Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, the Pioneering Work of Dandridge M. Cole

NASA is again considering the feasibility of manned missions to the asteroids. However, this idea is not without precedent. Scientists began seriously considering asteroids as targets of exploration in the 1960s. The leading proponent of such missions was American aerospace engineer and futurist – Dandridge MacFarland Cole.

October 30th, 2005 marked the 40th anniversary of his untimely passing. Dandridge Cole was only 44 years old when he suffered a fatal heart attack. The anniversary of his death seems to have largely escaped the notice and attention of the space community at large. This brief article seeks to redress that awful oversight.

NASA and the aerospace community owe an enormous debt to this great man. In his book ‘Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids’, co-authored with Donald Cox, he laid the foundation for much of our current thinking on the Exploration, Mining, and Colonization of the Asteroids.

Cole and Cox, from the vantage point of 1964, had foreseen the great wilderness that lay ahead of the U.S. space program after the Apollo program had achieved its objective of placing a man on the Moon. They had predicted, unlike many of their contemporises that a great hiatus laid between the first lunar landing and the eventual goal of landing men on Mars. A full decade of technological development would stall the American Space program until the super boosters and nuclear engines, needed to take astronauts to Mars, replaced the Saturn 5. Until these technical milestones were achieved, they felt that a manned mission to the Asteroids should be seriously considered as the next logical goal for the post-Apollo era.

Recently, within NASA there has been ongoing discussion of the possibility of mounting a manned voyage to a Near-Earth Object (NEO). Its advocates are certain of the tremendous scientific return of such an undertaking. Dandridge Cole was one of the first scientists to draw the broad outlines of such a mission. In the early 1960s, he studied the possibility of using Apollo hardware for a mission to Eros, during its close approach to Earth in 1975.

Cole and Cox also outlined many of the robotic precursor missions to the asteroids that have largely inspired those that were realised over the past few years (such as NEAR and Hayabusa) and the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta). In addition, they saw the importance of establishing beachheads on the Martian moons Phobos and Demos to facilitate the exploration of the planet.

In 1963, Cole wrote ‘Exploring the Secrets of Space: Astronautics for the Layman’ with I. M. Levitt. In this book they suggested hollowing out an ellipsoidal asteroid about 30 km long, and rotating it about its major axis to simulate gravity. By reflecting sunlight inside with mirrors, and creating, on its inner surface, a pastoral setting an asteroid could be transformed into a permanent space colony. Cole and Cox also envisioned that asteroids would provide the raw materials to form the basis of a spacefaring civilization. And, that asteroidal materials would also serve terrestrial needs. In their view these materials could be transported using mass drivers or linear motors. Cole’s work largely presages that of Gerard K. O’Neill by more than a decade.

A year later, Cole and Cox elaborated this idea further. They went on to consider the possibility of using asteroids as interstellar arks or generation ships. The “nomadic pseudo-earth,” as Cole and Cox called their conception, would be the hollowed out space inside a captured asteroid. The result would be a “gigantic geodesic interior chamber,” created “in much the same way as a glassblower shapes a small solid lump of molten glass into a large empty bottle.” Thus Cole, like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Robert Goddard before him, envisaged that asteroids would be the stepping-stones paving the path to the outer solar system and beyond. Cole in his 1961 book ‘The Ultimate Human Society’ also argued that huge space colonies might evolve into new organisms called “Macro-Life” composed of innumerable living creatures. Cole wrote:

“Taking man as representative of multicelled life, we can say that man is the mean proportional between Macro-Life and the cell. Macro-Life is a new life form of gigantic size which has for its cells individual human beings, plants, animals, and machines . . . Society can be said to pregnant with a mutant creature which will be at the same time an extraterrestrial colony of human beings and a new large-scale life form.”

A Time magazine article from January 1961 provides a very interesting profile of Dandridge Cole during this period of his life.

In 1965, Cole co-authored with Roy Scarfo, ‘Beyond Tomorrow: The Next 50 Years in Space‘ in which he proposed various other space projects and the use of cryogenics so that individuals could travel great distances while in a state of suspended animation.

Considering Dandridge Cole’s many accomplishments, why is there such an enormous dearth in the number of websites devoted to the memory of this great visionary? I had the great privilege of meeting Donald Cox at the National Space Society’s 1996 International Space Development Congress (ISDC) in New York City. He graciously autographed my copy of ‘Islands in Space’. We spent the better part of fifteen minutes discussing the valuable insights, he and Cole discussed in that book and how it pertained to humanity’s future in space. It is one of my most cherished possessions. In fact, I consider ‘Islands in Space’ a very seminal work in the history of astronautics and should be republished along side other great works in the field.

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