To reiterate, my motive for creating this website is to help authors, game designers, and programmers get the science correct in their creations (thus increasing the amount of the kind of science fiction I enjoy). The most striking examples are those novels whose authors I directly assisted. But there are a few creations I've run across that did get the science correct without any help from me. I would like to recognize such creations by awarding them my (totally superfluous) Atomic Rockets Seal of Approvaltm.
Award winners can print out the seal on their ink-jet printers and stick it on their refrigerators, next to their children's kindergarten paintings. But readers are advised to take a look at these creations, as they are something special (as are the novels and the incredible artwork in the art gallery).
In no particular order, the awards are:
Man Conquers Space is David Sander's project to make a pseudo-documentary movie about the history of space flight, if things had happened as predicted by Colliers. Absolutely brilliant, the trailer will take your breath away. And if you dreamed about those ferry rockets when you were a child in the mid 1960's, the trailer may bring a wistful tear to your eye. It did to me.
Deep Cold is Dan Roam's hyper-realistic alternate history: the secrets of the Cold War in space: 1959-1969. A fascinating "what-if" future of space exploration with professional quality computer graphics.
The man who goes by the name Grimjier of Hobby FuZion is working on a tabletop game played with little plastic spaceships called "Legend of Sol: Torch War". This is set in an alternate history where the North American Space Command and the Supreme Soviet Cosmo forces battle in space in the far flung future year 1960. The early American ships are based on the Boeing X-20 DynaSoar and Project Gemini. The battleships are nuclear pulse Orion drive.
I talk more about Torch War here.
Rob Davidoff has a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Aerospace. In other words, he is a rocket scientist. Ian Mitchell is a physics Ph.D. student at the University of Houston studying experimental particle physics. Together they are currently working on a fascinating alternate history of the NASA space flight program called Eyes Turned Skywards. It diverges from our history at the point where the Apollo program comes to an end, and in our time line NASA decides to go with developing a space station, instead of the Space Shuttle. The consequences of not having a reusable launch vehicle in the 1970's are interesting, to say the least.
There is a forum thread about making Eyes Turned Skyward mods for the game Kerbal Space Program.
David Portree is the manager of the Regional Planetary Information Facility, Astrogeology Science Center, US Geological Survey. His blog Beyond Apollo is full of great articles on the history of spaceflight. But recently he has been applying his encyclopedic knowledge to crafting an alternate history that he calls "Imagining Another Apollo". Last I checked it was up to part 5, it is interesting reading.
Artist Zach Hajj (a.k.a. Zerraspace) has designed a combat spacecraft that impresses the heck out of me. Mr. Hajj said he studied this Atomic Rocket website in the process of designing this craft, and it shows. Frankly I cannot see any design problems at all with it, everything is covered. For this reason, I have a section for this in both the Art Gallery and the Realistic Design pages.
Please note that this page is for novels that have the Atomic Rocket seal of approval, but the authors created the novels with no help from this website. Other novels where the author acknowledged being helped by this site can be found here.
The Galactic Marines series was written by SF master William H. Keith, Jr. (writing under the pseudonyms Ian Douglas). The series traces the history of the United States Marine Corps over about two hundred years, starting around 2039. Naturally the novels are rather pro-Marine, but what did you expect from the series title? The military details seem reasonably accurate to me, not surprisingly since Mr. Keith served during the Vietnam War in the United States Navy as a hospital corpsman.
Mr. Keith has done his homework.
The science is impeccably accurate (except for the alien technology, but even that is more fringe science than it is utter technobabble). Dumbo style nuclear thermal rockets, Aldrin Cyclers, Lunar polar ice for in-situ resource utilization, using Vandenberg Air Force Base to launch into polar orbits, the need for an Orbit Guard, most of it would not look out of place on NASA's drawing boards.
Then there is smart thinking on the implications of the technology. For free-fall combat, space suits have an attachment point for rifles so that the recoil goes through the marines center of gravity. Otherwise each shot would spin them like a top. And aiming the rifle is through a heads-up-display inside the space helmet, since it is almost impossible to look through a rifle's target scope while wearing a fish-bowl on ones head.
What is even better is how the level of technology progresses over the span of the series, with the logical changes in tactics as new technologies become available. This is hard work for a writer, but Mr. Keith did an excellent job.
He even invented first-rate MacGuffinite.
As you recall, MacGuffinite is some incredibly valuable commodity that provides an economic motive for an extensive Manned presence in space (needed because currently there does not appear to be any such thing). Since SF authors are allowed one scientifically implausible item in their stories, Mr. Keith chose paleotechnology from alien ancient astronauts. Once in place, Mr. Keith proceed to make it do double-duty, to get all the mileage out of it he could.
- Since the alien technology was several hundred years in advance of Earth's technology, it was more than valuable enough to provide motive for dozens of space stations and fleets of ships.
- Since any nation on Earth will take a very dim view of another nation obtaining a monopoly on such tech, this will be the spark that ignites the sort of global and spatial combat tailor made as the background for novels featuring marines.
- There are implications to the fact that this is ancient alien technology. Specifically, if the aliens were in the solar system so long ago, why isn't humanity currently the slaves of said aliens? What happened to the aliens? The main implication is that having high tech did not render the aliens immune from being doomed by one of the nastier solutions to the Fermi paradox (the Great Filter strikes again). This is tailor made to make a worthy long-term background for a series of novels about marines.
Having postulated paleotechnology, Mr. Keith proceeds to try and make things plausible. He did research on tons of crackpot "ancient astronaut" garbage, and picked out bits he could work with. All the while simultaneously having the characters in his novel making it quite clear that there was a difference between real pieces of alien tech and utter fantasy stories about von Daniken "Chariots of the Gods" and related dreck. Mr. Keith chose the real-world Transient lunar phenomenon and the infamous "Face on Mars". The action in the first novel is meticulously set around the various geological features trumpeted by various crackpots. Mr. Keith turns it into sterling examples of Sufficiently Advanced Bamboo Technology.
