The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been at South by Southwest Interactive—which ends today—since last weekend, hoping to inform people that, well, the agency has not shut down. Americans evidently have been confused at what the closing of the space shuttle program in 2011 meant to the United States' larger space exploration plans.
So the organization is in Central Texas to clear things up with virtual reality films and other tactics, explaining how future crewed shuttle missions will indeed happen, but they will be run by NASA's commercial partners such as Space X and Boeing.
"A lot of people thought when the space shuttle was retired, NASA was going away," said Kirk Pierce, NASA's communications strategist for the Space Launch System (SLS). "No, we are now working to go further than we ever have before."
To get that last message across, Pierce and his team are stationed in a 20-foot-by-30-foot booth in the exhibit hall of the Austin Convention Center. There's a 30-foot inflatable depiction of the SLS rocket, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built by humans and ready to launch in 2018. The rocket will send an uncrewed capsule around the moon to test life-support programs, avionics, heat shields and re-entry capabilities to eventually clear the way for astronauts to explore the same depths of space.
At NASA's booth, hundreds of people in the last few days have viewed the agency's VR pieces on an Oculus Rift. The three-dimensional video has been virtually taking them on a ride to the top of the SLS, which will be more than 300 feet tall when completed.
Also, NASA has Google Cardboard sets for people who want to see a VR clip that features footage from Mars.
It's NASA's third straight year at the tech festival, but it's the first time the company is leveraging virtual reality. The response to the films, Pierce said, "has been great."
Has VR helped Pierce and his team attract a consistently sizable crowd?
"Well, just being NASA helps," he said. "And having a 30-foot inflatable rocket helps."
Meanwhile, check out the Instagram video below to catch a glimpse of the administration's VR-bolstered SXSW booth as Pierce describes the activation (apologies for the noisy background):