Guest post: Turning My Time on a NASA Co-Designed Spaceship and Asteroid Base into a Space Opera by R. Peter Keith

Written by / Guest Post

Risingshadow has an opportunity to feature an article by R. Peter Keith about creating the Wine Dark Deep series.

Wine Dark Deep (Wine Dark Deep #1) by R. Peter Keith
Wine Dark Deep
Wine Dark Deep #1
by R. Peter Keith

A hard science-fiction space opera.

Equal parts The Martian, Star Trek, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Expanse.

The First Book in the Epic Odyssey of the Spaceship Ulysses and its Crew!

When the solar system’s key asteroid mine is seized by revolutionaries, it puts the secret mission of the spaceship Ulysses in jeopardy. Without a refueling launch from the asteroid, the survival of the ship and its crew is uncertain. The safest course for the Ulysses? Abandon the mission and limp home.

But Cal Scott, captain of the Ulysses, is an astronaut of the old school and failure is not an option. He has a plan: head straight for the asteroid belt and get their fuel — one way or another.

Guest post: Turning My Time on a NASA Co-Designed Spaceship and Asteroid Base into a Space Opera by R. Peter Keith

It started in a museum exhibit.

About fifteen years ago, I co-founded a company to produce museum exhibits with core experiences that were high-end simulations. Video games built from ground up to be both fun and compelling educational experiences.

My first project as creative director was a dinosaur exhibition that reproduced 2.5 square miles of late Cretaceous Montana complete with AI dinosaurs sporting simulated musculoskeletal systems, digestion systems, and intelligence based off of both fossil evidence and analogs of behavior in modern day animals that occupy their same ecological niche. The landscapes and nutritional values of plants were resurrected from the fossil record of leaf and seed distributions.

Upon the success of that venture we embarked on a five-year endeavor to create an experience that would allow visitors to learn how to fly a spaceship. No joke, real useful knowledge. It would teach, among other things, the basic principles of spaceflight and the laws that govern it. And we wanted to focus on space exploration as it could plausibly be in just a few short decades. A world that we could experience within our lifetimes. It turned out that NASA was cool with some Sci-Fi.

As I worked on the design, a funny and interesting thought experiment-type question kept popping into my head: What if PBS had produced the original Star Trek instead of NBC? What would that have been like? Where would the tension and conflict and challenges arise? I felt there were tons of delightful possibilities inherent with that idea - but it was too big. Too big for the framing device of a museum exhibit.  We ended up using just the hint of it, but I never forgot it.

During the five years of the project, I got to work with some incredible people from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Langley and JPL - which operates as a space agency partner in accordance with a different branch of the same program, the NASA Space Act Agreement Partnership Program, that my company is proudly a part of.

We created physical structures, space capsules and station corridors, and digitally re-created 22 square miles of the Lunar North Pole, encompassing Whipple Crater and all of its two-plus miles of depth, where visitors can eventually land and explore. We built 12 miles of an area of Mars called The Labyrinth of Night. And we didn’t simply look at a map and extrapolate something similar, our landscapes were simulated using NASA space probe data: laser scans of the surfaces of these worlds from the Lunar and Martian Global Reconnaissance Orbiters. When you drive on my Moon, you are on a surface that is accurate down to about a foot. Thanks to some fortunate timing we also got to study early results from the Dawn probe of the asteroid Ceres, rich in all the things humanity needs to explore space but terrifyingly distant. NASA helped us to design plausible near-future spacecraft and surface facilities designed to enable deep space exploration and colonization.  For example, the lander and it’s flight behavior was worked out by a member of the same team that designed the Entry, Descent and Landing profile for the Mars Curiosity Rover.

And then of course there are the laws of physics that govern space flight and the ways in which they acted upon a spacecraft (and the forces it would produce) often produced surprises for me. I had always been a lifelong space-geek but even so - this was actual rocket science. Other exhibits can do with a diagram or diorama, but this was simulation. Visitors were going to have to learn these concepts, learn about the technology and then apply that knowledge in a high-fidelity 3D simulation of that very situation. And all of it would have to pass the muster of these NASA advisors because it was premiering at one of the greatest of all NASA Visitor Centers. It was an exciting and incredibly rewarding experience but every day there was some new set of data or counter-intuitive process (in orbit, in order to speed up you need to slow down) to make me feel like I was being punched inside my skull.

I lived in this simulated world for all that time, building and refining the experience for future museum visitors—and it became real to me. I could envision the people who would live there and the challenges they would face, both natural, technological and - most importantly - those of human nature. Over the course of one long drive down the Eastern coast of the U.S., the plot of the entire first book of Wine Dark Deep sprang into my mind. It was as if I’d lived parts of it. Sounds silly, but I was so immersed it was true.

In fact, the idea and the world just kept growing and I realized there was too much for one book. It needed to be its a series. - and that the concept to govern the series should be my initial abandoned concept for the narrative of the museum exhibition.  The question that never left my head: What if PBS had done Star Trek? What would that be like?  2001: A Space Odyssey the Series?  Carl Sagan’s Cosmos Trek?  It would have a cast of realistic characters who made logical choices and the conflicts and challenges that arose would stem equally from human nature as from real scientific challenges. And each step along the way, as the story moved from a base of grounded science fiction into the fantastic, would feel earned.