53 years ago in 1962, in the Rice University campus in Texas, the words that started it all were said. “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too”, said U.S. President Kennedy, and while he imagined the moonshot simply as a challenge against the Soviet Union, the truth could not have been farther.
The speech suddenly set the U.S. Congress in motion, and it approved the allocation of as much as 5% of the U.S. annual budget to NASA. In 7 years, the moonshot was successful. NASA had produced the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo vehicle, trained the astronauts to participate in the missions, went through a multitude of drills and finally landed two men on the moon. An estimated 600 million people watched the moon landings live on television – amounting to around one sixth of the entire population of the planet at the time.
Think tanks, researchers, and academics all made optimistic predictions. RAND Corporation claimed that there was a 60% probability that there would be a manned base on the Moon by 1980. NASA scientists predicted that by 2000, there would be up to 50,000 people living and working in space. While there were indeed people living in working in space at the time predicted – their number was three, and not fifty thousand; and those were the first crew of the International Space Station.
The reason for the inability to reach the set goals and predictions was simple. Once the “Space Race” had been “won”, there was no longer a reason for the U.S. Government to keep funding the space program. By 1973, when the final Apollo mission to the moon was launched, the NASA budget was down to 1.5% of the U.S. annual budget. Today, the NASA budget amounts to a shockingly low 0.5% of the U.S. annual budget. Without adequate funding, NASA had to abandon most of its projects, focusing on the more affordable ones. This meant the effective ruling-out of ambitious projects such as manned mission to Mars, to the Moon, etc. as well as the design and production of bigger launch vehicles and orbiters. In fact, while NASA was able to manufacture enough Saturn V rockets to launch the Apollo missions from Apollo 8 to Apollo 17, today it is incapable of producing a clone of even the engine of these rockets.
Of course, the cure for the budget issue is simple. The public needed to be educated and the space agencies needed to somehow create fascination so that the average citizen would support more funding for space exploration, and perhaps even consider a career in aerospace engineering. There have been a number of efforts in this direction – from the sending of international citizens, teachers, artists, and “space ambassadors” to space, to the production of multiple space-themed movies and series, including the famous Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the newer Gravity and Interstellar installments of this genre. However, while the previous two had at least some impact on the generations that watched them, their influence on the development of space exploration has been very indirect.
Yet, it is imperative at this time to continue space research and exploration. A multitude of technologies depend on satellites and other space technologies, and as climate change progresses we are becoming more and more dependent on satellite data for weather prediction. It has already become a matter of life and death, when the US’ early response to Hurricane Sandy possibly saved thousands of lives from harm. And in fact, as finite resources slowly become exhausted, and as the need for mineral resources increases, it will be necessary to be able to mine asteroids; and once the human species outgrows the Earth, we will have to be able to settle down elsewhere as our new home.
The solution comes from an unexpected source. As the engineers, politicians, and citizens of the future, the youth carry the most importance in terms of space outreach. And today’s changing world requires the space industry to be able to use modern tools for outreach. The potential of video games for this purpose was first proven by the game Orbiter, which was released in 2000. The game lacked updates for a while and was not worth studying simply because it appealed only to already enthusiastic crowds.
Yet, with the release of the game Kerbal Space Program and the updates it has received in the past two years, the scene has entirely changed. The game provided funny characters and a wicked sense of humor, which suited its steep learning curve and general (realistic!) difficulty well. The game includes a career mode, research simulation, spacecraft building, flying, EVAs, landings, and most of all, epic, glorious failure – explosions, collisions, parts breaking off, parts you forgot to add in the first place.
The game, being a recently released indie game without much funding, unfortunately has yet to be analyzed in a scientific study. However, the online communities formed around this game, both on Reddit and on its own sites, forums, Steam, and all that; shows the influence the game has had. In fact, thousands of people have credited the game for sparking interest in spacecraft in them – and many of these people, mostly teenagers, now consider Aerospace Engineering as a possible career path. And more importantly, almost everyone who has played the game supports more funding for space programmes, local and international.
While definitely not the last game of the genre, Kerbal Space Program has set an important precedent in the aerospace field, because it has shown how influential games of its type can be on teenagers. And while the video game approach is to be studied for in-class use, as well as for further development, one thing is certain – this is a good way to help space agencies secure the funds they need to build better tomorrows.