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NASA's visitor center offers a video game filled with bad facts and grammar errors

NASA's visitor center offers a video game filled with bad facts and grammar errors

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Image from Cosmic Quest
Image from Cosmic Quest
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

A video game at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is designed to teach young people about space exploration, but it’s riddled with factual and typographical errors.

Cosmic Quest, developed by a gaming company called Creative Kingdoms, officially opened at the visitor complex in March 2016. The game costs $19.95, and allows players to “launch a rocket, redirect an asteroid, build a Martian habitat, and perform scientific experiments aboard the International Space Station.” But it doesn’t seem to have been properly vetted.

Cosmic Quest teaches players bad math about the size of solar arrays, and gives false instructions for an important process used to make fuel and water in space. It also screws up the name of a vital chemical element needed to power NASA spacecraft. Among the game’s typos are misspellings of the words “analyze” and “oxide,” and confusing the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

Brian Patrick Byrne

When The Verge first contacted Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex about these errors, spokesperson Lauren Eisele Walbert denied that any exist within the game, saying, “We go to great lengths to ensure the factual integrity of our experiences, exhibits and educational programs.” After we obtained a partial transcript of the game, compiled a list of errors, and verified these with experts at universities nationwide, the complex admitted it made mistakes.

“The typographical errors will be fixed as soon as possible,” Walbert told us last month, adding: “We will review the contested facts and forward to the subject matter experts at NASA with whom we collaborated on the Cosmic Quest content for their review and input.” Alison S. Knox, another spokesperson, later confirmed the errors concerning the size of Mars’ solar arrays, and the name of a vital chemical element, but did not respond to the rest of our query by press time.

“Who put it together?”

The errors are surprising for NASA, a government agency that inspires children to take up STEM-based careers by providing dozens of educational programs, including competitions and internships, to students nationwide. The Moon landing remains one of the nation’s greatest accomplishments, and NASA’s expeditions have inspired some of the most enduring movies of all time. How did such a beloved and trusted institution miss the mark so badly?

Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington, says he wasn’t impressed by the game. “Who put it together?” Bruckner says. “Either they have a very limited understanding of science and engineering or are incapable of explaining concepts correctly.”

NASA owns Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. However, since 1995, KSC has been operated by Delaware North, a hospitality company that also runs services at stadiums, national parks, and resorts. Creative Kingdoms worked with both NASA and Delaware North to design Cosmic Quest. On its website, the company promises to “bring a special kind of magic to hotels, resorts, museums, shopping malls and restaurants around the world.”

Creative Kingdoms — which since 2012 has been owned by Great Wolf Resorts, a chain of indoor water parks — declined to comment about how these errors made it into the final version of Cosmic Quest.

Among the errors is a claim that solar arrays on Mars “will be forty percent larger than on Earth to generate the same amount of power.” This is wrong, an apparent misunderstanding. The game is referencing the fact that Mars receives 40 percent of the solar power that Earth does, says Kevin Lewis, an assistant professor in planetary geophysics at Johns Hopkins University. But that doesn’t mean the arrays have to be 40 percent larger; to estimate the required size of these devices, Lewis says the correct calculation suggests the arrays must actually be 2.5 times bigger on Mars. Colder temperatures, and other factors, make solar arrays more efficient on the Red Planet, so 2 times to 2.3 times as large “is probably a more realistic range,” says David Miller, a professor in robotics at University of Oklahoma.

Cosmic Quest also states: “Solar panel arrays [attached to a spacecraft] are a simple addition that doesn’t require a lot of weight.” Bruckner disagrees. “Sufficient solar panels do add significant weight,” he says. Miller agrees with Bruckner. “Solar panels are never simple,” Miller says. “They have to be deployed and continuously aimed (both of which require structure and actuators) and also require radiators (to get rid of heat and increase efficiency).”

The game also discusses an important process that creates both fuel and water in space by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide, as noted by Robert Ash, mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Old Dominion University. Cosmic Quest claims the reaction “filters hydrogen and carbon dioxide” as part of the reaction, but that’s wrong. Filtration is an entirely different process, used to separate one element from another.

“Making NASA space education a profit center is not something that I believe well serves the agency’s mission.”

Cosmic Quest also provides players with the wrong name for Plutonium 238, a vital chemical element NASA uses to power Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs. These in turn power spacecraft and other vehicles, such as Mars’ Curiosity rover. The game calls this element “Plutonium 238U,” which does not exist.

The Verge also discovered several typos in the game. For instance, in a bit about experiments with Martian surface chemicals, the game renders “analyze” as “analys.” The game discusses “basic chemistry principals” — should be “principles” — and says: “Now you will understand … why are research is so important.” The game spells “oxide” as “oxcide,” and, perhaps more forgivably, mistakes the verb “affect” for the noun “effect.”

“I’m not sure that this undermines NASA’s mission, but it certainly does not help it,” says Miller, adding: “I don’t know if Congress insisted, or if this was someone’s bright idea at NASA, but making NASA space education a profit center is not something that I believe well serves the agency’s mission.”