Greenbelt, Maryland – Officials from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are finalizing negotiations for a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with three gaming companies whose joint proposal for a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game has been selected for collaborative development. The three companies – Project Whitecard, Inc., Virtual Heroes, Inc., and Information In Place/WisdomTools – teamed up to create a proposal for “Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond,” a game concept developed for NASA’s MMO gaming initiative, which is designed to increase student interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects and career fields.

The three companies decided to collaborate on the winning proposal given their collective passion for space exploration-based gaming. “We couldn’t be happier to be working together as a collaborative team, along with NASA,” said Khal Shariff, CEO of Project Whitecard. Shariff, whose company is also working on a learning game project with the Canadian Space Agency, was introduced to the work of Jerry Heneghan, founder and CEO of Virtual Heroes, at NASA’s Participatory Exploration Summit in June 2007. Not only did they share a common interest in space games, Heneghan’s company was also collaborating with Information In Place on “Virtual Astronaut,” a learning environment that allows middle school students to virtually colonize Mars while learning STEM content.

So the three companies joined forces. “This project is bigger than any one company,” said Heneghan. “It will certainly take many successful partnerships to get our game done right and that starts with our three small, independent companies, working together, in concert with NASA and aligned to a common vision.”

Proposals submitted to fulfill NASA’s MMO vision were vetted through three rounds of review by a panel of nine experts from NASA, the gaming industry, and academia. “‘Astronaut: Moon, Mars, and Beyond’ was selected because the three companies involved had a really ideal combination of qualities we were looking for,” said Daniel Laughlin of NASA’s Learning Technologies Project Office (LPTO), which is administering the initiative. “They have the right experience, they demonstrated their ability to engage middle school through higher education curricula, and they have extraordinary enthusiasm about working with NASA to make a fun game. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from more than 800 pages of public input, it’s that this game must be fun if it’s going to be of any use for education.”

Fun is certainly in the plans for the three companies tasked with development. “We’re building Mars together. We’ll be able to let people’s avatars walk around on it. We’re creating a real living, breathing, shaking world in space that people can actually experience,” said Shariff. “How amazing is that?” So amazing, in fact, that professors and academics from universities across the U.S. and Canada are offering support for research and development – helping to ensure that the content created is not only fun, but will be educational enough to enable students to earn academic credits.

“Conversations are happening with professors to make sure that the content we develop is in line with their educational goals and specific accreditation requirements,” said Shariff. For example, the University of North Dakota’s Capstone Program will contribute content and curricula for the spaceship portions of the game through its Master’s program in Spaceship Design.

Slated for release next year, the game will enable participants to learn and be tested on real skills through single-player and team-based missions based on real NASA technologies, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition, players will interact with NASA digital assets, such as hyper-realistic digital renderings of Mars rovers and telescope images taken of and from space. The level at which users participate in these missions will depend on age and education, among other factors. So, while the game promises to have a big impact on higher education, it will also be geared toward students as young as 13 who can participate at a level suited to their experience.

“One of the reasons this opportunity with NASA is so exciting is because it will give us the opportunity to take everything we’ve learned from students and our work on games like Virtual Astronaut and apply it on a massive scale,” said Sonny Kirkley, CEO of Information In Place.

Kirkley explained that many students forgo advanced classes in abstract subjects like math and engineering because they don’t understand the relevance. “But when they see that they can use these skills to build something – like a space shuttle or a greenhouse – then they understand why it’s important,” said Kirkley. “So, ultimately, teachers will find that a gaming environment makes it much easier to engage students in STEM subjects and provides context for the other things they are teaching.”

According to Laughlin, the game will influence younger students just getting introduced to STEM subjects, all the way through graduate students preparing to launch a career. “It will expose a lot of young people to the potential career opportunities in science and engineering and open up their minds to career paths that they might not otherwise consider. And it will do it through a medium they are very comfortable with – the Internet and online gaming.”

As for the development costs? They won’t come directly from taxpayer dollars, said Darryl Mitchell, a technology transfer manager in Goddard’s Innovative Partnerships Program (IPP) Office, which is co-managing the project’s implementation with the LTPO. NASA funds will provide access to NASA subject matter experts, data, facilities and the engagement of educational design and evaluation experts. But the majority of the development cost will be covered by private investments and corporate sponsorships. “Ultimately this agreement will benefit taxpayers as we look for innovative ways to train students for the science challenges of the future,” said Mitchell.

Two major components of NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program’s mission are securing partnerships with outside organizations for technology development that will yield future benefits for NASA, and supporting economic development by extracting value from NASA technology and expertise. The IPP is bringing its expertise in these areas to help the LTPO guide the execution and implementation of the novel collaborative approach being utilized for the NASA MMO gaming initiative.

For further information related to the MMO agreement, please contact the IPP Office’s Darryl Mitchell at (301) 286-5169 or the LTPO’s Daniel Laughlin at (301) 286-1112. For more information about NASA’s MMO Initiative, please visit: