Andrew Groen

NASA and SpaceX come to E3 for two reasons: poaching talent, and public outreach

NASA and SpaceX come to E3 for two reasons: poaching talent, and public outreach

I'm more than a little bit of a space nerd, so you can imagine my surprise when I was leaving the Los Angeles Convention Center on Day 1 of E3 only to come face to face with SpaceX's dragon space capsule.

Not a replica, mind you. The actual one that went into space, docked with the International Space Station before crashing into the Pacific Ocean. It's pretty beat up now, and it's a whole lot bigger than I ever imagined, but there it is staring me in the face with SpaceX signs everywhere.

What's more, I'd just come away from a conversation with a NASA engineer a couple hours ago at NASA's E3 booth. What's going on here? Why do two of the world's most well-known space organizations have booths at a gaming convention?

NASA

“E3 phoned up NASA and said, if we gave you some free both space, would you use it?” said Douglas Ellison, a visualization producer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He works as part of a team that creates highly authentic videos of NASA's activities. If you've seen a video of Curiosity landing on Mars then you've likely seen his work.

“So we got it for free,” he said. “And under sequestration we have trouble travelling at NASA. Travel to conferences has been massively, massively restricted, but of course headquarters saw that they had a local center near E3 with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and it just turns out that a couple of groups at JPL use game technology so these things speak perfectly to the sort of things going on here.”

But beyond that, their presence at the show is also something that fits directly into the founding principles of NASA. Ellison told me that within NASA's founding charter is a committment to sharing everything they do with the general public. It inspires kids to follow science, engineering, and mathematics career paths and it gives the public a sense of what their taxes are paying for.

“We have to do this stuff, because the majority of the problems our species will have over the next 20, 40, 100 years are going to be related to science, mathematics, and engineering. And if we can inspire a couple of kids to pay attention to these games and apps then maybe they'll go into…electron engineering instead of humanities or whatever. And as a result, we can make a difference on the next generation.”

“The one thing we have that almost no one else has, in public outreach and education, is truly epic content,” he said. “It doesn't get better than fricken space, right?”

SPACEX

“Software engineers,” said Keith Nicewarner, a robotics engineer at SpaceX who was curating the Dragon capsule exhibit. “We need people. We do all of our software internally: for the dragon, for the rocket, for the missions, the mission control rooms. Everything is in-house, so we need a lot of top-of-the-line, rockstar software people and the gaming industry is a great place to find them.”

While NASA's presence at the show came off as somewhat benevolent, SpaceX seemed pretty explicit that they're here to poach talent. Several people at the booth reiterated the same message, so this was clearly a stated mission from SpaceX, not an incidental perk.

“Half of our software team is actually from the gaming industry,” said Nicewarner. “People from Sony, Activision, EA. We want to hire some people from the aerospace business who know a lot about rockets, but then we also want to hire people who don't have any idea about the rocket industry. The reason is because when you get into these software problems, you have people coming at it from different angles if they're from different disciplines.”

“At the end of the day, a lot of the problems are software problems, and you don't need to know rocket science to solve them,” he said. “We already have rocket scientists.”

It turns out that when you want to find a lot of really geeky people who are fascinated by the future of space exploration…who also know a lot of extremely complicated coding languages, the video game industry is a good place to start.

But SpaceX had a different message as well. All of the employees were wearing “Occupy Mars” t-shirts. When SpaceX eventually starts gearing up for a Mars mission, which is their ultimate goal, they want a lot of public support behind the idea.

Nicewarner said that there were a lot of entrenched powers in the aerospace industry that are trying to kill commercial space flight so that the status quo never changes. Going straight to the public is a great way to get around that, because there are more people who call their congresspeople and demand support for these initiatives.

He also speculated that NASA wasn't just here for benevolent public outreach; he thinks NASA is looking for some engineers as well.

So game developers, take note: if your studio is in an extended crunch right now, then you might want to take a walk over to the SpaceX booth and see if they have some openings. You could be writing the software that brings mankind to Mars, rather than squashing bugs for 17 hours a day on the latest Gears of Dutyfall: Angry Sea.