In other words, Mr. Keith even researches his technobabble.
I should not have been surprised. Back in 1997 I wrote a review of another of William Keith's novels where again I noted the careful research he had done. It's his hallmark.
The Galactic Marines series is in three trilogies. All the novels are written under the pseudonyms "Ian Douglas".
- Semper Mars (1998) ISBN 978-0-380-78828-6
- Luna Marine (1999) ISBN 978-0-380-78829-3
- Europa Strike (2000) ISBN 978-0-380-78830-9
- Star Corps (2003) ISBN 978-0-380-81824-2
- Battlespace (2006) ISBN 978-0-380-81825-9
- Star Marines (2007) ISBN 978-0-380-81826-6
- Star Strike (2008) ISBN 978-0-06-123858-1
- Galactic Corps (2008) ISBN 978-0-06-123862-8
- Semper Human (2009) ISBN 978-0-06-123864-2
Read the link for the details. But briefly:
 To write science fiction novels about lots of people living in space, it would be helpful if there was a sound economic motive to justify an extensive manned presence in space. This is called MacGuffinite.
 The problem is that in the real world, there does not seem to be any. Anything that could be mined or harvested could be done more cheaply with robots or remote controlled drones.
 Manned space stations would have been perfect MacGuffinite. Unfortunately the invention of the microchip made it cheaper to replace manned space stations with unmanned satellites (for communication, GPS, weather, surveillance, and other financially lucrative functions).
This brilliant piece of background is the crowning glory on top of a compelling novel with space science that is NASA-level accurate. Recommended.
Here Be Dragons is Craig Alan's first novel, but you'd think it was his 100th. Polished, gripping, engrossing, it is all that. But the scientific accuracy measures up to my vanadium steel yardstick. As well it should, the acknowledgements thanks this website by name (along with rec.arts.sf.science and SFConSim-l). He mentioned to me that he spent a lot of time with Atomic Rockets site open in one browser window while writing. As I mentioned above, that was this website's primary purpose.
Several decades before the novel opens, some one or some thing suddenly appears and claims the outer solar system. The nations of Earth cannot find out anything about these "outsiders", except that any spacecraft that ventures past the asteroid belt is hunted down and converted into metallic swiss cheese by kinetic energy weapons. Finally Captain Elena Gonzales and the crew of the Gabriel are given orders to penetrate the line in the sand in a desperate bid to discover the nature of the invaders.
Craig Alan has a believable warships design, plausible weapons, details about shipboard life, military protocol, a future history, the complete package. And the ship has heat radiators!
And at the end of the novel is a nail-biting spaceship to spaceship duel that will have you on the edge of your seat. That battle is just begging to be made into a game scenario.
The current novels in John Lumpkin's The Human Reach series are Through Struggle, the Stars and The Desert of Stars. The science is of top quality hardness, the geopolitical situation is deep and well thought out, the military intelligence details are terrifyingly real. The writing style is clear and flowing, it reminds me of early Heinlein, and of the Niven/Pournelle collaborations. Mr. Lumpkin cites as influences Heinlein, Pournelle, Niven, Forester, O'Brien, early Clancy, and Daniel Keys Moran.
And yes, the novel has plenty of space battle scenes just begging to be made into game scenarios.
Mr. Lumpkin is a Senior Fellow and contributor to GlobalSecurity.org since June 2006. He runs the site's Terrorism Profiles Project. Previously, he was a reporter with The Associated Press in Washington, D.C., where he covered military affairs, homeland security and intelligence matters, breaking several key stories during the Sept. 11 investigation. His professional travels include Iraq, Afghanistan and China. Prior to joining AP, he covered military affairs for the Albuquerque Journal.
This is why the counter-terrorism details in his novel are dead accurate. The geopolitical aspects of his novel are uncommonly realistic as well, for the same reason.
The current novels in James Corey's Expanse series are Leviathan Wakes, Caliban's War, Abaddon's Gate and Cibola Burn. The author states that he focuses more on telling a compelling story than he is getting all the science correct (which is as it should be). But outside of a rather powerful fusion propulsion system and alien nanotechnology, his science is gratifyingly hard. Certainly better than 99% of the other novels out there.
His depictions of colonies living inside the asteroids Ceres and Eros are fascinating, with descriptions of a Mos Eisley Spaceport / Blade Runner / tunnel civilization alternating with descriptions of the changes in Coriolis Force as you get closer to the asteroid's axis of rotation.
And the backdrop of the series is interesting as well. Mr. Corey noted that while there were many science fiction novels about near future space exploration, and novels about interstellar exploration, there are practically none about the transitional period between the two eras.
These novels are especially fine examples of "Rocketpunk".
Andy Weir's novel The Martian has science so hard you can walk on it. This is not surprising. Many hard-science SF novels start with scientifically accurate elements which are gradually fudged and tweaked in order to accommodate the plot. But in Mr. Weir's novel, he found that the scientific calculations actually suggested new directions for the plot to expand into. In other words, the scientific accuracy actually helped rather than hinder the writing process. Mr. Weir describes the process here.
The novel itself is a harrowing account of the third manned expedition to Mars. On the eve of departure, a disaster forces the expedition to depart prematurely, leaving astronaut Mark Watney for dead. Unfortunately Watney is not dead. But now he is faced with the daunting task of surviving almost a year on Mars using only the expedition's discarded materials. And mission control does not even know he is there.
A Sword Into Darkness is Thomas Mays' debut novel, and it is a blockbuster! Kept me on the edge of my seat up til the end. And unlike so many other novels, when it promised a revelation of a dread secret at the end, it actually delivered. Puzzling occurrences make perfect logical sense as the reader learns more. And the ships have heat radiators!
