2204: Ksp 2
Title text: "The committee appreciates that your 2020 launch is on track, but the 'human capital/personnel retention' budget includes a lot more unmarked cash payments than usual. What are th--" "Public outreach."
Cueball, a programmer, is sitting at his computer while four other persons from NASA, Hairy, Ponytail, Hairbun and another Cueball-like person try to convince him to delay the release of a sequel to Kerbal Space Program (KSP 2).
Kerbal Space Program (KSP for short) is a space flight simulation video game with a Keplerian orbital physics engine, allowing for semi-realistic orbital maneuvers. KSP is a recurring theme in xkcd. A sequel, abbreviated here as KSP 2, was planned at the time of the comic's publication to be released in 2020, although it has since been delayed to Spring 2022.
Also planned for 2020 is the Perseverance mission, a mars rover originally named Mars 2020. The joke in the comic comes as engineers are likely to want to extensively play with KSP 2 to the exclusion of other things, and NASA is worried about the Mars 2020 mission being delayed or failing because the engineers are too focused on playing KSP 2, including taking an extended vacation and "sick" days off.
Cueball, sitting at a desk in front of a computer, is represented here as being in charge of KSP 2, and the other characters standing around him are pleading with him to delay the release of KSP 2 until the Mars rover program is complete, even being willing to "give [him] a moon".
Offering to give somebody the moon occurs occasionally in songs and poetry, as an idiom meaning desire to offer something of great value, or expressing great desire to please. Literally giving a moon to Cueball is impossible, but it is possible to name a moon after Cueball, so that may be what is implied instead. This could also be a reference to the film Despicable Me, which revolves around Gru and his Minions trying to steal the Moon. The Kerbals (mascots of Kerbal Space Program) resemble the Minions from the film.
The title text is a sentence said by someone from a committee in NASA that oversees the progress and budget of the Mars 2020 mission. They are satisfied that the launch in 2020 is still on track, but has a question regarding the 'human capital/personnel retention' budget, which has several unmarked cash payments, more than they would expect. As they begin to ask what they are, someone from the Mars 2020 project interrupts, having probably foreseen this question, stating that it is Public outreach.
In the original Kerbal Space Program, playing in career mode, the player can select various "strategies" at the administration building to exchange or boost various assets. "Public Outreach" appears similar to the "Public Relations" strategy "Appreciation Campaign", which exchanges a portion of in-game money earned completing mission contracts for prestige, which has an effect on mission contracts the game makes available.
The title text suggests NASA could be paying Private Division, the developers of Kerbal Space Program, money to delay their release until after the Mars mission.
NASA has dabbled in game physics engines for "public outreach," with the same mixed record of success as any promising R&D endeavor. Pertinent projects included a series of collaboration laboratories on various forms of social media including Second Life which hosted a "NASA CoLab" region active from 2007 to around 2013. While the unrealistic constraints imposed by real-time physics engine simulation prevented much actual engineering, such shared 3D computer aided design (CAD) systems provide a measure of drafting training in a play sandbox system outside of a formal work environment. NASA frequently holds design competitions, including some in which winning participants have spoken highly of KSP, and some of which are used for developments in medical informatics, for example, outside the field of aerospace engineering and space colonization simulation. The use of game development competitions to assist scientific progress is also used in the Fold.it competitive protein folding game, where the winners build antibodies to save the lives of those who have health care. Such efforts have often been supported by SBIR-sized government agency grants from several countries, along with other individuals (i.e., customer) support and help from organizations to build software improving competitive score achievement. NASA has also been involved in asking software publishers to remove, withdraw, or restrict their releases, such as the COMSOL plasma physics engine library, rumored to be useful for the design of nuclear weapons. But whether any government agency has ever paid for the delay of a computer simulation game in order to increase their productivity is an open question.
An alternative suggestion of the title text is that NASA gave cash to employees, their families, friends, associates, and foreign spy followers to purchase additional copies of KSP 2 to encourage development innovations, international collaboration, as a "force multiplier" for personnel retention, and as bonus incentive awards for engineers who are ahead of schedule for their part of the Mars 2020 launch.
- [Cueball is sitting in an office chair at his desk in front of a computer. He is surrounded by four people, and is looking over his shoulder at the ones standing behind him, Hairy - holding his palms up - and Ponytail stretching her arms out towards him. On the other side of the desk is another Cueball-like guy holding his arms out palms up and Hairbun who stretches her arms out to the side.]
- Hairy: Please hold off until the end of summer. We can't afford the personnel hit right before the late July launch window.
- Ponytail: People have already started calling in sick!
- Hairbun: Do you want a moon? We'll give you a moon!
- [Caption below the panel:]
- NASA tries desperately to get the Kerbal Space Program team to delay KSP 2 until after the Mars 2020 mission launches.
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