Friday, August 5, 2011

An Elevating Sense of Perspective

Some of the most valuable things are those that can teach without you realizing it. On the surface you're just playing a game or having a fun time, but in the hours and days afterward the content of that game percolates in your mind, bubbles and eventually boils over into a realization that you wouldn't necessarily have had without that original impetus.

Kerbal Space Program, the launch-to-orbit sandbox alpha game I reviewed here last week, works like that for me. Sure, the education it provides about rocket engineering and basic orbital mechanics is obvious, even though the lessons - like how the most fuel-efficient way to deorbit is to thrust retrograde at apoapsis, thus lowering your periapsis into the atmosphere, and not simply just thrusting directly toward the planet - aren't necessarily so, given the vast disconnect between our day-to-day experiences on a planetary body and the way things work out there in space.

No, what Kerbal Space Program really helped reinforce for me was a humbling sense of perspective. Now, this ain't no Total Perspective Vortex - it's ordinary, and in that respect, for me it's that much more powerful. One moment your capsule can be in a stable orbit, nearly even circular, far above the world; the next your engine is roaring with the deorbit burn, and only a few moments after that, the command pod parachutes to a safe landing - sometimes in the middle of the ocean, without even a scrap of land on the horizon. Yet only five minutes ago you were up so high that you kept missing the ground and could see an entire continent in a single gaze. I can't help but think that it doesn't seem possible that in less time than it takes to peel the potatoes for dinner, the capsule was up there in orbit; with the familiar world reasserting itself around you after landing, this whole business of "orbit" and "space" almost feels like a dream.

It all looks so small from up here...

My opinion: this is something that more people need to experience, to have that feeling of descending from the heavens to Earth, to watch the world go from something you can see all at once to something that surrounds you and enfolds you and becomes your entire universe. I think we dearly need that humility if we're to prosper in the years and decades ahead, if we're ever to go beyond societies dominated by avaricious corporations and greedy, skittish stock traders and all the other sorts of people who don't care one whit about the consequences of their actions... because, in the grand scheme, their actions are unimportant. You cannot, unfortunately, say the same thing about the consequences of those actions.

The world could be a better place if people could be elevated, if people could see it in a different way. If they could get a broader sense of perspective - to help understand the things that, in the end, are truly important. But it's a world we couldn't easily realize. Some people - be they iron-fisted dictators, money-chasing plutocrats, or whatever else they may be - are supremely wedded to the idea of the world as it seems.

(Incidentally, for the KSP players looking for suggestions on rocket-building - since I know from the search terms that there is no shortage of you all - here's the details of Adventurer III, my current reliably-to-orbit rocket: Stage 6, 4x KSP-30 Solid Fuel Boosters, each equipped with SAS modules and decorative nosecones, attached to the Stage 4 fuel tank by radial decouplers; Stage 4, one 4X-800 Liquid Fuel Engine Cluster fueled by two FL-R1000 Fuel Tanks, topped by a 1X3 Module Adapter Shroud; Stage 2, a NERVA Mk. I Nuclear Thermal Rocket Engine fueled by one FL-T500 Fuel Tank and topped with one SAS module and a stack decoupler. The command pod is also equipped with a parachute. Aside from the NERVA's fuel tank and the SAS modules, this rocket is entirely built with equipment from Sunday Punch's parts pack. To install, just unzip the .zip file into your /Kerbal Space Program/Parts directory.)

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