The rocky terrain of the Moon crunches under the wheels of the lunar rover as it closes in on its destination. You are returning from a routine expedition from the moonbase, collecting new specimens or scouting out a location for a new moonbase to be built. A meteorite hurtles from the sky, crashing directly into the camp. The oxygen line has been shot, and the other astronauts in the base are beginning to lose air. It's up to you and your teammates to work together to repair the damage caused by the meteorite strike.
This isn't the next Mass Effect game, but a new IP from a rather unlikely source: NASA. Available for free on Steam, Moonbase Alpha is a 3D game that simulates a hypothetical emergency situation on a futuristic moonbase. You can play by yourself or with others, though it's harder to complete if you play alone. I spoke with Daniel Laughlin, Project Manager of Learning Technologies at NASA, Jerry Heneghan, and Bradley Willson, Game Designer from Virtual Heroes about Moonbase Alpha, from its conception to launch.
NASA originally approached developers Army Game Studio and Virtual Heroes, asking them to create a game that would at once be fun and engaging, but also inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), school subjects that are often met with equal amounts of apprehension and disinterest. "The US is facing a crisis in technical fields," explains Laughlin. "NASA literally cannot function without STEM graduates. The big goals for NASA Education are to get more students into STEM fields of study and graduating into STEM careers. It's also the President's goal with the Educate to Innovate initiative. Moonbase Alpha was developed in support of those goals."
As my astronaut avatar leap-floats across the rocky terrain, I can easily see where the STEM aspects come in during gameplay. The meteorite strike has damaged multiple areas of the oxygen-carbon dioxide generators, and with every repair you need to make, you learn a bit about what you are repairing and why it is important. As you fix the oxygen supply, you learn about each part that makes up the whole: the CO2 filter monitors carbon dioxide levels and removes it from the oxygen supply; the oxygen generator extracts oxygen from electrolyzed water vapor.
The moonbase is a fictional, though plausible, structure. "As for the basic structure of the lunar base, our team decided to create a surface habitat rather than a subterranean habitat," states Willson. "This decision was made partly due to the game story that we wanted to present, but more importantly we wanted to depict a rather raw initial iteration of a lunar base." Though the structures, equipment and vehicles are based on actual NASA models, the complexity of the tools and repair strategies had to be scaled down. "The largest concession that the team had to make in order to improve overall accessibility was the simplification of repairs made to damaged equipment," Willson continues. "The majority of the complex equipment developed by NASA requires specific tools in order to repair and demands a significant amount of time, manual dexterity, and technological knowledge. This level of realism would not only create an unrealistic learning curve to the game, but would also lead to player frustration and confusion."