The action starts when astronomers notice something odd in-line with the star Delta Pavonis. Hilarity rapidly ensues.
The cherry on the top is a couple of spacecraft combat scenes crying out to be made into game scenarios.
In hindsight, one could have predicted that the background of the novel would be well thought out and solid enough to walk on. Yes, Mr. Mays does acknowledge he was helped somewhat by the Atomic Rockets website. But more importantly, he has not one, but two degrees in physics. And to top it off, he is an 18-years-and-counting veteran of the US Navy, working as an officer in the surface fleet aboard destroyers and amphibious ships, as well as assisting with research into ballistic missile defense.
There is only one piece of hand-waving magic-tech in the novel (the propulsion system), but its limitations and implications are carefully charted. Science fiction authors are allowed one bit of hand-waving in each novel, I think that's a rule I read somewhere. Otherwise the scientific accuracy is spot on. Well, there also is the mumbly-mumble field used by the mumbly-mumble, but that is actually not totally outside the laws of physics. You'll know it when you read it.
The book will soon be published by either Baen Books or a small imprint called Stealth Books. I'll give a heads up when it comes out.
The Eldraeverse is a strange and futuristic place, haunted by weakly godlike entities, civilizations that have undergone a Vingian Technological Singularity, and civilizations that are just centimeters away from achieving it. Such a topic in the hands of a lesser author could degenerate into a tiresome confusing mass of disjointed images. But Alistair's encyclopedic knowledge of math, science, Post Singularity tropes, standard science fiction hypertechnology, and writing skill makes his work a joy to read. They have a lilting satirical tone but are build on a rock-solid foundation of scientific understanding. Sort of like a cross between Greg Egan, Douglas Hofstadter, Douglas Adams, and Terry Pratchett.
If you like his work, you might consider becoming one of Alistair's Patreon patrons.
Freefall is a deceptively simple webcomic. On the surface it appears to be a run-of-the-mill webcomic about a funny blue alien and an anthropomorphic furry wolf. But the science is exceedingly hard, and the plot line covers insightful issues about the future of artificial intelligence (both genetically engineered creature and computer AI) and other deep topics. You may have noticed that at various places on this website I use scenes from the webcomic to illustrate scientific principles.
On a more off-beat topic, there is a theory about the different strategies between male and female shopping patterns in a mall in comics 696 to 700.
Schlock Mercenary is another deceptive webcomic. On the surface it appears to be comedy about future soldiers. However, the science is hard. But more importantly, where ultra-tech like teleportation or nanotechnology is introduced, the author has carefully thought out all the consequences and ramifications. In fact he does a better job than most science fiction novelists. It also has very dry and pithy humor, plus many high-IQ jokes that zip by like one liners in "The West Wing".
Unicorn Jelly is yet another deceptively simple webcomic. At the start one is fooled into believing it is just another chibi style manga. Then after it lulls you into lowering your guard it stuns your brain with deep philosophical questions while simultaneously punching you in the gut. It is billed as a "unique retro-pixel philosophical multi-generational scinece fiction epic", and take it from me it is not lying.
Why does it have the seal of approval? In a word: World Building. This is not just a story set on another planet, it is set in another freaking universe where the very laws of physics are different. In the between-chapter segments the author shows you the physics, the implications, the way it affects cosmology, astronomy, planetography and biology, the alternate periodic table of the elements, the culture of the various alien creatures, their language and forms of writing, games, everything. Absolutely breath-taking.
Albedo Anthropomorphics is a regrettably short-lived comic book anthology by Steve Gallacci. The gem were the stories about Erma Felna of the EDF, who was a genetically engineered anthropomorphic cat. There was also a short-lived paper-and-pencil role playing game called Albedo. The science is hard, the military tech well realized, and there were hard-hitting political and philosophical issues raised.
Again, the implications were well thought out by the author.
Example: the various planets are populated by various species of Terran animals genetically engineered to intelligence. Now with most Terran mammals, the female is only sexually attractive to the male when they go into estrus (aka "in heat"). Consequence: there are no nudity taboos, and mixed-gender washing and toilet facilities are the norm. But when estrus occurs the females must go into seclusion and/or use powerful deodorants.
Example: many of the planets were colonized by slower-than-light starships. The planetary cultures that were founded as a consequence have a "shipboard discipline mentality." Consider, on a spacecraft, if a civilian saw something like an air leak in the hull, and didn't report it to anybody, they would be endangering the lives of everybody on the colony ship. So that is a crime.
In the United States on the other hand, if a person sees somebody lying injured on the side of the road, and they try to help the injured one, more often than not they wind up being sued by the injured person. Hands off, do not get involved, it is not your problem.
In the Albedo universe, with the shipboard discipline mentality, it is a crime not to try and help somebody who is injured, and there are "Good Samaritan" laws to protect the helpers.
Example: most of the anthropomorphic have four-fingered hands. As a consequence, their mathematical system is base 8, not base 10 like us humans with five-fingered hands.
GunBuster is a six episode anime series about giant mecha. But there is an attention to scientific accuracy that is gratifying. Laser cannon resemble titanic camera lenses set into the side of the warships, laser volleys are launched at hostile warships too far away to see, the mecha use weapons with californium-252 fission warheads with the 252Cf being created immediately before battle due to its short half-life.
And this is the only anime I've seen that does relativistic time-dilation properly.
But the tour de force is the science lessons that occur between episodes. They start off explaining using real and accurate science, then seamlessly blend into the science fictional rubber science of faster-than-light star drives and related matters. Well worth watching.
