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Why NASA's really into making video games

The space agency may be best known for launching spaceships, but it also has an obsession with creating educational games that might inspire kids to one day become rocket scientists.

A screenshot from Sector 33, a new game from NASA--and one of many the U.S. space agency has created or commissioned. NASA

Most people think of NASA as an organization full of rocket scientists. But while the U.S. space agency has spent decades launching spaceships and working on other important projects, it also puts some of its resources into much smaller efforts, such as making video games.

The list of games NASA has worked on is quite long. Among other things, it's created space station and space shuttle titles, it's given players a virtual walk on the moon, and it's put users in charge of space flight communications.

In recent weeks, the space agency has launched two new games: an air traffic control simulator for the iPhone called Sector 33 and a trivia game for Facebook called Space Race Blastoff.

So why is NASA so into games?

That's the question Gamasutra posed to Tony Springer, the head of communications and education in NASA's aeronautics unit.

"Ever since it was formed, NASA has had an obligation, under the laws that created us, to inform the public to the greatest extent practical about what we do," Springer told Gamasutra, "and we're always looking for new ways to do that and keep up with how people want to get their information. The explosion of social-media apps is just one more way we're trying to reach out across the agency, and games are part of that."

NASA makes sure that any game it builds has education as a primary objective. Sometimes, in fact, the games are created as spin-offs of in-house educational efforts. Sector 33, Gamasutra reported, was originally part of NASA's 2005 Smart Skies software package, which was designed to give kids lessons in math and science through the use of simulators.

The space agency also hopes that the kids who play games like Sector 33 will get more excited about science, technology, engineering, or math, and that they may even one day come to work at NASA.

A scene from Moonbase Alpha, a NASA educational game. NASA

"Looking back on the origin of [some of these] titles, Springer said that NASA's game projects are most often based on its newest research projects," Gamasutra wrote, "hopefully teaching players about the essential concepts behind more complex scientific disciplines. The organization hopes that if any of these players grow up to join NASA, they will already have an easy time getting up to speed to do the research themselves."