March 22, 2009

Realistic Space Exploration

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Simon Ferrari said...

Very good manifesto for hard science fiction. Makes me kinda want to go watch Total Recall again; I always thought their modeling of the space domes and the politics of resources and maintenance on the station was really well thought-out (sure the ending was ridiculous, but, you know).

I guess the only argument I could see to this is, "I still like dragons, even though I know something that big couldn't fly or breathe fire... so why the hell should I give up space travel?" It's a fundamental difference of desires.

For instance, the kind of soft scifi you decry is still good fun for mainstream AAA titles. But the hard scifi you want to see more of would actually be better for analyzing real world systems such as economics and class (the Total Recall example is good here) - the struggles of actual living in space stations now and surface domes in the future is brutal as shit, exacerbating all kinds of labor and living conditions standards.

So that's how I see this stuff - great for educating people on the reality of what space colonization will actually be like and testing people's economic and social theories of how these things will work... but it's going to be a hard sell for AAA publishers who might not want to deal with paying actual scientists to advise them on every decision in the game design.

Simon said...

Oh and that video is obnoxious. I've seen a lot like it, because kids at my school always think it will be awesome to go up on top of the parking garage to get a bunch of "sweet shots" of the cityscape :P

Anyways, still trying to find myself on XBL the same time as you. I didn't bring my 360 with me to my girlfriend's house this week, but this coming week I don't think my workload is that bad and we might finally get this GoW thing goin' on!

Graham said...

That's a great post, and I think hugely important and relevant. It makes me think of a conversation I was having with my girlfriend just this morning. We were talking about Planet Earth, that BBC documentary series. There is this one segment that talks about glow-worms. It's just so incredible and alien. And any time I see something like those glow worms, or read about the recently discovered geysers on Enceladus (Saturn), I think, "What the hell do we need fantasy for?" Of course, that's over dramatic, but I just can't help but marvel at the fact that we feel the need to fabricate things about space when what's out there is already so amazing.

A game that comes to mind at this point is the original Outpost. One thing that I found fascinating about this game even as a young kid, was that in the first 25 minutes of the game, you had to make a lot of big decisions: You had 25 minutes to decide what you were going to bring from Earth to Mars. And so you'd weight living quarters vs. food vs. fuel, pack up your ship and blast off. Then you'd land on mars and start playing. But for your first few times playing the game, you'd get through a couple days on the surface, and then be like, "Crap. I never brought any satellites to scan for metal deposits to build satellites with." And so you'd have to start foraging around hoping that there would be iron nearby. Or else you can't build any more farms and everyone dies. It really gave my a different perspective on space travel that I've carried with me ever since. There was no magic warp drive, no matter replicators. Just, "Earth is a long ways away, and here we are with what we've got."

In any case, keep ranting about this stuff. It's getting my motivation up to actually work on a game like this. :)

Krystian Majewski said...

There is nothing wrong with Fantasy (Dragons and FTL). I understand their fascination very well. The problem arises when you make the argument that this is based on science - when you call something "Science Fiction". I think we should clearly define if a Work is making statements about our world or not. Mixing facts with fantasy and not telling which is which is a dangerous thing to do, especially when we are talking about mass-media.

So in a way, Star Wars is more honest than Star Trek. The stuff in Star Wars is just as fantastic but it hardly ever makes any claims on how it's supposed to work. It's Future Fantasy but it hardly doesn't claim to be anything else.

Star Trek however uses a lot of scientific concepts, theories and ideas which are supposed to give more validity to what is happening. But because the whole scenario is scientifically wrong, it is in some ways lying to people. The audience thinks they consume science while they actually consume fantasy. This creates the many misconceptions people have today about space travel.

I haven't read Total Recal. I merely remember the scene in the movie where Arnold's Eyeballs nearly popped out. The effects of exposure to a low-pressure environment is a famous example of bad Sci-Fi is spreading misconception among a wide audience. Even today most people believe that a man would explode or freeze if he would get exposed to vacuum unprotected. Neither is true.

And in most Sci-Fi productions scientists ARE being paid for consultation. For example the Movie Sunshine had the rockstar/LHC Star Scientist Brian Cox as adviser. He did an excellent commentary on the DVD. Mass Effect must had some guy involved with great knowledge of astronomy. For example the descriptions of planets reference very recent astronomical discoveries like Hot Jupiters.

