We've wanted to visit NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) for years, but haven't previously had the opportunity. Some of us live on the wrong continent to do so, for one thing. We've visited NASA now however, and you can too. NASA has a presence in Second Life.
NASA created the CoLab Island to enable 'co-working and project incubation ... for NASA staff and the entrepreneurial technology community'. There's a bunch more marketer-speak on their 'NASA CoLab SL Project Overview' notecard, but the English form of it is that they want to talk to us, and want us all to talk to them.
Of course, NASA isn't only business. NASA often holds launch parties and landing parties on CoLab island, or NASA members attend launch parties held by JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) or other related organizations on their islands. Hanging around NASA's CoLab is a good way to hear about them.
Events such as the Future Forum are also hosted on CoLab and related islands: the Future Forum is a discussion about the role of space exploration in science, engineering, technology, education and economy; held with NASA leadership, astronauts, scientists and engineers, along with business, technology, academic and political leaders in the USA. It's happening throughout the year across the USA and in Second Life.
When you arrive at their island, you do so in a space beside an information booth, with several directions to go. The most tempting is an International Spaceflight Museum, easily recognizable by the many rockets and other space vehicles pointing to the sky. Unfortunately, that's not actually a part of the NASA site -- but go there anyway!
When you get back to NASA, you can explore 'Picnic Hill', which you access by going along a wildlife walk. The hill also contains a memorial to the Columbia shuttle crew. Another option is the CoLab Testbed, a place for prototyping your ideas. And finally, there is the main CoLab building.
The toughest decision is which to do first. Start out by grabbing a tee-shirt. You may as well - it's free.
We went into the building. In layout, it's two levels with a central hub, and satellite [ahem] rooms around the hub. The central hub has teleporters to some of the exterior places, such as the testbed and the lookout on Picnic Hill. The ceiling has a rotating satellite, and the walls contain information on some of NASA's projects - including the CoLab.
Some of the rooms in the main hub building are reasonably predictable - a welcome area, a room for teachers and other educators, a couple of meeting rooms. Others are spaces that could only occur in Second Life.
Space Riggers is a kind of club or group or casually-connected group of people. They're running a collaborative process for generating not just meeting spaces, but meeting tools: improvements to communication and presentation technologies. They have a room in the NASA building, and apparently produced some of the spaces presently in use in the building.
The National Space Society has a room in the NASA building, as well as their own island. It contains posters and info, and NASA-TV, and a space filk radio stream, but otherwise lacks a bit of giddy excitement. Once you get to their project space outside however, the National Space Society becomes much more interesting.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory also has a room in the NASA building. Some of their information is very interesting, while some of it is a tad dated. They have a countdown to launch information board for each of the DAWN and PHOENIX missions, both of which were actually due to launch in 2007. Both missions went off fine: Phoenix is set to land on May 25th this year. There's a countdown clock at the front of the building.
When we left the building, we went right past the wildlife walk to Picnic Hill. The Hill itself contains several open-air meeting spaces, all of slightly different designs. At the base of the Hill is the memorial for Columbia. There are screens for streaming information, such as NASA TV or shared real/virtual world events.
Out the back of the building is the CoLab Testbed. Any specifics that anyone says about this place would age pretty quickly -- so we'll just talk about it in general terms. It's one of the places where scientists and engineers can create prototypes and try out ideas for spaceship design. They can also construct virtual models of their projects, to explain factors about their projects to others -- either other scientists, or non-scientists who need to know and understand them in a general way. It's a fascinating place to walk through.
And then you go to the other half of the island, where the collaborative projects (and a couple of information areas) are.
Oregon L5 society is working on a base suitable for Mars or the Moon. They have a simulated lavatube cave on CoLab Island, with many aspects of the base set up in simulation. People with the appropriate technical knowledge are most welcome to enter their simulation, study their work, and provide a critique or suggestions.
Everyone is welcome to assist, however, and one task that those without expert knowledge can help with is creating scenarios for small groups of people to model - or being one of the people modeling the scenario. These scenarios are to be tasks for setting up, running, or living in a Lunar or Mars base.
Their suggestions include 'Landing a rocket and unloading and storing its cargo', and 'Maintaining communications with the outside world'. They're hoping to model almost anything that can happen now -- while everyone is still safely on Terra Firma and a failure is just another learning opportunity.
Glamorgan University is running a simulation of terraforming Mars. With data taken from JPL, they're going to develop scripts that will start with a Mars-like environment, and hopefully end with an environment suitable for Earth-based life. By holding the experiment in Second Life, the experiment team hopes to obtain feedback and criticism from planetary scientists all over the world.
The NASA Systems Engineering Aware and the SAE Aero Design competition are using Second Life to test-fly their aircraft this year. At this stage, the project's space is still little more than a runway and some information boards - but it should be very interesting to watch when it's actually in progress.
Three tiers of red-walled semi-transparent rooms make up the Mars information area. The information here is updated in real time, and provides, among other things, the current view of Mars as seen through a powerful telescope, and the current daylight/night-shadow views of Martian time.
The building with the red brick walls contains the information about our return to the moon. NASA is looking for water, radiation protection, and all the other information that would be necessary for future Lunar residents.
Behind the Return to the Moon building are models of Lunar Lander Challenge contestants. The Lunar Lander Challenge is a prize for a vehicle capable of conveying cargo or people between a lunar orbit (presumably docking with a shuttle vehicle) and the lunar surface. The goal of the challenge is develop designs that can be manufactured commercially.
Next to the Lunar Landers is a Space Elevator. Well, a Second Life model of one. Sitting on it and watching it rise is a rather strange feeling ... it goes up forever. We are very, very small, indeed.
Finally, among the information and collaborative projects, there is a space where members of the Colab teams can learn to build in Second Life style. It contains a useful reference table of prim modifications, and also whatever practice prims have been left lying around.
So really - what is NASA CoLab? Is it a place to hold virtual parties? A place to demonstrate ideas? A place to distribute information? A place to hold meetings?
It's all of that. One of the NASA CoLab team, Anderson Urqhart, -- off the top of his head -- could think of members resident in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, and the former USSR. "The idea behind holding CoLab in Second Life is to engage with the people who are used to working with new and innovative technologies," said Urqhart, "And a lot come into Second Life."
NASA recognizes that Second Life users come from every walk of life, from home-makers, to engineers and professionals in every conceivable field. They're making themselves available to talk with us -- so go talk to them.