Robert Rodriguez/CNET

The future of Mars colonization begins with VR and video games

Games like Surviving Mars are preparing future generations of astronauts for life on the red planet.

A pristine white rocket stirs up the dusty terracotta surface of Mars, coming in for a smooth landing. A hatch opens, and two rovers make their way across the rugged orange-red terrain. There are no humans -- at least, not yet. But this is one small step -- or a short wheel roll -- to a new world that could be our future home.

I'm playing Surviving Mars, a 2018 survival strategy game from Tropico developers Haemimont Games and Paradox Interactive. The goal? Build the infrastructure to sustain human life on the red planet. 

"Humanity is in a weird situation right now -- my smartphone has more computing power than NASA had when they sent people to the moon, but we're using that to exchange pictures of cats and argue on Twitter," said Bisser Dyankov, producer of Surviving Mars. 

Video games and virtual reality simulations are bringing the average person closer than ever to experiencing life on Mars. For many, these pop culture tours make the actual missions to colonize the planet proposed both by NASA and private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX feel more achievable. 

These games, along with other pop culture representations of Mars, have vastly increased interest in human missions to Mars, said James Burk, IT director of the space advocacy nonprofit the Mars Society. In particular, the 2015 movie adaptation of the novel The Martian was a major turning point in piquing public curiosity in colonizing the planet. And now, SpaceX's plan to send an unmanned mission to Mars as soon as 2022 "is throwing gasoline on it all," he added. 

"It's getting easier all the time to tell the story of sending people to Mars because now we have all these tools," Burk said. "People are more accepting of that reality now." 

Martian in the details

Strategize how to build a Mars colony and keep everyone alive in the game Surviving Mars. 

Haemimont Games

Just hours after Surviving Mars was announced in May 2017, people took to the internet to argue (as they do) about how much of the game was factual and how much was science fiction. They went so far as to exchange formulas determining whether wind turbines would really be a plausible way to generate electricity on Mars, as they are in the game, Dyankov said. 

"We know that whatever we do, there will always be smarter people who are willing to go way deeper and test our ideas," Dyankov said. "You know you're touching something and motivating people to go do the math and ask questions and look for the answers." 

Surviving Mars gameplay is incredibly detailed: Set up a mission by choosing a sponsor, who will influence how you spend your money. Choose your rocket, your colonists and your commander by their profession and the benefits they can offer. (For example, choosing the inventor will get you faster drones, the politician will increase your funding, and the rocket scientist will give you an extra rocket at the start.)  

Several more decisions go into launching your first rocket full of drones to build infrastructure, including what to bring and where to land, while balancing your funding and resources. Allocate resources for construction, including water, oxygen and power. Select a research area such as physics, robotics and biotech, each of which could offer a different benefit down the line. 

Bottom line? It's a lot. The developers relied heavily on NASA resources, including topological maps and research concepts. 

"It's a game, but we wanted to make it plausible fiction and ground it in existing science," Dyankov said. The team consulted with a NASA worker on the core elements of the game during early builds, but chose to forgo some elements of realism for the sake of fun gameplay, he added. 

Focus on the future

Occupy Mars gives you a first-person experience of exploring the Martian landscape.

Pyramid Games

Occupy Mars seeks to replicate the Mars experience from a different perspective. 

While Surviving Mars is a colony-building strategy game, Occupy Mars is an open world sandbox game due out in the next few months that will give you the first-person experience of life on the planet. As a player, you build and update your base, discover new regions and generally try to survive, said Jacek Wyszyński, CEO and CTO of development studio Pyramid Games, based in Poland. 

In college, Wyszyński dreamed of building rockets for SpaceX, until he learned that certain US laws, for national security reasons, prohibit international applicants from applying for roles at companies that work with rockets. Instead, he turned to building rockets in video games. 

Occupy Mars developers consulted with the Mars Society and researched NASA resources to build the game so that the basic elements are similar to what you'd really find on Mars. 

The game takes place about 50 years in the future, so the technology involved is more advanced than what we currently have, like supercharged 3D printing. But basic requirements for a working Martian base -- water, power, oxygen, heating, pressure regulation and radiation shields -- are all present, though simplified. 

