NASA doubles down

NASA doubles down

After weeks of frustrating delays, it was amazing to see NASA’s Artemis I mission lift off from Kennedy Space Center, the first leg of humans returning to the Moon. It was also great to see the Space Launch System (SLS), NASA’s most powerful rocket, in action.

Although the Orion spacecraft is not equipped for this mission, Artemis I is only the first step in bringing humans back to the moon. And the moon isn’t really the end goal either. It’s more of a stepping stone on the way to Mars. However, having humans working and performing missions on the Moon will provide NASA astronauts with invaluable experience in our nation’s quest to one day land on Mars.

As I watched the SLS take flight, it reminded me of one of the ways NASA began to get the public thinking about returning to the moon. It was through a video game released in 2010. Called Moonbase Alpha, the game challenged players to work together to complete a variety of tasks that real-life astronauts would face when living and working in the arid environment of the moon. The game was critically acclaimed, with over 12,500 very positive reviews on the Steam gaming platform. It still has many active players today and can be downloaded and enjoyed for free through Steam.

NASA is one of the only federal agencies to have completely embraced video games and games as a means of educating the public while entertaining them. Since the success of Moonbase AlphaNASA released another game on Steam called NASA exoplanet excursionswhich was developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in partnership with Caltech/IPAC.

As Moonbase Alphathe NASA exoplanet excursions the game is also free to download and play. The game is less extensive than Moonbase Alpha and has much less replayability, but is interesting nonetheless. You also need a VR headset to get the most out of the experience.

The game lets you travel in virtual reality through the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanet system and to NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which was used to discover them. In the game, players will take control of the Spitzer Telescope and attempt to capture infrared data on exoplanets. Then you review your data on Earth, including actual mission photos. The game consists of two parts, a narrated cinematic-like experience, and then the interactive section where you control the telescope and analyze your results. There is about an hour of play in all.

While the most hyped games like NASA exoplanet excursions and Moonbase Alpha get a lot of fame, NASA has actually been busy creating a whole host of fun educational games as part of their NASA Space Place website. The games can be played directly in your browser and are both informative and fun. Most of the games are clearly designed for kids, or maybe teachers looking for something fun to do with their class, but I admit I had a lot of fun with them too.

My favorite game on the site is called Explore Mars: A Mars Rover Game, and lets players program a Mars rover using motion commands that you have to preload in a long sequence before engaging the rover and hoping you got the commands correct. It’s not unlike how that famous 1980s Big Trak toy was controlled. This serves to simulate the fact that Mars is so far away that rover pilots don’t control them in real time like they would with a drone on Earth. Instead, they give commands to a mobile and may have to wait up to an hour to see if they’ve been executed correctly. The game is expertly narrated by NASA/JPL Systems Engineer Charlene Pfeifer, who encourages you to keep going when you fail and congratulates you when you successfully capture great data. She could have a great career in voice acting if she ever got tired of being a systems engineer at NASA.

And in addition to the video games themselves, NASA is also deeply entrenched in video game technology. In May, Nextgov reported on the NASA MarsXR Challenge, which asked teams to use the state-of-the-art Unreal Engine 5 used in the most popular modern video games to create a virtual reality test bed designed to help train astronauts to missions to Mars. The Unreal Engine makes video games look amazing and almost true to life, so I can only imagine how awesome it would be when used as a training tool.

The MarsXR challenge was won by a few different teams recently, with the one called Overheat taking home the most rewards and a big chunk of the $70,000 prize. NASA also released several YouTube videos showing different aspects of the winning entries. It was really interesting to see how astronauts could use the simulation to train for upcoming Mars missions and perform tasks like collecting rock and soil samples.

And who knows, maybe NASA will also release a Moonbase Alpha type of game set on Mars using challenge resources. If they do, Unreal Engine 5 will ensure that we can all experience the Red Planet without having to hitchhike on a future SLS launch.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and critic with over 20 years of experience in technology. He is the CEO of the Technical Writers Bureau, a group that creates technology thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

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