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How To: Not Die in Space (Top 5 Space Simulations That Might Teach You a Thing or Two)

How To: Not Die in Space – Top 5 Space Simulations That Might Teach You a Thing or Two

Article by Frank Memmesheimer

 

Space is hard.

On September 01, 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket suffered “a breach in the cryogenic helium system” during its pre-launch static fire test. The catastrophic anomaly resulted in a RUD, a rapid unscheduled disassembly. For the uninitiated: that’s astronaut speech for “big bada boom.” The ascent vehicle and its satellite payload were lost in a gigantic fireball. From aboard the International Space Station (ISS) astronaut John Kelly tweeted: “Space is hard.”

Space exploration is among the most complicated of endeavors mankind has dedicated itself to. Just try to wrap your head around the enormity of a task such as docking spaceships at over 17,000 miles per hour (about 7,6 miles per second) 250 miles above ground, or to set out and send a probe on a journey over millions of miles to meet with an asteroid months later at the exact location (out there in an infinite sea of dark nothingness) you calculated both would rendezvous.

Space being hard was what drove those pioneers involved in the first half century of the space race to keep pushing the boundaries of what was doable. (That and the feeling of having a rival breath down their necks.) In his visionary 1962 “moon speech”, President John F. Kennedy appealed to the human spirit of discovery and the capacity to achieve the seemingly impossible.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, […] because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.” JFK

That spirit brought forth a sizeable amount of bold missions that stretch to the edge of our solar system; that spirit created capable crafts that long outperform their expectations.  To this very day, the challenges of space exploration bring together the brightest of minds and drive people to go above and beyond the imaginable, to once more defy all odds with defiant determination.

(http://geoawesomeness.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Space-Exploration-Map-Large-Geoawesomeness.jpg)

This Chart of Cosmic Exploration details every successful space mission that turned its focus beyond earth, ranging from Luna 2 (1959) to DSCOVR (2015).

As a space-faring people, not only do we appreciate the challenge, we rejoice in our triumphs, we mourn our failures. We do not utter it lightly or apologetically when we concede that space is still hard, that despite our best of efforts we still do fail. Yet, we mustn’t allow our resolve to be weakened but strive towards mastering spaceflight rather sooner than later. We ought to. We need to. Getting it 100% right 99% of the time is not good enough when lives are at stake and en route to our next door neighboring planet.

But wait – what does all this have to do with you and with space games? Well, nothing and everything. If you don’t happen to be enlisted in any astronaut program right now, you’re most likely not going to space in your lifetime – even if your heart and mind are set on it. By the time space tourism becomes viable, most of you, dear readers, will be too old to be a part of it – myself included.  Sorry for bursting your bubble. Here’s plan B, though, implementable within the hour: space games of the mind-boggling kind.

For this list, I’ve chosen games where space is still the real challenge, not escaping hideous creatures aboard your spaceship or maneuvering the intricacies of a galactic trade war. Games that offer the best of both worlds: to experience the excitingly incalculable dangers of space from the comfort and safety of your ergonomically adapted chair and desk. Pay attention, though. The games could potentially save your life: After all, I might be wrong and you might find yourself aboard a space craft sooner than expected. Knowing how to fly, dock, or land this thing might come in handy in such a situation … You just never know what occasional surprise the future (of space flight) has in store for you.

So, without further ado, here they are: the top 5 space simulations that might teach you a thing or two about space and how to not die out there.

 

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5. Adrift

You should have paid more attention during astronaut training.

Adrift places its main (and only) character Commander Alex Oshima in what is easily the worst day of her life. Waking from the dark and gasping for air, she finds herself adrift in space, floating amidst junks of space debris. Barely holding onto a cable, she rappels closer to what once was the proud space station HAN IV and is now a death trap. Critically low on oxygen and with no recollection of the events leading up to the catastrophic failure, the player steps into the shoes and spacesuit of Commander Oshima and begins the search for survivors, more oxygen, and ultimately: a way home.

