I’ll never forget the day I walked into the Christa McAuliffe Space Education Center as a starry-eyed twelve-year-old. I was a NASA enthusiast and a chronic sci-fi fanatic. I knew all the Star Trek lore up through the Next Generation, and I could quote the original Star Wars trilogy by heart. I knew that the Space Center was named after Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who was on the Challenger VII shuttle when it exploded one minute into flight sixteen years earlier.
After a mission briefing by the Director of the Space Center, we were taken through a “transporter” (a darkroom door) into the Galileo – one of the smaller Starship simulators, where we began our mission. I was the navigation officer. I had to steer the ship through a nebula to try and rescue a disabled alien ship, which turned out to be a ship full of Klingon drug mules that turned on us. After dodging several photon torpedoes and coordinating closely with the tactical officer, we destroyed the enemy ship and returned to Federation Space victorious, having not only survived the ordeal but also shut down a major drug ring that was plaguing the Klingon empire, improving otherwise tense relations within the quadrant.
I was floored! To say that this was the most thrilling experience of a young geek’s life to date would not be hyperbole. How many hours had I spent fantasizing about cruising the galaxy at warp speed to seek out new life and new civilizations? My imagination was stimulated – a seemingly hopeless fantasy finally realized. The experienced was diminished only slightly by the technological limitations of the day. The Gallileo’s “control panels” were really cheaply-designed software on an old iMac G3. Any Trekkie knew that what the ship really needed was screen-accurate touchscreen controls. But that technology was only in its infancy in an age that still hadn’t fully escaped VHS tapes and dial-up modems.
With all the drama in the headlines, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come since then. For DIY-minded geeks like myself, the fantasy of a screen-realistic space adventure isn’t limited by 90’s technology or the whims of the Space Center Director. You have all the tools at your disposal to create your own Starship Simulator for the ultimate gaming experience!
A screen-realistic command deck requires a space large enough for a captain, a navigation officer, an engineer, and a tactical officer, bare minimum. The latter three should have a control console, but all the captain needs is a comfy chair. Depending on the complexity of the missions you want to design, you might also incorporate a science officer, a communications officer, and marines or security personnel. Ideally, a multi-teared space such as a home theater room could provide the frame for the bridge. Alternatively, if you are confident in electronics and air-conditioning, you could build your bridge into an exterior fort or treehouse.
Tablet technology and the ubiquity of fan-built apps makes this once unconquerable hurdle much more manageable. Apps such as LCARS 47 run well enough on a Tablet PC. Alternatively, ADT Touchscreen Keypads lend a certain verisimilitude to the experience. Ideally, you want to set up a system to monitor and mirror the controls from a central location, so that you can manage the mission in real time. You’ll want to set up a microphone with voice-altering tools like Voxal broadcasting into your bridge, so that you can act as the computer or allies or villains on other ships. Finally, you should set up a large LED TV at the front of the bridge, tied to a graphics interface you control. This will serve as the crew’s main visual reference for what is happening outside the ship.
Boarding or Landing
If you want your mission to involve crew detachments leaving the bridge and exploring an alien world or an eerily abandoned space vessel, you need not be a world-class set designer. VR technology is becoming accessible enough that you could design your own 3D environments for your crew to walk around and explore. 3D Modeling is still a complicated, labor-intensive process, but the result can be immersive and flexible. Free tools exist for designing these environments to wow your crew with strange and unbelievable worlds. If you’re feeling really ambitious, pair your Daydream View VR Headset with a CPR Mask to create space suit helmets for your crew. Just tell them not to wear the red shirt.
Weapons for your mission can be very easy or very painstaking depending on the level of screen accuracy you’re looking for. On the easy side, Nerf guns and Super Soakers work great. If you want them to be a little less comic-book feeling, airbrush and spray paint the components silvers, blacks, and greys. For more screen-accurate weapons, novelty toys can be purchased, or DIY Prop Shop has some great DIY tutorials.
Design of the mission is by far the most challenging piece of the simulator experience. The critical piece of mission design is the impressiveness of the experience, which requires each crew member to be constantly engaged. Everyone must have some task or crisis that requires their position. Maybe during warp speed, an antimatter explosion threatens the warp core, and the engineer must find a way to bypass the core to avoid a meltdown. Maybe the communications officer intercepts a coded transmission and must decipher it. Keep the captain engaged by constantly placing him or her in difficult situations that require courage and decisiveness to manage. This series of crises should follow a basic Aristotelian plot curve, in order to maximize the emotional impact of the narrative. At the same time, the story arc has to be a little bit responsive, because the crew is actually in command of the ship and should be able to control the direction of the narrative. All this immersiveness must be balanced against the difficulty of managing and multitasking on the back end, which can be labor intensive.
Space really is the final frontier. The explorer’s spirit is alive and well in the rising generation. A starship simulator is a lot more than a fun DIY project – it’s a way to get your kids excited about science and technology. Despite increasing competition on the world stage, the United States is still the world hub for innovation. If we hope to maintain that status, we need more students pursuing careers in the STEM fields – especially girls. We don’t do that with grants, quotas, and subsidies; we do it by exciting the imagination the way my imagination was excited in that 2002 Space Center. We can inspire the next generation to boldly go where no one has gone before.