The problem is that this kind of work is done AFTERWARDS. So first you come up with a scenario (which is mostly a variation well-established and wrong ideas) and later you get a scientist to come up with an explanation for the train-wreck you created. It should be the other way around: Science should create the basis from which the scenario and the story would evolve. Otherwise, leave science alone and embrace fantasy.

Krystian Majewski said...

@Graham Thanks! I second your thoughts on the glow-worms. There are so many mind-blowing things out there it should be unnecessary to come up with fantasy.

On the other hand, I do somewhat understand the fascination of the fantastic stories and I fear we will never be able to do without them. *sigh*

I do remember Outpost. In fact I played it last year. It was a great game. Too bad it was somewhat broken. There are a lot of things about it that seem unfinished. For example, it seems like initially you were supposed to be able to build rockets and build a second or maybe even a third outpost. Still, it is one of the few examples of quite realistic Sci-Fi in games.

Simon said...

Yeah the Arnie eye-popping is why I said the ending was ridiculous.

The Star Wars / Star Trek issue got me going down memory lane. I remember we had a metaphysics class where we talked about transportation in the series, and how you'd essentially be committing suicide every time you got transported, with no assurance of a continuity of consciousness.

I would like to hear a single example of how misconceptions derived from science fiction could actually be dangerous? Sounds like there have got to be some comical stories out there.

Talking about hard versus soft science fiction, you know what movie is freaking awesome? The Abyss. I'm sure there were some errors in there, as far as the marine going crazy from pressure sickness (like, he probably would have died or passed out before having the chance to wreak havoc like he did). But the scene where the two protagonists are in a leaking, busted submarine... and there's only one oxygen tank, so the woman drowns herself on purpose and he has to drag her back to the main ship as quickly as possible. And then he's beating on her chest trying to resuscitate her... Jesus that is a good scene.

Simon said...

Ohh also since you're the closest thing I know to a buff on the subject, what's the viability of having a very slowly-moving or stationary vessel supporting life in space for generations at a time (a la Wall-e, but less ridiculous). Like, how many lives could the largest viable ship fit comfortably, how much space would be needed for growing food, recycling water, generating oxygen. And then how would such a thing be powered considering current fueling technologies (or near-future ones). Also, would such a thing have to be constructed in space, because of the impossibility of getting it out of Earth's atmosphere?

I'd love to see a game about a small group of people just living on a slowly-moving space station forever. Like Deep Space 9 meets MTV's Real World - people getting sassy and having sex parties in space, forever.

Graham said...

Simon: You might get a kick out of this: Same idea but on the ocean. I'm sure many of the ideas could be extrapolated.

Krystian Majewski said...

@Simon Yeah, the Abyss is a great piece of cinema. Have you seen the making-of? Mind-blowing!

People dying from bad Sci-Fi - well it's not necessarily that kind of danger I was talking about. But there is a related recent example: the LHC panic that was spread by some ill-informed individuals and propagated by mass-media. The result was that at least one girl in India committed suicide because she was convinced that the world would end. What a useless death.

I also toyed with the idea of a space soap such as the one you've scribed. As for a self-contained ship: see that's the problem. We don't have the technology right now. All efforts to build a self-contained biosphere failed so far. We can recycle some resources but not all of them and it's never 100% efficient and we can't build ships that would be independent from external resources.

The ISS will support a crew of 6 but is highly dependent on shipments of resources even though they recycle their water.

There was a nice documentary by the BBC called "Space Odyssey: Voyage To The Planets" where they consulted ESA to develop a pretty convincing vision of a realistic interplanetary ship. I liked it very much but that one was depended on external supplies as well. And during the plot they even run into some interesting problems because of the recycling. I recommend it!

Simon said...

@Graham: Oh man, those people are going to get killed by pirates. Gah I followed the link on your name. I want to move to Vancouver so badly. Are there ample, or scarce, game design jobs in the area?

@Krystian: Yeah I guess I slept through the LHC thing. I had some friends freaking out about dying, and some friends complaining about their friends freaking out about dying. I was just walking around making jokes about girls' Higgs bosoms.

Bummer on the current perceived limits of space stations. I guess that crazy woman driving across the country and pooping in a diaper to stalk her fellow astronaut is the closest I'll get to a space soap anytime soon.

Simon Ferrari said...

Speaking of Higgs bosons, I just remember the first time I ever heard the name Higgs was while watching the American remake of Solaris.