Panic and disorientation set in, as the dwindling oxygen and warning signals only aggravates the clumsy attempts of moving around in zero gravity. Like every rigid body in a three dimensional space, the player has six degrees of freedom of movement, in which the character can and needs to be controlled: three dimensions of direction (up/down, back/forward, left/right) and three independent linear axes of rotation. That’s a whole lot of options for potential movement.

(Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fa/6DOF_en.jpg)

Biggest difference to moving around on earth: nothing’s stoppin’ ya up there. Every directional thrust or rotation translates into a continuous movement until another input is given to counter or adjust the former input. Almost nothing is slowing you down by default. This necessitates a series of small yet difficult to execute movements for navigating the debris field, all the while travelling with an orbital speed equivalent to that of the ISS of 7.67km/s (27,000km/h or 17,200 mph). Only one glance away is the tantalizing beauty of earth turning underneath your station as you desperately try to stay alive.

This first-person adventure tasks the player with menial tasks such as opening and closing hatches, activating a computer, taking parts from A to B, collecting hard drives; tasks that quickly become tedious and repetitive. Then again, it might be a spot-on portrayal of working in space: every task scheduled down to the minute, repeated often, done by the book. The key is not getting bored by it because that is when mistakes happen that endanger the structural integrity of the station and the lives of everyone on board. Oh, wait …

The in-game atmosphere is great and at times almost overwhelming. The story is not. Even as you finally board the rescue shuttle home, there are no answers as to what happened. Personal belongings of the crew member reveal fragments of the lives lost in the accident, a real sense of “story”, however, does not sprout throughout the six hours of gameplay. The occasional radio transmissions leave only clues as to what happened. That much is clear in the end: you, the overly eager station Commander, are responsible for the destruction of the station and the death of your fellow astronauts. Compassion or regret did not arise at any point; too dull were the characters and biographies, including Oshima’s.

Adrift, unnecessarily titled Adr1ft, is a great tech demo with short playing time; a game for in between games. I tested the game on PC and did not get to experience the game’s VR capability. Those who did, speak of a mind-blowing experience of weightlessness, disorientation, and anxiety. Neither the quickly repetitive missions, nor additional steam achievements make up for the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to do in the game, except fly around in a space suit and master your EVA skills – which is awesome, just maybe not enough to carry the whole game for long.

 

Why the game made the list:

Adrift masters the EVA-aspect and is probably as close as most of us will ever get to walking in space.

ADDITIONAL GAMING: You liked the first-person EVA-aspect, yet suffered from the game’s gunlessness? The first mission in Call of Duty: Ghosts takes you to an orbital weapons platform, where you briefly battle for dominance over Odin Space Station – inside as well as outside – before the inevitable reunion with earth’s atmosphere heats things up a bit. Shattered Horizon takes the multiplayer first-person shooter genre to eight zero gravity environments in orbit around earth or the moon. Space guns are still deadly, though.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING: NASA recently released a fly-through tour of the International Space Station. Truly insightful. As far as movies are concerned: Gravity (2013). Space debris has never looked more beautiful. Also: Moonraker (1979). The eleventh installment of the James Bond movie franchise pitches astronauts with laser guns against each other and takes a few liberties concerning the laws of physics. Always good for a heartfelt chuckle.

 

 

4. Universe Sandbox 2

Some well-oiled machines just need a good wrench thrown into their works every now and then. Just to see what happens. For science, of course.

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. … And God said: ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. … God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. … And God saw that it was good.”The Bible (King James Version): Genesis 1,1-18 (excerpts)

Then, after everything had settles into its natural place in the universe, God said something like “Let’s rapidly increase the mass of Jupiter, say a hundred-fold, and fiddle with its orbital velocity to give it a good nudge towards the center of the solar system. Let’s do that and then watch what happens. Heck, just throw in a few hundred more moons all over the place to make sure it’ll be spectacular. You know how much I like a big bang.”

Admittedly, I may have taken a few liberties with that last passage. Let me stop myself right here before I develop any other ideas that further endanger the fragile balance our planet hangs in. In hindsight, it is a good thing He did not turn all too adventuresome with our home planet on an idle Tuesday. Nonetheless, that shan’t keep you from doing so.

