NASA Doubles Down on Gaming

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NASA's videogames serve multiple purposes.

After weeks of frustrating delays, it was amazing to watch NASA’s Artemis I mission lift off from the Kennedy Space Center, the first step in returning humans first 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 uncrewed for this mission, Artemis I is just the first step in taking humans back to the moon. And the moon is not really the final goal either. It’s more of a stepping stone on the path to Mars. However, having humans work and perform missions on the moon will earn NASA astronauts invaluable experience in our nation’s quest to one day land people on Mars.

As I was watching the SLS take flight, I was reminded of one of the ways that NASA started to get the public thinking about traveling back to the moon. It was through a video game that was released back in 2010. Called Moonbase Alpha, the game challenged players to work together to complete a variety of tasks that actual astronauts would face when living and working in the barren environment of moon. The game received critically acclaim, with over 12,500 very positive reviews on the Steam gaming platform. It still has many active players today, and is free to download and enjoy through Steam.

NASA is one of the only federal agencies that has completely embraced video games and gaming as a means to educate the public while also entertaining them. Since the success of Moonbase Alpha, NASA has released another game on Steam called NASA’s Exoplanet Excursions, which was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in partnership with Caltech/IPAC.

Like Moonbase Alpha, the NASA’s Exoplanet Excursions game is also free to download and play. The game is less extensive than Moonbase Alpha and has much less replay ability, but is nonetheless interesting. You also need a VR headset to get the most out of the experience.

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

While the more publicized games like NASA’s Exoplanet Excursions and Moonbase Alpha get a lot of the glory, NASA has actually been busy creating an entire series of fun educational games as part of its NASA Space Place website. Games there can be played right 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 that 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 movement commands that you must preload into a long sequence before engaging the rover and hoping that you got the commands correct. It’s not unlike how that famous Big Trak toy from the 1980s was controlled. This serves to simulate the fact that Mars is so far away that rover pilots are not controlling them in real-time like they would a drone on Earth. Instead, they give a rover commands and may have to wait up to an hour to see if they were executed properly. The game is expertly narrated by NASA/JPL Systems Engineer Charlene Pfeifer, who gives out encouragement to keep you going when you fail and offers celebratory congratulations when you successfully capture some great data. She could have a great career in voice acting if she ever gets tired of being a NASA systems engineer.

And in addition to video games themselves, NASA is also deep into video game technology. In May, Nextgov reported on the NASA MarsXR Challenge, which asked teams to utilize the cutting edge Unreal Engine 5 used in the hottest modern video games to create a virtual reality testbed designed to help train astronauts for Mars missions. The Unreal engine makes videogames look amazing and almost true to life, so I can only imagine how great it would be when used as a training tool.

The MarsXR Challenge was recently won by a few different teams, with the one called Overheat earning the most awards, and a big share of the $70,000 prize. NASA has also posted several YouTube videos showing different aspects of the winning entries. It was really interesting to see how the 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 the challenge assets. If they do, the Unreal Engine 5 will make it so that we can all experience the red planet without having to hitch a ride on a future SLS launch.

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