On the SLS

NASA has always built its house on political sand, not rock. While they can get lots of funding at the political high-tide, they can also get bogged down to failure. For instance, the ill-fated Space Shuttle program (or STS) was a result of shifting goals and influences on design from disparate sectors.

Similarly, the new Space Launching System (or SLS) is the brainchild of political forces. Its first stage is an extended Space Shuttle External Tank, and its first-stage engines are Space Shuttle Main Engines. Its solid boosters are STS-derived. This means that most of the STS tooling can be kept, and thus constituencies keep their jobs. I have to admit, this re-use reduces design times, but it is not the most efficient way to build a heavy launch vehicle, especially since the technology is more intricate than it needs to be (jacking up production costs).

The SLS is designed to launch the Orion capsule, which was designed as part of the under-funded Constellation program. The Orion spacecraft uses the Apollo architecture, and NASA helps this comparison by painting the SLS with white-and-black roll patterns reminiscent of the famous Saturn V rocket. Combined with the use of STS systems, the SLS threatens to become one big nostalgic mash. Unfortunately for NASA, this means its shortcomings will be overlooked in the future, much like the Space Shuttle program.

For instance, nobody is quite sure what to do with the damn thing after we’ve designed and built it. NASA has recently released that instead of a circum-lunar flyby, the first manned mission of the Orion/SLS will visit an asteroid that will be tugged into orbit around the Moon. After that, everyone seems to throw up their hands and say, “Mars? I guess?”

Criticisms aside, its good that we are developing any sort of heavy-lift manned capacity, because eventually it will enable deep-space missions. I’m just worried that the SLS program isn’t coherent enough to survive shifts in funding or vision. Not that NASA is particularly gifted in either of those departments. With their limited funding, I’m more interested in their robotic missions (or potential thereof — submarine to Europa, anyone?), because any manned program in the near future will consist of paddling around in the metaphorical kiddy pool.

Does Space Exploration have an ROI?

It’s easy to dismiss the current space program as a giant waste of money. Collectively, the world spends billions upon billions of dollars launching tiny pieces of metal into the sky. How could that possibly be better than, say, building a school in India or providing clean water to poor African countries, or even spending it domestically to improve our country? In the face of recent budget crises, this cry gains even more clout.

And indeed, a lot of space programs are very wasteful, especially NASA and the Roscosmos. However, this is generally due to the fact that politicians treat space as a football — another barrel of pork for their constituents. When politics and space exploration mix, you get bloated programs like the Space Shuttle and the new SLS. It’s much better when the politicians set broad goals (AKA land on the moon), fork over the money, and let the engineers work their magic. Otherwise you get a twisted maze of bureaucracy and general management which ends with wasted money and subpar designs.

But let us not forget that NASA has produced a number of very tangible technological advancements, which is summarized here better than I could. In addition, satellites are a cornerstone of the global communications network, not to mention the Global Positioning System, which is satellites. Although communications satellites are now built and launched by commercial ventures, NASA was the first and only customer for a while, and allowed companies to get some expertise in designing and building rockets. Furthermore, the space industry employs tens of thousands of people, all possible because of initial government funding.

However, those examples involve geostationary orbit at the most. What is the practical value of going out and scanning the other bodies in our solar system. Why should we launch space telescopes and space probes? If you don’t believe in the inherent value of knowledge, here is a very down-to-earth example (so to speak): the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) watches the sun 24/7 from L1. It gives us an advance warning for solar flares, allowing satellite operators enough time to turn their expensive pieces of equipment away from the sun, shielding the most delicate electronics from the impending wave of radiation. It is estimated that SOHO has paid for itself 10 times over in this fashion.

Finally, part of space exploration is the attempt to answer some of the big questions. Deep space telescopes answer some part of “Where did we come from?”, and probes to the surfaces of other planets and moon are often trying to answer “Are we alone?”. If you think this is far too sentimental an appeal, I urge you to imagine the ramifications if a future mission to Europa found microorganisms living in the oceans under the ice, or a mission to Mars found lithophiles buried under the Martian regolith. How would world philosophies change?

Regardless, we may be spending too much money and spending it in the wrong places. I submit to you the Indian space program, which designed and launched a mission to Mars for about 75 million dollars. I think the US should follow India’s example and lean towards frugality and very specific, directed goals. Accomplishing a single mission for a small amount of money is better, in my opinion, than developing several high-profile, high-cost programs simultaneously.

While my language and previous post may make it seem like I am opposed to any sort of space exploration, I am merely of the opinion that our society views space exploration in the wrong way. Space exploration should not be about sending humans to other bodies, at least not right now. It should be about trying to find out more about the rest of our solar system, so we can extrapolate and make predictions about the other systems and exoplanets we are discovering. And if all else fails, it can be a platform for many kinds of materials and electronics research.

