This is the 30th year of the SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals? SXSW and this collection of festivals brings together a very wide variety of people for nine days of programs and performances. This is exemplified in some of NASA public outreach as people who came here for anything from sports to music are learning about the stars.
I’ve been here walking around the conference and talking to strangers about space and the questions that come up most are perhaps the most fundamental. What’s the point of NASA? Why do we even still have this if we already went to the moon? What’s the goal? I’m paraphrasing, but these responses are oddly common when it comes to the subject of NASA, even in the tech-savvy crowd at SXSW.
The response is even stranger when I look around see the hordes of people snapping photos with their phones, knowing that NASA’s journey to the moon played a big part in the development of the technology surrounding digital cameras and image sensors. Even more interestingly, this technology like this that’s developed by NASA doesn’t just sit in a basement in Houston—it’s part of the Technology Transfer Program designed to “to promote the commercialization and public availability of Federally-owned inventions to benefit the national economy and the U.S. Public.” This programs focuses on finding new and innovative uses for its space and aeronautics technologies “for the benefit of humankind.”
In the past year, NASA has been working harder than ever to redefine its goals and missions in the eyes of the public. NASA went to the moon in 1969 and plans to put some humans on Mars in the 2030s. They are currently developing the capabilities and garnering public interest in the idea. Because Mars is weirdly similar to Earth in evolution and formation, the possibilities of discovery and exploration in the sciences are endless. It could very well uncover truths about our own past and future.
Many of NASA’s works have been directed towards this project. In fact, for more than 40 years, robotic explorers of various kinds have been exploring Mars. Work on the international space station has been improving communication that will allow astronauts to stay in touch with ground control from deep space and study the effects of space on the human body. The Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover is out there roaming around on Mars, studying its surface and determining habitability.
It’s going to be a while to wait for the Mars landing. However, NASA wants to share some of this knowledge with the curious public in the more immediate future. During a session at SXSW Interactive titled “Mars Experience VR.” Representatives discussed the multidisciplinary, award-winning team the virtual reality journey to mars. This project was made with high regard to actual scientific accuracy and involved collaboration of NASA, NVIDIA, and MIT’s Space Systems Laboratory, FusionVR presents a VR (Virtual Reality) journey to Mars.
“It’s a win/win situation we help them out and they built a truly engaging immersive Mars experience,” says Patrick Troutman, the SR Systems Engineer at the NASA Langley Research Center. “It allows more people to get excited about it. We shouldn’t have just a very small group of people who get to experience it. The public’s paying for this space exploration program.”
This virtual reality experience is called Mars 2030 and it will “allow people to simulate life on the Red Planet.” NASA has a history of using mission simulators to prepare astronauts for ” every conceivable contingency” and Mars is no exception. Simulations of Mars have been, and will continue to be, of use in training and research, but this Mars 2030 Experience is going to be shared to with the public and “will be available at no cost for the Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard, and Samsung VR Gear via Valve’s Steam marketplace and on Fusion.net.”
The buzzword that Troutman used was “participatory exploration.” But beyond the VR experience, NASA is interested in keeping the gaze of the public eye fixed on the mission to Mars in as many ways as possible.
“One of the things that we have is laser communication that allows high bandwidth back and forth to Mars, it’s like Fiber without the fiber,” says Troutman. “And if we can do that, then we have that live high-res feed back to Mars. So our astronauts will have a camera on them. I think everyone should be able to log into those cameras—except for private time and stressful stuff like that—and go along for the ride. I mean imagine that the first time an astronaut’s driving out on a rover he goes “why is that rock green?” and everyone gets to see that discovery as it happens.”
But why Mars? Why is NASA so focused on Mars, rather than other missions? It’s hard not wonder if there is something beyond the spectacle of such an event that is driving the mission.
“You have that conversation in a bar, not in a conference because it’s a matter of personal opinion and passion,” the NASA engineer says. “I can tell you why it’s important to me, I can’t say why it’s important to you. Why it’s important to me is for the eventual survival of the species. Civilizations come and go, our civilization is at a stage where we could actually do this. We could actually split and become a two civilization. It just takes another world war, a couple of crazy politicians elected. Don’t put all your eggs in one planet.”
“Mars will always be terrible compared to Earth. Earth will always be better than Mars or any other place. I thought [the movie] Interstellar had a good premise, a mold took over and none of our food was working, we were going to die out as a species. The planet was still there but the species dies out because the food had gone away. So [with the establishment of a Mars colony] we have a separate strain of viruses, diseases, wars, asteroids, you keep them separate. Mars is an insurance policy—a long term insurance policy.”
So NASA is going to Mars—and they will be trying to share the journey with the rest of humanity. As we wait, we might find ourselves with a fun preview in the form of a virtual reality experience to be shared with the general public. If NASA’s goal is to make America curious again—it’s working.