“How would I go about that?” you ask. Let me introduce you to Universe Sandbox 2, a physics-based sandbox space simulation that allows you to create and destroy planets and solar systems, reign over galaxies, and have the entire universe at your whim.

From a divine third-person perspective, the player interacts with a variety of objects in the universe (comets, asteroids, planets, suns, and galaxies) and has free control over the physical properties of, well, almost everything: time, mass, density and gravity, axes and rotational periods, climate, distances and orbital velocities – there’s almost nothing that cannot be manipulated in Universe Sandbox 2. From placing a multitude of planets and moons wherever you see fit, over influencing the orbits of bodies in space to cause collisions, up to merging galaxies, creating supernovae and black holes – if you can think it, this game most likely can simulate it.

Not only does Universe Sandbox 2 allow you to run wild with the whole shebang of divine creativity, it allows an educational and truly amazing glance behind the carefully crafted wonders of our universe. Pressing the chart button in any simulation, for example, takes you to an on-screen size comparison of all bodies involved in that particular scenario. Seeing our very own blue marble next to our neighboring planets and our sun puts things into perspective. Continuing to compare the scale of our sun to other solar giants out there is a balancing act between mind-boggling amazement and sobering self-awareness. Take UY Scuti for example, the (as of yet) biggest star we’ve discovered in the known universe. It presents itself with a modest size of 1,708 (±192) times the size of our own sun – dimensions that easily bring the most capable of imaginations to a screeching halt.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VY_Canis_Majoris#/media/File:Sun_and_VY_Canis_Majoris.svg)

Once you get in on the terminology and see your understanding of orbital mechanics increase ever so slightly but steadily, you will begin to appreciate the extensive collection of tutorials, science experiments, and detailed scenarios that present the highlights of our solar system and beyond. The simulation of Saturn and all of its orbiting objects, for example, is truly fascinating to watch and fiddle around with. It’s even more impressive from a technical standpoint. The multi-body gravity simulation even withstands the test of time acceleration, at least as long as your CPU can keep up with a pace of up to three simulated years of crowded space traffic per real-life second.

Like its predecessor, Universe Sandbox 2 started it out as an early access title, recently having updated its VR version to Alpha 20 in order to match the desktop version’s progress. The long-desired ‘disintegration upgrade’ hurls fragments of collisions all across space. Full body fragmentation, however, remains one of the goals for a prospective update. Giant Army, the developers, have published an extensive and exhilarating roadmap for 2017 and beyond, which unfortunately (or soberly so) does not specify exactly when to expect the many outlined improvements. To keep up with development make sure to check out their dev-blog, which is highly readable, honest, and informative.

 

Why the game made the list:

Universe Sandbox 2 excels at turning cramming astrophysics into sheer fun. Also: collisions! The game invokes a sense of scale of the universe like no other game.

ADDITIONAL GAMING: There is no real alternative to this title’s unique approach. Period. Worth mentioning, though: for the price of an app, Aurora Nights offers a neat little refresher course on stellar constellations as seen from earth. Not the same, still enjoyable.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  Interested in planets, stars, and stuff? Make sure to let Phil Plait (“The Bad Astronomer Blog”) teach you about astronomy: “Our universe is cool enough without making up crap about it.” Sunshine (2007) might be your cup of tea if you liked the “Let’s just try and see what happens”-approach of fiddling around with the very fundamentals of our universe. Dropping a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan into the sun to jump start it? Go right ahead! Give it a try and see what happens. Also, prepare for mesmerizing close-ups of our sun. Interstellar (2014) delivers the most stunning (and scientifically accurate) visuals of and from within a wormhole and a black hole the world has seen to date.

 

 

3. Take on Mars

“Skip years of astronaut training, political debate, and budget cuts. […] Don’t wait until the 2030s and save yourself billions of dollars.” – Official sales pitch for Take on Mars

The year is 2028 and you find yourself among the select few who are spacebound to push mankind’s new frontier  beyond the greyish red (or reddish grey?) horizons of Mars. After briefly visiting and waking the ISS from hibernation (interestingly enough, the game’s setting coincides with the real-life 2028 expiration date for the ISS)  eight months of required travel time from Earth to Mars are covered in a matter of seconds. The rudimentary narrative informs you that, unsurprisingly, the ambitious mission took the almost worst turn imaginable. Surrounded by a field of debris of what was once mankind’s boldest undertaking, you wake to the unnerving sound of oxygen evaporating from your cracked space helmet.

