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Summary:

An educational video from NASA found viral success earlier this month thanks to a bunch of video game references — but “Fusion vs. Fission” is only the agency’s latest star-studded short.

fusion fission NASA

There aren’t a lot of things the internet loves unconditionally, but on that list, right behind cats and bacon, comes the video game Portal. Created by Valve, the series challenges players with mind-bending puzzles while being taunted by a snarky, evil artificial intelligence, known as GLaDOS and voiced by actress Ellen McLain.

GLaDOS is so beloved that McLain has been enlisted for no shortage of projects riffing on Portal‘s popularity; just last year, director Guillermo del Toro cast her as the voice of the computer in Pacific Rim. But McLain’s most recent project brought her to NASA.

“Fusion vs. Fission” stars Casey McKinnon and Mike Romo as two bumbling technicians learning the difference between fusion and fission in a kid-friendly fashion, while McLain’s evil AI formulates a plot for world domination.

While McLain is not officially playing GLaDOS in the short (she’s instead credited as “NASA’s Official Talking General Leisure and Diversion Operational Server”), the short’s debt to Portal is clear — fortunately, Valve proved easy to work with.

“Valve has a very liberal policy to using their content — effectively, for what we wanted to do, there were no problems,” director/producer Tim Pyle said via phone. This even included using one of the official in-game logos on screen — all Valve asked for in exchange was a thank you credit and mention of their copyright.

“Things about Portal were given to me like gifts over a couple of weeks,” McKinnon said via Skype. “I found out about Ellen, I got the script, and they started ordering costumes and asked me what size I was — it was revealed over time that they wanted me to look like Chell [the game's protagonist].”

Thanks to McLain and the short’s numerous other Portal references, “Fusion vs. Fission” received huge pick-up by video game blogs, which led to it becoming the most-viewed video on the NASA Spitzer Science Telescope’s YouTube channel in just three weeks. Which is a pretty impressive feat, given the star power that Pyle has been able to enlist for his IRrelevant Astronomy series, luring celebrities in largely by appealing to their love of science.

Guest stars in IRrelevant Astronomy videos have included Felicia Day explaining galactic collisions, Linda Hamilton battling evil robots, and Cameron Diaz as actor Cameron Diaz. “We work with a lot of people who like NASA, but who also like science and education,” Pyle said. “Their hopes tend to mirror our own.”

According to Pyle, when Diaz actually showed up for her shoot, she brought with her a few of her own custom-printed “I [Heart] NASA” T-shirts.

Said McKinnon, “This is the closest I’m ever going to get, as an actor, to working for NASA — and it meant I could tell my daddy that I was working for NASA.”

But while Pyle is a full-time NASA employee, IRrelevant Astronomy, in Pyle’s words, is “very much not my full-time job.” Instead, as a “multimedia engineer” working for JPL (which is funded by NASA), his primary job is to create artwork and video to support the public affairs department.

For IRrelevant Astronomy, lead science writer and education advisor Carolyn Brinkworth comes up with the science points they want the video to address; then, Pyle handles the actual production of the videos, from scripting to graphics.

“Fusion vs. Fission” was actually shot last September, according to McKinnon, with the ensuing months devoted to post-production in between Pyle’s other responsibilities. “This is why there are months between videos,” Pyle said. “Because we don’t have the budget.”

While the series is clearly educational in nature, and funded by NASA as part of its commitment to education and public outreach, there aren’t yet full lesson plans in place to accompany the videos.

According to Brinkworth via phone, it’s an issue of budget — they don’t have the funding yet. But in the meantime, she makes sure that the videos meet next generation science standards.

Pyle currently has at least one more video finished, though wasn’t able to divulge any details about it “because it’s connected to something that’s not quite finished on NASA’s end.” However, he was excited about it.

“If there’s a mission statement to IRrelevant Astronomy,” he added, “It’s to reach out to people who might not be interested in science themselves.”

  1. Kudos to these NASA folks. From the article it’s clear that this is just one of many priorities they have to juggle, and probably one of the lowest on their list. They could probably let it slide and no one would be the wiser, yet they still make the stretch and get some of these out there. The value of this to our society is incalculable. With the ever advancement of technology, more and more decisions depend on a good understanding of basic science. Things like this can help us all understand and make better decisions. It’s hard to put a value on that, but in my estimation, it’s very very high.

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  2. Did I just get Rickrolled by GigaOM?!?!?!?

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