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 realized over the past few years (such as NEAR and Hayabusa) and the 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.

Beyond Tranquility

Our species and our ancient forbears were and remain innately a migratory species. The lure and call of distant lands and new horizons is an ancient passion. Modern science offers us tantalizing evidence of this wanderlust and has helped us weave a tale that is the stuff of legend. This migratory history is written in our genes and the fossil record. It is the story of how our species emerged out of Africa and spread out across the globe to become a planetary species.

It is a narrative that spans four million years and one hundred and sixty thousand human generations and chronicles an odyssey that has taken humanity from the rift valley of Olduvai Gorge to the Sea of Tranquility. It is a tale of survival and bravery in the face of great dangers and it is a tale of conquest and discovery.

We are a species that has faced and survived the vicissitudes of a changing global climate, the fire and ash of super-volcanism, the long chill of a volcanic winter and fire storms raining from the heavens. We survived because we were voyagers and explorers.

The question now facing humanity today is whether or not this wanderlust will continue unabated – is the human species indeed poised to take its next giant leap and settle the solar system? Are we ready to voyage beyond Tranquility?

Many seem to think that there is inevitability to all of this. That space colonization and the human Diaspora out into to the solar system and beyond is humankind’s manifest destiny. Yet, this destiny is not in any way written in our stars but, in ourselves. The choice is entirely ours to make.

“…the stars in their courses fought — A fearful tempest burst upon them and threw them into disorder”. –Judges 5:20

But, the evidence of modern science has shown us that the fate of humanity’s long term survival is indeed determined by the stars in their courses.

Many ancient civilizations of both the old and new worlds – the Sumerians, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, the ancient cultures of the Indus valley, the Mayan, the Anasazi Indians, and the ancient aboriginal peoples of Australasia had all fallen victim to the vicissitudes of a suddenly shifting global climate. Whether these shifts were solely caused by terrestrial agencies or triggered by celestial bombardment is still a topic of great controversy. But, what ever the causes it was our intelligence, ingenuity and the fact that we were dispersed globally that helped ensure our survival as a species.

Yet, many of our fellow citizens and our political and economic leaders are not accustomed to thinking in terms of geological and cosmological timescales. Many of us have become complacent –serene in our assurance of our dominion over matter and the natural world. Nevertheless, the natural world still throws calamity our way. Be it tsunamis, the occasional global pandemic or a localized geological and climatic upheaval. Our twenty-first century technological civilization is still at the mercy of nature’s fury. And, the Cosmos still reminds us every now and then that it can wreak its own havoc on us.

Back in July, 1994 during the week of the twenty-fifth anniversary marking man’s first steps on the Moon the heavens provided a massive fireworks display of its own to mark the occasion. The planet Jupiter sustained twenty individual impacts from the fragments left over from the disintegration of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9. Any one of these impacts would have been sufficient in itself to wipe life off the face of our globe in a real Extinction Level Event (E.L.E).

Exactly 15 years later, and as if to punctuate the importance of the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, nature conspired again to offer up another doleful reminder that humanity’s future is indeed tied to events out in the starry ferment. On July 20th, 2009 new NASA images indicate that an object hit Jupiter. Do we need any more convincing that space exploration is vital to humanity’s long term future?

We must explore and colonize space. Our long term survival as a species depends on this. Humankind faces an Extraterrestrial Imperative which is just as much a survival imperative – Colonize space or die. And, with our passing the light of human reason and thought will have been forever extinguished from the Cosmos.

Do we have to wait for a latter day Tunguska event over a major metropolitan city to convince ourselves that we are imperiled? While arguments rooted in fear do have there own intrinsic value in the short term, history has shown that people have short memories. We are quick to forget the lessons of the past. Be it the relatively recent past of one or two lifetimes ago or lessons rooted in the dim recesses of ancient history.

In the short term, over the course of the next twenty to forty years, what will drive humanity to venture forth from our planetary cradle? To answer that question lets go back a mere forty-eight years into the past to Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech:

“………no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space”.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolutions, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it–we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the Moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding”.

