It is the final frontier. 93 billion light years of stars, asteroids and planets spread across a limitless expanse- a beautiful and dangerous world fraught with collisions and violence and spectacle that is almost infinite. Ever since Aristotle gazed into the heavens and proposed his heliocentric theory of the universe, philosophers, scientists, artists and filmmakers have attempted to describe the twinkling objects and orbs they’ve seen in the night sky. Writers as diverse as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells have explored the mysteries of the night sky and dared to ponder the imponderable, while astronauts and explorers have literally sacrificed themselves to explore its depths.
That same maroon sky that gave birth to 12 to the Moon and War of the Worlds also bequeathed The Forbidden Planet, Star Trek, Star Wars, and other novels and films too numerous to count. It has also given rise to one of the 20th Century’s most popular computer game franchises, an interactive tale of science, mystery and intrigue that continues to tantalize and enthrall, a little over a decade since it came out. Fans call it SMAC or SMACX, but to the outside world, it is known by another name- Alpha Centauri.
Conceived by Sid Meier- the mind behind The Sims games and the Civilization series- and Brian Reynolds, in many respects the story of a marooned space crew on a Earth-size planet owed much to its predecessors in film and TV and video games as well. But for a software franchise, it was revolutionary- ushering in an era of blazing graphics, unique turned based play and a narrative style that is still being felt in the industry today. Just ask Troy Goodfellow.
“It was a turn-based Starcraft- each faction is unique and requires a unique approach,” he said in an email interview. “It laid the foundations of many ideas, like Civics, that would be central to Firaxis [Games] later triumph in Civ 4.”
Goodfellow should know- he’s somewhat of an expert on SMAC and Firaxis- the company where many of Meier’s and Reynolds’s ideas come to life. As a student in the late 1990s, he played the game sporadically, exploring the world of Chiron (“Planet” to SMACers) bit by bit. Today, he’s a blogger and frequent contributor to sites like Gameshark as well as Gamesradar and dozens of game magazines besides.
According to Goodfellow, he was sold on the game long before his hands touched the cardboard box. The reason had as much to do with name recognition as quality.
“Meier’s name was an automatic guarantee of quality at the time,” he said, “but I didn’t buy [the game] automatically.”
But when he did, his interest only increased. Not only was the game addictive and fun to play, the characters within- survivalist leader Corazon Santiago, academician Prokhor Zakharov, UN faction leader Pravin Lal of the Peacekeepers, and Miriam Godwinson among others- were believable as well as human-like. And sometimes, their personalities, and rigid philosophies led them to make unthinkable decisions that affected the players. The resemblance to real-life was uncanny. It was also what kept players glued to their seats.
“The main attraction of the game was- and still is- how they [Reynolds and Meier] set up a world of recognizable and distinct factions, each one an exaggeration of real-world types. The scholar, the businessman, the environmentalist…each type is pushed to an extreme where their ideals become the ‘right’ form of government. The result was a world of personality, compared to the leaders in Civilization 2 SMAC leaders seemed to have real character and priorities, meaning that you could anticipate their desires.”
But if the social aspects of the game kept players hooked, they were even more hooked by the technology of the game. Borehole clusters, nerve staples, synthetic fossil fuels, and much more besides. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction. The reality is anything but.
“The technologies here violate no physical law,” science writer Paul Gilster said in an email interview. “We can see there is nothing in physics to keep them from working.”
Case in point: space elevators. Long a dream of physicists and geeks alike, governments and private agencies have been working towards making them a reality for years. As early as 2000, NASA’s Advanced Projects Office drew up plans for just such an eventuality, hinging on nanotechnology. Specifically, carbon nano tubes, lightweight materials 100 times stronger than steel.
Synthetic fossil fuels are no laughing matter either. Although the implementation is nowhere near as sophisticated as it is in SMAC, already research and development is being done into making “synth fuel” as real as good ol’ Texas tea. Clean coal technology is one example. But there are others as well, some rarely unheard of outside of college campuses and government labs.
