Carl Sagan Wrote A Design Doc For A Video Game

Carl Sagan was an astrophysicist, science popularizer, author of the novel Contact and, to describe him in the most trendy terms possible, the Bob Ross of astronomy. He presented a number of fine documentaries about science and the universe, most famously Cosmos. He also, it turns out, briefly imagined how you might make a video game based on his work.

“The question is how to design a home video game whcih would teach a great deal of astronomy in a context as exciting as most violent video games,” the document begins. He goes on to imagine a game that simulates parts or all of a galaxy, taking place “over such a long period of time that stellar evolutionary events would have to be taken into account,” and in which players would solve puzzles that would at the same time teach players the “geography of the Milky Way Galaxy.”

Continuing, Sagan writes that “There are two natural starting points — (1) when we begin on the Earth and have to find something elsewhere in the Milky Way; and (2) when we start outside the Galaxy or at the center of the Galaxy and our job is to find the Earth.” He then suggests that the game might function as a tie-in with his novel Contact, which would be published two years later.

The document, which is just a page and a half long, is included as part of the collection of Sagan’s papers held by the Library of Congress. You can view both those pages online here. It’s unclear whether he ever thought about or pursued the game beyond making these notes, but I thought it an interesting read for this rainy Friday afternoon.

Thanks, Kotaku.


  1. amateurviking says:

    Carl Sagan is more or less the reason I am a scientist. Must have read Cosmos about 10 times when I was a kid. Wonderful stuff.

  2. Xocrates says:

    As someone who does write Design Documents, I can tell you that those 2 pages don’t even come close of being worthy of called one, so the title is bit misleading.

    It’s an interesting concept though, and certainly one I would like to see expanded.

    *adds link to file to game ideas folder*

  3. Wisq says:

    On a related note: Just finished playing “Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager” last night. I can see why it wasn’t a critic favourite, but I enjoyed it decently enough.

    Obviously, it’s interesting to see how the American and Russian space programs progressed, and to learn about (or be reminded about) the fun parts of the less-familiar Russian space program (e.g. how their early Vostok craft had the pilot actually eject and parachute down prior to landing).

    But it’s even more interesting to see the plans that never happened — e.g. potentially using Gemini as a lunar lander, or the various (there were several!) Russian plans to get to the moon. The LK-700 (and UR-700 booster) were particularly impressive — a 150-tonne direct ascent lunar lander, and a massive three-engined six-boostered launch vehicle. Of all the real life, human-made space ships out there, the LK-700 is definitely the most Kerbal.

    The fact that the game limits itself to existing historical missions makes it nicely educational without mixing fact and fiction, but I still think it’s unfortunate that they didn’t do any post-Apollo missions. It would’ve been interesting to learn more about the probes we sent to other planets, or the space stations, and maybe even to extrapolate to a manned Mars mission. But I can respect their focus on sticking to a) real missions and b) just the original space race.

    • jgf1123 says:

      The game released was supposed to be part 1 of a trilogy. Part 2 was to cover the space station and shuttle eras (including ISS) and part 3 was to cover human bases on Moon and Mars. In particular, Aldrin advocates a Mars cycler, a platform whose orbit would bring it between Earth and Mars orbits, thus saving fuel and expendable vehicles. However, the programmer for BASPM’s life circumstances have changed, so plans for parts 2 and 3 have been scrapped.

    • Nosada says:

      I’ll see you LK-700 and raise you an N1 …

    • udat says:

      How does that game relate to Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space? I played that a lot back in the day. Never once managed a complete moon mission. I think “orbit and return” was as close as I ever got.

  4. LionsPhil says:

    That’s…not really a design doc. Heck, it’s at about the level of a “wouldn’t it be cool if” forum post.

    • Horg says:

      So we already have more than enough material to make a kickstarter.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Bear in mind: 1983. “Design doc” was an extremely loose term even in the early 2000s.

      • Xocrates says:

        Except “Design Doc” isn’t on the original text, or even the Kotaku article. It’s RPS which called it that.

        Kotaku called it a pitch and the document itself says “Ideas riding file”.

        • Chris Cunningham says:

          Which is why upthread you too graced RPS with your wisdom regarding how it wwasn’t up to your exacting “Design Document” standards.

          • Xocrates says:

            My what now?

            This isn’t a design document, no-one outside this article even implies it is a design document. This isn’t any more “exacting” than saying water is wet, which if you’ve never seen water you might not know about.

            This isn’t me trying to bring into this my “exacting standards” – they’re not even my standards – this is me trying to politely point out that the article isn’t factually correct.

            Clearly, I failed.

  5. Shadow says:

    Nothing intrinsically revolutionary, nor more than the very rough draft of a game idea. But it’s somewhat interesting to find out what a famous astrophysicist such as Sagan might’ve found worthy of pursuit in our hobby of choice.

  6. kermat says:

    So basically, a non-shitty version of Spore which includes a bit of the concept behind No Man’s Sky.

  7. Skabooga says:

    I’d like to think that Sagan would be pretty pleased with Space Engine. Not that there is an over-arching goal that would promote continued interaction and learning, but as a free-from exploration of the universe, it is fantastic.

  8. daver4470 says:

    Also, his son Jeremy wrote an actual video game called “Pentapus” for the Apple II series.

    For a real trip down memory lane, here’s a review of it in Softline from 1983….

    link to

    In related news, I am old.

    • 6isli says:

      Best quote from the article: “Additionally, Pentapus has all those convenience features that we’ve grown to know and love: pause, sound toggle, restart, and the ever-important skill levels.”

      • daver4470 says:

        And don’t miss the feature on that quirky developer Trip Hawkins and his brand-new company called “Electronic Arts”…

  9. criskywalker says:

    So it would have been like Spore, but actually good?

  10. fencenswitschen says:

    He certainly would have loved Kerbal Space Program. This game turned me into a total Space Nut. And many others as well.

    And again am I slightly irritated that the RPS-Team does not mention this obvious connection. Another disturbance in the force…

    • jonahcutter says:

      Yeah, I think he would of loved Kerbal.

      Sagan is a hero of our species. Pale Blue Dot remains one of the most inspiring, and chilling, pieces of writing and speaking ever created.

  11. yan spaceman says:

    I have my monitor stood on a copy of “Cosmos” and “Green Eggs and Ham” to raise it a bit closer to eye level.

  12. disorder says:

    Tough to argue these (especially first) are games, but very nice screenshot generators. The second allows creating explosions (as well as other things). Hey, he was the one that brought up the subject of violence.

    link to
    link to

  13. caff says:

    I’m a big fan of Carl Sagan, but I was slightly amused (and alarmed!) to read his vision of an astronomy learning game as “exciting as most violent video games”! In 1983?!

    So I went a did some research. My memories of 1980s computing were golden, but it seems in my infancy I missed such moral issues as the release of “Death Race” as far back as 1976!

  14. alms says:

    Better than a game designed by Peter Sagan, that’s for sure.

  15. Timbrelaine says:

    Aw, I was pretty excited. It’s still neat, but I don’t think you can call that a design doc.

  16. Gap Gen says:

    You know what games simulate parts of our galaxy? Life is Strange. Gone Home. Call of Duty 2.

    *puts fingers to head, splays them out* schkpooow


    I demand someone organize a “Sagan Inspired Game Jam”.