President John F. Kennedy at Rice University, September 12th, 1962

Existential fears notwithstanding, what will drive the human expansion into outer space in the short term will be the same geopolitical, security concerns and economic arguments that were central and of primary importance to President Kennedy two generations ago and as recently voiced by NASA’s new administrator, former astronaut Charles Bolden:

“Today, we have to choose. Either we can invest in building on our hard-earned world technological leadership or we can abandon this commitment, ceding it to other nations who are working diligently to push the frontiers of space. If we choose to lead, we must build on our investment in the International Space Station, accelerate development of our next generation launch systems to enable expansion of human exploration, enhance NASA’s capability to study Earth’s environment.”

In the foreseeable future economics, national prestige, national and environmental security concerns will drive humanity’s settlement of the solar system in incremental steps. The development of the mineral and energy resources of the Moon and near Earth space will be the driving force that will one day take us to Mars and realize our long term dream of settling the solar system.

Our natural satellite the Moon processes vast untapped mineral and energy wealth that can help humanity solve many of its present day and future environmental and economic concerns for generations to come. Developing the industrial scale infrastructure that will help humanity develop this wealth will be the first major step in transforming our present planetary based civilization into a spacefaring civilization ready to make its home amongst the stars.

The nations of the Old Worlds of Europe and Asia, foremost amongst them China, see these vast new opportunities out in the new frontier of space and are willing to commit themselves to this challenge. The United States must lead in this pursuit.

Those of us involved in space advocacy can transform the post Apollo dream of Solar System Settlement into a reality by educating and convincing our fellow citizens and our economic and policy makers that space is a vital part of humanity’s future economic activity and a crucial element of our nation’s long term economic and political vitality.

At the 44th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium presidential science advisor John Marburger made a powerful and profound policy statement on why we must explore and develop the space frontier. In his keynote address Marburger stated emphatically and concisely one of the most important priorities of NASA’s current space vision.

“As I see it, questions about the vision boil down to whether we want to incorporate the solar system in our economic sphere, or not.”

The Space Study Institute’s director Dr. Lee Valentine and the late Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill (founder of the Space Studies Institute and author of The High Frontier) both provide a broad vision of incorporating the solar system into humanity’s economic sphere and ensuring global environmental security.

Our space program must also be directed to the long term goal of maintaining the health and vitality of this planet in all its realms – land, air and sea. All of which are integral to the long term habitability of our world. It must also commit itself to reversing the tide of global environmental and climatic degradation and a long term program of planetary defense from the possibility of cometary and asteroidal impact.

Nearly five decades after Kennedy we must reassess and reaffirm this nation’s commitment to the high frontier of space and link that commitment to the present political realities we face as a nation in the post 9/11 world. Our present national space objectives must reflect and address our current short and long range national and global security concerns. And, in order to do this we must choose to return to the Moon and do the other things and state clearly what those other things are precisely.

The Cold War is not quite over yet and as a nation we face new adversaries and with some of our former adversaries old habits die hard. Communism and tyranny have not gone away and we face many new political and economic dangers in this new millennium.

We can no longer remain a nation held captive by our political and ideological foes by solely relying on the strategic mineral and energy resources controlled by nations and despotic regimes which neither share our democratic values nor our love for individual human liberty. A common definition of a strategic mineral is a mineral that would be needed to supply the military, industrial, and essential civilian needs of the United States during a national emergency. Furthermore, they are not found or produced in the United States in sufficient quantities to meet this need. We can no longer allow ourselves to remain bound by this status quo.

Nor should we relinquish nor endanger our leadership as defenders of the free world by making political and diplomatic compromises with these same nations. And, neither should we allow ourselves to be forced to engage in reckless military actions, that would compel other nations to question our real commitment to democratic values throughout the rest of the world, in order to secure our hold on these resources.

Our nation and its allies must commit themselves to a long term program of energy independence and give up their debilitating addiction to Mid-eastern oil and its dependency on strategic minerals located in the most politically unstable and volatile regions of the World.

A crucial first step in meeting these objectives is to embark and commit our nation to a long term post-Apollo space program with the clear objective of developing the mineral and energy resources of the Moon and cis-lunar space (the space situated between the Earth and the Moon). We must also develop the technologies that will allow us to capture and utilize the vast mineral wealth contained in the Near Earth Objects (NEOs) that cross our planet’s orbital path and threaten our existence and thus at the same time embark on a program of planetary defense from the possibility of cometary and asteroidal impact.

