Nasa uses space game to lure talent to its exploration programmes
Seemingly real game may prompt youngsters to reach for the stars
In the cold vacuum of space, miles above the planet's surface, I am guiding my tiny spaceship towards the airlock of another vessel. To dock, our orbits have to align precisely, but the variables are terrifying. I have built the craft myself, out of myriad components, and I don't know if it'll hold up out here in the vast indifferent nothingness.
I progress forward anyway, nudging the thrusters with just enough vigour to connect with the airlock, but not enough to cause a mid-flight collision that will end the lives of my crew. In space, there is always risk and reward. The reward for me is to stay alive - and to get home.
The fortunate part is that I am at home. I am on a computer playing a game called Kerbal Space Programme. And there's always another spacecraft to build and crash.
In 2011 a development studio based in Mexico released an early version of Kerbal Space Programme, an intricately detailed space flight simulation for Windows and Mac. Here, the player's aim is simple: design and construct spacecraft in your own personal space centre.
As you succeed with flight missions, you'll accrue more funding and expand your expertise. The possibilities for construction are almost endless, and the most experienced players are able to dock craft in orbit to create space stations, land on the nearby moon and venture into deep space. It's no wonder people are calling this Minecraft in space - it has that same sense of creativity and possibility.
And as with Minecraft, a community quickly grew around Kerbal, despite its unfinished state. Users began modifying the code and adding new features, and when it was released onto leading PC games platform Steam in spring last year, it became one of the top five best-selling titles on the site's "early access" section - a huge new audience joined the experiment. Felipe Falanghe, Kerbal's creator and lead developer at Squad, has perhaps been surprised by the success of the title, but understands its appeal.
"It's about seeing your creations explode and trying to figure out why," he says. "It's about how you can improve the design so it doesn't happen again" he says. "It's about exploring and reaching out to something that was a complete unknown not too long ago."
Then in March 2013, Squad received an intriguing tweet: "Interested in exploring an asteroid with us?"
It was from Nasa, and after a year of cooperation, the Kerbal team was able to implement the real-life Asteroid Redirect Mission into its game. Players can now experiment with a genuine space programme, using Nasa rocket parts. "It's been a truly amazing experience," says Falanghe. "When we first started, we had very little help from experts, save what we could research on our own. For us, it was a great learning experience - none of us in the team have any formal background in aerospace or any related field."
For Nasa, there was another motive. The public relations boom of the moon landings and the 1980s Shuttle programme has long faded, and amid a biting recession, there is apathy and misunderstanding about the organisation. The American public doesn't just lack understanding about what Nasa undertakes, it also grossly overestimates the budget it receives from the US government.
As recently as 1997, the public estimated that up to 20 per cent of government budget was allocated to Nasa - a US$328 billion injection that would almost certainly have meant a successful manned Mars mission by now. In truth, Nasa has requested a budget of US$17.5 billion for fiscal 2015. Of that, just US$89 million is allocated to educating the next generation of astronauts, scientists and engineers.
"I think it's a shame," says Falanghe, "not just for Nasa but for mankind in general, that there isn't as much interest in space exploration these days as there should be. Reaching for the stars should be the next step for us as a species, especially as we're so obviously exceeding the current resources the earth has to offer."
But Nasa is fighting back. Using sites like Facebook, Twitter and its own Nasa TV digital channel, it is building connections with the younger generation, explaining its projects, posting videos and live streams and designing interactive applications around its satellite and Mars Rover initiatives.
"As we continue to become more connected through social media, public ignorance of public and private space exploration missions has shrunk," says David Lantz, a flight controller in Nasa's mission control.
"With over four million people watching the last launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis and 3.2 million watching the landing of the Mars Curiosity rover through various digital outlets, I'd say interest and desire has never been higher," he said.
Joining up with Kerbal Space Programme has been part of this. As Nasa develops plans to land men on an asteroid by 2025, and with a manned mission to Mars tentatively slated for launch in the early 2020s, it's even possible we might see games giving real-time access to content, providing a sense of what it's like to venture onto other worlds.
"I remember playing an old simulator called Shuttle in the early '90s and then flying a shuttle in the flight simulator, X-Plane," says Lantz. "I recall being amazed at the quality of the games and surprised at the updated graphics. I can't help but see newer generations being inspired to go and explore."