Technically, this word may be used to refer to any object which is orbiting another. However, it is most frequently used to refer to the primary vehicle component of the U.S. Space Transportation System, better known as the Space Shuttle. The Orbiter is the actual spacecraft, and as such carries a name (Columbia, Challenger, Atlantis, Discovery, Endeavour). It is mated with Solid Rocket Boosters and an External Tank to produce the Space Transportation System.

Orbiter is a free space-flight simulator. It maintains a focus on realism as opposed to sci-fi, although there are plugins that betray this goal of the simulator.

Orbiter can be extended with plugins and is coded in DirectX 7 for Windows. The Orbiter website is located at

Science fiction graphic novel written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Colleen Doran. It was published by Vertigo in 2003.

Our friend The Custodian recommended this one to me a while back. As many of you know, he loves everything about space flight -- the technology, the experiences of astronauts, the mystery and adventure and romance of putting people in a metal box and lighting explosives under them until they're pushed up out of Earth's atmosphere. He got to attend one of the last shuttle launches, which he recorded as one of the high points in his life. He said he read "Orbiter," and it made him want to cry with happiness. That was a hell of a recommendation, so I went out and picked it up.

The story is set a few years in our future -- the Space Shuttle Venture mysteriously vanished in space a decade ago, and the resulting scandal caused the space program to be completely shut down. NASA is no more. Kennedy Space Center is one vast squatters camp.

And then, from out of nowhere, the Venture returns. No one knows where it's been or why it took so long to come back. Only one member of the Venture's crew, John Cost, the pilot, is aboard, and he's insane. There's dust from Mars in the shuttle's landing gear.

And the entire ship is covered in a layer of... skin.

So the government calls in some experts to investigate the mystery. There's Michelle Robeson, a former astronaut assigned to study the shuttle itself and try to figure out where the Venture has been for the past decade. There's Terry Marx, a hotshot young physicist who has to figure out what sort of changes were made to the shuttle while it was gone. And there's Anna Bracken, a psychiatrist who needs to analyze the Venture's sole remaining crewman to try to make him less violently insane.

And that's the bulk of the story. It's a locked-room mystery, except the locked room is a 184-foot-long dual-stage space vehicle, the clues involve things like Alcubierre fields, microgravity damage, exotic matter, and bias drives, and the culprits may already be a few dozen light-years outside of Earth's legal jurisdiction.

The story didn't affect me as strongly as it did Custo, because I'm not a space fanatic like he is -- but I still liked it a lot. The characters have excellent backstories and motivations that blend into the needs of the story very well. The mystery alone makes the book a page-turner -- a space shuttle with skin? A space shuttle that apparently landed on Mars? What the heck? Makes you want to read the book just to find out what is going on.

Colleen Doran's artwork is great, too. If you're used to her art on comics like "A Distant Soil," her work here is a bit different, but still really beautiful and vivid. She does some really jaw-dropping landscapes of distant planets and stars.

The toughest thing for me to handle was all the theoretical science that Ellis includes in the story. I have a tough time really understanding serious, hard science, especially physics. (Frankly, I have trouble doing long division.) But even for a science-dim guy like me, the science Ellis hits us with -- even if it's theoretical and maybe a liiiiittle bit crazy -- is thrilling, nearly magical stuff.

If you love space travel the way Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran do, you'll love this. If you like hard science fiction or physics, you'll probably like this. If you love mysteries, you'll probably like this. If you're a fan of Ellis or Doran, you should definitely have this on your shelf. In other words, go pick it up.

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