The Destiny beta’s unacknowledged debt to the Space Race

“For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond.”

J. F. Kennedy, September 12th, 1962

My first footsteps on the moon were not as tentative as you might expect. After all, the clock was already ticking, and I had a mission to complete. Not that I ever did, because the moment I was offered that expanse of grey rock I had only one thing in mind—exploration. The idea was to use the last two hours of Destiny’s beta, in which Bungie opened up their expansive moon level after having previously confined players to Earth, to cover as much ground as possible, and in particular, to plumb the depths of the Hellmouth. That huge malformed crater caught my imagination the moment I laid eyes on it—like the Mines of Moria as designed by H. R. Giger, its gaping maw had an irresistible draw. I must have been among the first to set foot in its twisted halls, and hours later I would emerge back onto the surface, just as the server was shut down, with more stories to tell than I have room for here.

Like the Mines of Moria as designed by H.R. Giger. 

Less than a week before, on the 20th of July, the 45th anniversary of the first human moon landing passed quietly: Barack Obama met the surviving astronauts behind closed doors, A celebrity party was held in the alien landscape of Beverly Hills and General Electric released a pair of commemorative shoes. There was little enthusiasm or celebration, and to make matters worse, earlier in July, NASA’s plan for a manned mission to Mars was pronounced unfeasible by the National Research Council.

Yet in the world of Destiny, eight hundred thousand players rushed online to set foot on a virtual moon for a short window of time. It may not match up to the 600 million that tuned into Armstrong’s first steps in 1969, but there are similarities to be found. For the four million who played the Destiny beta from its launch, three days before the anniversary of Apollo 11, to those last moments on the moon, a kind of cultural touchstone began to form. This was an event that would be shared between a community, a grand uniting moment. It wasn’t accidental: Bungie’s community manager Dave “Deej” Dague has been laying it on thick for months. His constructed rhetoric, inviting players to “become legend” and advising that “the world is watching,” marshals the language of the Space Race. Despite no mention of the moon landing anniversary from Bungie, the timing of the beta could hardly be considered a coincidence: here was the Space Race spirit dug from its grave once more, all in service of uniting players under an optimistic goal.

Perhaps the most iconic piece of Space Race rhetoric is Kennedy’s 1962 speech to the Rice stadium in Houston, Texas, where he told the American people “We choose to go to the moon.”

Kennedy’s choice was not a free one. In reality his hand had been forced, by both political and public pressure, to commit huge amounts of money to the space program, even though he privately admitted he was “not that interested in space.” It was Russia’s 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the world’s first manmade satellite, that had set things in motion. An elegant polished sphere, 58 centimetres across and spiked with four trailing radio antennas, it was sent into a low earth orbit that would last 92 days.

For the Soviet Union this was a quietly won technical success, with little political meaning, but for the United States this was a wake-up call. Newspaper headlines referred to the satellite as “The Red Baby Moon.” Sputnik became a symbol for a new frontier on both sides, with the Soviets realizing the potential propaganda power of its success. Three months after Sputnik dropped out of orbit, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established NASA, caving to political pressure despite his skepticism of its value. He was the first in a line of US presidents, extending through Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, that presented a publicly supportive view of the space program, while privately viewing it as an unworkable drain on resources and money. The choice of the manned moon landing as America’s goal was based on a projection of a possible victory against the already more advanced Soviet program, not on scientific merit. Going to the moon wasn’t the aim—beating the Russians was.

However, in many ways the Soviet Union’s space program had already won. The first satellite, first animal, and first man in space all were achieved within three years of Sputnik’s launch, and were followed by the first spacewalk, the first moon impact, and the first images of the moon’s dark side. All of these unprecedented achievements were in some way indebted to the chief Soviet rocket scientist, Sergei Korolev. Despite early success as an aircraft designer, he was sent to a gulag as part of Stalin’s purges in 1938. There he was beaten, tortured and forced into hard labour, ultimately suffering a heart attack. But in 1945, at the end of the war, he was brought back from obscurity to manage the Soviet Union’s newly captured batch of German V2 rockets. Working tirelessly, Korolev hit milestone after milestone, developing new systems at an unprecedented rate. The Soyuz, a spacecraft based on Korolev’s designs, is still the de facto spacecraft for bringing astronauts and scientists of all nationalities to the international space station. It was only his death in 1966 which stopped Soviet domination of space. A year after his death the Soviet N1, the craft that should have taken cosmonauts to the moon, suffered a critical engineering failure on takeoff and exploded, destroying the entire launch complex. This catastrophic failure gave Werner Von Braun, the German creator of the V2 rocket who defected to the US, a headstart in building the Saturn V the rocket that in 1969 would take the three US citizens to the moon.

