Image: Screenshot of Moonbase Alpha game
NASA/Valve
NASA's free video game "Moonbase Alpha" depicts astronauts' return to the moon, and the challenges they face once they get there.
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updated 7/6/2010 7:17:12 PM ET 2010-07-06T23:17:12

Disaster unfolds rapidly at NASA's fictional moon base in 2025. A meteorite strike has damaged vital solar arrays that keep the life support systems running, oxygen levels are dropping fast for astronauts inside the base, and that darn repair robot just got stuck. What's a space explorer to do?

Welcome to "Moonbase Alpha," NASA's new free game now available for download for PC users on Valve's Steam online gaming service. Virtual explorers must try to restore oxygen by repairing damaged solar arrays, power couplings and life support systems during a 25-minute limit.

The game also allows up to six players to cooperatively race the clock online, and to tackle larger repair maps for a greater challenge. Players can hop aboard a lunar rover to cross the longer distances.

"Moonbase Alpha" gives a taste of NASA's ambitious space game, a massively multiplayer online game, called "Astronaut: Moon, Mars & Beyond," where players would take on astronaut roles, such as a roboticist, and explore virtual versions of the moon and other extraterrestrial locations.

"Moonbase Alpha" also represents a low-cost investment for NASA, even if it's not a replacement for an actual rocket program that can send astronauts back to the moon

"That's the appeal of using games and simulations, because they let you do things that are wildly unaffordable [in real life]," said Daniel Laughlin, project manager for NASA Learning Technologies at the agency's Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center in Maryland.

Fixing a virtual moonbase
In "Moonbase Alpha" players jump straight into the action after a brief cinematic that details the challenges at hand. [Video: Moonbase Alpha trailer]

They control an astronaut who must visit an equipment shed to get tools such as wrenches and welding torch to fix the base. But the astronaut can only carry one tool at a time, which means players should choose wisely and drop off their tools in strategic central locations.

One of the more entertaining parts of "Moonbase Alpha" comes from deploying and controlling a repair robot that is armed with either a welding torch or a basic arm. Driving the robot allows the player to approach hazardous parts of the base to make repairs. It's possible to deploy both types of robots at once, even if the player can only control one at a time.

"Moonbase Alpha" also requires a bit of precision in its game interactions, so that a player's astronaut may struggle to hook up a bulky power cable if it's not aligned properly. Likewise, the robot has the expected turning radius of a wheeled vehicle and does not turn on a dime.

Those small touches came as a pleasant surprise, except when the game controls defied player attempts. The in-game cursor movement felt sluggish enough to make a robot repair mini-game that involved tracing circuit lines more challenging than expected.

Most of the player interaction takes place by focusing a central target reticule and left-clicking to take action. That works for the most part, aside from a few times when awkward camera angles may force the player to back up or move the astronaut around.

The trickiest part of "Moonbase Alpha" comes from figuring out just what the game wants players to do in a particular repair situation. That can become difficult during a first play-through without knowing what repair tools are needed for each case, and especially when every second counts.

Voiceovers drop a few hints about the movement controls and what to do next, but many players may encounter some trial-and-error before they actually succeed in saving the base within the 25-minute time limit. The game does allow players to turn off the time limit, but at the cost of not having their score recorded on the game's leader boards.

Virtual moon meets reality
The cancellation of NASA's Constellation program that aimed to return astronauts to the moon prompted a debate among NASA and the game developers about whether or not to shift the focus of "Moonbase Alpha" to Mars. But that would have required changing almost all the animations at a late stage of development.

Some people also worried that national lawmakers might view the game as proof that NASA still wants to aim for the moon first. Yet Laughlin pointed out that it's a video game, not a policy document.

"What I have been told is that the moon is still NASA's future, just not in the immediate future," Laughlin told SPACE.com.

"Moonbase Alpha" has already begun attracting attention from inside NASA. Laughlin told of receiving calls from NASA scientists and engineers eager for their missions to appear in "Astronaut: Moon, Mars and Beyond."

The tie-in of actual mission data could give future gamers an extra dose of realism.

"People will come from projects and say hey, I want my Martian explorer or hypothetical Europa probe in there," Laughlin said. "[The game] will expand as we get more missions signed on."

The game is available here.

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