Remembering Dandridge Cole

by Paul Gilster on May 14, 2012

I’ve been thinking all weekend about Dandridge Cole, the aerospace engineer and futurist whose death at age 44 deprived interstellar studies of one of its most insightful advocates. Cole died in 1965, just five years before a deadline he himself set (in 1953!) for a manned landing on the Moon. But then, the former paratrooper from Ohio thought a lot about the future and the need for a kind of ‘future studies’ that would look at current technological trends and project going forward just as conventional historical studies reconstruct what happened to us in centuries past.

The heart attack that struck Cole down in his office at General Electric’s Space Technology Center in Valley Forge, PA deprived us of much, but we do have the substantial legacy of a number of articles and monographs, along with three books, among which Islands in Space: The Challenge of the Planetoids, written with Donald Cox (Chilton Books, 1964) may stand out as the most influential. Andreas Hein, who is heading up the Project Hyperion worldship study for Icarus Interstellar, harks back to the inspiration of Cole in The Hollow Asteroid Starship: Dissemination of an Idea, published on the Icarus blog late last week.

Image: Dandridge Cole, who coined the term ‘macro-life’ to refer to human colonies in space and their evolution. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The idea is now a familiar one to science fiction fans, especially after its appropriation by George Zebrowski in his 1979 novel Macrolife, but in the mid-60s, the notion of hollowing out an asteroid to create an interstellar vehicle would hardly have been common currency. As Hein comments in his article, what Cole was doing was creating a bridge between the kind of space colonies that Gerard O’Neill would make famous and the worldships that might one day take a large human colony, a self-contained society, to a distant star.

The idea has resonance because star journeys may turn out to be multi-generational affairs that evolve naturally out of our eventually mastered skills at creating self-contained habitats in nearby space. If you can build a ship large enough and comfortable enough to re-create a planet-like environment within it, then living there might become so natural that future generations born aboard the craft would see no need for planetary living. A colony world like that might eventually disengage from the stellar system that created it and begin a voyage that would have no other aim than continuing exploration, taking ‘home’ with the crew wherever it went.

Artist and futurist Roy Scarfo provided the artwork in Cole’s 1965 book Beyond Tomorrow. On his site, Scarfo recalls going with Cole in the ambulance and being in the hospital at the time of his death. A futurist to the end, Cole had planned to have his body frozen and had made a serious study of cryogenics:

When we got to the hospital, the hospital personnel took him to a room. When they informed me that Dan was dead, and knowing that Dan wanted to be frozen, I called Ettinger, who I believe was in Chicago and who was the authority on cryogenics at the time. He knew Dan and instructed me to get in touch with a hospital and make arrangements for freezing. I believe it was the University of Pennsylvania hospital. I was racing against time as every second counted to preserve the body.

Personal and legal issues persuaded the family not to proceed with the arrangements, and Cole was buried conventionally, with Scarfo serving as one of the pallbearers.

Scarfo also wrote an appreciation of Cole on Alex Michael Bonnici’s Discovery Enterprise site in which he recalls working with Cole on Beyond Tomorrow in the evenings after work in Scarfo’s office at GE, where they would go over the chapters word by word. Says Scarfo:

Our work together gave us a handle as “the weird couple” because of the way-out material we were producing together. Today many of those concepts are as common as soap. The majority of our work together was done outside our regular responsibilities at GE, although sometimes they overlapped. We would meet almost daily for lunch at the cafeteria and afterward walk and talk during the rest of our lunch hour. This went on for years.

We’re surely due for a renewed look at Cole’s contribution and his ideas, especially as attention now turns to mining and the other possibilities the asteroids represent. Alex Michael Bonnici wrote his own tribute to Cole in 2007, one that encapsulates the asteroid-as-habitat idea:

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.

Extend the notion to an interstellar journey and you get what Cole would call a ‘nomadic pseudo-Earth’ that would be the seeding ground for so-called ‘macro-life.’ Cole’s view was that future human evolution inside such habitats, which includes synchrony between humans, their environment, and their technology, creates a ‘new large-scale life form.’ It was one he felt we must become, for in the years not long before his death, he had become extremely worried about our species not only in terms of population pressure but also weapons proliferation. Moving into space would be the chance to give humanity a progressing series of new and better starts.

Image: The populated asteroid from without and within. Credit: Roy Scarfo.

Here’s TIME’s take on Cole’s macro-life views in a January 27, 1961 article:

Cole proposes the development of giant spaceships, each of which would contain at least 10,000 individual humans who would function rather like the cells of a multicelled animal; collectively, they would constitute what Cole calls a unit of “macrolife.” Stowed along with the humans in the vast body of the macroorganism would be domestic animals, plants, raw materials, machines and computers, as well as microfilms of all the books in the Library of Congress. A fully developed unit of macrolife would have rocket propulsion to enable it to move at will around the solar system. It would be able to live independently almost anywhere in space, but its normal habitat would be the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter where it could feed upon the mineral riches of the asteroids.

Macrolife in space would be self-adjusting, spinning off new units aboard new asteroids as necessary, but Cole freely acknowledged the difficulties in creating self-sustaining biospheres, urging that underwater bases or other sealed environments would need to become experimental testbeds for his ideas. A spacefaring species aboard a hollowed-out world, spun up for artificial gravity and provided with many of the amenities of planetary life, could well take to the stars one day. But in any case, Cole’s legacy of insightful probings of the human future will endure, the work of a man whose all too short life yielded much and has inspired interstellar theorists ever since.

For more on Cole, see Joseph Friedlander’s In Praise of Large Payloads for Space.


d.m.falk May 14, 2012 at 11:19

I believe one of the first asteroid world-ships in popular culture is none other than Yonada, the world-ship of the Fabrini, from the Star Trek episode, “For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky”.