After patching the hole, topping of your oxygen, mourning your fellow travelers, and locating the emergency tent, you doze off and deservedly so. You have survived crash day. The first day is always the hardest to survive, right? Right?

Before day two will prove that the only easy day was yesterday, the game rewards the player with a play-through of  the character’s memories of the training course on the Moon near the historic Apollo 17 landing site.

Basic training on the Moon offers a glimpse into what life is like for interplanetary settlers. Walking and driving in 0.16g gravity (16,6% of Earth’s gravity) is fun and hard work at once. Don’t expect too much fun from the experience, though. You’re there to work; working is pretty much all you do – both on the Moon and on Mars. Sometimes you will be busy all day without much to do or show for. Exploring and colonizing off-world locations can be tedious for hours on end. Opening and closing doors, pressurizing compartments, booting this, deploying that, dragging A from B just to realize you forgot your space construction tool, returning to base, retrieving said tool, more walking, driving, following road markers, constructing, accidentally banging your head and dying. Yes, you will die on Mars, a lot.

Your vision limited by the necessary suit, your movements uncoordinated, the interaction with objects clunky, stairs turning into the devious death traps that they are, sharp edges everywhere – Mars  sure is deadly, and the game sometimes staggeringly random in recalling you from life and leaving behind a legacy for others to find.

As sole survivor you cling to life but barely so, being stranded on Mars with no way of contacting earth, scavenging for supplies, driving to the next landing site to utilize the incoming return vehicle to get home again… – sound remarkably familiar to the plot of The Martian? Well, yeah… Neither is the game shy about its obvious nod to / emulation of tried and tested of sci-fi story elements, nor is the marketing campaign reticent about its pop cultural references. Replaying a familiar story certainly has its charms, yet one can only hope for future games, novels, and films to come up with different story arcs.

While the narrative of the single player campaign remains sterile and uncaptivating, Take on Mars does remarkably well in other areas. Besides its manned exploration mode, the robotics section of the game allows you to (re)create landers and rovers, to send them to the red planet and explore it via remote control: take photos and soil samples, and leave your very own track marks until there’s nothing left on your rover’s wheels. It’s a good thing, though, that the 20 minutes of signal delay and eight months of travel time are not realistically simulated.

To combat the sometimes lonely single player experience, Take on Mars includes a co-op multiplayer mode that allows you to share the experience with a fellow traveler. Building your base together is twice the fun: Either share the workload or secretly sabotage your fellow Martian’s strenuous endeavors. Either way, you’re in for really long days and awkward dinner conversations.

Lest I forget, let me mention the most important piece of equipment in every regard: A 3D-printer, of course. The future is self-printed. Harvest the right resources from the ground and go crazy with your printer. If you eventually run out of things to print, you can always print bigger DIY-parts to build an even bigger printer.

Developer Bohemia Interactive have made a name for themselves with their extremely mod-supportive flagship Arma-series, an approach they continue with Take on Mars. The built-in editor provides the initiated with ample opportunity to mod the ToM-experience to their liking.

Whether you’re enthused by SpaceX’s visionary Elon Musk, who regularly makes rocket science look easy in word and deed (possibly beginning to “make humans a multi-planet species” in the next decade) or you consider the more conservative approach of NASA’s Commander Hadfield (“practice on the Moon first) realistic, one thing is for sure: a whole lot of inventions will be necessary to make sure the first manned mission to Mars does tell a story different to the ones we currently like to tell. Let’s make it a good one!

 

Why the game made the list:

Co-op multiplayer mode, remote controlled rovers, and mod(ifi)ability. Space exploration might be a tedious and lonely undertaking, yet Take on Mars let’s you go about it with a friend.

