Space-based Games and American Space Policy
The recently released space exploration adventure No Man’s Sky is the latest in a line of games that give players the chance to explore a massive sci-fi universe. But even as they self-consciously affirm the possibilities and allure of space, these games stand in stark contrast to the absence of actual human space exploration and the weakness of American space policy.
During the 1960s, America and the U.S.S.R. were locked in global conflict. The Cold War contest between capitalism and communism was disastrous, and led to a number of “hot” proxy wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Rhodesia.
In the area of scientific research, however, the Cold War was a boon. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, space was seen as a future battlefield, a place that both nations wanted to defend, spy, and — if necessary — attack from. Coupled with the symbolic value and national pride that a superior space program inspired, these mutual anxieties translated to massive investments in space research and exploration. The Space Race was on.
The United States lagged badly behind its communist counterpart in the early phases of the Space Race. The U.S.S.R. was the first nation to put a satellite into space (Sputnik, in 1957), the first nation to send a human into space (Yuri Gagarin, in 1961), and the first nation to perform a spacewalk (Alexey Leonov, in 1965).
The United States, for its part, has done a good job forgetting this history and remembering instead its single significant astronautical achievement: the Moon landing. In 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins became the first humans to land on the Moon, America reached the zenith of manned space exploration.
There were five other Moon missions. Eugene Cernan commanded the last, Apollo 17, in 1979. Upon returning to Earth, Cernan optimistically expressed his belief that “We’re not only going to go back to the Moon, we will be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.”
Cernan wasn’t alone in his vision of the future. Experimental physicist Gerry O’Neill argued forcefully in favor of space colonization through the 1970s and 1980s. He believed that “when we open up the high frontier by building colonies in space, and have those colonies extending farther and farther outward in our solar system, there is going to be room for people who want to leave Earth to go out and to develop their own colonies and do their own thing.” His 1976 book The High Frontier expanded on these ideas and offered a convincing portrait of a truly spacefaring civilization. The book won the Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science (the scientific equivalent of winning an Oscar) the following year.
Since then, NASA has dispatched robots and probes out to Mars, Saturn, and Uranus, but large-scale human habitation and exploration remains elusive. Spending on space science went into a slow, steady decline after the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991. The most visible nail in the coffin was the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. And as the Planetary Society points out, the 2015 Congressional budget continued “large cuts to the part of NASA that explores the solar system – the Planetary Science Division. This continues to undermine the health and potential of NASA’s deep space capabilities.” Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has made similar observations, noting that “The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history; two years’ U.S. military spending exceeds it as well. Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar.” Space spending pales in comparison to video game budgets, too. The total production costs for the 2009 hit Grand Theft Auto V was $265 million; NASA earmarked just slightly more — $306 million — for exploration research and development in 2015. In 2014, when NASA’s entire budget was around $17.6 billion, consumers spent over $22 billion on games.
But despite the sorry state of U.S. space policy, American gamers have been going to space. The latest iteration of the Mass Effect series, Mass Effect 3, sold a combined 890,000 units in its first day of release in 2012. By the end of its first week, developer BioWare had moved 3.5 million copies. The series takes the player-character, Commander Shepard, from Earth to Mars and worlds beyond in an effort to stop an alien menace. While the game is largely consistent with the tropes of the genre, the depth of the universe sets the series apart. When not leapfrogging from colony to colony, the player engages in exploratory side quests to analyze planetary composition, recover space junk that can fuel or fund your expedition, and mine natural resources. In the original Mass Effect, racing across uncharted worlds in your M35 Mako Infantry Fighting Vehicle (read as: space tank) can easily become a game unto itself. Overall, the series has sold more than 14 million units.
The galaxy of EVE Online is even larger than that of Mass Effect. The massively multiplayer online RPG boasts over 7,000 solar systems and a massive interstellar economy fueled by mining, manufacturing, piracy, and exploration. While the game started with around 25,000 subscriptions in 2003, it grew rapidly to half a million subscriptions by 2014. Like Mass Effect, EVE Online emphasizes the opportunities and adventures that await a spacefaring civilization. Players lucky enough to locate wormholes are rewarded with temporary shortcuts through space. Gas clouds — nebulae or fullerite reservoirs — can be “mined” to develop booster drugs, improved engines, and stronger armor. Successful planetary exploration yields ore that can be sold or used in manufacturing.