The race to colonize space is no less real. But it has its hiccups- mainly politics and funding, but mostly funding. That includes everything from spacecraft to the systems that power them.
In 2007, NASA cancelled its Institute for Advanced Concepts program. During its nearly ten year run, the Atlanta-based IAC fielded proposals from scientists and academics from a variety of fields, everything from bio-nano machines to the Cave of Mars project to the fortuitously worded New Worlds Mission. Total cost of the project? 27.3 million.
To put it in perspective, NASA spent nearly 15 billion in federal dollars for all of 2007, a fraction of the funds spent during the entire Mercury, Gemini and Apollo projects combined.
“At present, advanced propulsion technologies are not being seriously either within NASA or the European Space Agency,” Gilster said. “We have only a limited amount of work on solar sail technologies going on throughout the world, but what we might consider advanced studies for the future of the sort [portrayed in SMAC] is all in private hands, and here the problem is that researchers work often on their own time and sometimes have trouble connecting with each other in the same areas.”
Gilster is working to change all that. Along with his friend and colleague Marc Millis, a veteran of NASA’s Breakthrough Physics Project, he has founded a non-profit organization, the Tau Zero Foundation, working to address the conceptual and financial issues of space travel. In addition, Gilster hosts a website devoted to space travel, titled interestingly enough, Centauri Dreams.
Even if interstellar travel of the type Sid Meier promises gets off the ground, the social and political ramifications, to say nothing of the financial costs, are huge. Generational space flight would radically redefine human beings’ ideas of time, even aging. Politics would no longer be national, or geopolitical, it would be intergalactic. Hello, United Federation of Planets.
For Gilster, the main need to travel into deep space is one of survival. In a fragile world beset by resource wars, plagues, and Deep Impact-style asteroids, men and women need to get off this rock more than ever, preferably sooner than later.
“As long as we remain only on a single world, we run the risk of asteroid or comet impacts of the sort implicated in the death of the dinosaurs, or nuclear war, or plague or any number of catastrophic events. In order to learn how to prevent a possible impact from an asteroid, we will need to develop a space-based infrastructure capable of working in the outer solar system, so as to be able to get to an object like this, years in advance. Interstellar flight then, is all about protecting the species on the one hand and, if it turns out human interstellar flight is too difficult, expanding our range of understanding by sending robotic probes, perhaps at the nanotech level, to the nearest stars and beyond.”
For others, though, the interest in deep space is more visceral, even if they experience it via a video game.
“Humans have always been fascinated by stories of exploring the unknown,” Professor J.P. Telotte of the Georgia Institute of Technology said. “Artists of every ilk respond well to allowing the imagination to play, and the farthest reaches of space would seem the ultimate possibility for such free play of imagination. In the realm of science fiction, there is special appeal, as evidence the number of books that suggest the genre is about satisfying a human impulse for wonder. Voyaging to the stars allows for stories that pointedly address that wonder.”
Though Telotte’s view of the media’s attitude with regard to space travel is less than optimistic, owing to the scores of dystopian dramas on TV such as Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, in addition to coverage of accidents such as the breakup of the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, he has no doubt interstellar travel will become as commonplace as air travel is today.
“Each technological advance, such as powered flight, jet flight, rocket flight, interplanetary travel, has beckoned us to further steps. Interstellar travel strikes me as the logical culmination of all those impetuses—the furthest point of exploration, the furthest frontier, the furthest reach of challenge to our technological developments.”
For Goodfellow, the experience with SMAC, and ergo space travel began and ended in front of a computer. But all three men share the same sense of awe and fascination with the heavens that inspired Meier and Reynolds to mine it for material. Only centuries can tell whether that same wonder, passed on to countless generations, will see their children realize their forefathers’ dreams of a new heaven and new Earth.
But one can always dream.