Bungie ‘s world is built on the origins of real space exploration. 

This story of Korolev’s genius and Russian dominance is not something that Destiny overlooks. Bungie’s Space Race rhetoric and sense of timing are not simply cynical attempts to tap into unconscious cultural optimism; they are part of a science-fiction world built on the origins of real space exploration. The beta’s starting area, a cosmodrome in “Old Russia,” is testament to this—a wreckage-strewn and shattered steppe, like a scaled-up version of the Cold-War era bases now left to rust across Eastern Europe. The key reference point for this location is the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the first operational space launch site in the world, still in use today. This was the site for every Soviet achievement in spaceflight, and even now remains the sole space base launching missions to the international space station. In Destiny it has become the artifact of a “Golden Age” of human space travel, when the high-minded rhetoric matched the technological potential.

But this “Golden Age” is also Destiny’s most obvious reference to its heritage, a metonym for the Space Race itself. When your Peter Dinklage-voiced companion nostalgically pines for Old Russia “before the collapse” when there were “thousands of humans boarding colony ships, off to build cities beyond,” he is pining for a future that never came to pass—the promises of the Space Race, never to be fulfilled. The “collapse” your sprightly robot friend might as well have been talking about was that of the Iron Curtain, the release of pressure that saw the end of the wasteful and costly drive to conquer space. Destiny’s Old Russia, then, is a dumping ground of old dreams. During my time in the beta, wandering this wasteland, I saw Sputniks everywhere—tucked into dark corners, hung in nets above stagnant ponds, even stacked three high on the Soyuz-style launchers that pierce the horizon. There’s even a weaponized Sputnik, like the fabled doomsday device of US reactionaries who claimed the satellite would rain nuclear fire from orbit. Named Sepiks Prime, an appropriately spiky near-homophone, this spherical boss is covered in antennae and screeches in distorted signals, as if it was spouting garbled Soviet code. Not that you would be able to decode this engima—Destiny’s rule is always shoot first.

In fact, there’s something in the endless run-and-gunning of Destiny that seems to reveal more about its Space Race influences than perhaps its creators would hope. The death of the Space Race was also the death of the idea that space provided a political and tactical advantage. Not a single US president or Russian premier of the era held any strong curiosity for the potential of space—the missions they greenlit were simultaneously ornate propaganda events and military experiments in a civilian guise. There may have been geniuses and pioneers on both sides, but these scientists and researchers were riding the wave of government favor, making the most of a scale of funding that perhaps would never come again. In the same way, Destiny’s optimism and love of the history of space exploration is bolted onto a core of kill-and-conquer attitudes. The game’s huge budget and scale is intrinsically linked to the potential return for its investors as a prime example of the most profitable genre in videogames. The successful unity of FPS online deathmatches with MMORPG structures is an arcane act of pure commercialism. Destiny’s military atmosphere, like the unavoidable links between rocket technology and nuclear capability, is one of the necessity of function.

Yet despite this, Destiny’s acknowledgement of its heritage sets it apart from the wealth of science-fiction mythologies that present clean and crisp space-faring futures. This awareness was written into every moment of Destiny’s beta. For the eight hundred thousand that did make the trip to the moon it was difficult not to be caught up in the pioneer spirit, sending back communications via Twitch and Reddit to the “watching world.” This feeling was carefully cultivated via the award of limited edition emblems to players who went online at that time—an emblem that bears a striking resemblance to the logo for Interkosmos, the Russian program to send citizens of its allies to space on its manned missions. That’s the true universe of Destiny: where artificial constructed significance rubs against a genuine love for the history, future, and lost futures of space exploration.

Back on the moon, I spent my final minutes sitting by an obviously symbolic flag, gazing out across the dusty landscape. Above me clouds crawled across the face of the earth, a deep black shadow following close behind, wiping out the continents one by one. According to its item description, the set of uncommon armour I was wearing had been inscribed with the name Komarov—the first casualty of the space race, burnt up during re-entry in the first Soviet Soyuz test flight—as well as White, Grissom and Chaffee—the three Apollo 1 astronauts who died during a launchpad fire. What they would have thought about their names finally reaching the moon by being sewn into the trousers of a videogame avatar is perhaps difficult to judge, but someone out there thinks it is a fitting tribute. Perhaps in a time when those names are all but forgotten, it is.