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.