Mankind has long held a fascination with living beyond the confines of our own planet. While some simply dream, NASA commissioned research and studies into the future of our efforts in space.
Over the years, NASA has been responsible for a number of concepts and futuristic designs for space stations that have not yet come to fruition. These big and bold designs show our unrelenting passion for space and all the potential space exploration offers.
Join us as we blast off through the atmosphere and back through time to see the many visions of the future of space through the eyes of those who dream to one day be up there among the stars.
Noordung's habitat wheel
In 1929, long before man had set foot on the moon, Hermann Noordung created this vision of a space station habitat wheel. It is one of the first technical drawings of a space station. Noordung envisioned the space station would generate its own power by collecting sunlight through the mirror in its centre.
This habit wheel was just one part of three parts that Noordung intended would make up the full space station.
Proposed USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory
In the 1960's, this concept image was released by the United States Air Force showing the organisation's proposed Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). This station was intended to test the military usefulness of having humans in orbit. Although a concept, this station was close to becoming reality with the original launch being scheduled for 1969. Later the project was abandoned due to rising costs and the astronauts on the project moved to NASA.
Roof space station concept
This is the Johnson Space Center's 1984 "roof" concept for a space station covered with solar array cells designed to help with power generation. The finished station would have five modules for various uses including living quarters, space for a laboratory and other facilities too.
Spider space station concept
This concept drawing from 1977 shows the spider space station concept, an unusual design intended to use space shuttle hardware as part of its assembly. The idea was to allow easy construction and assembly of the station while also including areas for crew habitat and space operations centre.
Three radial module space station concept
This simple concept space station is a multi-module, multi-purpose station that was intended to utilize Apollo space rocket hardware to deploy the station and to transfer crews to and from orbit.
Artificial gravity space station
This futuristic design for a space station comes from 1969 and was intended to rotate on its central axis in order to produce an artificial gravity for those on board. Many of the early concepts for space stations included ideas for artificial gravity systems as it was recognised that long-term exposure to low and micro-gravity of space would result in poor health for any astronauts aboard the station. This is why modern shuttles and the International Space Station have exercise machines to keep astronauts healthy.
Space Station Freedom
This is a conceptual vision for Space Station Freedom, an original design that represented an attempt at international cooperation in the early 1990's. This space station was intended to include technological and economic assistance from the United States, Canada, Japan, and nine European nations but it never made it off the drawing board. Instead, these international partners, joined by Russia, put this venture aside in favour of the creation of the International Space Station.
Orbit and launch facility concept
This is a concept drawing of a nuclear-powered space station with four decks that could be split into laboratory space, operations, living quarters and more. Another space station on our list with technology for artificial gravity capabilities and the facilities for the servicing and launch of spacecraft.
Inflatable space station
Unlike the other space stations on this list which were only ever in the concept drawing stage, this one made it out of concept phase and was pushed into production. This station was intended to be inflated in outer space while it was in orbit. Inflatable space stations were an idea that originated in the 1960's but cropped up again in the 1990's.
Power tower space station
This is a concept design from 1985 of a so-called "power tower" space station. Here, the station is shown with the Japanese Experiment Module attached to it. This concept was one of several designs that were considered alongside the Space Station Freedom.
Noordung's Three Unit Space Station Concept
Here we see another design by Hermann Noordung this time showing his three-part space station seen from the porthole of a spaceship. The three units of the space station included a habitat, machine room and an observatory all of which were connected via an umbilical-like tubing.
Brick Moon space station concept
This is an artist's impression of the "Brick Moon", a concept from 1869 that shows the first known proposal for an Earth-orbiting satellite. This satellite was originally intended to work as a navigational aid for mariners and could be used much like the North Star to help guide them home.
Toroidal (donut-shaped) Colony - Construction
Three space colony summer studies were conducted at NASA Ames in the 1970s. A number of artistic renderings of the concepts were made and this was one of the results. This image shows the construction along the "Torus" rim, a massive concept space station with a habitable interior.
Toroidal (donut-shaped) Colony - Interior view
Here we see an interior view of the Torus space station with various habitable areas and a big, bold design that includes a running river and plants for producing oxygen. The Toroidal space station is intended as a colony that could hold as many as 10,000 people.
