This is it. Following three years of waiting and a last-minute delay, one of the most anticipated video games ever, No Man's Sky, is out in just a few days. It's no exaggeration to place it up there with gaming's most wanted of all time – just peruse the relevant Reddits and website message boards for all the necessary evidence.
But it's not just hardcore gamers who are slavering over the prospect of finally blasting off into the game's procedurally generated space, in search of discovery and adventure on a scale that this medium has rarely delivered. The scientific community has its fans, too, as I found out by speaking to former NASA consultant and aviation specialist, Justin Julian. (Disclosure, at this point, as Justin is someone I've known for a while, but that doesn't make him any the less Dude Who Worked at NASA.)
As Julian sees it, No Man's Sky could do more than simply entertain – if it proves as popular as its developers/publishers, Hello Games, are hoping for, it could be a crucial next step for progressing our very real reaching out towards the stars.
"It doesn't matter what the medium is, all it takes is one person seeing it and getting interested enough to ignite that spark, and then we've got our next big breakthrough," he tells me. "This game could push someone where we need them, to advance our species."
These days, Julian is an airport manager for Anderson County Airport in South Carolina, but his time with NASA taught him that the future is always in the hands of those we teach. "Every day I passed these words on the way to my desk, 'To Inspire The Next Generation'. I really think this game has the potential to do that."
NASA has been struggling over the last few decades with funding cuts and a public shift from seeing space travel as something exciting, if not absolutely necessary. But that hasn't killed the spirits of those who firmly believe in humankind having a future somewhere other than Earth. For Julian, a game like this could be both fun and just what school-level sciences need to educate and spread interest in a way that could be conducive to NASA's goals.
"As a gamer myself, investment values are high. It looks like you get out of No Man's Sky what you put into it. And as a specialist, we're teaching people how to problem solve and how to manage resources, so it's the best of both worlds."
No Man's Sky has touted its procedurally generated universe as the largest and most expansive in gaming history, beyond Elite Dangerous and other space sims. It's so large that they had to build in-game bots to explore the whole thing. This scaled representation of our unknown universe is key to what Julian believes is important for teaching players about the real thing.
"A great part of this game is sharing resources with other players. Getting things to other people that they don't have in their native systems is so important to understanding the vastness of the universe, the scale of it. When we start looking at other places in real life we may find new resources that can substitute and be better than our own, and that's essential for our survival and growth."
"Having the ability to think outside the box is the most important thing we can teach anyone."
He has praise for the game's willingness to be a different kind of fun, one that's not all guns and action. "It's not just all about storyline, or really a scripted game at all, from what's been shown. It's an experience, and it evolves just like the real thing. You have to use critical thinking and there are no obvious big bosses or documented strategies to guarantee 'winning'. And having the ability to think outside the box is the most important thing we can teach anyone."
In No Man's Sky the player assumes the role of an explorer, and embarks on a mission of discovery in their very own spaceship, initially alone in the bleakness of the vacuum. In the game, you may be safe as a solo pilot, but Julian has concerns when it comes to astronauts really heading beyond our atmosphere alone.
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"My biggest concern there is that people are human. People make mistakes. That could be the pilot, the mechanic, even the manufacturer of the aircraft. You like to think that there's control and foresight there to mitigate hazards, but sometimes things happen. In aviation, we see bird strikes, foreign objects interfering with planes, weather concerns, you name it." When asked how difficult it would be to coordinate with millions of ships in space, like the stations will do in No Man's Sky, Julian laughs and sarcastically replies: "Oh, fun."
"Space is a dangerous environment," he continues, "so you're going to be dealing with problems every second of every day. Keeping everything running is going to be tough, too. Go to Flightaware.com and type in Atlanta and you'll see all the aircraft going in and out of Georgia. What we're looking at in No Man's Sky is way more complex than that, and that's crazy to think about in handling terms. We'll have satellites, debris, and who knows what else floating around up there that could cause problems, too."
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He goes on to explain where our current technological capabilities are in comparison to what we're seeing in the game. "Y'know, we're actually so close to it. There are way too many variables to know fully what deep space travel will be like, but NASA currently plans to put people on Mars. That's the next step, and there is an honest strive for it, with the same passion that was there when we put a man on the Moon."
Like Julian, many players are captivated by the wonder and scope of No Man's Sky's possibilities, but ultimately its success will come down to its reception amongst an already substantial fanbase. "I hope it engages the players' imaginations and I hope it engages mine as well," says Julian. "I want people to play this game and then think about flight school or taking astronomy classes. Then maybe they'll go even further than we can think of going now. This game really could give us the next big innovator."
No Man's Sky is released for PC and PlayStation 4 on August the 9th in the US, and the next day in Europe. Find more information at the game's official website.