NASA Ames' 'Second Life' Blends Cyberspace with Outer Space

DALLAS, Texas ? Taking a step into the new frontier, NASAAmes Research Center, under the direction of Simon ?Pete? Worden, has launchedan island in Second Life, an online 3-D virtual world created,shaped, and owned by its participants.

If successful, the partnership could offer a powerful newtool to increase global participation in NASA?s exploration agenda, one day allowingthe public to ?take part? in returning to the Moon, future missions to Mars, the ?asteroidsand beyond?all without the need of a spacesuit.

Worden,both in avatar form?known as Simon Pete Raymaker?as well as in person, spoke Saturdayat the National Space Society?s (NSS) 26th annual International Space DevelopmentConference being held here.

?We at NASA are working hard to create opportunities forwhat I might call participatory exploration,? Worden?s avatar told participantsat today?s panel. An avatar is an out-of-body, Internet representation of herselfor himself, alive and well and working within cyberspace.


Wordendetailed the work of the space agency?s CoLab?a Collaborative Space ExplorationLaboratory being developed to partner with technologists and theentrepreneurial community. CoLab is an online space where individuals cancollaborate in Second Life.

Appearing as an avatar, Worden spoke from a digitized NASAIsland to conference attendees, spotlighting a number of future opportunitiesunfolding in the space agency?s vision for space exploration.

Projected onto two giant screens on either side of the podium,conference antendees watched as Worden?s avatar simutaneously ?addressed? agroup of Second Life avatars in their virtual world?citizens with names like SpacePioneer Michael Widget and Space Settler Rocket Sellers. Meanwhile on the otherscreen, Worden?s avatar "spoke" to the real world audience.

?We?re using the power of virtual environments to expand ourreach,? Worden said. ?We are looking at how this island can be a portal for allto fly along on space missions. Real data from real missions such as theInternational Space Station can be ported into virtual environments,? he added.

The technology, though, is not without its drawbacks asWorden?s avatar crashed several times, forcing the real-life NASA Ames directorto come out from the behind the curtain and meet his public.

?We can walk or fly along with a lunar rover as it makes itsway over the lunar landscape,? Worden said. ?Your avatar can explore along withthose of scientists and engineers managing the mission.?

Worden said that, in this manner, everyone can participatein space exploration. ?When the next people step onto the surface of the Moonin a little over a decade, your avatar could be with them,? he noted.

Activate opportunity

The use of virtual worlds, Second Life, as well as thedevelopment of open source software?called Cosmos Code by Worden, is beingchampioned by NASA in new partnerships with traditional and non-traditionalentities, he said.

By matching the attributes of cyberspace with small,inexpensive space probes using micro-satellite technologies, a new world of spaceexploration is feasible, Worden suggested. ?As we expand into and settle thesolar system?we?ll all be going.?

?This is not your father?s space program,? Worden said. ?The newtechnology of virtual life in cyberspace means we can all participate in thevision for space exploration. The revolution in nanotechnology means we can dopretty surprising things in very small packages too.?

Worden told that one of the key objectives of thevision is to activate the private sector to activate opportunity. Using thecyberspace tools and techniques being created via partnerships at Ames ResearchCenter, individuals can design projects, analyze data, ?or just go along forthe ride,? he said.

Asfor Ames being in the San Francisco/Silicon Valley area?that?s been a bigassist in stirring up the creative juices, Worden explained. ?We start seeingpeople come over that actually have big wallets as well as big ideas?so that?sbeen helpful.?

Following Worden's presentation, NSS executive director George Whitesides announced that the society had also established an island in Second Life adjacent to the NASA Ames virtual domain.

NOTE: Theviews of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the NationalSpace Society.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He was received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.