Toroidal Colonies - Exterior
This exterior view of the Toroidal colony shows the sheer size of the space station and its surroundings. This sort of colony could possibly represent the saviour of mankind if we struggle to reach other habitable planets before we ruin our own. A massive mirror reflects light down onto the colony from the Sun.
The Torus colony was designed in this ring shape to allow it to rotate every 60 seconds, thereby providing the artificial gravity necessary to comfortably sustain life within its shell.
Here we see a cross-section of the space station colony showing agricultural modules within it that would help to sustain life. Close inspection shows growing crops and a multitude of animals aboard supporting a thriving ecosphere similar to Earth.
Bernal construction work in progress
This concept image shows further construction of the colony space station including the Bernal spheres which were intended to make up a spherical living area separate from the outer ring.
Bernal sphere cutaway
A cutaway of the Bernal sphere shows how the interior might work with the habitable areas sitting around the edge of the sphere with a no doubt magnificent view of outer space.
This is a concept design of the external side of the Bernal space station. It shows the size of the habitat area and various communications devices as well as the solar panels for power generation. The Bernal station was intended to rotate around twice every minute in order to produce the same gravity as Earth.
An interior concept image of the Bernal space station shows aspirations for a habitable zone with natural areas, running rivers and streams and plenty of vegetation.
An external model of the Bernal station, a concept station capable supporting 10,000 people inside a spherical living area. Large rotational shielding is incorporated into the design to provide protection from space radiation.
Cutaway view of a fictional Toroidal colony
A cutaway view of the Toroidal Colony space station shows a futuristic view of living quarters for a mass of people living aboard. Close quarters living will perhaps make life a little uncomfortable, but at least there will be a fantastic view.
Visions for future space stations and colonies include large areas of vegetation and natural habitats. Here we even see a man-made climate that includes cloud formations within the space station itself.
The size of these space station colonies were envisioned to include wide riverways and suspension bridges within their hull.
An exterior view of a double cylinder colony space station with multiple communication arrays and solar panels for power generation.
This internal design of one of the space stations shows a magnificent view of planets, moons and the stars through vast windows that make up the exterior walls protecting the colony. Large mirrors are used to reflect sunlight into the station and provide natural light for the inhabitants and plant life.
Multiple cylinder colonies
This is the future of space exploration and the existence of the human race. Multiple colonies aboard numerous cylindrical space stations sit outside of Earth's orbit facing the sun. This positioning allows for power generation via solar panels and access to the necessary light to sustain life and plant growth.
The Kalpana One space settlement
Kalpana One is an improved design of the original concepts from the mid-1970's. It's named after NASA astronaut Kalpana Chawla who was one of the astronauts tragically killed during the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. This space station is another familiar cylinder design built to hold around 3,000 residents.
Closer view of the exterior
This exterior view of Kalpana One shows the potential docking stations and space traffic in and out of the station on a regular basis. The external sides of the station include masses of radiation shielding to protect the station's inhabitants.
Kalpana One interior
This internal view of the space stations shows a massive internal light source that replicates the experience of daylight. You can also see a variety of recreation areas including football and baseball pitches and fields. Bodies of water can be seen flowing through a mass of vegetation. These space stations are intended to replicate life on Earth as closely as possible.
A view of space
This view of Kalpana One shows the sheer size of the designs of these space stations. Here, laid out flat, the cylindrical habitat of the colony stretches outwards demonstrating the all the spaces within the station. Trees, lakes, rivers, areas for living quarters and much more.
A close view of the future
A close-up view of the interior of the Kalpana One Space Station shows the attention to detail here and the beauty of an environment within a manmade structure.
Creature comforts away from home
Here, the comforts of home are shown amongst the green hues of nature. The oxygen giving plants are a large part of the furniture in the future of space colonisation.
Maintenance of the comfortable environment
A man-made environment in the depths of space will need heavy maintenance to ensure it remains habitable and useful as well as aesthetically pleasing. Here we can see robotic arms managing the waterways and plant life of the Kalpana One colony.
A view from above
This concept of the Kalpana One design shows the lush green colours of the station. At a time when we'll be using these colonies, Earth will no doubt be in a less habitable state. The purpose here is to create environments we can live in and explore the Universe safely.
Like the older station designs, Kalpana One also includes a design for rotation to support a useful level of gravity to help support those on board and maintain the health of the crew.