THIS month has seen billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos launch aboard spacecraft made by their own firms, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin respectively. It is quite an accomplishment for the private space sector, but it is also worth noting that neither firm’s suborbital flight exceeds the achievement of the first person in space, Yuri Gagarin, who orbited Earth 60 years ago.
I have also been making an attempt at orbital flight, albeit virtually, in Mars Horizon, a space agency simulator developed in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA). The game lets you choose to play as ESA, NASA, the Soviet Union, China or Japan, and recreate the space race starting in 1957 (ignoring the fact that three of the participants entered the race years later). I made the first ever uncrewed launch that year, but then quickly slipped behind: my first astronaut only launched in 1965, a few years after everyone else.
From there, the solar system opens up. Completing missions generates science, which you can use to research further missions, buildings for your launch complex or new rockets.
You don’t get to directly control the missions: on hitting launch, a cutscene plays out and your payload either makes it to orbit successfully or blows up. Assuming everything goes to plan, you then play a short resource management game that is meant to simulate course corrections and similar spacecraft operations. I found this the most boring part of the game, and developer Auroch Digital seems to realise this, as you can choose to skip it for some missions.
“I made the first ever uncrewed launch, but then slipped behind: my first astronaut only launched in 1965”
As the title suggests, the game’s ultimate goal is to land humans on Mars, but doing so requires heaps of experience in space flight. Pretty much every mission in the history of space exploration is represented in the game – a recent update added NASA’s Perseverance Mars rover – and I had a lot of fun working through the greatest hits.
Sure, I didn’t land humans on the moon until 1977, eight years after the real Apollo 11 mission, and I was the fourth agency to do so, but there was still a frisson of excitement as my lander touched down. The game does a great job of simulating the more challenging aspects of space exploration. Even the best-designed mission has a risk of failure, and I had to pick myself up and rebuild more than once.
Finally, in July 2024, I was ready to head to Mars. Because China was also preparing to go and had more space-flight experience, I had rushed to assemble my spacecraft in Earth orbit, building it up over the course of a few launches. The only way to win this space race was to take a gamble. My astronauts set a course for the Red Planet, and everything seemed to be going well until disaster struck: a failure to manage radiation levels meant the craft never entered Mars orbit, dooming the astronauts to drift into deep space.
At this point, I could have sighed, hoped China’s mission was also unsuccessful and then started building my Mars craft from scratch for another attempt. Instead, I cheated and reloaded the game to the start of the mission. It took a few more failures, but I eventually landed on Mars in July 2025. On the one hand, that’s earlier than any space agency will manage in real life. On the other, when it comes to proper space exploration, there are no second chances.
Jacob also recommends…
Kerbal Space Program
PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and Series X/S
Another space agency simulator, but with much more freedom than Mars Horizon: you can design a spacecraft from scratch and directly control it with realistic physics.
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