“Our mission was to convey the wonder and majesty of space exploration, to evoke the golden-age of early spaceflight, and we’ve been referring to this approach as ‘NASA Punk’”. That’s how Starfield art director Istvan Pely described the distinctive look of Bethesda’s latest grand-scale RPG during a lengthy presentation earlier this Summer.
It was the first time we were given a truly in-depth look at the spacecraft that would inhabit Bethesda’s sprawling sci-fi universe and its ‘NASA Punk’ aesthetic. “This means a design language where the tech is advanced, yet still looks grounded and relatable,” expounded Pely.
To mark Starfield’s launch IGN drafted in the expertise of Robert Chambers, a real-life spaceship expert (yes, really), to analyze what Starfield gets right about space travel, its NASA Punk aesthetic, ship design, and a whole lot more.
Chambers is the Director of Strategy for human spaceflight at Lockheed Martin, the company developing NASA’s next generation Orion spacecraft, which is set to return humanity to lunar space for the first time since the end of the Apollo-era over 50 years ago. Alongside personally working on the Orion spacecraft, Chambers is also a fan of the Elder Scrolls and Fallout RPG series, so he’s the perfect person to critique Bethesda’s self described ‘NASA Punk’ Starfield aesthetic.
We showed Chambers scenes from spaceship interiors featured in the June Starfield Direct gameplay deep-dive to see if Bethesda’s ‘NASA Punk’ style and its nods to realistic spaceship design is grounded in reality.
“That little command center in the cockpit is spot on,” notes Chambers, immediately taken by the realism of the touch screen controls. “You know, the shuttle had like 2,500 switches and dials. For Orion we’re down to pretty much these 3 screens, and a couple of dozen switches for manual overrides. So this looks like the inside of the Orion spacecraft, other than [there’s] a lot more glass than we get to have on the Orion side.”
He explains that in the real world, spacecraft are designed with much smaller windows than their sci-fi counterparts out of fear that ultra-fast moving micrometeoroid impacts, or tiny pieces of debris could damage the glass.
Of course, Chambers saw just one of the many cockpit designs that players can use to construct and control their ships. Regardless, the comments serve to highlight the balancing act that Todd Howard and his team had to strike when crafting Starfield’s NASA Punk aesthetic between including real-world spaceflight design elements, and ensuring that they don’t get in the way of player enjoyment.
It must have been a tightrope walk but judging by Chambers reaction, Bethesda seems to have trodden it well.
For example, most ships in Starfield boast artificial gravity, which allows passengers to walk on the floor as if they were on the surface of a planet. However, Chambers also spotted the hallmarks of realistic spaceship design in the sci-fi technology-infused scenes.
“It looks here like they really put some thought into this thing operating in a non artificial gravity environment as well,” explains Chambers. “Hand holds at the top, a lot of hand holds everywhere, and then the thing I really love is, like, the bolts are appearing.”
Chambers elaborates that he could imagine the crew pulling out the bolts fastened to the ship’s interior in order to reveal hidden compartments. Small environmental touches like this draw Starfield’s environment closer to the design ethos of real world spacecraft, wherein every ounce of space must be used, modified to suit crew needs, and if necessary, repaired, as quickly as possible.
“You never know what’s gonna break, and what you’re gonna need to fix, I think they got it spot on from those types of things.”
The ‘NASA Punk’ aesthetic made itself known in each subsequent scene, wherein realistic spaceship design concepts were juxtaposed with the sci-fi logic and technological evolution that underpin the far future setting of the game.
For example, upon spotting a bunk in the living quarters Chambers noted that crew don’t have the luxury of a bed aboard a real spaceship. Yet with artificial gravity tech this became possible. More importantly, the presence of the creature comfort was true to the current day real world space exploration truth that “having a space of your own” is vitally important, particularly as an astronaut gets further away from home.
Chambers also clocked Bethesda’s attention to detail when it came to the technology in the player’s spacesuit, including the backpack, which functions as a life support unit for astronauts in the real world. “When you go out into deep space or on the moon, really anywhere, even in low earth orbit around the moon. There it’s really, really cold unless you’re in the sun. And then it’s really really hot.”
Of course, in Starfield the player’s spacesuit backpack can also function as a booster. Chambers reveals that a similar, albeit less powerful Starfield-esque booster pack could be used by future astronauts exploring the Moon in real life in the coming decades.
“I would say, yeah, give them an ‘A’ on the NASA punk aesthetic. It all looks realistic. It looks like the kind of thing that you need to fix with a Phillips screwdriver and a soldering iron. And that’s how we build spacecraft today.”
Chambers also gave his thoughts on the fictional exploration timeline that Bethesda created for the Starfield universe, in which astronauts first set foot on Mars in 2050, and begin living in space full time by the year 2100.
“I watched with interest the timeline Bethesda laid out, and I will say they were pretty conservative on humans to Mars. What we’ve all been working within the industry is this magic date of 2033.”
According to Chambers, 2033 is the sweet spot for sending humans to Mars in terms of radiation output from the Sun and amount of thrust needed to get there. Furthermore, many of the key technologies that we need to make the trip already exist. “So I think we can get to Mars earlier than the 2050 that Bethesda put in their timeline, I think we can beat him to that.”
However, Chambers thought that Bethesda’s predicted date of 2100 for humans living full time in space was more accurate: “To do that by 2100, was the date that I think that the Bethesda folks put out there, you know, that’s actually pretty realistic. The ability to, as part of what NASA is doing with Artemis, the international partners, agencies, and all of industry is to create enough of an infrastructure at the moon that it is essentially self-sustaining.”
