Cole was born February 19, 1921 in Sandusky, Ohio to Robert MacFarlan Cole III and Wertha Pendleton Cole, the daughter of bishop William Frederic Pendleton. In 1928 the family moved to Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, where his mother had been raised. He spent the balance of his childhood there, residing elsewhere only during his college and wartime years.
He attended the Academy of the New Church Secondary Schools from 1935 to 1939 and entered Princeton University in the fall of 1939. In his application to Princeton, he mentions, as one of the things attracting him to the University, what Henry Norris Russell, then director or the Princeton Observatory, had written about interplanetary travel. While at Princeton, he reported in a letter home, he did student work for Albert Einstein. In addition to his studies in mathematics and science, he also competed on the varsity gymnastics team and received a medal for his outstanding performances on the flying rings.
As a special wartime provision, he was allowed, after 3 years at Princeton, to satisfy the requirements for the bachelor's degree in chemistry by beginning medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and successfully completing his first term. He therefore received his undergraduate degree at Princeton's midwinter commencement exercises in January 1943. His time at Columbia was short, however, and in March of that year he could no longer resist the call to serve in combat and he enlisted as a private in the army, joining the 139th Airborne Engineer Battalion of the 17th Airborne Division. He saw action during the Ardennes Counteroffensive in the "Battle of the Bulge" and was discharged from the army on April 30, 1945. During this time, Cole wrote his Songs and Poems of the Paratroops.
After the war, he returned to Princeton in 1946 under a program that allowed students who had left for the military to return and take additional courses. Cole took advantage of this to enroll in physics courses that would prepare him for graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received a master's degree in Physics in 1949.
From 1949 to 1953, he taught physics and astronomy at Phillips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, New Hampshire. He contended that his astronomy course was probably the first astronautics course in any high school, as he used Willy Ley's Conquest of Space as a textbook.
In 1953, he took a job in the aerospace industry with the Martin Company in Baltimore, at that point settling for aircraft design. But in 1956, he moved to the Martin facility in Denver and began to work in earnest for the space program, helping to design the Titan II, which launched the Gemini space capsules. 1960 brought a change in both company and position, as he became a consulting engineer in advance planning at the General Electric Missile and Space Division at Valley Forge, PA.
Cole died on October 29, 1965 at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
During the Second World War, he made some specific suggestions for a practical underwater breathing apparatus. This made the Office of Strategic Services nervous, as just such an invention was already a classified project. After some interviews, OSS concluded that he had not received unauthorized access to classified information, but told him to keep quiet about the idea.
As early as 1953, before the U.S. even had a space program, he predicted a manned moon landing by 1970.
Cole believed that government, industry, and education were neglecting systematic thought about the future and that it should become an academic discipline which would study the future in something of the same way that history uses its methods to study the past. With the pace of change accelerating, he argued, students should be trained in techniques for thinking about the future.
He was concerned about the trends that were becoming evident in the 1950s and 1960s, especially the rapid increase in population (which he called "bio-detonation") and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He saw the human race as being at a turning point, corresponding to the adolescence of an individual, in which humanity would either destroy itself or come to a collective state of maturity and relative stability.
Asteroids, or "planetoids" as Cole argued they should more properly be called, were a particular focus of his work. In the early 1960s, he surveyed what was then known about what he termed "Cis-Martian" asteroids.(These are now referred to as "near-Earth asteroids," or NEAs," a subclass of near-Earth objects" - NEOs.)
At the 1962 annual meeting of the American Astronautical Society, Cole warned that, as early as 1970, the Soviets could develop the technology to divert a near Earth asteroid to impact a target on earth. The title of his paper was prosaic: A Possible Military Application of a Cis-Martian Asteroid, but the wire services got a hold of the story and the result was lurid headlines in many papers across the country.
On the more positive side, Cole was an early proponent of mining the asteroids, suggesting that they could yield trillions of dollars worth of resources. While one approach to the retrieval of this mineral wealth would be to send expeditions to the asteroid belt, Cole also laid out plans for asteroid capture, whereby near Earth asteroids could be brought into orbit around the earth.
He was known especially for promoting the idea of colonizing the asteroids. Once captured, asteroids could be hollowed out, or actually inflated to create a bubbleworld with habitable space on the inside. The resulting space arks could orbit within the solar system, or be sent out on interstellar expeditions.
Especially in connection with the idea of planetoid colonies, he coined the term "Macrolife," as early as a talk for the annual meeting of The Institute of Navigation, 23 June 1960. In the published version of the paper, he notes the similarity of his idea to the "multi organismic life form" of Isaac Asimov just then published in the July 1960 issue of Analog-Science Fact and Fiction. He explains the concept as follows: "Macrolife can be defined as 'life squared per cell' or more particularly as ' multicellular life squared per cell'. Taking man as representative of multicellular life we can say that man is the mean proportional between Macro life and the cell, or Macro life is to man as man is to cell."
Cole conceived Macrolife as a possible next step in evolution, potentially as momentous as the transition from single-celled to multicelled life. Units of Macrolife, self-contained human societies in planetoid colonies or elsewhere, would have the capacity for growth, motion, reproduction, self-repair, and response to external stimuli. He developed further details in his 1961 The Ultimate Human Society and in subsequent books.