Once space colonization begins in earnest, what will be the sports and physical hobbies taken up by the dwellers of the black skies? Here we will explore how off-world athleticism might plausibly evolve starting from its origins and extending into the foreseeable near future.
Athletic endeavor may not be among the first arts that come to mind when thinking about living in outer space, but it may prove more important than most even suspect. Consider that one of the most likely draws for establishing an orbital (and later solar-system-wide) infrastructure for human habitation in the near future is space tourism. After the novelty of the overview effect, admittedly a quite powerful and even profound experience from what astronauts tell, wears off and space tourism companies look for a way to entice more orbital flight customers to repeat their purchases, destination space stations that can serve as attractions in and of themselves will surely be considered. After all, experimental private space station modules have already been launched into orbit, and as the space industry matures and launch to orbit becomes cheaper these ventures will only expand.
Aside from the sheer novelty of a destination hotel set in space, the draw of which should not be underestimated, well-loved activities that can only be done off-world would serve as a large and permanent factor pulling people from the ground up into orbit, and eventually even beyond. Zero-gravity activities are the most obvious candidates for these, since free-fall can only be maintained on Earth for perhaps a few minutes in parabolic flights, but is the permanent default setting in outer space. The sort of zero-gravity activities that would actually entice tourists would likely be athletic in nature.
What sort of activities might these be? According to this fascinating paper by Collins, Fukuoka, and Nishimura water sports may be quite prominent. Most people are aware that water drops form floating spheres in zero gravity; the same principle could be extended to create a sphere large enough for a man (or multiple men) to swim in. The sort of bodily motion involved in swimming would exert more than enough force on the water to enable a man to move, even in zero gravity.
The main drawback to this is that there is no buoyancy in zero gravity, thus the chances of being trapped inside the water are significantly higher than on Earth. This risk, if it’s thought desirable to mitigate it, could be offset by the issuing of emergency breathing apparatuses. Presumably many of the usual sports done in water, most prominently swimming and water polo, could also be done in zero gravity. Any space station module of appropriate size could host such a water sphere, and the first water sport installations are likely to be of this type, as the only cost involved is shipping the water and (possibly) waterproofing.
Where it really starts to get interesting is when we bring in artificial gravity; the usual solution of a rotating centrifuge could be employed, perhaps as a module attached to an otherwise zero-g space station. In the simplest version, a cylinder, the water would be drawn to the walls of the cylindrical module, thus forming a more-or-less fixed surface and inducing buoyancy. This would be a much more pleasant experience for human swimmers, as the swimming experience would be Earth-like but with the exotic characteristic of looking up and seeing the water surface curve such that you see the swimmers on the other side of the pool from above their heads! It wouldn’t take much gravity to accomplish this; 0.1g should be plenty to tell which way is up and which way is down, and would provide the excitement of each splash and wave being ten times the size it would be on Earth.
If objects or detached drops of water were thrown fast enough upwards they would pierce the (zero-g) center line of the cylinder and pick up speed on the other side as they went down again, landing on the other swimmers’ heads from above (with the Coriolis effect curving its path considerably, as Atomic Rockets points out). Splashing your friends or sending them a beach ball would be far more fun in such a context than it would be on Earth. The same would apply to water polo, which is a strenuous sport on Earth but in 0.1g would only take a tenth as much strength, opening it up to more casual or unfit players than on Earth.
As this excellent piece by T.A. Heppenheimer on space recreation points out, another activity that would be greatly enhanced is diving; a swimmer bouncing off a diving board would tumble down in slow motion because of the lower gravity, enabling more artistry and fun to be accomplished before impact. For more powerful divers, a strong enough bounce upward off the diving board would enable them to cross the center line of the cylinder and be pulled down toward the other side, for the ultimate in long-duration diving. Swimmers who love to show off their talent for moving their bodies in mid-air during a dive will adore swimming in space for this possibility alone.
By “swimming” in the air after they take off from these diving boards, swimmers may come to a rest near the center line of the cylinder, experiencing zero gravity as the centrifuge rotates around them, providing the swimmers in question with an unmatched view of all the action. For skilled and introverted swimmers it may be an excellent way of getting away from the crowds and being able to think while still being able to see everything and return to the fray at will.
Aquamusicals in Space
Where the zero-gravity water sports center really take off in terms of possibilities is not so much sporting usage but artistic usage. Synchronized swimming is an art form where swimmers perform elaborate physical moves in the water accompanied by music. This art form was perhaps most famously practiced by Esther Williams in a series of very popular MGM “aquamusicals” she starred in in the mid 20th century. Some of the swimming routines were very impressive, but how much more impressive would they have been in zero gravity, where water spheres of any size could be made to move in any direction in three dimensions along with the swimmers?
Especially when you consider that gravity can be varied over time, from more toward the fixed surface along cylinder walls to more toward free-fall drops and everything in between, the creative possibilities start to appear endless compared to what is available on Earth. For instance, a performer could enter into the middle of a water sphere in zero gravity, followed by the gravity gradually ramping up, pulling him or her down to the surface as if it’s a bubble floating down to earth, until he or she merges with the new pool (instead of sphere) of water to begin a new phase of the show.
Live entertainment of this nature, which would have no real substitute on Earth, would be extremely attractive to a wide variety of potential tourists, thus stimulating the conquest of space, and may also be employed as a filming location for 21st century aquamusicals. This would be enhanced further if the walls of the zero-g water sports center could be made transparent, offering an unobstructed view of the surrounding space. For earlier installations this means the looming large globe of the Earth; seeing such a synchronized swimming show play out as Earth’s lands and seas rotate into view behind them would be quite an experience.
Ice Skating in Space: An Unknown Art
The same principle that enhances the swimming experience in a small cylindrical centrifuge also enhances the experience of other sports and physical disciplines. One variation would be to use frozen instead of liquid water for the sporting surface, thus creating an ice skating module. Ice skaters would also be able to look straight up and see fellow skaters from above on the other side of the cylinder, which may be an even more impressive experience than swimming considering that on Earth skating isn’t nearly as three-dimensional as swimming. The difference between planetary and space-station environments would be more obvious. Skaters could also toss objects between them as effectively as swimmers could in these modules. Although this isn’t a practice usually associated with ice sports, it might gain favor in a more dramatic setting such as this. If nothing else some of the ice kicked up by the blades might go on a ballistic trajectory, an effect that may be deliberately taken advantage of and enhanced for artistic effect.
Lower gravity, like the 0.1g mentioned for swimming, might be even more advantageous to skaters than it would be to swimmers. Skaters could lift off the ice much more easily, thus making the spectacular and dramatic moves so popular in figure skating more attainable for people of lower fitness or skill level. Falling down would occur at a correspondingly slower rate than on Earth, thus any impacts wouldn’t be as hard on the body. For more skilled or adventurous skaters, lifting off the ice with enough force to fly a good distance would be easy, a move all but unfeasible on Earth. For the most powerful skaters jumping with enough force to go through the cylinder’s center line and then fall to the surface on the other side would be possible, a quite spectacular maneuver that may well prove to be a cornerstone of advanced-level figure skating in space.
Like swimming, varying the gravity over the course of an event or show would enable the most impressive moves. For example, as gravity decreases it would be easier for one skater to support a whole series of performers on top of his or her head acrobat-style, with each new performer being able to jump up higher and higher (while the total burden on the original skater dropped due to reducing gravity). If two (or more) teams of skaters started this way on opposite sides of the cylinder, they would meet in the middle as the number of performers stacked one on top of the other increased, and then when gravity reached zero they could do skydiver-style acrobatic maneuvers. Another possibility would be gradually decreasing the gravity as the figure skater starts to perform backflips or other gymnastic-style maneuvers, with the lowering of the gravity being sufficient for the force of the flips to gradually life the performer off the ice and into the air. In all these cases increasing the gravity would reverse this process, bringing the skaters back toward the walls.
Zero-G Sports with Balls and Goals
In the case of games that are played with a ball and have a goal, a whole range of tactics are opened up by moving up from two dimensional to three dimensional play. Sports like soccer, American football, rugby, or even ice hockey in zero or low gravity may have balls flying around in any direction, with the placement of the goals in a low-g centrifuge or zero-g sphere being rather arbitrary and likely subject to variation. In zero gravity or sufficiently low gravity conditions, pushing off a wall, a ball, or another player become the basis of movement, meaning walking or swimming through the air won’t be effective. On the other hand, inertia has greater effect, meaning one can go from one wall to the other with no effort after one jumps off a wall with sufficient force.
Pushing off other players in order to change direction or gain or lose momentum will almost certainly be a popular tactic in these sort of sports. This may be friendly (players of the same team) or hostile (players of opposing teams), perhaps with the hostile variant serving as a substitute for tackling. More interestingly, two or more players of the same team may throw one of their teammates in a desired direction with greater speed than the player could attain on his or her own.
More mature versions of these games may introduce multiple balls to transfer momentum between players, and provide surfaces to jump off of in mid-air, rather than having to use other players’ bodies or the walls. This would provide a much more interesting and varied game experience, and in order not to make the game easier these balls may be ineligible for scoring a goal. High mass and spherical shape would be desirable characteristics for these balls, easily distinguishing them from normal footballs or soccer balls. Another possibility would be at least one strung net straddling the width of the cylinder, providing a long but narrow surface for players to jump off of.
The same principles apply to other sports and athletic disciplines, including dancing, gymnastics, and the fighting sports such as boxing and fencing. More advanced versions of these centrifuges may have the ability to start and stop rotation, and thus the force of gravity, more abruptly, providing a more challenging and fast-paced environment for the players.
Zero-G Recreation in Space Habitats
Another water sport that may prove very interesting in these settings is surfing; in low gravity water waves will be larger and move more slowly, so to Earth surfers it would be like surfing in slow motion; to some this may prove an attractive characteristic. This would be more viable in larger water sport centers. In centers that are larger still boating and yachting, along with related sports like water skiing, would be viable, but such cylinders would have to approach Bernal Spheres or O’Neill Cylinders in size to provide worthwhile recreation, and thus would likely be integrated into larger multi-purpose space habitats as part of a full-fledged colony. However, if recreation in space proves popular enough and the infrastructure is mature enough to enable cheap space habitat construction there may well be enough of a market to support an O’Neill Cylinder-sized space habitat dedicated to sports and recreation.
One possibility that these habitats would open up is human-powered flying. No matter how large the cylinder, the center line of it always has zero gravity just like the swimming and ice skating centrifuges do. If a man in an aircraft, such as a hang glider, attained enough momentum to take off, the flapping of wings or the turning of a propeller (perhaps by pedal power or a simple motor) would propel his or her craft upward where gravity would become progressively lower and flight progressively easier. It is easy to imagine men in hang gliders or similar simple aircraft soaring in the upper reaches of space habitats for extended periods. One might do almost anything in such a setting; it would be a very peaceful, quiet, and relaxing place to be after all, and man would have at least realized the ancient dream of soaring indefinitely on his or her own power.
More adventurous people might ditch the aircraft altogether and, much like in the swimming centrifuge example but on a much larger scale, sit in weightlessness at the center line of the space habitat, observing everything from a distance. This is similar to the free-fall skydivers experience on Earth, but in a space habitat it can be maintained indefinitely. Without continuous action to keep his or her station, however, the man in question will drift away with the air currents and be pulled down to the surface at an accelerating rate as gravity increases. It would behoove such a man to either have someone else come in an aircraft to pick him up, have a remote-controlled or self-piloting aircraft come and get him, or have a parachute skydiver-style to reduce speed as he or she falls.
Implications for Worldbuilding
We see in this post that space sports, recreation, and athleticism as a part of space tourism hold vast possibilities that could be realized even with near future technology and levels of investment. With only a little creativity and imagination, one can readily envision physical activities impossible to do on Earth attractive enough to compel thousands if not millions of customers to make the leap from ground to orbit even with relatively expensive ticket prices. Indeed, with cheap enough space travel these sort of recreational opportunities could easily be enough to spur the colonization, development, and permanent settlement of outer space all by themselves.
That is the promise of space tourism, and what we have explored in this post is by no means exhaustive even in the narrow arena of sports and recreation in space, let alone tourism more broadly. These possibilities, especially the swimming and ice skating centrifuges, to my knowledge rarely if ever show up in science fiction stories or fictional universes as a primary driver of early space colonization, yet are among the most plausible current candidates to do just that. They do show up more often in speculation on our real world future, interestingly, but science fiction authors hardly ever include them in their worldbuilding.
Most especially, I have never seen any worldbuilding done for a near future science fiction setting that featured zero-g and low-g Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming shows as an attraction driving investment and popularization of space travel, let alone the zero-g and low-g possibilities for dancing or ice skating. Indeed, all of the more athletic arts as an outer space recreation and spectating opportunity are extremely underused in near future science fiction worldbuilding. Any author or worldbuilder with such a setting that is in need of a hook to draw people in would be wise to use these possibilities, as it would be both very plausible and almost unique, a rare and potentially explosive combination in speculative fiction.