Of course Starfield’s timeline extends hundreds of years beyond humanity’s fledgling steps into space, to a time when we have established far-flung colonies among the stars. Our story begins in the year 2330, in a time when space travel has become democratized to the point where companies, pirates, and in some cases even private individuals are able to own starships of their own.
It’s a fantastic notion, especially when you consider the fact that modern day spacecraft like Orion cost many billions of dollars to design and build. However, according to Chambers, this common sci-fi trope could well come to pass – just don’t expect the ships to be as pretty as the ones you’ll pilot in Starfield.
“So spacecraft like Orion, [are] hugely expensive, and take a lot of time because it’s measure thrice cut once. So all of the engineering review boards, all of the what ifs, all of the ways of densifying capabilities into a spacecraft mean that it’s really, it’s a national asset, because there’s so much put into it.”
However, Chambers could also foresee a scenario where humanity is able to start harnessing the materials abundant in space, which would allow us to build spacecraft off planet. A lot of infrastructure building will be needed to get to that point, but it’s possible that personal spacecraft could actually be a reality in a few centuries time.
“So I would say, a couple of hundred years, [and] people ought to be able to build their home builds. I don’t think they’re going to be anywhere near as slick as what we’re seeing in Starfield yet, but home built spacecraft in 200 years I’d buy it. Literally, I would buy it.”
Sadly, designing a spacecraft in the real world today is a whole lot more complicated than the module-based ship editor found in Starfield. However, Chambers thinks that this ‘plug and play’ approach to spaceship building could become more realistic as humans spread further into the solar system.
“The reality is, building these spacecraft is so complex, we talk about it being the greatest team sport ever.” Beneath the aerodynamic outer shell of the Orion spacecraft is a “second skin” of interconnected systems, bulkheads, tubing, aviation boxes, and other vital elements. Altering any aspect of the design has the potential to cause a “ripple effect” that would need to be addressed in systems across the spacecraft.
This complexity is driven partly by constraints placed on a spacecraft’s design by what Chambers describes elsewhere as “the tyranny of the rocket equation”, which forces scientists to make each part of a ship as multi-purpose as possible in an attempt to cut down on a spacecraft’s size, and mass. However, once humanity becomes capable of building spacecraft off world, ship parts could indeed become more ‘plug in and play’ as early as 2100.
“I think Bethesda got it right with that concept of modular spacecraft, simply because we’re moving into this realm where we really understand the technology and the engineering behind it. And if we can decouple ourselves from the Earth’s gravity well, which is the great challenge, to get all that mass up there. Once we can start optimising for clean interfaces and modularity, the sky becomes the limit. No pun intended.”
Chambers also explained that vast capital ships like the Star Destroyer from Star Wars, or Starfield’s UC Vigilance battleship could become a reality in the far future.
“So is it feasible to build those? The short answer is, yes, because there is so much material out there. You grab two asteroids, you got all the raw material you need to build something the class of a Star Destroyer or some, you know, Deep Space 9 station, right?”
However, such a ship would require a massive amount of money and a colossal workforce to build, along with an advanced offworld economy and infrastructure not unlike the one we see in Starfield. It’s also possible that Starfield could, in some small way, inspire the development of new technologies with which to explore the real-world solar system.
“One of the things that always goes through my mind is sort of form follows from function or life imitates art right? The truth is, science fiction writers and folks that immerse themselves in the reality of it, whether it’s Ridley Scott with The Martian or what Bethesda is doing for their exploration, sort of the whole vibe of what that world looks like. There are real scientists and engineers and creative folks that are thinking about how it would actually work. And by definition that might actually lead science.”
Of course there are some elements of Starfield’s science-fiction technology that will, for the time being at least, remain the purview of science fiction, such as the gravity drive that allows travelers to fold space and bridge the incredible distances separating the stars.
“When I think about the migration of humans outward, there’s kind of two angles I approach it from,” says Chambers. “One is my ‘graduate of a higher learning Institute with degrees in engineering and physics expertise’. And then there’s the more philosophical [side], and the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Scientists are constantly working to make propulsion more efficient and powerful. Lockheed Martin is actively developing a new nuclear propulsion system for NASA and DARPA that would increase energy efficiency over the conventional chemical propulsion systems used today.
Chambers muses that our eventual journey to the stars could be made in huge generational ships using engines that could accelerate to phenomenal speeds without defying our current understanding of physics. However, he also left the door open to the possibility that humanity could discover a paradigm-altering method of travel that could open up a swifter path to the stars.
“Plan for what you can do and then hope for that breakthrough and keep funding the fundamental research, because those are things you don’t know until you suddenly stumble across it, what you could really accomplish.”
Regardless of whether such a sci-fi exodus to the stars will ever actually happen, Chambers believes that titles like Starfield play a helpful role in engaging the public with space exploration, at a time when NASA and its partners are actively looking to push humanity deeper into the solar system.
“I’m a huge fan of attracting a whole new set of folks to what NASA and the international partners and industry from across the world are doing, because not everybody knows. Sometimes when I chat with people about what we do, and what I’m planning that we’re gonna be able to go do in a few years, [they say] you know, I thought that was science fiction.”
“So I love the fact that the NASA punk concept is showing it. It looks like what you have today and is extrapolated forward, and it allows people to not just believe in the future, but realize like we’re on a direct path for it.”
Starfield is set to get its full release on September 6 on Xbox Series X|S, and PC as a day one Game Pass title. Be sure to check out IGN’s walkthroughs, guides, and interactive maps to make sure that you get the most out of your journey through the settled systems.
Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years experience of covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
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Author: Anthony Wood