ADDITIONAL GAMING: Space Engineers is already too sci-fi-y for this list. It is a block-building sandbox game that allows player to build ships and bases, harvest resources and battle other players. The early access title is a space-based mixture of Minecraft and Garry’s Mod, along with a few other titles. The upcoming Stationeers offers a building experience which focusses on resource and utility systems. Astroneer offers a cartoonified exploration experienced that doesn’t bother too much with geological realism and makes colonizing other planets seem enjoyably easy. One day, real-life Mars explorers will very likely be playing this then historic title during their downtime. Planetbase is a base building strategy game with an isometric perspective. Its focus is on balancing the diversifying needs of an ever-growing settlement while completing an ulterior task (collect a certain amount of recourses for example). With no enemy bases to capture, the strategic gameplay of most missions is a return of the repetitive.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  The Martian (2015) is a must. Also: the original novel by Andy Weir, as it is heavier on the science aspect of the futuristic Robinsonade. Even the occasional inaccuracies will make you a better thinker, settler, survivor. Ignore all other movies about Mars.

 

 

2. Kerbal Space Program

Check! Yo! Staging!

1961: First human ventures into space.
1969: First humans walk on the Moon.
2000: First humans crowd the International Space Station (ISS).
2013: Chinese rover “Jade Rabbit” lands on the Moon. Does not find Americans.
2014: ESA lands a teeny tiny robot on comet 67P/Tschurj…something.
2017: NASA and SpaceX race each other to send humans to a red rock millions of miles away, to boldly go where no human has gone before.

Not bold enough for you? Then go and do something about it!

 Kerbal Space Program – lovingly abbreviated to KSP by space enthusiasts around the globe – lets you do exactly that: run your own space program as boldly as you dare. KSP is a physics-based, all-encompassing simulation of space exploration that tasks its players with calculating rocket fuels and trajectories, constructing, launching, and piloting space crafts, executing docking maneuvers and orbital assembly, mining asteroids, embarking on interplanetary travel and exploration, building and maintaining space stations and off-world bases. In KSP, space becomes your playground and responsibility.

The game offers two different game modes. Sandbox mode allows you to access all available construction parts without monetary restrictions and lets your engineering aspirations run wild. Career mode adds finances, research-and-development, and a general sense of technological progression to the mix before setting you on a path you will never truly finish: KSP has no end game; there’s no real playthrough, as ultimately, you set your own goals for exploring the Kerbal universe.

The heroic characters of the game are Jebediah, Bill, Bob, and Valentina Kerman – small, green, froglike creatures: Kerbals, which  you will grow surprisingly fond of, as they are right there with you when the game rewards you with many memorable moments: the first flight that doesn’t go up in flames, your first orbital rendezvous with another space craft, when you replay the historic moon landing and actually ace it and make it back to earth in one piece, that one time you forget to install a heat shield on the return capsule and make Mrs Jebedia Kerman the first widow of your ambitious attempt to reach for the stars. Some things work out, some things just don’t. But hey, such is life as a space pioneer, right?

The entire KSP-experience would be unthinkable without the game’s friendly worldwide community on reddit and the official forums, where players share constructions files, brag among their peers, admire and inspired, accept weekly challenges to go higher, faster, further, lighter. The immense amount of freely available mods make every KSP experience a unique one and allows you to scale the game to your skills and willingness to be challenged, adding resource management (nutrition, liquids, waste, heat), signal delay, and realistic heat during atmospheric re-entry (the corresponding mod is tellingly named “deadly re-entry”).

One of the reasons KSP is successful as a simulation is because it combines gaming and learning in a naturally challenging, yet non-patronizing way. While the game challenges you to go above and beyond your current level of comfort and expertise, learning about (astro)physics comes naturally in the process of taking the next step. Want to place a satellite in orbit around Kerbin? You’ll want to learn about ascent angles, delta V, orbital velocity, and how to raise periapsis and apoapsis. Planning on visiting other planets? Escape trajectory and velocity, as well as interplanetary transfer windows will be the topics to read up on. And you’ll love to do so. Whatever your next goal might be, it will involve some serious learning that will soon after be put to the test, and a healthy amount of tinkering until you get it right. Since 2011, KSP has helped innumerous students of engineering and astrophysics courses across the globe to achieve a level of understanding of orbital mechanics that is actually graspable and goes well beyond the equations in their textbooks. Of course there is a corresponding XKCD:

(Image source: https://xkcd.com/1356/)

Kerbal Space Program is an invitation to go above and beyond, to fly your very own space ship to the edges of space and spread the word about a space sim that hands you the master key to it all. Though be warned: should you find yourself in a position that is affiliated with a real-life space-faring government agency or private corporation, you might be best advised to keep your KSP-fellowship a secret. Administrators and supervisors might not let you near those crafts with wings and engines ever again. I’ll let the second corresponding XKCD drive this point home.

 

Why the game made the list:

Kerbal Space Program is the most diverse physics-based space sim out there; encouraging natural curiosity and learning, and will continue to challenge players for years to come.

ADDITIONAL GAMING: There is no game like KSP. Other games might have their moments, might excel in a particular area, yet there’s no game out there – in this universe or any other – that offers anywhere near the complete experience that is Kerbal Space Program. The early access title Simple Planes features a similar but isolated building of planes as a standalone game.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  Sending utterly unprepared folks into space to drill into an asteroid? Smacking space station equipment with the biggest tools around to make it work again? Just winging an orbital rendezvous? Defusing nukes in space just because? Been there, done that? Well, Armageddon and Space Cowboys will be to your liking. If you thrive on the constant confrontation with the deadly unknown, the miss-calculated, the ill-engineered, and the sheer unlucky, not only is KSP the right game for you, you might actually enjoy the touch-and-go true story of Apollo 13 and become a more knowledgeable space-enthusiast because of it.

 

 

1. Orbiter 2016

It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.  

It all started when civilization didn’t end with the advent of the year 2000. The Y2K bug fell short of bringing about the collapse of modernity and spared mankind from having to start over again. Everything seemed possible in the early months of a new millennium that would see technological acceleration like none before.

Deep down in the dungeons of the Department of Computer Science at University College London (UK), however, one man was discontent. Despite all progress and promise the world had to offer, a sobering realization had come to our protagonist: the state in which space flight simulations found themselves in ever since they were thrust into the hands of eager spare time spaceman was a dire one. “Most of the space-themed games seemed to be woefully lacking in anything like a proper physics-based flight model – they insulted players’ intelligence by behaving like F1-racing or WW-I flight sims.”

Having gained interest in space flight and video games during his childhood days, our man was faced with a momentous decision: what to do about it?

“So, some lazy afternoon,” Martin Schweiger, Ph.D. remembers in a rare interview with TechHaze (here’s the obligatory shout-out to reddit-user Bubblebuts, who unearthed the otherwise untraceable interview), “I decided to try and find out if I couldn’t do better than that.” During day-light hours, the medical physicist applied his expertise in the fields of medical imaging, mathematical modelling, and inverse problems, while his off-hours were spent moonlighting and writing his very own space sim from scratch, picking up 3D-programming-skills along the way. Schweiger set out to demonstrate the principles of space flight in an engaging way without sacrificing the accuracy of real-life physics for the sake of gameplay.

The sim’s true potential is achieved by the ever-growing community of users (the term ‘players’ wouldn’t begin to reach far enough) – modders, programmers, testers, … who come together and elevate the game beyond the core architecture of the application that Schweiger wrote and built upon in a matter of weeks and months. Although the game’s source code is only partially open (everything except the graphics system remains under wraps), Schweiger provided the opportunity to programmers to build their own assets via extensive APIs. Many of the available space crafts, screens, and missions aim at nothing less than fully simulating reality; their detailed documentation often features copies of the original manuals of historic tech and crafts. If you appreciate plain and functional design of flight decks, control panels, buttons, switches, levers, and control screens, you will have a field day with Orbiter.

In 2005, The Space Review (TSR) covered Orbiter in an in-depth article, diving into the technical aspects, mechanics, and gameplay of the simulation. The article remains highly elucidating and readable even after a decade. In 2010, the updated version of Orbiter completed the core gameplay and functionality, strengthening the foundation for user-generated crafts and missions. The 2016 version brought surface elevations, planetary surfaces derived from real satellite imagery, and improved surface collision modelling to the simulated world – reason enough for TSR to revisit the sim and shed light on how far it has come.

