“Be the Astronaut” Exhibit Opens at Space Center Houston

On October 3rd, this Autumn, Space Center Houston – Smithsonian Affiliate and Official Visitor Center of NASA Johnson Space Center! – opened the doors on their new “Be the Astronaut” exhibit. This is almost exactly as it sounds – this interactive exhibit will allow visitors to experience nearly every aspect of a mission in space. According to the exhibit’s official press release, “visitors will learn how an astronaut trains for a deep space mission, drive a rover, use a robotic arm, plan a mission in two dimensions and fly it in three dimensions.” This basically translates to what may be the best example of education meeting video games in an effective and engaging environment.

The exhibit boasts activities for newcomers and the experienced gamers alike. It aims to be an encompassing experience that illuminates those with a thirst for knowledge and entices those who enter without expectation. With programs based on existing and upcoming technology, “Be the Astronaut” is as cutting-edge as it is innovative in its push to engage the younger generation ad inspire interest in current, real-world scientific endeavors.

The exhibit runs through January 3rd, 2016. Also, they have two interactive robots at the exhibit. ROBOTS! FROM THE FUTURE!

Check out our full interview with Keith Feinstein, co-creator of “Be the Astronaut” below:

Be the Astronaut

MN: Obviously, there’s been a real growth in public interest in the sciences lately – in no small thanks to productions like “Gravity”, “The Martian” and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s resurrection of “Cosmos”. There also seems to be a real push in the educational community to find ways to really cultivate this growing interest. How did the original conception for the “Be the Astronaut” exhibit come about and what new tools or guidance do you hope participants come away from the experience with? 

KF: We are all very excited about the renewed interest in science — there seems to be a genuine electricity in the air about the future of spaceflight these days.  I think the landing of Curiosity on Mars, with its “Seven Minutes of Terror” also really fed this notion. The idea for “Be the Astronaut” came about a number of years ago after visiting a lot of space museums and space exhibits. We had completed our “Be the Dinosaur” exhibition, which was the first museum exhibit to use a video game as the core attraction (the simulation ended up being, according to Dr. John Hutchinson of the University of London, the “largest and most complex restoration of an extinct ecosystem ever created”) and we wanted to take what we learned in doing that project and evolve the concept to give people a more intuitive understanding of space.

We found that when you visit an exhibit, no matter how spectacular it might be, if you aren’t engaged by it then you won’t be inspired to learn.  We like to say that video games are the “language” of modern childhood — and if you aren’t speaking their language they aren’t listening.  Kids expect interactivity.  They want to have a sense of agency,  that what they are experiencing is unique to them in some way.  Video games give them this — if they are designed correctly.  They don’t want to learn things your way, they want to learn them their way.

With “Be the Astronaut” we wanted to create an exhibit that would actually be focused on the concepts of spaceflight and not the particulars of any one mission or factoids like “2-3 Earth’s could fit inside Jupiter’s Great Red Spot!”.  Those facts are fun,  but they really don’t impart an understanding of how you fly in space.  And if you ask kids, that’s what theybe the astronaut want to know.  They want to know how to do it.  How do you get into orbit?  How do you land on the Moon?  This exhibit is designed to give them this understanding, at least the beginnings of it.  It is designed to focus on the process of spaceflight so they are introduced to the basic principles and have an opportunity to experiment with these principles through the games.

The greatest museum exhibits don’t teach as much as they inspire.  You have a brief time with visitors (although visitors seem to stay in our exhibits longer than most) and you obviously can’t give them the equivalent of a semester in astronomy — but what an exhibit can do is spark a life-long interest in a subject matter.  I think we have all had that “museum moment” somewhere in our lives — when we visited a great museum and turned a corner and something just captured our imaginations.  You can probably still remember the moment.  Museum exhibits are powerful, often formative, experiences.

MN: Using video games as educational tools is a concept that’s been around almost as long as video games themselves. The “Be the Astronaut” exhibit is by far the largest endeavor on this front I’ve ever seen. Was it difficult to balance the educational aspects of these programs with engaging gameplay?

KF: In some ways it was easy and in some ways it was very difficult.  When you design an education game the way we do,  the education is baked into the DNA of the gameplay — it arises naturally from the experience and that is inherently compelling compared to tacked on educational experiences like old-school (solve a math problem and the bad guy spaceship explodes).  This is a very difficult thing to accomplish in the first place but it makes the educational/gameplay balance easier.  Literally everything about the experience is educational.

What makes it difficult is making the education, and gameplay, accessible to everyone.  Unlike a home or mobile game where the audience pre-selects itself (after all, they have to be interested in video games and the subject matter to buy/download the game in the first place) with a museum exhibit your audience will run the gamut from die-hard fans of the subject matter to kids who may have come with a field trip and never thought about space before — or parents or grandparents who have never played a video game in their lives.

