The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is facing a dramatic shortfall, one that could have more of an impact on the U.S. space agency than this year’s budget cuts that led to the cancellation of its plan to return to the moon.
NASA is running out of astronauts.
Daniel Laughlin runs NASA’s Learning Technologies division. One of his priorities is to encourage education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as the “STEM” fields. In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Laughlin explained that the U.S. has a crisis.
“We’re not getting enough students going into those technical fields, we’re not graduating enough students from those technical fields, and we really need to beef up the numbers of graduates in technical fields to do the work that we need in those areas,” Laughlin said by phone from his office at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “That’s especially true for NASA, with such a heavy dependence on technical personnel, scientists, and engineers to do the work that NASA does.”
One of NASA’s strategies for addressing the issue might come as a surprise: video games.
Moonbase Alpha, released in July, is the first game NASA created with recruitment in mind. Free to play on a Windows PC, the 25-minute multiplayer experience puts players in the role of an astronaut trying to repair a facility on the moon. Communication and cooperation with the other astronauts—up to six can play at a time—is essential for mission success.
Laughlin calls Moonbase Alpha a proof of concept. According to him, the game was developed to show that NASA data, designs, and equipment can be blended with video-game technology. Moonbase Alpha was developed using Epic Games’s Unreal Engine 3, as well as lunar architecture and equipment taken straight from models created by NASA’s now-defunct Institute for Advanced Concepts.
Next to come is Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond, a full-featured massively multiplayer online game that will be, according to Laughlin, “orders of magnitude a larger game.”¦There will be literally hundreds of challenges and missions.” Astronaut players will choose a career track—planetary geologist or rocket scientist, for example—and undertake missions at the International Space Station, on Mars, and in the asteroid belt.
Laughlin doesn’t anticipate that elementary-school students will play these games and decide to become astronauts. But he hopes this will encourage them to study science and math in high school.
Leading the development of Astronaut, which is expected to be released in 2011, is Winnipeg’s Project Whitecard. Khal Shariff, the company’s chief executive officer, told the Straight by phone that the budget for the project is between US$5 million and US$10 million.
Shariff said Astronaut is being designed for use in existing educational programs, so students enrolled in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota, for example, would be able to get course credit for completing missions within the game.
The aim is for Astronaut to also appeal to a mainstream audience.
“Everybody realizes that in order to be a successful recruitment tool, you’d better be exciting,” Shariff said. The more compelling the game, he explained, the more likely it is that someone will be able to look at it as a blueprint for their future.
Before embarking on this endeavour, Laughlin solicited ideas on the best way for NASA to use games as an educational tool. He expected a few dozen responses but received hundreds. The overwhelming message from academics and game developers alike was to insist on good game design. “What people told us was if a game’s not fun, no one’s going to play it,” Laughlin said.