Knights of Sidonia is a manga series adapted as an anime. In many ways it is a deconstruction of space operas like Gundam and Macross, characters act like scifi characters but since this is reality the consequences are usually lethal. The mecha pilots have to worry about fuel, the jury-rigged habitat (and jury-rigged society) can barely produce enough food, valiant young poorly-trained fighter pilots die with depressing regularity, people in the city wear safety belts clipped to rails so they don't fall to their death if the habitat has to do emergency acceleration.
Jay Dugger compared it to William Hope Hodgson's A Night Land set on a generation starship.
The science is reasonably hard, with a few gaffs like magic artificial gravity and spacecraft making a "whoosh" noise in airless space. There is no FTL, if the habitat accelerates beyond the artificial gravity's ability to cope the transverse forces will cause the inhabitats to fall sideways to their doom, the consequences of the invented technology is considered, and it respects scale.
Planetes is a hard-science managa (official website, in Japanese) which was adapted into a television anime. It follows the downtrodden crew of the spacecraft "Toy Box" of the Space Debris section of the Technora Corporation. Their job is to sweep Earth and Lunar orbits of tiny but dangerous satellite bits and pieces, hopefully preventing the dreaded Kessler Syndrome. The scientific accuracy is top-notch, the Japanese space agency JAXA served as a technical consultant.
2001 Nights is another hard-science managa. All the stories are set in a common time-line spanning several hundred years, but the first few stories are in the near future. There are a few stories where the science fiction is more fictional than scientific, but for the most part the science is pretty hard.
The Ministry of Space is a graphic novel written by the legendary Warren Ellis and illustrated by Chris Weston, published in 2001. It is an interesting alternate history where at the end of World War II the British instead of the Americans got their hands on Germany's rocket scientists. This results in a new British empire in Space. But it is all very scientifically accurate, abet very Collier's flavored.
Chris Weston's amazing British-Colliers-von Braun rockets are a real treat for the eye. Warren Ellis story is believable, plausible, but mordant and containing cutting social commentary. And there are some who wonder if Britain can create a real Ministry of Space.
Future War Stories does in-depth analysis on various military topics. For each subject, first is given a penetrating over view of how the subject works in the real world. Then is given a survey of various media science fiction that includes the subject, along with a critique of how close each instance comes to getting it correct.
In other words, what this website is to rocketry, Future War Stories is to military science fiction.
Luke Campbell is a real-live laser scientist, it's what he does for a living. If you want the last word in accuracy in designing futuristic laser sidearms, go to How to Build a Laser Death Ray. It has theory, practice, online calculators for various items, and artists conceptions.
Rick Robinson's Rocketpunk Manifesto blog is pure gold. His insightful analysis of what this website is all about is well worth reading. I certainly think so, you may have noticed quite a few quotes from it on this website. The comments are worth reading as well. And don't miss his The Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy.
Founder Christopher Weuve says the SFConsim-l forum is one of the things he is most proud of (his exact words were: "I want my tombstone to read Founder, SFConsim-L."). The topic is science fiction conflict simulations (i.e., games) in general, and spacecraft conflict in specific. Add the fact that a few real live scientists and military analysts regularly participate, and you have one valuable forum. I certainly think so, you may have noticed quite a few quotes from it on this website.
Actually, SFConsim-l was the spark that led to the creation of this website. I was a regular on the forum. One fine day in 1999, a gentleman had a question about calculating rocket performance and I answered him. About a year later another gentlemen had some related questions and I answered them as well. Three years after that (in 2003)), after years of constantly providing links to those original posts, it occurred to me to put the information on a solitary web page for convenience. I added more and more information until it made sense to split it into two pages, then four. Last time I checked there were about seventy pages. My, how it has grown.
Myn.phenos of Slovakia is a genius.
In spacecraft design tasks like calculating the volume of irregular components, calculating centers of gravity, and optimal placement of heat radiators is almost impossible to do without computer software tools. But as a general rule, such software costs tens of thousands of dollars, and usually cannot be found outside of, say, NASA.
My.phenos figured out how to do this with the 3D computer graphics software Blender. Which is open source, and is totally free. Genius, sheer genius.
The Spaceship Handbook by Jack Hagerty and Jon C. Rogers. The first part has an entertaining survey of spacecraft from the fictional Tom Corbett TV series to actual early NASA designs, along with incredibly precise blue-prints. But the technical appendix on Atomic Powered spacecraft is worth the price of the book all by itself. The appendix gives the essential propulsion equations, and does a survey of propulsion systems available and on the drawing boards, with hard figures. The end of the appendix contains an extensive table of deltaV requirements for all mission types for the planets and major moons of the solar system. Textbook quality book. And don't miss the companion volume The Saucer Fleet
The Rocket Company by Patrick Stiennon and David Hoerr is a novel about a company trying to develop and market a surface-to-orbit solution at a bargain price. But the authors know what they are talking about. They have actually patented the design of their spacecraft. They are also aware of the realities of such an undertaking. In the novel, the executives spend lots of time cultivating relations with various congressmen and FAA execs. Their pragmatic business model is to sell rockets at an attractive price instead of the more risky option of selling cargo boost services. This book will repay careful reading. There are some sample chapters here
Astrosynthesis is a brilliant computer program (for Windows only, alas) that assists in the creation of three dimensional star maps.
But it is so much more. The software was intended for the game master of a Role Playing Game to design the background universe, keep track of the various solar systems, map specific planets, draw trade routes, calculate interstellar empire spheres of influence, store notes about specific systems and planets, and generate video files depicting "fly throughs" of the map.
Over the years I had attempted to create my own 3D mapping software, but AstroSynthesis blows my pathetic efforts right out of the water. It is well worth the price.
- Zoom in, out, rotate, and pan around your star map
- The built-in star system generator creates detailed information about stars, their planets, moons, planetoids, and other objects taking into consideration matters of astronomy, physics, atmospheric chemistry, and planetary sciences during the generation process
- The animated display of planet orbits around stars move according to Keplerian rules of planetary motion
- Automatically generate editable surface maps of any terrestrial planet, or import your own maps
- Ships, Fleets, Space Stations, and other bodies are displayed as 3D models, use the supplied models or import your own
- Assign images for uses as blazon images on the 3D map to identify political affiliations
- Display stellar routes between systems, labeled with distances. Assign routes manually or let the program generate hundreds or thousands of star routes automatically based on your criteria
- Track detailed system information for hundreds of thousands of stars, can handle star sector data files up to 4 gigabytes in size.
- Enhance the functionality with 3rd party plug-ins. Many are available, or write your own in Visual Basic.
- Includes real-world maps of stars withing 1000 light-years of Sol, or generate random maps for your own
- And many more features, read about them here
The Evil Dr. Ganymede (aka Constantine Thomas) has a web site on the topic of mapping stars to a three dimensional star map. He covers converting coordinates, discusses various datasets, and map making.
The movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey are classics of science fiction. But for our purposes, both contain one of the most scientifically accurate depictions of future space exploration, ever. The novel does help explain what the heck is happening in the last part of the movie, but that is besides the point. Other novels by Sir Arthur C. Clarke with great space exploration details include Earthlight, Islands in the Sky, and The Other Side of the Sky.
Apollo 13 is a historical documentary that somehow is also a terrifying thriller. It tells the real story of the accident that almost claimed the lives of NASA's Apollo 13 astronauts, and the heroic efforts taken to save their lives. The buzz on the street was "the best science fiction movie of 1995 was not science fiction".
Destination Moon is a movie that is an oldie but goody. Based on a story by the legendary Robert A. Heinlein, it is exceedingly scientifically accurate. It does give one a feel for how a real atomic rocketship would operate.
Conquest of Space is another movie that is an oldie but goody (if you ignore all that "things man was not meant to do nonsense"). It has a real live honest-to-Collier's wheel space station, space taxis, and a Mars mission right from von Braun (except with a single ship instead of a fleet). It also includes a couple of reminders about the direction of "down" on a rocketship.
Gravity is a nail-biting edge-of-your-seat movie that somehow manages to simultaneously be quite scientifically accurate. Yes, there are a few things that are not quite right, but they were conscious decisions made by the producers for story purposes. Even with that, the movie is still more scientifically accurate than 99% of all other media SF. This movie is also bests viewed in a 3D movie screen. Not because it has things being poked into your eyes, but because it has things drifting far far away into the abyss of space.
Diaspora is a science-fiction tabletop role-playing game by VSCA that was a 2009 Indie RPG Award nominee (review, review). It is set in a gritty future where the players fly fusion drive spacecraft, exploring lost worlds with thousands of years of history.
But for me the interesting part is that along with the rules for role-playing in this universe, there are also a set of mini-games used to determine the outcome of major events. And one of these is a space combat module.
One of the authors mentioned that the Atomic Rockets website was quote "a hugely important resource for use while developing Diaspora" unquote, and it shows. The space combat is streamlined (since this is a role playing game, not a full blown simulation) but the scientific accuracy is all there. The ships even have heat radiators!
As an RPG, it has some very shrewd game mechanisms and innovative designs that I personally was very impressed by. This game will appeal to players who want to participate in telling the story instead of being passive consumers of the game master's story line. In other words, this is a game for frustrated story tellers.
An important part is the pre-game segment where the players participate in creating the game universe (do NOT skip this part in favor of some pre-made universe, it is a vital part of the game). The creation has three marvelous side effects:  the players become incredibly invested in the game universe since they helped created it  you wind up with a universe far more interesting and nuanced than any single person could manage on their own, and  the game master is given critical clues as to the sort of campaign the players desire, by the creation process. Several reviewers noted that even if they did not want to actually continue playing the review game, they definitely wanted to re-use the generated game universe in other games. SF authors take note.
Shock:Human Contact is a science-fiction tabletop role-playing game by game designer Joshua A.C. Newman. The science is admirably hard. In the game, quite a few planets have been colonized by slower-than-light generational ships over a period of a thousand years. However, things on Earth got a little ... disjointed .. after a global war. Earth is reborn with the help of The Academy, a meritocratic democracy of scientists who seek to improve the lives of all in reach.
Now the Academy wishes to help the lost human colonies. But over the millennium, they have drifted quite a bit culturally. So each contact is much like first contact with an alien species. The academics in the team must be very careful, choosing between arriving openly or first sending in black ops anthropologists to prepare the way.
The game book is worth reading even if you never intend to play the game, just for the concepts included. There are details about the starship, guidelines to creating the colonial societies, notes on making alien alphabets and writing systems, nanotechnology tools, all sorts of goodies. It is like a fascinating mix of J. D. Bernal's immortal The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Freeman Dyson, Greg Egan, The Medium Is the Massage, Future Shock, and Edward Tufte
Attack Vector: Tactical (store) (review) is a paper-and-cardboard tabletop wargame of spacecraft combat by Ken Burnside (yes, kiddies, back at the dawn of creation, games were not on computers). You might have noticed the many quotes from Mr. Burnside gracing this website. It is by far the most scientifically accurate spacecraft combat game of all time, but it is also remarkably playable. If you really want to get an intuitive feel for battling rocketships, you would do well to play this game.
If one wants a paper-and-cardboard wargame where you can adjust the "hardness" of the science a bit in order to simulate your favorite media SF show (or to model you own custom SF universe for your novel), try Mr. Burnside's Squadron Strike (store). The game includes a ship construction system that can be used to recreate your favorite media SF ships. And I mean create them in detail. His system is more versatile than Hero System's Champions RPG, it can easily handle the fine nuances between the science fiction weapon systems of any SF TV show or movie franchise.