James D. Stilwell May 14, 2012 at 12:09

Talk about moving into space…
May 10, 2012

SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace Join Forces to Offer Crewed Missions to Private Space Stations
Hawthorne, CA, and Las Vegas, NV– Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Bigelow Aerospace (BA) have agreed to conduct a joint marketing effort focused on international customers. The two companies will offer rides on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, using the Falcon launch vehicle to carry passengers to Bigelow habitats orbiting the Earth.

According to Bigelow Aerospace’s President and Founder, Robert T. Bigelow, “We’re very excited to be working with our colleagues at SpaceX to present the unique services that our two companies can offer to international clientele. We’re eager to join them overseas to discuss the substantial benefits that BA 330 leasing can offer in combination with SpaceX transportation capabilities”.

The BA 330 is a habitat that will provide roughly 330 cubic meters of usable volume and can support a crew of up to six. Bigelow Aerospace plans to connect two or more BA 330s in orbit to provide national space agencies, companies, and universities with unparalleled access to the microgravity environment.

(I think we’re into the sixth launch delay of Falcon nine….the dozen or so involved engineers are a very cautious bunch….The inflatable space station concept was widely featured back in the fifties by von Braun’s group…)

Wish I could paste some pictures right here…

ljk May 14, 2012 at 14:39

Here is the NSS tribute to Dr. Cole from 2009:

Interstellar Bill May 14, 2012 at 17:20

The loss of such a great mind can only make us yearn for the day that aging’s poinless waste has been ended by cellular-science, and humanity can face the future with the irreplacable intellectual capital of such brilliant minds not constantly being destroyed.

And don’t worry about useless people enduring too. You can be sure that something as radical as desenescence will require great self-discipline and effort for successfully becoming young again. That, and not a high dollar price, will limit youth-restoration to the truly deserving, such as Cole.

A. A. Jackson May 14, 2012 at 21:57

I still remember Coles “Aldebaran,” and a beautiful painting by Roy Scarfo which appeared in Missiles and Rockets in 1959. Indeed I had a collection of those space zines in my teenage years.
I remember that it was nuclear pulse propulsion , but for some reason it did not dawn on me what Cole was talking about. Not until Dyson published his Death of a Project in Science in 1965 did it strike me.
A little later I had to wonder how the heck Cole had cleared that as a paper with the DOD in 1960 for a presentation at an American Astronautical Society meeting … when Project Orion was so under wraps it took Dyson 5 years to revel it.
Cole was quite unique , alas , so far ahead of so many, and , alas another , sort of, forgotten visionary.

ljk May 22, 2012 at 17:34

Saturn’s “moon” Methone – It is 3 kilometers across and is smooth and shaped like an egg.


John July 1, 2012 at 1:52

Hollowing out an asteroid and rotating it is a very questionable idea. Most asteroids are rubble piles, even most of the iron nickel ones, and if they were solid nickel iron that had been heated and differentiated such as a fragment of a embryonic planet, they would be very difficult to drill the miles needed to fill a reservoir with water which is the usual proposal for hollowing out an asteroid. The usual proposal is to seal water inside and then melt the asteroid with mirrors or by sending it in a steep orbit around the Sun till the water expands and puffs up the molten metal like a glass bottle. I don’t think it’ll work so well.

It seems ridiculous to me to try and make space in space. The main purpose of the asteroid is shielding. I would send out small robotic probes to mine and make steel cables, lots of it. Find a few solid nickel iron asteroids and pilot them together. Then I would lash them together with the cables and build a rotating habitat in the cavity between them. Mag lev supports can be placed on the asteroids thereby giving the rotating cylinder support along it’s entire length instead of relying on tensile strength alone and with the asteroids not rotating to give 1 g, it won’t be trying to fly apart and will easily hold the biosphere cannister together.

Another approach would be to pilot the asteroids together and set off nuclear bombs between the edges to melt them just before impact thereby welding them together. Nuclear bombs in space have no shock wave and only give thermal radiation and gamma rays both of which are what you need to weld the asteroids.

The O’Neill cylinders and the rotating asteroid all fail to realize that the rotations are placing the shell under 1 g of stress. Without internal supports such as catenary wires, these structures would fly apart. Indeed many asteroids fall apart at much less of a rotation. You can not expect to spin a hollow asteroid to give 1 g of gravity and expect it to hold together but you can have a relatively stationary or slowly rotating asteroid supporting a rotating cylinder of much less mass without requiring internal supports in the cylinder. With building a shell out of a number of asteroids, you’ll have radiation protection for the possibly decades required to build the habitat.

Also there is no return in building a habitat except for the inhabitants. If we want this to happen, we should set up a fund that can receive donations over the web and is invested much as an University endowment is invested according to respected practices. About 2% of the fund per year can be devoted to management of the fund and as grants for papers and designs on the habitat and related technologies. When there is enough money to implement one of the by then well developed plans, 60% of the fund could be diverted to building a colony. Regardless of whether or not the project succeeded, there should once again be enough in the fund to build another colony once the first one has been built or fix the first one if it went over budget. Investing for a future return won’t be enough when the only viable market is to provide materials for an economy in space rather than return products to Earth and political motivation isn’t going to do it but compound investing and time could eventually fund such a project. It amazes me that no one has done this yet.

Steph July 6, 2012 at 11:26

Although far from a respected scientific journal, my recently-published novel ‘Hollow Moon’ (a YA space opera) centres around an asteroid colony ship – in the book, I named the ship ‘Dandridge Cole’ in the hope it would rekindle interest in Cole’s work. His book with Roy Scarfo’s illustrations was a big influence.

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