Keith Ferrell, Features Editor
Requirements: IBM PC, XT, AT or compatible, with 192K minimum memory, DOS 2.1 or higher, color graphics adapter; joystick optional.
The year is 1996 and you are responsible for launching, assembling, operating, and generating revenue from Space M+A+X—an orbiting, modular Materials, Astrophysics, and experimental station.
This exceptionally detailed package simulates the decisions involved as the various modules are placed in orbit and the configuration is brought to life. More than that, Space M+A+X simulates the costs and consequences of each decision, reminding you constantly of budgetary, personnel, and equipment constraints.
You take the role of space station project manager at one of five levels of salary and difficulty. As manager, you are responsible for selecting the crews and launching sequences that can best build the station and get it working within strict time and budget requirements.
At first it appears you have everything you need. In addition to a fleet of four shuttles, M+A+X provides several unmanned Heavy Lift Vehicles (HLVs)—essentially a 150,000-pound cargo container strapped to an external tank and four solid rocket boosters. The modules are ready for loading, and they include habitation, command, logistics (supplies), medical, recreation, experimental, and manufacturing facilities, as well as thrusters, pallet racks for exposing experiments to hard vacuum, remote manipulator arms, solar arrays, and heat radiators.
Schedules range from 70 to well over 100 days, and budgets from just under $3 billion to just under $4 billion. Crews are trained and flight-ready.
But space is expensive. While an HLV can heave several modules at once into orbit, the cost of such launches can exceed half a billion dollars. Solid rocket boosters are limited in number. Shuttles cost less to operate, but can lift less mass into orbit. Also, the shuttle crews and space station assemblers rightly receive generous daily salaries and incur daily support expenses. The shuttles themselves must be leased on a daily basis.
In short, everything in this simulation costs. Without careful planning, working capital can shrink quickly. And without working capital there's no way to deliver routine resupply missions into orbit, much less mount an emergency mission if circumstances require it.
Those circumstances change from mission to mission, as do the demands placed upon personnel in orbit as the space station takes shape. Once the first manufacturing modules are in place and activated, you face the constant challenge of supporting sufficient personnel to run the operations at maximum efficiency and productivity, as well as ensuring a constant supply of raw materials to be processed into profitable products.
Space M + A + X quickly reveals itself as a strategic simulation as well as an economic, scientific, and technological one. Early launches and assembly crews must establish power, habitation, and medical and recreation facilities while also provisioning the station. But a manager cannot wait too long to put manufacturing capabilities and operating crews into orbit—these are the resources that generate the revenue that will help make M+A+X self-supporting.
There are three types of manufacturing modules. Biological manufacturing produces pharmaceuticals and chemicals of a purity hard to obtain on earth. Furnace processing is used to produce high quality semiconductor crystals. Containerless processing allows for the production of perfectly spherical latex beads, which cannot be produced other than in zero gravity. Additional revenue can be earned from leased astrophysics and experimental modules.
The simulation is menu-driven, with an opening screen that allows the manager to select options such as cost breakdowns and objectives to load and launch HLVs and shuttles, to load for deorbit and select the proper landing site, and so on. Within each screen, further information is provided—weather and temperature which can have catastrophic effects upon launches and landings, availability of vital solid rocket boosters, amount of money and time left with which to achieve the required minimum configuration. One option permits your performance to be delivered to both your printer and your monitor.
Once a vehicle is launched, Space M + A + X provides a brief sequence of non-animated graphics showing the craft reaching orbit—or failing to. In orbit, another menu controls operations. When assembling the space station, one module at a time is moved into position, using either joystick or keyboard control. The rules for successful assembly are strict—each module must be separated from its mate by no more than one pixel. More or less than that and the assembly fails—at best costing time and money, at worst causing accident, injury, or even death for the assemblers.
Strong Nerves Required
At its most difficult level—Senior Project Director—Space M+A+X can be genuinely nerve-wracking. Weather and temperature become more critical than ever; launches and landings are more difficult to achieve. Crews are more assertive as well—the simulation posits a guild of orbital workers who can strike if conditions are unsuitable.
More seriously, Space M + A + X reminds the player of the enormous risk involved in every spaceflight. The simulation makes insurance available for launches and operations, but the premiums are exorbitant. Yet even with all risks minimized, some launches run into difficulty that result in emergency landings or even in the loss of a vehicle and its crew.
That a great deal of thought and effort went into Space M + A + X is nowhere more obvious than in its thick, beautifully produced manual. In addition to providing instructions for operating the simulation, the manual contains much technical information about the space program, the objectives of a space station, and the nature of orbital science and technology. A brief bibliography at the end of the manual offers further reading; to that list I might add Henry S. F. Cooper's A House in Space, about Skylab, and the just-published The Space Station: A Personal Journey, by former NASA executive Hans Mark.
The simulation comes on three disks, in copy-protected mode or in a version installable on a hard disk or backup floppies.
Solidly grounded in real-world economics and science, Space M + A + X is a challenging simulation that provokes and teaches even as it entertains. Author T. L. Keller and publisher Final Frontier Software are to be congratulated for their innovation and quality. The program is appropriately and touchingly dedicated to Sharon Christa Mc-Auliffe, who would, I think, have appreciated Space M+A+X a lot.
Space M + A + X
Final Frontier Software
18307 Burbank Blvd.
Tarzana, CA 91356
$69.95 (copy-protected); $79.95 (backup and hard disk-installable)