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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.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images

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