Late breaking news!. Mr. Burnside has set up a Patreon Campaign so you can help fund him to start creating massive amounts of starships designed for Squadron Strike.
Voidstriker by Irrational Designs is very similar to Squadron Strike. The difference is that Voidstriker reduces the level of detail somewhat in order to make the game quicker to play and to handle larger numbers of ships. It is still very scientifically accurate. It includes a ship construction system sufficiently elastic to accommodate most media SF combat starships, or to create your own unique ships. The rulebooks, playing maps, and plastic starships are all available as separate units, so the player can only purchase just what they need.
High Frontier (High Frontier) (review) (review) and its expansion pack (store) are a paper-and-cardboard tabletop wargame where the players are corporations competing to industrialize space. It also gives science fiction writers and other interested persons a way to plot orbital transfers between various locations in the solar system, without requiring calculus. The basic game gives you command of the inner solar system, the expansion pack gives you the rest. Mr. Eklund is a real live scientist, the game is breathtakingly scientifically accurate. And a lot fun to boot!
Having said that, be warned that this is a game about rocket science, it ain't checkers in space. There is a learning curve. On the plus side, the rocket science is handled by the game components. Players will be OK as long as they know how to add and subtract.
And just because this game is only about prospecting and industry does NOT mean it is boring. Quite the opposite, there will be plenty of white-knuckle moments. Read the game session reports below if you don't believe me.
Any science fiction author writing on the topic of exploring and industrializing the solar system can readily create a historical background with impressive scientific accuracy by merely playing a few games and taking notes. The explanations of the various technologies in the game are in the appendix, and are almost worth the price of the game.
You may be interested in these lurid and cinematic game session reports:
- Cubes of DOOM (warning NSFW language)
- 21 years on Mars, a tragedy in three parts
- "My God, it's full of stars!" and Other Things Screamed Out the Bunghole (warning NSFW language)
Mr. Eklund had given his permission for a VASSAL module of High Frontier. VASSAL is a computerized game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games. It allows users to play in real time over a live Internet connection (in addition to playing by email). It runs on all platforms (at least the ones that support Java), and is free for personal use. You can download it here. You will, however, need a copy of the rules from the boardgame in order to play. In his online store, Mr. Eklund says the rules are available for free in the files section of the High Frontiers Yahoo Group.
There are some useful third-party game aids, tutorials, lists of the various rocket propulsion systems, lists of good places for prospecting in the solar system, and game variants available for download at BoardGameGeek. In particular I recommend the Instructions and Variants document. The game rulebook is confusing and unclear, with the information needed to perform the various game tasks fragmented and scattered. The Instructions and Variants is much more lucid, with all the information for each task gathered in a single location. Plus it includes several amusing scenarios. My personal favorite is the 2001 scenario, recreating the events and hardware in the novels 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two.
Late breaking news: Mr. Eklund is working on a new expansion called High Frontier Interstellar. It takes up where the first one left off. The solar system map is expanded out to Pluto, and the winner is the first player to perform a successful manned interstellar mission to one of Sol's neighbors. Each player is based on a Bernal sphere in various strategic locations, and a host of new technologies (all based on reality and scientifically accurate) have been introduced.
Raymond McVay of Blue Max Studios is the creator of the incredible Black Desert role-playing game. As his bio states he is a game designer specializing in hard science fiction spacecraft and world building. Take it from me, he is doing it right, his science is good and hard (I should know). You may have noticed that I included his brilliant expansion of the "Mission Control" model here on this website.
Kerbal Space Program (wiki) is a jaw-droppingly amazing educational computer program (Windows, Macintosh, Linux; requires a 2.0 GHz dual core cpu to run well) that teaches astronautics and space exploration. Do not be fooled by the cute little green men, this game will painlessly teach you some serious spacecraft and mission design. Not to mention piloting. Science fiction authors please take note.
The scientific details are just as hard as in Orbiter (see below), but presented in a far more entertaining fashion. Plus the graphics are astonishing, even with the dorky green men. Don't take my word for it, watch the trailer below.
The demo game is free, and the full game is a bargain.
And just like Orbiter, there are clever people making "mods" (new spaceship parts) and "add-ons" (plug-in calculators to make the pilot's life easier). if you are clever, you can make some as well. Unlike Orbiter, some of the mods are weapons.
Currently the game is only a "sandbox". That is, there is no goal, there is no "boss battle", you are just playing for your own amusement. (Late breaking news, while sandbox mode is still available, they have added a "career mode") Paradoxically this makes the game incredibly addictive. There is always the temptation to try "just one more" new twist on an old rocket design. Players invent personal challenges, like creating elaborate space station designs then trying to figure out how to boost all the components into orbit. There are a few game scenarios, which are like elaborate puzzles. Check out the Rendezvous With Roche scenario, and
Sir Jodelstein's attempted solution. And the KSP devs promise that eventually there will be a "career mode" for the game.
What amazes me is how this addictive little game teaches the players how to think about astronautics intuitively. You may not know the equations, but you'll soon learn to know at a gut level what will work, what will not, and what is sort of risky.
This is very important for science fiction writers who want their astronautics to be accurate. Trying to cram space flight facts into your head probably will not work very well. If one instead just plays KSP for a while, you will instinctively know what will and will not work. That is, you'll know it fast enough so it will not interfere with you creating the plot or otherwise derailing your creative process. You will also learn such useful facts as the bare minimum of spacecraft pilot controls consists of only a throttle, rotation/translation controls, a NavBall, and a solar system map. If you perform some orbit to orbit maneuvers, you will learn why astrogators are so obsessive about the accuracy of their chronometers. Mistiming your transfer burns can have serious consequences.
A player named GreatBeast666 wrote how after playing the game for a while and creating more and more complicated rockets, he suddenly came to notice the need for a fuel-station in space. Now here on my website, I have mentioned the need for orbital propellant depots. However, trying to teach somebody a concept by talking at them will often result in their eyes glazing over and the concept will just ricochet off their brain. Discovering the concept on their own results in knowledge they will never forget. The need for orbital depots is nowhere mentioned in the game, it is an emergent behaviour that results from accurately simulating the real-life problems faced by real-life rocket designers.
In orbital mechanics, it is a standard fact that "change of plane" maneuvers take a very large amount of delta v to perform, and most mission planners try to avoid them whenever possible to conserve fuel. Most students immediately forget that fact because it is boring. However, I read the lamentations of a KSP player. He had managed to get a Kerbal in a rocket into a polar orbit, then ran out of propellant. When it came to mounting a rescue mission, he suddenly found out the hard way that it was very very difficult designing a rocket capable of rescuing the Kerbal. Rockets launch into equitorial orbits, you need a change-of-plane to move into a polar orbit. The student has forgotten about the expense of change-of-plane maneuvers, because they never need that fact. But for the KSP player, having one's Kerbal trapped in orbit as one struggles trying to make a rescue rocket with enough delta V will sear the facts into your memory forever.
Kerbal mod-makers are also either inspired by NASA solutions or independently invent the same solutions because KSP presents them with identical problems. I have written about the advantages of in-situ resource utilization, a mod-maker named Majiir created the Kethane mod, which brings such resources to the game. NASA worked on the concept of a Wet workshop, which is the idea of using a spent rocket stage as a makeshift space station. KSP developer NovaSilisko is working on a mod to bring this useful idea into the game.
A father named Nikolai had been inspired by this Atomic Rocket website to try to make basics of rocket science understandable to kids (modest cough, he was impressed by this website's conversational and engaging writing style). He had tried teaching classes but they were less than successful due to lack of proper tools. And then he discovered KSP. It worked beyond his wildest dreams.
His daughter is eight years old. Think about that. This freaking computer game is so educational that a little girl taught herself rocket science just by playing. Granted her father had some input, but still. He could have placed her at this Atomic Rocket website and she would probably look at the pictures for twenty seconds, get bored, and then go somewhere else.
Mission To Mun A group of avid Kerbal Space Program fans wondered if you could launch a pilot to the Mun and back using maths rather than the in-flight orbital planning. The pilot flies upstairs, locked in cabin-view (IVA) while mission control directs him via skype downstairs. Hijinks ensue.
After playing with Kerbal Space Program for a while, and having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have, I noticed a lack. In the game, you construct your rocket out of components. There was a nice selection of solid fuel rockets, liquid fuel rockets, an ion drive, and even a NERVA like solid core nuclear thermal rocket.
But the Orion nuclear pulse rocket was conspicuous by its absence.
I searched the mods made by other players, but there was no Orion. That was odd, there were mods for almost everything else. I searched the forums. There I found that there had been quite a few attempts, but none of them made it to a workable form. Which showed that players wanted one, but it was too difficult to make. Orion propulsion does not operate like other rockets, the Kerbal engine is not set up to handle it. One would have to write from scratch an Orion engine handler.
In the same spirit that led me to create this Atomic Rocket website, I got that stubborn "well FINE!" look in my eye, and decided to write my own. Once again there was something I really wanted, the experts on the topic were not interested in creating it, so I was forced to do it myself.
It did not matter that I barely knew how to play the game, and knew nothing about making mods or programming in the C# language. I knew enough of the game, was already skilled at making mesh models with Blender 3D, and C# had a similar syntax to C++ and other languages I did know. What I didn't know how to do I would simply just have to learn.
But the point was that the author of the Atomic Rockets website was going to have his Atomic Rocket mod, come hell or high water.
It has taken me about a month, but the mod is close to being finished. So, there.
You can follow some of my trials and tribulations in this forum thread.
The big break-through came from a gentleman who goes by the handle NovaSilisko. He was such a good mod-maker that the Kerbal team hired him. He had been working on his own Orion plug-in before he was hired, and he gifted me with the source code. It still sits at the core of my plug-in, though heavily modified and with other functionality added.
Programming the plug in was a matter of trial and error. Mostly error.
One of the trials resulted in a most amusing error. The idea was that one of the ways the Orion is different from a conventional rocket is how it shocks the entire spacecraft, instead of giving a steady pressure. So I programmed the plug-in to instantaneously transmit the shock of each nuclear explosive to all the other parts of the spacecraft. Therefore a spacecraft with inadequate bracing would get shaken to pieces.
This worked well enough with the 1 kiloton bombs, but was giving some problem with the 5 and 15 kiloton. On the launch pad I tried a 15 kt bomb, the jolt made the control cabin shoot off the engine like an atomic powered champagne cork. It made an altitude of about five thousand meters before plummeting to its doom. Meanwhile the engine, bereft of a cockpit, made an altitude of about two meters before it crashed. I tried again after tying down the control cabin with numerous struts to no avail. Well, that was not acceptable.
In an attempt to fix this, I changed the programming from ForceMode.Force to Forcemode.Impulse. That was the trial, boy was it an error.
On the launch pad I tried a 15 kiloton bomb. The jolt kicked the rear of the cockpit.
The cockpit detached and made the jump to lightspeed! Blasted thing was moving so howling fast it developed a plasma sheath. It was burning up in atmospheric reentry in reverse. The apogee was 92,000 freaking meters!
So I went back to the drawing board and found another way to fix the problem. Of course I fully expect some other evil KSP modder to take this phenomenon and weaponize it.
