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NASA Harnesses Power of Virtual Worlds for Exploration, Outreach

27 June 2007

Two new Second Life islands let the public participate in space enterprise

Washington -- NASA has created two islands in the popular real-time virtual world called Second Life, where anyone interested in space travel or technology can explore, discover and contribute to the space agency’s mission.

One island, called CoLab, for the Collaborative Space Exploration Laboratory, was established in 2006 by the NASA Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley as a virtual learning community with interactive content.

Nearby is Explorer Island, established this year by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology. JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system.

“We at NASA are working hard to create opportunities for what I might call ?participatory exploration,’” Ames Director Simon “Pete” Worden said May 26, simultaneously addressing a live audience at the International Space Development Conference in Houston, and an audience of avatars (virtual world personae) in Second Life. (See related article.)

“We are doing this in a lot of ways,” he and his avatar added. “This virtual world, Second Life, is one way.”


Second Life -- one of many virtual worlds that exist in cyberspace -- opened in 2003, created by Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based company founded in 1999 by Philip Rosedale to create a new form of shared experience.

Its residents -- 7.6 million at last count, from more than 100 real-life countries -- own and build the virtual world’s digital infrastructure, including homes, vehicles, universities, museums, nightclubs, stores, landscapes, games, islands, companies, government organizations, libraries and more.

Anyone can sign up for a free membership by registering with Second Life and creating an avatar. This virtual world, says Linden Lab, teems with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity.

In addition to NASA, a handful of U.S. government agencies have facilities of varying complexity and interaction in Second Life. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institutes of Health and its National Library of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Army, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. House of Representatives and a growing number of others.


At least in part, NASA’s presence in the dynamic Second Life metaverse arose from a 2004 report of the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, chaired by Edward “Pete” Aldrich.

The report, A Journey to Inspire, Innovate and Discover, was written a year after the Columbia accident that killed the shuttle’s seven-member crew. The report, among other things, sought to guide the space program and inspire young people to study math, science and engineering.

“Video and simulation games are not only a multibillion-dollar industry,” the report said, “they are proving to be effective as learning devices for people of all ages.” Written before virtual worlds had gained wide popularity, the report addressed the next best thing.

“NASA could collaborate with video game producers to create live-action learning modules,” it said, “that give players the chance to experiment with orbital mechanics, the principles of spaceflight and other space-related subjects.”

NASA CoLab and JPL’s Explorer Island -- with their spacecraft, exhibits, interactive displays, Mars rovers, meeting spaces and public events -- are initial efforts in a fledgling virtual environment whose technology is not yet sophisticated enough for NASA’s vision for the future.

“I’m in Second Life to learn lessons about virtual world technology,” said JPL design hub system engineer Charles White in a recent USINFO interview. “Second Life may not be the answer in the future, but it’s stepping-stone technology. It’s going to get us where we need to be, and we need to be where the citizens of the world are.”


Every Tuesday at 1 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, avatars from NASA, the Second Life International Spaceflight Museum and other science- and space-related organizations and others in Second Life gather at the CoLab meeting space, high above CoLab Island, to plan and organize the use of the island. Everyone is welcome.

“Our primary motivation for going into Second Life,” said Jessy Cowan-Sharp, technical platform manager for the Ames CoLab effort, “wasn’t so much showing people content, it was creating a sense of community and inspiring people to create their own content.”

“Part of the idea is not to make a very hard line between NASA and non-NASA resources, people and projects,” said Andrew Hoppin, who works with CoLab through Education Associates, “but rather to make NASA’s resources available more broadly to other communities and projects.”

As to whether Second Life is sophisticated enough to make participatory exploration work, Daniel Laughlin, assistant research scientist with the Goddard (Space Flight Center) Earth Science and Technology Center, said: “I don’t think we know for sure whether the answer is yes or no. In a way, working in Second Life is an experiment.”

In future worlds, Cowan-Sharp said, “I’d like to see collaborative, immersive virtual environments where the full range of people are doing their engineering simulations and fundamental research, and people are present for exploration missions when something lands on another planet.”

Today, she added, virtual worlds are “the seed of something that’s going to be one of the major transformational technologies of our species.”

More information about CoLab is available at the NASA Web site.

More information about Second Life is available on the Linden Labs Web site.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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