Like with Surviving Mars, the key was to balance realism with playability, Wyszyński said. "Initially, we wanted it to be as realistic as possible, but over the years of development we learned that the most important thing for the player is cool gameplay -- if it's too realistic, it's going to be boring," he added. For example, early feedback was that players didn't want to spend six hours building a corridor -- they wanted to get it done fast, and go exploring. 

Virtually walking on the surface of Mars

Of course, humans have not set foot on Mars, and games can only take us so far. But several research stations set up by NASA and other organizations in deserts and remote locations on Earth attempt to mimic some of the harsh conditions we would find on the planet, including extreme temperatures. 

The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in southern Utah has hosted more than 200 crews of six-person teams of researchers and students, who live for a week or two on the station, simulating life on the Martian surface. They explore the desert in full spacesuits, maintain the station's water systems, grow plants, and recycle their waste water. (Hey, no one said desert space travel was glamorous.)  

To make these missions more accessible, the organization is developing MarsVR -- an open-source VR platform that brings viewers to the desert base to explore the landscape. 

The platform, releasing later this year, will be both an educational tool that anyone with a VR headset can download, and a training tool for crews before they arrive at the Mars Desert Research Station. MarsVR will allow crew members to virtually practice living on the station -- learning how to put on a spacesuit, operate the air lock and rovers, and cook freeze-dried food, all before stepping foot on the base, Burk said. You'll also be able to explore a square mile of the terrain around the base. From an engineering perspective, it's what it would actually be like to build a Mars colony and walk around, he added. 

"Every second there is precious," Burk said. "So if they know where everything is ahead of time, it makes it better." 

The exploration portion of MarsVR will be free to download on Steam for VR headsets. The training portion will be provided to crews, and sold separately to the general public to support the missions.

Training astronauts

Scientists training for Mars missions can use the Mars 2030 VR experience to explore the red planet. 

FMG Labs

VR is beneficial for training purposes in high-risk, high-cost situations, including space and Mars exploration, said Tuong Nguyen, an analyst with global research firm Gartner. For more than 20 years, NASA has used virtual reality to replicate the harsh conditions of space as a means of training astronauts. 

In 2015, Julian Reyes was director of AR/VR at the now-defunct Fusion Media Group when he came across a white paper from MIT's AeroAstro Lab. It was about the feasibility of the Mars One project, a privately funded effort to colonize Mars, which has also since gone bankrupt. 

Reyes began exploring research on what a successful mission would actually look like. This led to a partnership between Fusion, MIT and NASA to develop a VR experience based on NASA's research. Reyes visited the Johnson Space Center to create virtual scans of spacesuits, and the Langley Research Center to learn about space architecture and concepts for habitations on Mars. Data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise camera was used to create a 40 square kilometer (15 square mile) virtual representation of the planet.

The result was Mars 2030 VR, a 2017 game that brought all of NASA's available data on Mars into a visual experience for both a general audience and scientists training for Mars missions. It's available for VR headsets, and is open-source on Epic Games. 

Mars 2030 VR takes place in -- you guessed it -- 2030, around when NASA aims to make it to the red planet. It opens with what NASA calls "the seven minutes of terror" -- an extremely difficult maneuver when you descend to the Martian surface from space. Exit your rocket via rover and check out your habitation. After that, all you need to do is explore: Walk around to see some of the planet's geological features, either in real time or by teleporting to different places. Pick up different elements like rocks to learn about Mars' history, like when the planet might have been geologically active. 

The team has since moved on to creating an internal project called Lunar 2024, to help astronauts run missions to the moon from beginning to end in VR, practicing arrival procedures, moving around a habitation and uncovering rock samples. It will also include a multiplayer feature so astronauts can perform tasks together on the virtual moon. 

NASA is also testing these VR programs with the Assistant Response Gravity Offload System, or ARGOS, a cranelike tool that holds astronauts while simulating the gravity of the moon or Mars. 

"VR has the capacity of mirroring the real world, and it's only getting better," Reyes said. "There's no closer analog to training astronauts for these missions than using these simulation tools, because they provide the closest experience possible to achieving that."

Games and VR may not yet be advanced enough to fully simulate life on Mars alone. But they do have the power to spark the interest of young people who will grow up to be the astronauts who do step foot on the red planet, according to Dyankov of the Surviving Mars game. 

"The best result of our game would definitely not be how many copies it sells," Dyankov said. "It's if we can imagine 30 or 50 years from now, somebody on Mars says, 'For me it all started with this game when I was a kid.'"