A screenshot from Sector 33, a new game from NASA, and one of many the U.S. space agency has created or commissioned.
Most people think of NASA as an organization full of rocket scientists. But while the U.S. space agency has spent decades launching spaceships and working on other important projects, it also puts some of its resources into much smaller efforts–making video games.
The list of games that NASA has worked on is quite long: It’s done space station and Space Shuttle titles, it’s given players a virtual walk on the moon, it’s put users in charge of space flight communications, and much more. And in recent weeks, the space agency has launched two new games: an air traffic control simulator for the
iPhone called Sector 33, and a trivia game for Facebook called Space Race Blastoff.
So why is NASA so into games?
That’s the question that Gamasutra put to Tony Springer, the head of NASA’s communications and education in Aeronautics unit.
“Ever since it was formed, NASA has had an obligation, under the laws that created us, to inform the public to the greatest extent practical about what we do,” Springer told Gamasutra, “and we’re always looking for new ways to do that and keep up with how people want to get their information. The explosion of social media apps is just one more way we’re trying to reach out across the agency, and games are part of that.”
At the same time, NASA clearly feels that games are a great way to get people–mainly kids–to learn what it’s doing, and so it makes sure that any game it builds has education as a primary objective. Sometimes, in fact, the games spin-off of in-house educational efforts. Sector 33, Gamasutra reported, was originally part of NASA’s 2005 Smart Skies software package, which was designed to give kids lessons in math and science through the use of simulators.
And NASA also hopes that the kids that play games like Sector 33 will get more excited about science, technology, engineering, or math, and that they may even one day come to work at NASA.
A scene from Moonbase Alpha, a NASA educational game.
“Looking back on the origin of [some of these] titles, Springer said that NASA’s game projects are most often based on its newest research projects,” Gamasutra wrote, “hopefully teaching players about the essential concepts behind more complex scientific disciplines. The organization hopes that if any of these players grow up to join NASA, they will already have an easy time getting up to speed to do the research themselves.”