You have to communicate some ideas and concepts very quickly (you have to inform not only about the educational conceptrover days you want to convey — but you have to let them know how to play the game and you have to do this right away so you don’t lose them)  in order to grab their attention and allow for a deeper experience.  In some ways this experience is closer in spirit to the arcade games from the golden age of Space Invaders, Asteroids, Robotron and Pac-Man than it is to modern games…  but then again the classic games could never have matched the technology and visual fidelity of Be the Astronaut.  Luckily, we (Eureka) have 30+ years of experience in the field from which to draw on,  one of our partners was instrumental in that golden age having designed some of the greatest classics of the day — as well as modern kings of the arcade.

MN: Following up on that last question; the introductory video mentions beginner and expert modes of experience. Just how in-depth, or how accurate to actual mission controls are these interactive programs? Some of the more advanced-looking clips in the video show visitors taking control of impressively-rendered 3D models of rovers and shuttles – are these models based on real-world counterparts?

KF: The space vehicles were all designed with a lot of scientific oversight from experts both at NASA and in the private sector to ensure that at it’s core the exhibit experience has a lot of integrity to it.The launch rocket is designed to resemble the upcoming SLS rocket, the lander is a modification of a NASA study called DASH and the rover is a modification of NASA’s Small Pressurized Rover system.

They were designed to be plausible future space vehicles but they were also designed to be educational vehicles as well — so for example, the first crewed spaceship that we send to Mars will probably not have artificial gravity but our ship does for the reason that the large spinning centrifuge becomes a visual focal point for discussing the problems of keeping human beings alive and healthy on long space voyages.

rover nightAnother example — in order to land on these various worlds and explore you have to actually FLY there.  You have to chart your course, complete your checklists and fire your engines off at the correct moment in order to set you on an orbit that will take you from the Earth to Mars, or the Moon, or an asteroid.  If you are traveling far from Earth you will need to use your ship’s robot arm to snag some fuel tankers and refuel your ship.  This may not be the exact method used for refueling in the future — but it is one of the possible ways we may accomplish this and, more importantly, it allows us to talk about the concepts of mass limitations in spaceflight and even in-situ resource utilization (using the resources out in space to aid in exploration) which will be critical in future space exploration.

Because these educational elements are integral parts of the gameplay they are imbued with value for the visitors.  They want to accomplish these tasks in order to travel to or land on Mars successfully and explore the 1:1 terrain simulations.  It is not only the spacecraft in the exhibit that have educational integrity — the environments were also meticulously constructed from NASA space probe data.

MN: What aspects of engineering, flight and command are actually experienced?

KF: Because a large portion of this exhibit is virtual, the “space” contained within is far larger than most museum exhibits and it is possible to deep dive into the subject matter.  You can experience everything from a launch from earth to rendezvous to landing on another world and exploring its surface and be introduced to concepts from Newton’s Laws to the basics of a rocket motor to concepts of in-situ resource utilization, basically living off the land in space, which will be crucial if humanity is to become a multi-planet species.And when we say “land”  on other worlds — it is not just the last 10 seconds of flight.  On the landings, for example, visitors take the spacecraft all the way from orbit to the surface.  They will perform the de-orbit burn to  warp their ship’s orbit from perfectly circular to an ellipse that will bring them relatively close to the surface where they will fire their rockets again to begin the descent.  In the case of the Mars lander, they will then inflate an aeroshell to protect their craft from the friction of the atmosphere and guide it through S turns in order to bleed off as much speed before ejecting the aeroshell and firing up the lander’s rockets for final descent to the surface.  It is very involved — but visitors have the help of virtual crew-members and a ship’s computer that will assist them if they get into trouble.

be the astronautMN: The news-release says that visitors will learn “why it’s important to discover new worlds”. There are those with goals of, asteroid mining and resource gathering, full-scale colonization of Mars and many of our solar system’s moons, and reducing humanity’s reliance on this one pale blue dot (what with the ever-present threat of climate change). What does Space Center Houston hope visitors will learn is the leading scientific impetuous behind space travel and planetary exploration?

KF: I think that the urge to explore is a prime human characteristic that separates us from all other creatures.  We seek knowledge to better ourselves and our condition.  It is literally why we still exist.

MN: The news-release also mentions “two talking robots with whom visitors can interact with and watch as they move throughout the exhibit”. TELL ME ALL ABOUT THEM! What are their names? What are their jobs? Are these the droids I’ve been looking for? And is there pending litigation with Lucasfilm?

KF: The robot’s names are 3 and 9.  They are shipboard drones under the control of your vessel’s artificial intelligence system called “A-EYE”.  A-EYE is resident in all of the vehicles you will pilot on your mission,  she helps you to plan your missions and fly them and is there to help out in case you get into trouble.  She is like the HAL-9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey minus the evil and paranoia.

In reality, of course, these are theatrically designed telepresence robots.  They are built with some interesting technology — including fascinating wheels that are essentially composed of smaller wheels that allow the robot to move in any direction without turning: they can go forwards, backwards,  sideways and off at any angle.  Special guests can also take control of the robot and visit the exhibit and speak with visitors remotely through the robots.

These are the robots you are looking for but not the droids you are looking for.  You don’t need to see my identification.  We can move along.  😉

Be the Astronaut

see you space cowboy…

Neil Armstrong cover image courtesy of NASA.