Say “No” to Manned Spaceflight

I like the idea of people walking around on other planets as much as the next guy, but at the end of the day I can’t go away with a clear conscience without making this point. There is no reason for a manned space program, either now or in the immediate future. In fact, it would be quite irresponsible of us to go mucking around on other balls of dirt.

Much like the archaeologists of the past who used ancient scrolls to keep their fires going, any serious presence or in-situ resource utilization could be inadvertently destroying priceless research subjects. Imagine if we started harvesting ice from asteroids, and then discovered that very old ice tends can contain detailed records of proto-stellar conditions in the Solar System. Even things like rolling robots across Mars or slamming probes into the Moon are calculated risks. We’re pretty sure we won’t mess up anything important, but we aren’t sure. Paradoxically, we can’t be sure what we’re missing without taking some of these risks.

Nonetheless, sending advanced primates to do the job of fast, clean, accurate robots is as irresponsible as it is stupid. Animals are hosts to trillions of bacteria, and if even one strain gets onto the surface of Mars, say, and adapts to the not-so-inhospitable conditions, it’s all over. We rely on the hard vacuum of space to kill off any potential infection vectors on robotic spacecraft, but we can’t do the same for humans. If we’re going to be sending humans to any place remotely capable of developing life, we need to be almost 100% sure there is no life there to begin with, or that the presence of invasive species of bacteria won’t eliminate it.

Even if we make sure to within reasonable doubt that there is no longer or never was life on Mars, we might be screwing ourselves in the long run by sending humans to colonize. If a mutant strain of bacteria spreads to cover the planet like the stromatolites of ancient Earth, and starts eating up what little oxygen is left, then any terraforming efforts could be foiled before they begin. Imagine if our engineered bacteria produces oxygen as a byproduct, and a rogue strain works in the other way. We’d have created a widespread stable ecosystem that leaves us asphyxiating out in the cold.

The two arguments in favor of long-range manned spaceflight have never held much water for me, even if I wanted them to. First, the “putting our eggs in one basket”. Now, current manned spaceflight has nothing to do with the colonization of space. If we were serious about spreading a permanent, self-sustaining presence to another planet, we would have to completely reorganize the existing attitude and institutions surrounding manned spaceflight. Currently, the world’s collective manned spaceflights are a road to nowhere. The ISS is a good sandbox for learning about long-term missions, but we don’t really use it like that.

The second argument is economic. I’ve gone over this is previous posts, but the short of it is that it will be a long time before its profitable to go off-world for resources — unless, that is, there is an exterior source of funding. It’s conceivable that a mild industry might build up around mining space ice for fuel and 3D-printing components. However, at some point funding has to be provided by someone interested in scientific exploration or the intrinsic value of space exploration. A self-contained space economy with Earth as the main buyer is not viable. Perhaps there exists a chicken-egg dilemma: a permanent off-world colony needs industry to survive, and industry needs off-world colonies to thrive.

That’s the cold, hard reality of the matter. I don’t want to have this opinion, but avoiding the truth about manned space exploration isn’t doing anybody any good.

Burn

I’ve been aiming to make a post about this for a while. Here is one preliminary design document I made a while ago. It calls for something similar to the situation described in A Deepness in the Sky.

Game Beginning

You start out as a young man, fleeing a vicious civilization collapse. As the member of a wealthy Qeng Ho family and son of a fleet leader, you are in charge of the only ship that escaped. You are powered down in orbit of a gas giant, watching the aftermath of the Fall. A lot of your archives have been corrupted, so you need to find some other traders or find a world to raise up.

The very first thing you do is name your family branch. Then you figure out how to take inventory of your ship systems, and how to scan surrounding space. You learn about light-lag. You have just enough fuel to get up to operating velocity. You can choose a target system.

Your aim is to become the leader of the Qeng Ho. This is not an easy feat; the Qeng Ho is a diffuse trading race, with no clear organizational hierarchy. There are several trading “families”, each with large offshoot branches (e.g. Vinh 2.0.3). The objective is to gain enough influence, and then call a meeting of the Qeng Ho. At this meeting you either convince all the families to follow you, or perform a hostile takeover.

You have as many years as are in your life to do this. Note that if you meet a civilization with hyper-advanced medical technology, this means a time bonus. You do have cryo-freeze for the time in transit between stars.

Personal Mechanics

Throughout the game there are personalities on your ship and on other ships that you can talk with. What you say affects what they think of you. If they hear bad things about you from others, they will enter into relations with poor expectations. Reputation influences the trades you can get, as well as favors you can ask.

If you gain a high enough reputation and interact enough with a person, you may become friends. You are not notified whether or not they consider you a friend until you bring it up. Friends will vouch for you or join in on a plan. Friends are much more likely to answer a distress signal you put out.

