To Infinity and Beyond

While the final ride of the space shuttle might mark a low point in the era of manned spaceflight, there's another way to explore the solar system.

Growing up in the early 1970s, with my imagination fueled by Star Trek and an endless stream of science fiction paperbacks from the local used-book shop, I took it for granted that I would see the Stars and Stripes planted on Mars in my lifetime. But now the space shuttle is retired -- flown piggyback over Washington, D.C., this week in a final, sad salute. American astronauts can't get into orbit without hitching a ride on a Russian rocket, and the day that they'll plant a flag on Mars seems as distant as the Andromeda Galaxy.

President Barack Obama's proposed NASA budget of $17.7 billion would boost research into a new generation of manned spacecraft, but it still leaves us decades away from a manned Mars expedition. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich can dream of a $35 billion moon base, but it seems just as likely that the first small step on Martian soil will be made by Chinese boots. The innovative and pioneering can-do spirit of exploration burns within private spacefarers such as Richard Branson and SpaceX, but commercial enterprises are more likely to concentrate on profitable near-Earth projects than expensive interplanetary exploration.

Yet regardless of who takes the lead, I still believe that humans will someday colonize Mars and the solar system. They will be propelled by some combination of economic greed, popular enthusiasm, and fear of losing a space race against rival countries for control of the heavens. And though we lack launch vehicles, we still have our imaginations -- and even games that can give us a taste of the challenges that await us.

High Frontier is a board game of exploration and exploitation of the solar system. Designed by real-life aerospace engineer Phil Eklund, who spent decades researching the game, High Frontier postulates a future when various countries, including the United States, China, Japan, and the European ones, dispatch manned expeditions across the solar system. The impetus is more practical than poetic: The goal is to find raw materials that enable factories to be built on other worlds, which in turn can produce advanced technologies that can't be manufactured on Earth. It's a story of unbridled, transplanetary capitalism.

With half of unmanned Mars missions failing over the past 50 years, though, colonizing the solar system is no easy task. High Frontier is a complex game, but it boils down to two basic questions: Where do you want to go, and how do you get there? It turns out that there are lots of places to go in the solar system, if by places you mean those supersized pebbles between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroids, as well as other planets and the moon, have things that we Terrans desire -- either water, which can be broken down into hydrogen for rocket fuel (so spacecraft can carry less fuel on the voyage out from Earth), or minerals that allow factories to be built. Dice are rolled for each planetary body to determine whether your expedition will hit pay dirt or will return empty-handed, and planetary bodies like Mars are more likely to have minerals than a small asteroid like Chaucer. The basic High Frontier game stretches from Mercury to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. An expansion (sold separately) allows players to explore and colonize Jupiter, Saturn, and their moons.

In High Frontier, players take turns conducting research (actually bidding for patents for rocket technology), assembling components into the rocket design of their choice, and launching expeditions into the Deep Black. The lifeblood of the game is water, which serves both as rocket fuel and as currency to buy patents. There is never enough water to buy all the patents and rocket fuel that you need, so frugality is essential (behind every great space power is a great space accountant). Each of the space-faring powers has a special ability: China, for example, can steal water and claim space territory first claimed by another player. The winner is determined by victory points, with points awarded for building extraterrestrial factories and for being the first to explore Mars, Mercury, and various other scientifically valuable places. There are optional rules for factors like politics and war, but most players will probably be too busy fighting the game to fight among themselves.

That's because while space is rich, getting to those riches is hard. After trying to build a spacecraft in High Frontier, I see why the term "rocket scientist" connotes intelligence. High Frontier's game board looks like a cross between a diagram of the solar system and one of those dizzying 1960s psychedelic posters that my hippie neighbors plastered on their walls in my youth. The board is overlaid with arcs representing flight paths between Earth and various destinations out to the region of Saturn, with each arc dotted with "burn points" that require spacecraft to use thrust -- and expend precious fuel -- every time they enter them. Players move small plastic rockets on the board as they thrust from burn point to burn point. They launch one expedition at a time, and it can take quite a few turns for a rocket to reach the asteroid belt or outer solar system, so once a player is committed to a certain spacecraft design tailored to reaching a certain planet or asteroid, the player really is committed.

Players construct spacecraft from a menu of components that includes thrusters, reactors, and cooling systems. Spacecraft can also carry "robonauts" -- automated planetary explorers controlled by the human crew -- and automated factories that can be built where the robonauts discover minerals. These components are launched into low-Earth orbit, assembled into complete spacecraft, and then sent on their way.