They use a Higgs field to disrupt the Solaris-people's connection to the planet. Then the planet gets angry and expands.

Maybe that's why people were afraid of it; they just loved their George Clooney toooooo much. God knows I do.

Graham said...

@Simon Well, right now the jobs are extremely scarce out here. Lots of studio closures this winter. Once things pick up again... Well, I haven't really detected any difference in the design-jobs-to-other-jobs ratio here than elsewhere in America. It's definitely not 'tight' compared to elsewhere, worth trying for in any case.

@Krystian One thing that you mentioned regarding this that is really rattling in my head now, is your comment about how even to reach our expected top speed (0.1C), it would require a continuous stream of bomb detonations. That's another thing that's always bothered me in Sci-Fantasy: The waste of material. I mean, it's cool in space battles when two armies fling at each other and blow each other to bits. But (and I guess this goes back to your previous post about space battles,) I can't imagine that after all the work collecting thousands of tonnes of materials, spending years and years building a big spaceship, that they'd just fly it over to the enemy's big spaceship, fling bombs and each other, and then giggle in each other's wreckage.

Likewise, so long as it is going to take huge amounts of fuel/energy to travel even just between our plants at a reasonable speed (and lets not forget that energy spent accelerating = energy spent decelerating), then we won't be making trips frequently, or quickly.

Again, thank you/damn you for getting me excited about these things again. I have other things I should be concentrating on, but this is so interesting! Haha. :D

Simon Ferrari said...

@Graham: Definitely making the romanticism of Firefly a bit less compelling there. "We need to do these crimes so we can put food on the table and keep this ship from fallin' apart..." without any mention of how they're paying to power that giant glowing butt on their spaceship.

Simon said...

@Graham: Oh, and it's not that I need to find a place with more jobs than anywhere in the U.S. It's that I need to get the eff out of this country.

Speaking of which, @Krystian are more and more universities in Germany opening up game design/studies programs? I still haven't given up the idea of being a professor.

... just need to get out of this country.

Simon Ferrari said...


Again it was awesome to play co-op with you yesterday. I'm trying to figure out the feasibility of somehow recording our XBL microphone conversations, and like reflecting on both game design, our backgrounds, and the different cultural issues that come from playing in different countries. Could be good, could be lame, could be absolute Hell to edit.

Simon said...

Thanks for catching that typo in my interview! Fixed!

Krystian Majewski said...

@Graham: Exactly! The economic of conventional warfare and travel on earth just don't scale up. Thanks for the great feedback.

@Simon: Firefly is a great example! I think back then it was one of the things that inspired me researching that kind of stuff. I remember they had a reasonable scenario there with only interplanetary travel and they had a lot of gas giants and moons like I suggested.
But most importantly: they concentrated on telling great story with engaging characters. In Sci-Fi, you often find that the story itself isn't very compelling and quite often if it weren't for the fantastic bits, the whole thing wouldn't hold up.

I had a great time as well! Recording the play session sounds like an awesome idea! \ ^_^ /

Anonymous said...

Thanks ... I'm going to take your critique of Sci-Fi one step further. We have two Earth-like planets within reach in the near future. Both have oxygen rich atmospheres and gravity levels that of Earth. But one is covered by water and the other is an ice planet ...

Their names are Antarctica and the Oceans.

I started out as astrophysics undergrad and ended up with an economics Masters. I too hate the anti-scientific and financially absurd religion called Sci-Fi.

When I hear nonsense about sending manufacturing off Earth for environmental reasons or due to resource depletion I laugh as hard as when a Fundamentalist looks at me and says the Earth is 4,400 years old and Satan created the illusion of evolution to deceive us.

Note to Sci Fi. The Earth is a giant gravity well. There is no way in hell you're going to move any significant quantities of anything up through that well without vast amounts of energy - produced at environmental and resource costs vastly beyond whatever making that would use here on Earth.

Here is what we are learning. The Earth is beautiful and precious. We've been listening for decades to the galaxy for music from the spacefarers' bar filled with 50 different species and we've heard ... nothing.

Simple life may be abundant, it probably does or at least has existed on Mars. Plausibly its on Titan and perhaps elsewhere. But complex life ranging up to radio-tech life may be very rare.

The most awesome manned "spaceship" isn't that idiotic ISS ... they are nuclear powered submarines.

The scientific research machines exploring the oceans are as cool and groovy as any Klingon D7 cruiser.