Traders that are well known often have available profiles. When you trade for someone’s profile, you can see their reputation with others, their personality, and most of their history. By gaining enough reputation with a person, you can find out what they think of other people.

Interstellar Travel Mechanics

A Bussard ramjet is used to travel quickly between star systems. A ramjet can only go so far before the mechanism breaks down. A ramjet needs to move at a certain fraction of the speed of light in order to scoop up enough fuel to continue operating. While flying above that threshold, your fuel tanks fill up. When decelerating, accelerating, or maneuvering, you burn fuel without regaining any. It is only possible to accelerate up to 30% the speed of light; a lot of energy is spent accelerating floating interstellar hydrogen up to your speed.

Ramjet engines can not be repaired on the fly. In order to fully repair an engine, you need to trade with a civilization that has the requisite technological level. This means that you may have to raise a civilization to high-tech in order to continue flying.

If your engine breaks down mid-flight, you will very slowly lose speed (from colliding with interstellar particles), and continue to drift until you either exit the galaxy, crash into a star, or are picked up.

Note that different regions of space have different interstellar medium densities. For instance, our local cluster lies inside a relatively sparse region, making ramjets less feasible. One aspect of choosing a destination in the game is navigating around low-density “bubbles”.

Choosing your target is important. Since you can only hear transmissions from the past, you have to judge whether or not a civilization will be as advanced as you want it to be when you arrive. Flying to a system that is at a peak level of technological advancement will probably have collapsed by the time your fleet arrives. This just means you have to spend time (although you have cryogenics, you still usually come out of it every so many months to make sure the fleet is still on track) helping them get back up to a sufficient level to repair your fleet.

Trading Mechanics

Planetary civilizations rarely want materials. They can mine almost everything they need from their system, and the price of lugging raw materials across interstellar space is too high for you. The exception is high-tech equipment. Civilizations will pay dearly for technology that they either cannot physically manufacture (as with Beyond relics) or are nowhere near the technological sophistication needed to synthesize the tech.

Civilizations value information more than anything. A faction will pay a grand sum for anything that will let them dominate their opponents. Advanced secrets help advanced civilizations keep their expanding infrastructure under control. Usually you can broadcast such information ahead of you, as long as its encrypted. This gives the civilization warning that you are coming, and when you get there you can trade away the keys needed to decrypt the information (on this note, the Qeng Ho constantly broadcast a certain amount of information for free to make sure that civilizations they meet have similar measurement standards, language, etc.).

Conversely, traders have a huge store of knowledge, but lack the infrastructure or resources to maintain themselves. Spacefleets will often bargain limited pieces of technology in order to buy volatiles, fuel, and new equipment. Sometimes civilizations will provide these for free to weasel better deals from you.

Occasionally a civilization will become exceedingly advanced in one area of technology. They will invent something truly revolutionary. If you get your hands on one of these pieces of technology, you will have leverage over all other Traders. You may have to bargain hard to wrest the technology from the civilization at hand.

Combat Mechanics

Be warned. Consistent use of weapons will cause other traders to shun you and make civilizations bar you from their systems. Someone might even try to hunt you down if you destroy their civilization but leave even part of a defense fleet.

Space combat is a fickle subject to approach. It is best summed up by these two pages on Atomic Rockets, although every page there provides good insight.

Interplanetary Flight

This will probably be some sort of simplified KSP-like interface. That is, you initiate maneuvers to change orbit. The problem here is balancing technical details against flexibility and realism. Optimally, players should be able to identify their desire to conserve fuel against time constraints, and let the computer select the best orbital maneuvers to transfer between planets, space stations, Lagrange point colonies, etc. However, because players may want to do wonky things in orbit during a battle sequence (establish oblique orbits, do hard burns, etc.)

I guess you could distinguish between normal navigation and battles. Battles would probably happen around one central body, unless there was a moon involved. However, battles would probably happen really fast (over in minutes) or really slow (taking months).


And that’s as far as I got in describing it.

Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

Epic-scale Strategy Game

One idea for a game that has stuck with me for over a year has been that of a massive-scale strategy game. A crude way to describe it would be a cross between World in Conflict(WiC) and Spore (except it wouldn’t be as lackluster as Spore). The idea behind it is that players start out at a low rank, and are promoted based combat proficiency on the battlefield. When I have described this idea to people, they have likened it to America’s Army.

Each round of the game takes place on large battlefields covering a multitude of environments. The game would undoubtedly be set in the future, so the environments could range from undeveloped farm worlds and water worlds to urban centers and various theaters of space. A single player presides over the whole battlefield as a general, setting basic goals and deciding strategy. Each battlefield is in turn broken up into districts, which ranges in size from a WiC map (usually a couple miles across) to four WiC maps. Up to 8 commanders control 0 to 6 squads (they can order more based on reinforcement points) within each district. Each squad consists of 4 to 8 players, with one squad leader.