The catch is that the bigger the spacecraft, the more payload it can carry, yet the more fuel it uses. Newbie rocket scientists will quickly find themselves caught in a trap in which carrying more payload also demands bigger engines, which require more fuel, which require bigger fuel tanks, which demand even bigger engines.… You can choose to build a Hummer of space -- a giant spacecraft propelled by fast but fuel-guzzling Apollo-style rockets. Or, you can go the Chevy Volt approach, with solar sails that use the sun's radiation as fuel. But solar propulsion is slow, and even worse, solar energy is too weak to offer much of a boost beyond the orbit of Mars. And whoever is the first to build extraterrestrial factories, where advanced technology such as more fuel-efficient rockets or faster solar sails can be built, will have an edge in exploiting even more distant resources in the solar system.

But this only scratches the surface of a very deep game. For example, a moon base would seem to be an obvious choice. But the moon's gravity is strong enough that a spacecraft needs a fairly powerful engine (and the necessary fuel) to descend and ascend. The asteroid belt is farther away, which means more fuel-guzzling engine burns, but the asteroids' weak gravity allows for smaller engines for landing and takeoff. Or, instead of lugging big engines to fight Martian gravity, a lander can use the atmosphere for a parachute-assisted aerobrake landing -- but only if it passes a survival dice roll. In space, everyone can hear you scream when your lander adds another crater to the Martian surface.

High Frontier is as much science lesson as game. It features a deluge of background material, with a plethora of esoteric technologies depicted in diagrams and brief descriptions. Even after reading it, I can't begin to tell you what a "metastable helium thruster" or a "photon tether rectenna generator" is, other than that they aren't animal or vegetable. But they make my spaceships go faster, and that's all I need to know.

Eklund's High Frontier isn't a prediction of the future so much as a plausible scenario for how and why humans might conquer space. Like with most postulates of space travel, either you accept the underlying assumptions or you don't. I don't know whether asteroid mining or Martian factories are a practical idea, but I do know that I enjoy a reasonable simulation that lets us explore the proposition.

But where High Frontier really shines is how it tempers the science fiction with practical realities. For all the romanticism of the starship Enterprise effortlessly whizzing around the galaxy, space is a cold, hard place governed by cold, hard physical rules. (Or as the old bumper sticker said, "186,000 miles per second. It's not just a good idea. It's the law.") High Frontier illustrates the practical considerations that will govern the future of human spaceflight. Writers and dreamers may enthuse us, but ultimately it's the engineers who will allow us to boldly go where no man has gone before.



He's Not Alone

The trial of Norway's alleged mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is only the tip of the iceberg in a rising sea of radical Islamophobia in Europe.

The biggest mistake that Europeans could make while watching the ongoing trial of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway is to discount his rambling tirades against Islam and multiculturism as the ravings of a crackpot. Whether clinically sane or not -- the Norwegian psychiatrists at the pretrial flip-flopped on this -- Breivik's thousand-page manifesto and his convictions in general are not the bizarre product of a "delusional thought universe," as the first psychiatric report concluded. On the contrary, Breivik's "thought universe" bears all the staples of a political ideology that accurately reflects a potent Islamophobic discourse that has taken hold across the continent and beyond since the 9/11 attacks. Breivik's monstrous crimes must serve as a shrill wake-up call for Europeans -- and not just Europeans -- to acknowledge the very real potential for violence inherent in this movement and take action to stem it, at its source.

Breivik is not a Norwegian novelty but, rather, symptomatic of a growing culture of politically motivated violence across the continent (just check out the London-based Islamophobia Watch, which chronicles anti-Muslim violence). Muslims have been assaulted and killed, their mosques and institutions smeared with graffiti and bombed. Rampages that copycat Breivik's, say experts, aren't out of the question. Indeed, security services have been far too lax about the threat of the far right, especially its most radical, Islam-obsessed currents.

Yet the source of the discrimination, hate speech, and violence increasingly directed at Europe's Muslim communities lies much closer to home: Islamophobia has won an accepted presence in mainstream discourses and politics from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Political parties that espouse a somewhat milder version of Breivik's thoughts sit in parliaments across Northern Europe, including in the European Parliament, and even participate in ruling coalitions. In some countries, like once proudly multikulti Denmark, these politicos have had a pronounced impact on migration, asylum, and cultural, social, and anti-terrorism policies, as well as on the entrenchment of a growing popular animus against Muslims.

Even proper democrats have capitulated to Islamophobia, unable to field the complex issues of Islam and Europe's Muslims constructively. Last year, Denmark's opposition Social Democrats, for example, though fiercely split, backed a landmark tightening of immigration requirements for non-Westerners, a bill the anti-Islam Danish People's Party co-wrote and pushed. The burqa bans in France and Belgium had similar support. Acts like these stigmatize Muslims further and play straight into the hands of this new generation of Europe's right, which includes extremists like Breivik who are inspired by its arguments. An international network of "counter-jihad" groups are expanding in reach and influence, according to a report released by the British group Hope Not Hate on the eve of Breivik's trial. Far-right organizations are forging new alliances throughout Europe and the United States, according to the group, which documented 190 groups promoting an Islamophobic agenda.