You want to explore and move scientific knowledge forward? You want limited resources spent on expanding human habitation and improve quality of life here on Earth? Burn your Star Wars DVD ... it was a hokey pseudo-religious opera that might have well have been a substitute by Hubbard for Scientology. Now that you have freed your mind from the Sci-Fi religious cultists ... focus on what needs to be solved. Green energy, reducing pollution, and using unmanned probes like Cassini to explore the Solar System. If we want to build something really cool in space, let's send the ISS into a decay and use the freed money to build even bigger telescopes or maybe a giant orbital inferometer.

Want to consider something really cool (pun) - The high energy colliders may have made good old planet earth the hottest place in the universe. Those colliders are as cool in their technical complexity and scientific discovery as any 1/10th Light H-bomb powered starship!

Will we ever go out? Maybe. Here's what the first ships to be sent to a specific target out beyond the Oort will look like ... It will weigh very little, maybe a hundred kilos and probably be accelerated by a stationary energy source. It will arrive and deploy extremely a small nano-ship weighing maybe a kilo and using most of its mass to power that tiny ship's deceleration. This kilo nano ship will then fire various even smaller probes around the system. All the information will come back to Earth at light speed.

If we colonize a planet it will be with bacteria or a mission specific genetically engineered microbe.

The first "human" to set foot on anything beyond the Oort, will be an AI robot, probably the size of a mouse.

Cheers, Glenn

Krystian Majewski said...

Thanks for the feedback!

Yeah, there are those two ridiculous myths about reasons for going to space. You've mentioned one of them: for resoruces. That also cracks me up every time. At launch costs of 7750$ per pound just into earth orbit, what exactly are you going to mine there? Diamonds?

The other myth to provide space for population growth. This comes often with the idea that Earth might become inhabitable. Right now, the ISS struggles to raise its crew from 3 to 6 people. It's highly depended on awfully expensive supplies and the inhabitants can't stay there too long because their bones and hearts decay due to no gravity. You know, even if we wanted we couldn't fuck up the Earth so badly that living in space would become a viable alternative. And if we did, we couldn't afford to.

Still, even if manned space exploration seems out of reach now, thing might be looking different when the Orion program gets started.. or maybe some private companies figure out some crazy program.

I admit I secretly root for space elevators even though the outlook isn't so hot right now.

And everybody is poo-pooing ISS because of its high costs. I think the alternative - having NOBODY in earth orbit for years would be even grimmer.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your added thoughts, Krystian.

Yes, the colonization of space due to an evironmentally destroyed Earth is a good one. So too is the overcrowed Earth scenario. First the population of the Earth will very likely be declining well before the end of this century. Second, you're going to pack people into orbital colonies or surface domes, get everyone sick due to gravity issues and do so at some very high density. Why not just build a super high density dome in Wyoming? The idea that we are running out of room on Earth is false. Lastly any colony is going to need a supply umbilical chord to mother Earth for a very long long time.

The Space Elevator was an absolutely genius concept conceived up by a truly great visionary. The cost of the thing would be monumental and the tech is still decades if not a century or more away.

If we get to a point where you can negate gravity ... then sure all bets are off in terms of the economic barriers to space development.

As a lifelong gamer - including way too many hours playing space expansion games ... Space Empires ... I would love to work with a group of savvy game techies to layout a truly realistic space exploration and development game. No magic. No artificats on the Moon that gets you warp drive.

Everything will be constrained by economics, plausible tech development, projected demographics, and political realities.

Glenn -

Grismar said...

Any sane person would have to agree that Space Opera has little or nothing to do with science. And even so-called hard science fiction today takes many liberties with science to arrive at fantastic premises for fabulous stories. So, we can only hope that adopting the term Future Fantasy will do a little good in helping people understand that science fiction is not and will never be real.

This doesn't change the fact that Future Fantasy (lets start right now) allows for a kind of storytelling that allows for exploration of worlds and ideas that are interesting, even though they will never come about. Just as Flatland is interesting and may teach you something worthwhile about reality.

Future Fantasy is like the genre pioneered (among others) by John Wyndham (of "The Day of the Triffids" and "The Trouble with Lichen") called logical fiction. You introduce one (or a few) factor that alters reality profoundly, but keep everything else real and write about "what would happen".

It has a place in and of itself and will allow for storytelling that realistic fiction may never. Thanks for the great article, I loved it.

Ryan said...

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