The way that exploration within the game yields practical results gestures toward the real-world products that space science has given us. Lasik surgery, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless power tools, and GPS technology are just a few of the many technologies that have directly or indirectly come out of the space program.
Like EVE Online, Frontier Developments’ 2014 effort Elite: Dangerous offers a massive, multiplayer open universe. The game owes much to space science. Designer David Braben used publicly available star charts to recreate a miniature Milky Way of 400 billion star systems. Of these, 150,000 star systems — the ones visible from Earth — are positioned right where they should be in the galaxy, with orbital periods and rates of rotation consistent with real astrophysical data. The rest conform approximately to the laws of astrophysics, but are procedurally generated rather than individually programmed. Designed on a 1:1 scale and rendered with exquisite detail, the galaxy is truly awe-inspiring. In an interview published shortly before the game launched, Braben is almost giddy in his description of “some four hundred billion stars, their planetary systems, and moons … all waiting to be explored.” Players can engage in ship-to-ship combat, upgrade their ships, and collect data on planets and other astronomical bodies. The data can then be sold to Universal Cartographics, the corporation that maps the Elite: Dangerous galaxy.
This design choice is appropriate, since the new frontline for space travel and exploration is, indeed, in the private sector. Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, for instance, has founded a host of ventures aimed at promoting space science and exploration. His most notable contribution is the XPrize Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers cash prizes to individuals or organizations that solve various problems with scientific solutions. In 2004, XPrize awarded $10 milion to a team that created a private spaceship capable of suborbital flight. One of their current contests offers $20 million to the first private team to develop and land a moon rover. Elon Musk’s space transport company SpaceX is another major player in the industry. NASA’s total budget of $18 billion remains significant, but SpaceX is valued at $12 billion and growing. The company has received over $5.5 billion in government contracts alone. And while NASA has a manned mission to Mars planned for the 2030s, SpaceX aims to land humans on Mars by 2025.
The newest entry in the space game genre is the much-hyped No Man’s Sky. The game takes the discovery mechanics of previous space games and multiplies them across a universe of over 18 quintillion planets (that’s the number 18 followed by 18 zeroes). The game’s central objective is to reach the center of the universe by adding to and utilizing The Atlas, a shared database of planetary coordinates and information. But No Man’s Sky encourages terrestrial as well as space exploration. With each planet estimated to have a total surface area of around 78 square miles, the game is easily the largest of all time. Fortunately, its size hasn’t hindered player exploration: in the first 24 hours following the game’s release, players discovered and uploaded data on more unique species than exist on Earth. The thrill of discovery and exploration in No Man’s Sky is partly due to our recognition that the game’s universe — its incomprehensible size and scale, at least — resembles our own. No Man’s Sky is the closest we’ve yet come to living among the stars.
Great games are premised on the extraordinary, the unusual, and the impossible. Thus, visiting other worlds in EVE Online and Mass Effect, or cruising the galaxy in a starship in No Man’s Sky, is in fact a tacit indictment of the current sad state of human space exploration. Instead of Gerry O’Neill’s space colonies, we got EVE Online. Instead of settlements on Mars or elsewhere, we got Mass Effect. Sure, the games are fun. But the massive disconnect between the expected historical trajectory and the modern reality of space exploration — a reality in which space-based video games function, in some sense, as a substitute for a robust space program — deserves attention.
The continued popularity of space-based games should remind us that space colonization and exploration remain distant — but worthy — dreams. It is unclear if more realistic space-based games can inspire new generations of space scientists, astronomers, engineers, and concerned citizens to organize in favor of a strong space program. One thing, at least, is certain: no matter how beautifully rendered a game is, it can never replace actual exploration and scientific discovery.
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