I threw in some fun effects as well. There are several types of bomb so one can customize the load-out to fit the delta-V requirements of a given mission. Each bomb burst illuminates the surroundings like a camera strobe. Other ships that are close to the blast are given a savage shove (an aircraft parked within 300 meters of the launch pad was blown clear over the horizon). Other ships that are too close are merely destroyed. This can come in handy when clearing orbital debris (I had to tone it down when a tester inadvertently blew up an asteroid). But you had better equip your Orion spacecraft with an auxiliary propulsion system if you want to dock to another spacecraft or space station. You do NOT want to dock to a station using a propulsion system that utilizes nuclear explosives. Not if you care about the station.
Most importantly, I made the plug-in "data-driven". This means that users can make their own Orion parts without having to do any computer programming. Non-programmers can customize their new ship parts by simply editing the text configuration file, instead of having to actually reprogram my plug-in. All the important customizable bits are controlled by the data in the text file, not hard-coded in the software. However as per the Kerbal rules, the source code of my plug-in is supplied with the mod, for security purposes. So any programmer who does wants to play with the code can do so.
I did find some valuable insights into Orion spacecraft by actually playing with the mod in the game. The bomb magazines are exceedingly dense, you need lots of attitude control jets in order to turn this monster. And even then it maneuvers like a pregnant hippo. But when you use the engine, it has shocking amounts of thrust and delta-V. Extended space missions that strain the limits of chemical rockets are trivially easy with the Orion. This is true in the real world as well, it is just that in the game the Kerbals did not sign a nuclear test ban treaty in 1963. The Kerbals are also immune to the dire effects of radiation as well. Immune to g forces as well, it is disturbing to see the g meter jolt from zero to 20g and back every second.
The response I've gotten to the creation of my mod is generally along the lines of "OMG! I'VE WANTED AN ORION MOD EVER SINCE I GOT THE GAME!" Although there are a smattering of players who complain that the texturing I've applied to the Orion does not match the other stock parts. For them, I've supplied information with the mod to allow them to alter the texture to their heart's content.
Warning: computer programming geek speak to follow. if you are not interested in the details, skip to the pictures below.
Modeling the engine in Blender was relatively easy. Doing the pusher-plate animation was not too hard. Learning to program in C# was not a challenge. Writing the plug-in was a nightmare because the programmers of Kerbal have not gotten around to writing full documentation for the Kerbal API (they are concentrating their efforts on finishing programming the game, as is right and proper). The only way to figure out how to do anything is by sifting through the on line forums, examining other mod's code, and asking lots of questions. And by doing lots of trial and error.
To keep my sanity, I had to set up a SVN source control system, a Bugzilla bug tracker, and a crude homebrew build manager made of Python scripts. This let me revert to prior working versions when the latest trial resulted in error, keep track of testers bug reports, and automate the complicated process of assembling all the little pieces into a working mod. But I was going to have my Orion. Blast it.
I rent my SVN and Bugzilla space from SVN Repository dot com.
And thanks to the many playtesters, including but not limited to Canopus (first test pilot for Project Orion), SufficientAnonymity, Markarian421, s20dan, Vaccer, Mecha Pants, Rune, lyndonguitar, zirgon, mushroomman, khyron42, Fyrem, czokletmuss, Leonov, and hoojiwana.
Like I said: there are a couple of odd bugs, but the bottom line is that I have my Orion mod.
The Orbiter Space Flight Simulator is a stunning computer program (for Windows only, alas) that allows the user to fly various spacecraft around the solar system. And there is a thriving community of cunning programmers making new spacecraft plug-ins for you to use (everything from the International Space Station to the Serenity from the TV show "Firefly"). If you too are cunning, you can create your own add-ons. And did I mention that the program was free?
I was amused that Steven Ouellette has created an add-on that duplicates the Rolling Stone from the Heinlein novel of the same name.
Independence War (store) is an amazing computer game (for Windows only, alas) that puts the player in command of a spacecraft that obeys hard-core Newtonian physics instead of silly Star Wars nonsense. You will quickly find that a combat spacecraft does not behave like a fighter jet. It is more like an over-loaded 18-wheeler at high speed on a freeway covered in black ice. The controls are interesting, and the linked scenarios are fascinating. At one point I was in a task force escaping from deep in enemy territory when my FTL drive was destroyed by a hit by enemy particle beam cannon. I thought I was dead, until I noticed a friendly repair ship with an invitingly large hangar bay. In desperation I swooped in, and was treated to a video cut-scene of my ship barely entering into the bay, scraping its belly in a shower of sparks.
I did find that it is much easier to play if you have one of those fancy joysticks with lots of triggers and hat switches. I was in a dog-fight when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a flicker behind my ship. I suddenly realized it was an enemy missile doing its best to fly up my tailpipe and vaporize me. If I had to search the keyboard for the "launch decoy flares" button I would have been doomed. Instead an instinctive flick upward on the left hatch switch fired off the decoy and saved my posterior.
The game is out of print but it is available for download from Good Old Games for about six dollars.
Mass Effect 2 is an award winning video game from Bioware. It was one of the titles in the book 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. It appears that one of the developers was a fan of Ken Burnside's Attack Vector: Tactical and my Atomic Rocket website.
In the following video clip, "Serviceman Burnside" is apparently Ken Burnside, and "Serviceman Chung" is apparently me. A very nice Easter Egg, done with respect and admiration.
Developer John Gillespie is not fooling around. He wants this game to have plenty of scientific accuracy and is doing his homework. Including doing research by reading this website, which always gives me a warm glow inside. His combat spacecraft are not powered by prissy little ion drives, no they have brutal gas-core nuclear thermal rockets. And they are armed to the teeth. He draws his inspiration from novels like Ender's Game, Time for The Stars, and CJ Cherryh's Downbelow Station.
This looks like it is going to be good!