Mooncraft

shoers_microroverSpace exploration and space science are serious undertakings. Steely-eyed missile men with furrowed brows insisting that failure is not an option. Suits and skinny black ties. Short haircuts. Special safety regulations. Lots of jargon and three-letter acronyms (TLAs). We rarely hear the word “adventure” in the context of professional spacecraft engineering, let alone “fun.” And I never heard it on Capitol Hill during my two years working in Washington, D.C. But here’s the thing. Isn’t all this at least a little exciting? Even enjoyable? Honestly, if you’re an aerospace engineer and you don’t get some kind of kick out of what you’re doing, just go back to school, get an MBA, and make a lot more money doing something soulless that involves straightforward arithmetic and nothing more death-defying than Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA).

That’s why it’s great to see Astronaut Chris Hadfield playing Space Oddity. He’s confirming for us that space and popular culture can be one and the same. Maybe even better, NASA flew some Legos recently. What would you build in orbit if you had something like Legos?

Connecting people to space in this way has some immediate benefits, sure—motivating the public to advocate for space-program budgets, moving Congress to appropriate money for NASA, and all that. But I think there’s a much more long-term benefit to embracing our natural curiosity, sense of adventure, and desire for play. What if we could create a killer app—a game, say, that people want to play desperately enough that they’ll invest in space hardware the way they invest in video games? What if a killer app for space showed us what’s possible if we all pull together and do what humans do best: build, create, and seek adventure?  What if you could play Minecraft on the Moon? For real? Would you and thousands of your friends pay enough to kick start a gamer’s space age?

Let’s call the game Mooncraft. Here’s how it might work.

A tactical objective is to survive the lunar night—about 14 Earth days long. There are no zombies or other lunar miscreants that skulk about (as far as I know), but nighttime is bad enough without creepers. Your avatar is a very small rover. Let’s say 100g in mass, for reasons I’ll explain. It captures a 176×144 grayscale imagery at a few frames per second.  These small frames and data compression would enable communications at less than 12Kbps, less than an old dial-up modem. The rover transmits its data to a larger, shared communications node to downlink to Earth. Servers on Earth distribute the video to gamers. So, you’re looking at the gray, black, and white lunar surface in grayscale. Makes sense to me.

There’s the question of light-travel time, which delays the signals to the rovers, and the video back to Earth.  It’s a few seconds. That’s too slow for joysticking a fast vehicle, but these little things travel slowly—a few millimeters a second. Commands to the rovers consist of “move forward x distance,” or “turn y amount,” delivered by a special type of game-controller interface that interprets typical Xbox controller or Wii controller motions as macroscopic commands that are executed on the scale of seconds. It will take some training, but I am confident that we’ll get used to it.

To survive, and in fact to thrive, on the Moon, players mine the regolith and build structures. Rather than whacking at the material with a pickaxe, as in Minecraft, some rovers dig up and nudge the powdery, sandy regolith forward with a snowplow-like attachment. Others pick up and place small rocks with a simple robotic arm. Still others can sinter igneous rocks together, tack-welding them in place. Yet another type of rover can provide bursty power to rovers that request it. Dr. Joe Shoer designed the microrover shown at the head of this post. Future posts will go into the technical designs of some of these microrovers.

Game designer and author Erin Hoffman clued me into the gaming value of creating different characters for these rovers, establishing an essential story line. We would start with a few of these characters but (and here’s the part I really like) we would let people design their own. The Mooncraft company, if it were ever to exist, would launch its own rovers for the use of the gaming community and would also launch rovers designed by its players (for an appropriate fee, of course).

The business case depends on utilization. Say that a gamer is willing to spend $5 per hour operating a rover. That’s over $44,000 per year, if a user wants a rover all to himself or herself. Those economics don’t make sense for most of us. My daughter assures me that the people who play Minecraft for hundreds of hours straight are also not the people with that kind of money to spend.

Instead, a time-share arrangement probably makes more sense, in which the rover is available to a gamer for a session and then autonomously leaves the site that a gamer has been working and goes to another gamer’s site to serve as his/her avatar for a while. And that shuttling back and forth continues. There’s likely an optimal algorithm for sending the rovers where they’re desired, a sort of traveling salesman problem to be solved for this kind of lunar gaming.

Let’s consider a business case. If a rover survives for three years, at 50% utilization, it provides about $22,000 in income. The cost of launching a 3U CubeSat to the Moon is alleged to be $1M. Say half the mass of this 4 kg 3U combines landing systems (airbags, in my opinion, and/or crushable foam) and requisite software, radios, solar panels, and structure. That leaves room for 20 tiny rovers.  I would suggest a sign-up fee for users, like buying a gaming system.  Say it’s $500 and that 1,000 people per rover sign up.  The total income over that three-year lifetime would be over $1.8M. Assuming the launch cost stays at $1M, and accounting for the cost of money, taxes, operations, building the rovers, and other things, we would conclude that this enterprise is on the ragged edge of profitability. Now, where’s that guy with the MBA that I insulted earlier?

A little more profitability might come from special users—people who level up or even choose to create a private population of these rovers to fabricate their own lunar outpost. Maybe NASA or other organizations would like to operate a fleet of these rovers for the sake of science and human exploration.

Remember, we’re playing with the actual surface of the Moon here. An accidental (?) outcome of playing the game Mooncraft may be the creation of a supply of lunar bricks (and Mooncraft could share the profits of selling these bricks to other users, with the gamers who created them). Another outcome may be a very large radar or optical reflector on the surface of the Moon, and who knows what else? An intentional outcome of these leveled-up players’ work may be the creation of a lunar base, or a space hotel. Or a lunar runway.

In any case, a game like this would provide an economic incentive for private launches to the lunar surface and, maybe, eventually, human habitation of the Moon. As awesome as Minecraft is, I might prefer the real version, the one in which I could go live in the structures that my avatar builds.

Let me summarize. There are three reasons for Mooncraft. First, maybe someone can make a buck from the entertainment aspects of this idea. The second and third objectives here go beyond mere entertainment. We’ll get some lunar structures built. And the gamers can share in the rights to license them for use. But most of all, Mooncraft is one of several ways in which to increase consumer demand for space. Increasing the demand for hardware in space will lower launch costs by making rockets a commodity. Launches could become such a common occurrence that they begin to resemble the mail. Think about how much it would cost to send a package across the country if we had no postal service, in fact no roads. You would need an expedition, outfitted for survival during a weeks- to months-long trek. Starts to sound like space travel, doesn’t it? So, let’s create the demand for sending hardware across the cosmos and motivate a business case for the 21st century version of the Pony Express: frequent, commercial access to space. Games maybe the way to start.

I’ve spent some time with a few startups in the Bay Area recently. Some will probably be successful. But I’ve seen what that success requires. Money, yes. Also a realistic business plan. But most of all you’ll need passionate employees willing to work for a fraction of their value in the hope of building something that will change the world. Well, I think a real-world version of an already compelling game might generate such passion.

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