"Anti-Muslim racism" -- a cultural hierarchy that instead of using skin color imputes immutable characteristics to cultures (Western civilization at the top, retrograde Islam its nemesis) -- defines these groups' ideology of hate. Muslims are not biologically inferior, it is argued, but rather culturally incompatible. Yet this clash of civilizations perversely functions just as racism does and serves the purposes of those who have long sought to stem immigration, keep Turkey out of the European Union, or secure a white Christian Europe. Unlike overt racism, there is no politically correct taboo against it -- yet. On the contrary, as opposed to the old-school right with its pungent anti-Semitism, this new counter-jihad movement is pro-Israel and ostensibly liberal, and is thus capable of attracting a far broader constituency.

Breivik's writings, Internet postings, and statements -- as well as the dozens of anti-Islamist intellectuals, authors, and bloggers in Europe and North America whom he references -- are shot through with textbook anti-Muslim racism. In a nutshell, this worldview poses the last 2,000 years of history as the battle of Western civilization to stem the advance of a violent, monolithic Islam that strives to destroy traditionally Christian Europe. (One of the Internet sites Breivik regularly quotes is called Gates of Vienna, referring to the Ottomans' unsuccessful siege of the city in 1683, which halted their military advance into Central Europe.) In the name of the Enlightenment, so says Breivik and his ilk, the counter-jihad is defending the achievements of the West from the imposition of sharia law everywhere.

The twin policies of "the left," the European Union, and "cultural Marxists" -- as they're called by the anti-Muslim campaigners -- that gave the jihad a new foothold in the West were immigration and multiculturism. (Breivik's targets, the Norwegian government buildings and the Labor Party-affiliated youth camp, were supposedly representatives of this establishment.) It was state-sponsored multiculturalism that put Islam on a par with Christianity, they say, enabling it to flourish in Europe, or "Eurabia," at the expense of a dwindling white populace. These modern-day crusaders see themselves as the protectors of liberal tolerance, even of women's and gay rights, against a totalitarian Islam. The counter-jihad makes no distinction between long-integrated Muslim migrant communities and al Qaeda.

Moreover, their doctrine is not a mere description of the way things are. It is eminently activist, just as Breivik understood it. In their eyes, only radical forms of action -- violence, war, and a fight to the bitter end -- can remove Islam's threat, explains Matthew Goodwin, a British analyst of the right wing at the University of Nottingham. The movement, he wrote in the Guardian, cultivates the belief that "they are engaged in a battle for racial or cultural survival; that their racial, religious or cultural group is threatened by imminent extinction; that existing political options are incapable of responding to this threat; that urgent and radical action is required to [respond] to these threats in society; and that they must fulfil this duty in order to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren."

A new Chatham House study that surveyed more than 2,000 supporters of radical-right groups in Britain found that many endorsed violence, with a "hostile inner core," as the Guardian described it, willing to plan for and prepare for attacks. Its authors issued a "stark warning about the potential threat posed by far-right extremists in the UK," the British newspaper reported. The same could be said for their allies, with whom they're networked, just about everywhere in Europe.

There are more and less explicit incitements to action among the anti-Islam denizens, but proponents of the Islamophobe creed, the intellectual fathers of Breivik's "thought universe," are not fringe fanatics in Europe. For those who doubt this, look at the status of Islamophobe parties and the kinds of thinkers who supply them with ideological fodder.

They exist in strong numbers from Italy to Finland, but arguably the standard-bearer is the Netherlands' Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Statements of the silver-coiffed leader of the third-largest force in the Dutch parliament appeared again and again in Breivik's writings. (Wilders denies any affinity between himself and the Norwegian killer, calling him "violent and sick.") Yet Wilders tripled his party's popularity by campaigning to halt the "Islamization of the Netherlands." He is not the only politician of his kind who compares the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf. (In his defense this week in Norway, Breivik made a similar analogy, justifying the shooting of the youth-camp teenagers as they were the equivalent of the Hitler Youth.)

From 1999 to 2007, Breivik had been an active member of Norway's version of Wilders's party, namely the anti-immigration Progress Party, the main political opposition in Norway. At least until he left, he fit right in: He chaired a local Oslo branch and was deputy leader of the local youth branch. But the party's restrictive immigration policy and law-and-order planks weren't enough for Breivik. Norway's Progress Party has energetically distanced itself from Breivik's radicalism -- but its thinking clearly influenced him. Yes, he took the one horrible step forward on his own, but parties like this -- increasingly mainstream -- are the petri dish for this radical counter-jihad.

