Liberty Line, beyond which the return on the investment would be infinite, from across the Solar System and among the stars. [2]

Why we didn’t run with this golden future is a mystery of our civilization, as the money could be found for wars like that in Vietnam and maintaining vast arsenals of nuclear weapons.

Was the free energy from the Sun seen as a mean competitor by the carbon energy industries, who wanted the whole world to remain addicted to oil, coal and gas?

Our reality is now one where we have burnt so much fossil fuel, we are changing the Earth and the changes are so swift, we could bring on a cataclysm, a carbon apocalypse.

Our reality is a world getting hotter, climates changing, ice sheets melting away, sea levels rising and oceans becoming increasingly acidic.

We are gambling with the future of life.

O’Neill once wrote of solar power stations in space, “If this development comes to pass, we will find ourselves here on Earth with a clean energy source, and we will further improve our environment by saving, each year, over a billion tons of fossil fuels,” [3]

If conservations had supported space development in the 1970s, there could be many orbital space settlements beyond Earth now and we could have kept a safe Earth, by not burning all that fossil fuel that has now become a poison to our planet.

For whatever reason, the environmental mind has, like the carbon energy industries, kept its gaze firmly fixed upon the Earth and as a consequence, we have totally failed to keep a safe Earth.

Will anything awaken humanity from this abysmal failure that is more like suicide than sanity?

If the 17 metre wide asteroid that exploded over Russia earlier this year, with the force of 33 Hiroshima type atomic bombs and had been a little closer to the ground, Chelyabinsk could have been flattened, with many thousands killed.

The next asteroid arriving to kiss the Earth could be larger and terminate a nation.

How could we begin to defend the Earth from killer asteroids?

We would need to build a robust presence in space, beginning with the construction of solar power stations, which would allow the launch of industry beyond earth, to process raw materials from the Moon and asteroids.

With industry in space, we would be able to build the defences of the Earth against asteroids, to push a monster aside, or mine the beast into oblivion for the resources.

With industry in space, we would also be able to build orbital space settlements.

With the ability to build unlimited land area, we could also grow food in space.

With unlimited energy from the Sun, we would be in a position to extract excess carbon from the Earth’s biosphere and even reprocess extracted carbon back into a useful resource for Earth and space industries.

Rather than worrying about our survival species, we will be wondering how soon the first migration ship will be sailing to the stars.

In the film Elysium, people from Earth grasp control of space development and perhaps this offers a glimpse of how the future could unfold.

The governments of Earth have failed to act on liberating the people of this planet from the chains of fossil fuel, so we may wonder if it will take an initiative from the people of Earth to demand action on delivering our cosmic survival and a golden future among the stars.

If ten million people demanded action, this could turn the gaze from Earth to space.

If might only take a dozen empowered individuals to initiate such a movement, if they move as one and inspire others to participate.

Could the virtual worlds, like Second Life, be the place to build working models of the future in space and communicate globally in planning local action?

Is there any greater challenge than assuring our survival as a species in the Universe and also being able to win back a safe Earth.

It is only with space development that we could hope to design and begin building a stellar economy without poverty.

This is the work that can begin on Earth now, as we drift among the stars on a planet in strife.


[1]  p.16, ‘The High Frontier’, 1977, Gerard K. O’Neill

[2]  ‘Creating A Solar Civilization’, 2006, Kim Peart

[3]  p.162, ‘The High Frontier’

Pic: The torus space habitat called Elysium in the film Elysium.