By choosing to return to the Moon, this time to stay, we will have taken a bold step towards attaining the goal of making the dream of Solar System Settlement a long term and viable certainty.

From Olduvai Gorge to the Sea of Tranquility


By far the two most remarkable photographs of the twentieth century are the ones shown above. For they encapsulate the whole evolutionary and cultural history of humanity and its possible destiny.

In 1978, paleontogist Mary Leaky and her team discovered the earliest hominid footprints (dated to be three and a half million years old) preserved in the volcanic ash at Laetoli, forty-five kilometers south of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They belong to one of our proto human ancestors – Australopithecus afarensis. The picture above shows one of these fossil footprints next to the boot print left by Neil Armstrong in the volcanic soil of Mare Tranquilitatis (the Sea of Tranquility).

It is very symbolic of the giant evolutionary leap forward we have taken as a species. From Olduvai Gorge to the Sea of Tranquility, we humans have traveled very far.

Exploration has always been vital to the survival of our species and an integral component of our evolutional heritage and survival imperative. The lure and call of distant lands and new horizons is rooted in our very genes.

The descendents of Australopithecus afarensis – Homo Erectus eventually migrated out of Africa some two million years ago and were to disperse throughout the old World. This was the first of four major waves of human migration from Africa culminating in the last major migration some sixty thousand years ago of fully modern humans (Homo sapiens, sapiens).

Since April 2005 through the efforts of Dr. Spencer Welles and the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project we have begun to map out the migratory story of the human Diaspora out of Africa out onto a wider global stage. This evolutionary step and the migrations that preceded it were vital to humanity’s long term survival in the face of the vicissitudes of a changing global climate.

Eventually the descendents of this last major migration would spread out from the Old Worlds of Europe and Asia into the New Worlds of the Americas and Australia.

It was during this phase of the human story that we became a planetary species. Eventually we discovered agriculture, built the first cities, developed culture and writing and became the pioneers of a totally new domain of evolution.

We are the pioneers of a whole new form of evolution which is distinctly non-biological. This new realm of evolution is Cultural Evolution. It is this new dominion of evolution that has made us the most dominant life form on this planet and has set us on a trajectory that will one day take us out amongst the stars.

In this epoch of human history we face many dangers both old and new. The past has shown us that many species have been wiped off the evolutionary stage because of catastrophic climatic shifts, super-volcanism and asteroidal bombardment. Our species is no different. Some seventy-five thousand years ago our species barely survived a long volcanic winter triggered by the supereruption of Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. And, at least one ancient culture – the Clovis people of North America, may have met their demise as a result of the celestial equivalent of a 9/11 event. Some thirteen thousand years ago a comet exploded over North America, wiping out the mega fauna of that continent, and the people who hunted them, off the face of the Earth.

Today we still face the threats of climate change (both natural and anthropogenic), resource depletion and the products of our own technological folly: environmental degradation, resource depletion, total nuclear warfare, and biological terrorism. Our intelligence and the fact that we were disperse globally helped ensure our survival as a species.

Yet, our species is curious, brave and shows much promise. We are graced with a towering intellect that stands poised on its next evolutionary leap that may one day take us beyond the Sea of Tranquility and ensure our long term survival.

Neil Armstrong’s one small step for [a] man was the culmination of the greatest scientific, technological and cultural advance in human history. It was indeed a giant leap for mankind. It proved, beyond any question of doubt, that humankind had taken the first evolutionary stride in becoming a multi-planetary species. The time has now come to venture further out on this vast new ocean of space and to chart humanity’s Diaspora out amongst the stars.

We must return to the Moon, this time to stay. We must learn to utilize the vast untapped energy and mineral treasures of the Moon and the Near Earth Asteroids. We must eventually settle the entire solar system from the planet Mars and out to the edge of the solar system. One day our species will continue its migration out into the Milky Way Galaxy. But, this is very far from being our assured manifest destiny. The choice is entirely ours to make. Humans have labeled their species “Homo sapiens, sapiens” – wise, wise man. The time has now come to use our double measure of wisdom to climb out of planetary cradle and take our evolutionary destiny into our own hands and transform ourselves from Homo sapiens, into Homo Stellaris and find our home among the stars.

Only then can we ensure the long term survival and immortality of humanity.