Screenshot of World in Conflict

Screenshot of World in Conflict


The basic foot soldier is expected to focus on objectives set by the squad leader. The squad leader is in charge of directing which positions to take and which enemies to focus on. A commander sets goals such as strategic objectives (defined by the game), rally points, and drop zones to secure. They are also in charge of ordering more troops. Their basic strategic goals are determined by the general above them, or perhaps an intermediary presiding over the district.

One major problem that becomes immediately apparent is discipline. How does one keep a player on task? The first solution that comes to mind is to let superior officers give or take promotion points based on the performance of players below them. However, this is easily abusable, both in the giving or taking of too many points and in the complete disregard for dealing with promotion points. The best solution is to have proficiency judged by the game. So what kind of criteria does the game have?

  1. Completion of given objectives

  2. Objectives are judged by the difficulty regarding enemy presence in the area and a number of other minor variables, the most important of which is subordinate proficiency. Failure to complete an objective due to it being impossibly difficult or having an inept team would barely count against a player. Conversely, failure to complete simple objectives would be counted against a player.

  3. Rendition of reasonable objectives

  4. A commander, whether at a high strategic level or as a squad leader, has a responsibility to give orders which make sense. If a commander is extremely incompetent, his commanding officer can choose to temporarily demote him, allowing another to take his place. In addition, sound tactical decisions are encouraged. Deciding to attack a position without much intel, even if the position is strategically important, is a bad choice. If a commander has access to tactical aid, poor placement will result in removal of promotion points.

  5. Combat Proficiency

  6. If the player is a grunt, he is also be promoted based on statistics like accuracy, deaths, and kills. Heroism and initiative may also be rewarded, such as single-handedly taking an objective or destroying a vehicle.

A player who accrues enough promotion points will be promoted to the next rank. There may be multiple ranks per command level to ensure that there will most likely be a command hierarchy even if two decimated squads are merged. Even if a player is promoted, though, it is possible that he will fill a slot lower down in the structure. If there are already enough commanders, someone qualified to be a general may be forced to serve as a grunt. However, if his squad leader is killed then he will instantly fill that slot (unless someone is of a higher rank than him). When a soldier dies, he is placed in a reserve pool. Until a commander orders another squad, he has to wait. Fortunately, battlefields are huge, and most likely, especially at the height of the battle, someone will need a new squad. Nonetheless, a delay time while waiting to be ordered also acts as natural motivation to stay alive. Be warned though, cowardice will be punished highly! Soldiers who pass qualification courses for things like vehicle piloting, administering first aid, and sniping will be able to fill special support slots.

Alongside infantry, commanders will be able to order a range of vehicles, including tanks, transports, and dropships. Other vehicles, like helicopters and ships, will be available as a special unit which must leave after a period of time. Tactical aid not delivered by a player includes artillery (including orbital strikes), airstrikes, and reconnaissance. All tactical aid (i.e. units and abilities not able to be ordered with reinforcement points) is able to be gained through spending tactical aid points, which a commander receives for performing well on the battlefield. Tactical aid points are different from promotion points in that they do not stick from game to game and that they are awarded for quantitative properties, such as objectives completed and enemy units destroyed.

The first person gameplay of the grunts would mirror other mainstream shooters. Each soldier has an array of guns, with the maximum weight decided by the planet’s gravity. Secondary weapons such as grenades and tactical devices (repair kits, radar kits, radios, medkits, etc) are available. A soldier can resort to melee if he runs out of bullets or is restricted by the environment (close quarters, pressurized space environment, presence of volatile props). The game’s varying environments also heavily affects gameplay. For instance, combat in space is an entirely different experience. Players would be able to move almost infinitely far (but would be penalized for abandoning objectives), and combat would be a lot slower. Players would have to worry about keeping their suits intact as well as jetpacks. Vehicles would also play a larger role. Alongside dropships becoming more versatile and critical, spaceships would start playing a role. In some cases the commanders might even be able to control large cruisers with a deadly array of weapons. Space stations would also hold a lot of firepower for whichever side’s soldiers could maintain control of it.

The story of the game would revolve around two distinct sides. Two budding empires emerge from different sectors but end up clashing for control of the core colonies. Whichever side dominates the colonies gains ultimate control over known space, since the colonies are the main centers of knowledge and raw material production. Humans have developed faster-than-light travel, but have not yet perfected material synthesization, so the majority of humans still rely on farm worlds and other such production centers to get metal, food, and leisure products. The FTL will probably be like The Mote in God’s Eye, in which ships can manipulate certain zones of space determined by gravitational fields to jump between stars. These jump points are hard to calculate, and only one exists between each set of stars. FTL communications have not been developed, so the only way to get a message to another system is to send a ship (a jump disables electronics and requires a sentient being to boot the systems back up).