Survey after survey shows that growing numbers of people in Europe -- and the United States -- subscribe to an anti-Islam belief system. A recent Forsa Institute poll in Germany showed that 38 percent think Islam doesn't fit into a German lifestyle and represents a threat to German values. Almost half want Germany to drastically reduce immigration (which is negligible to begin with).

In France, where the national election campaign is in full swing, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is the favorite among young voters. In the wake of the Toulouse killings in March, when a lone gunman who claimed association with al Qaeda shot dead seven people, Le Pen ratcheted up her anti-Islam rhetoric, accusing the government of surrendering poor suburbs to Islamic radicals. "Entire districts are in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, and, I say it again, today the danger is underestimated," said Le Pen, leader of the National Front party.

This political mainstreaming of Islamophobia would have been inconceivable without the post-9/11 anti-Islamic discourse across European media and the blogosphere. In large part, this trail was blazed by intellectuals, who defended their positions in the name of liberalism and human rights. The first of this troupe, and hugely influential, was Italian writer Oriana Fallaci, whose bestselling books (translated into 21 languages) insisted on the radical essence of Islam, which she claimed was a thoroughly violent creed striving for world domination.

Others who followed include French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy ("the veil is an invitation to rape"), British novelist and former New Statesman editor Martin Amis, Dutch intellectual and Labor Party member Paul Scheffer, and in Germany such figures as Ralph Giordano, Necla Kelek, Alice Schwarzer, and Henryk Broder. Breivik approvingly quoted from this multinational assortment of anti-Muslim literati, including the American bloggers Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, and Pamela Geller, the executive director of the Stop Islamization of America. The Hope Not Hate report includes the two Americans among the "top dozen players" in the counter-jihad front.

The fact that Breivik was nowhere on Norway's radar underscores just how blind European intelligence and security services have been to the threat from the right since 9/11. Another stupendous recent gaffe in Northern Europe was Germany's inability to track a neo-Nazi terrorist group that murdered nine innocent migrants and a German policewoman over the course of the 2000s. The authorities had no clue that the murders were linked to right-wing extremists. Rather, they had chalked up the unsolved killings to mafia elements within the migrant communities or, in the case of the policewoman, to vagrant Gypsies. Completely by chance, late last year they stumbled upon evidence incriminating the neo-Nazi underground.

Obviously, European security forces have to refocus and zero in on right-wing terrorist groups. The Hope Not Hate report cites the formation in January of the organization Stop Islamization of Nations, which promotes an umbrella network of counter-jihad groups across Europe and the United States, as evidence of a global evolution. But the Islamophobe phenomenon is far greater than the likes of Breivik or the thugs of the English Defence League. Democratic political parties have to refuse to form coalitions -- formal or informal -- with parties that employ bigotry to wins votes, no matter how powerful they are. They have to resist caving in on core democratic issues like immigration and the freedom of Muslim women to wear a veil. And programs promoting religious tolerance have to be introduced in schools.

This hasn't happened yet. Even in Norway, it has been pretty much back to business as usual. This winter, for example, Norway decided to return 400 young asylum-seekers to Ethiopia, saying they did not face persecution there. The children have been living in asylum-seeker centers for three years or more; a quarter of those to be deported were actually born in Norway. They attend school, have Norwegian friends, and speak Norwegian. A coalition of grassroots groups has been trying to block the scheduled deportations, but the authorities have not budged, a move heartily cheered by the anti-immigration lobby.

Yes, the voices of Islamophobia were temporarily cowed in the aftermath of the Breivik killings -- and it was a hopeful sign that some kind of lesson had been learned about the power of words and hatred. But this reprieve didn't last long. After vehemently disowning the psychopath Breivik, the counter-jihad went back to touting its anti-Muslim racism as stridently as ever. Norwegian newspapers regularly shut down their web comment boards because of abusive language on almost every published article on Islam or immigration. Moreover, this year a heavy-metal band -- Taake -- nominated for Norway's top music prize has songs on its latest album with explicitly anti-Muslim lyrics. In the group's song "Hurricane," members sing, "To hell with Mohammed and the Mohammedans" and their "unforgivable customs." It ends with the line: "Norway will soon awaken."

Meanwhile, the country's media is obsessed with the details of Breivik's monstrous act, the mistakes of the police, and, above all, the man himself. "We are looking so intensely into the eyes of the terrorist that we are becoming blind," wrote Aslak Sira Myhre of Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation for free expression. "He is becoming a celebrity, an icon of evil. But we close our eyes to the fact that Behring Breivik's worldview is shared by many all over Europe."