What sets Orbiter apart from its competition is its acceptance and application by the scientific community. Schweiger is no stranger to giving talks at ESA (European Space Agency) workshops, demonstrating the architecture and capability of Orbiter. In February 2015, international research collaboration between Belgium and Germany installed a mobile Soyuz simulator inside the British Antarctic research station Halley VI to study the effects of “a prolonged stay in isolation on the piloting skills of astronauts” (skip the German text and scroll down to the English version). During winter months, the station is unreachable and its crew reduced to 16 – conditions not unlike those on potential deep-space missions. The Soyuz sim ran Orbiter, of course, since the simulation applies the scientific process of peer-review to its development (except the source code), relying on other detail-obsessed enthusiast to find bugs, point out flaws, and obsess over miniscule inaccuracies.

What started as one man’s self-assigned challenge grew to be one of the most complex physics-based space flight simulations any space enthusiast could ask for. Today, seventeen years into Orbiter’s wild ride, the project is an inspiring community effort. Schweiger is a senior research fellow at UCL and as dedicated as ever to pursue his initial objective of “making learning about physics fun.” Had it ever occurred to him to market Orbiter and start making a dime on his creation? Not really, as it “would take more time than I can spend on it without sacrificing my scientific career, and I’m not quite ready to do that,” he told TechHaze.

 After all, Orbiter remains free for personal and educational use and can be downloaded from http://orbit.medphys.ucl.ac.uk.

Why the game made the list:

In terms of accurately simulating a physics-based space flight model in LEO (low Earth orbit) and interplanetary space, Orbiter 2016 is unmatched and most likely the closest you will ever get to piloting a time-honored Space Shuttle or a next-next-gen experimental SSTO space craft.

ADDITIONAL GAMING: Many renowned flight simulators (among those: Flight Simulator X and X-Plane) feature Space Shuttles and few other iconic air- and spacecraft and excel at their in-atmosphere flight simulation. Go for Launch: Mercury is a recently crowdfunded, educational flight simulator that focuses on crafts and missions from the Mercury program era – with full VR support. A demo is available online. The award-winning Apollo 11 VR offers a similar experience for the first Moon landing. Orbiter 2016’s space fleet, however, remains unsurpassed, its beauty and realism unmatched.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING:  If you ever wanted to know how humankind went from the Wright brothers to the moon landings in 66 years, you need to buckle up for the ride that is The Right Stuff. Concerning earth’s celestial companion, you will find never before seen footage and unmatched insight into one of the greatest adventures of all time in In the Shadow of the Moon, Ron Howard’s documentary about the Apollo missions. For closure, I recommend The Last Man on the Moon about Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to have walked on lunar soil.

 

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This concludes the list of our top 5 realistic space simulations. They’re hard, sometimes infuriatingly so. Unforgiving. They make you fail, over and over until you fail less often, less spectacularly, until you get it right one problem at a time.

“This is space. It does not cooperate. At some point, everything is going to go south on you and you are going to say “This is it. This is how I end.” You can either accept it or go to work. You do the math and solve a problem. And the next problem. And if you solve enough problems, you get to go home.” - Mark Watney (lone survivor on Mars in Andy Weir’s acclaimed novel “The Martian”).

Solve enough problems and you get to go home. Or get to Mars, whichever destination holds more promise for you.

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Disclaimer: This list is one of personal preference. As such, it does not claim to have considered all space games ever made before arriving at its final selection. The games featured herein were regularly purchased, no freebies or press copies were asked for, offered, or accepted at any point. We pay for our own games. Yes, we’re this nerdy.

Frank Memmesheimer

Aspiring teacher-to-be, he spends his time reading and writing, watching and making movies, and paying close attention to beginnings and endings. Ever curious. Strives to learn something new every day. Looking to meet people who can teach him a thing or two. Loves photography, traveling, and everything outdoors.

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