As the first crewed lander to the Moon in nearly 50years comes to rest on the lunar surface, billions of citizens participate in the descent through an interactive exploration console, switching their view between multiple camera angles and data streams on their personal computers. Millions more already have flown a simulated descent on the popular lunar exploration game distributed via NASA’s Web site, NASA.gov, and compare their performance against the landing craft in real time. Video chat hubs explode with discussion as they coin names for the approaching craters and hills.
The virtual explorers on Earth can choose between several cameras for each astronaut, as well as cameras on the landing craft and lunar rover. The crisp high-definition video links are augmented by multiple audio feeds, real-time telemetry of heart rates (sonified on demand), oxygen levels, fuel consumption and interactive overhead maps. Human explorers back home customize their consoles to deliver the streams that interest them to their computers, televisions and mobile phones. An hour after landing, a billion terrestrial explorers vote on where to plant the flag.
Participatory exploration is the next big thing for space, and the announcement of NASA’s collaboration with Google provides an early hint of what is possible. The concept of participatory exploration goes beyond the simple distribution of images via the Web to an era in which the public truly experiences space exploration in real time and in high resolution. This future, once the domain of dreamers and sci-fi writers, has been fast-forwarded to the present by the ongoing revolution in interactive communication technologies. It is these technologies that have opened a new door for exploration, and that enable NASA to dramatically strengthen the relevance and significance of its core mission.
The scenarios above sketch the fantastic potential of participatory exploration for NASA’s future. It’s a potential that is advancing as fast as
‘s Law. The question is whether NASA as an agency will grasp in time the true importance of this opportunity – that interactivity is not just a nice-to-have feature to be considered once the real work of space engineering is done, but that it is an integral component of the space exploration that is central to the agency’s long-term health. The Google partnership – and others like it, announced and unannounced – suggest that leaders within the agency are beginning to understand this potential.
Participatory exploration recognizes the importance of the public as both a customer and a funder of exploration, as well as NASA’s responsibility to meet that customer’s expectations. Ultimately, participatory exploration has the power to rebuild a new and vibrant constituency for space – and in doing so help revitalize the agency.
The Future is Now
The profusion of interactive technologies pioneered through the Internet, information technology and gaming sectors provide a spectrum of new ways to connect, engage, inspire and educate the public about space exploration. To fully exploit their potential, the agency should integrate these technologies at a fundamental level into mission planning. The focus on human and robotic exploration of the Moon provides the first best chance to do so.
The details of such engagement should not be an afterthought or an exercise in “how can we use this given instrument package to engage the public.” Rather, the goal of participatory exploration should be considered at the front end of the design process by the system engineers who are now assembling fundamental exploration architectures. In other words, NASA should consider how to engage the public on an equal basis as other exploration goals. It was highly encouraging to see that the recently released Global Exploration Strategy recognizes the critical importance of public engagement. Now the agency must put those words into action.
What does participatory exploration really mean? Participatory exploration is a new concept of exploration in which the public is integrated into mission planning from the beginning. That fundamental decision drives subsidiary choices in system architecture, technology and mission design.
The first place to see its impact is in communication technologies. Start with high-bandwidth video, which is critical to public engagement. The public expects rich broadband, and NASA has begun experimenting with such video in low Earth orbit. Now it must extend that capability to the Moon, and use it not just for video, but also for biological telemetry, multi-channel sound and force-feedback data.
Lunar communications can be high bandwidth and low latency, the two critical parameters for strong interactivity. Lunar cameras can stream toward Earth offering more data from more cameras than any other body in the solar system.
This streaming data could be distributed to televisions, computers, mobile phones, digital movie theaters and interactive gaming platforms. For these reasons, the Moon is the perfect test bed for participatory exploration.
Remix this Expedition
A second key development in exploration is the personalization and remixing of exploration content. Today’s youth – who will be the main taxpayers for the future expeditions to the Moon and Mars – are fluent in manipulating content streams to suit their own interests. NASA should begin to provide multiple streams of data – video, audio, geographic, biorhythm and telemetry – and create virtual consoles through which the public can personalize the ongoing mission.
Gaming technologies show the way. The U.S. Army’s video game – a simulation of special operations tactics – has six-million players who play more than 1.5 million missions a day. While equaling the appeal of a first-person shooter game may be a challenge, enabling the public to play through space missions beforehand and then compare their performances to reality will significantly deepen their experience. NASA can and should partner with established players to achieve this, whether via big companies like Google and Electronic Arts, smaller companies like Lunar Explorer, or even freeware games like Orbiter, an accurate simulation of space shuttle flight.
Participatory exploration also can be achieved through the design of mission procedures, such as choosing where to place the flag or voting on the names of new geological features. Online voting is a staple of Web-based interaction. NASA should create modern forums for communication between the physical explorers and the virtually exploring public. Piercing the veil to let more of the astronauts’ humanity show through will do much for public support.
Participatory exploration could even be extended to open-source code. A growing band of brave souls within NASA are showing signs of interest in experimenting with open-source development for future exploration, a pathway which – if general experience is to be a guide – may lead to more reliable software at dramatically lower prices.
Suitable for Humans and Robots Participatory exploration is equally relevant to human and robotic exploration. Both will serve as avatars of exploration, creating a virtual presence on another world that participating explorers on Earth can experience. That is why it is critical for NASA to start now on working through the possibilities. Systems that work for the first robotic missions will be relevant and transferable to later human ones.
NASA should ask for help in working through the possibilities of participatory exploration. It can rely on many partners – video game companies, major Web portals, television networks, voice over Internet protocol entrepreneurs, chat companies and movie-theater chains. These meetings need to start happening now, and the results of such meetings need to be fed into the ongoing design decisions.
What is the greatest communicator of the wonder of space today? Many would say IMAX films. This is the great success story of NASA communications, and a terrific example of public-private partnership. Large corporations have put forward tens of millions of dollars to make each of these films, with NASA putting in the billions required to make the mission real.
Such a model can be expanded with participatory exploration. Like blogs, wikis, MySpace, instant messaging and video chats to the video game Halo, our future will be driven by interactive communication. If it wants to really connect with the public over the decades ahead, NASA must start now to engage its public in an interactive way. The Google partnership signifies a major step forward.
Sustainability Newsflash: the public expects this.
Today’s media consumers demand cross-platform interactivity. Market forces are working feverishly to build the infrastructure for this demand. The good news is that NASA does not need to build it itself – it only needs to design its own systems so that they can plug in and take maximize benefit from the global network that is already there.
The state of the art in media a decade or so hence, when the first astronauts will land on the Moon, likely will seamlessly integrate broadcast and narrowcast communications across a range of modes, sources and technologies. NASA can take advantage of this infrastructure to develop a dedicated audience and constituency for space exploration that is far deeper and broader than it has today. The agency needs to design the right communications capabilities into its exploration systems beginning now.
Participatory exploration offers the opportunity for NASA to redefine the public’s relationship with exploration and energize the public about its exploration goals and missions. If NASA succeeds at this, it will prosper in the threatening budgetary years ahead. NASA’s leadership is not shying away from the critical choices needed to ensure the long-term health of the agency. Participatory exploration should be viewed in that context.
George Whitesides is the executive director of the National Space Society.