How two Elite Dangerous players convinced NASA to let them see its revolutionary telescope

Mars and Spawrks are masters of getting into places they have no business getting into. They've snuck into PAX East, tricked Frontier Developments into teleporting them outside of the Milky Way in Elite Dangerous, and several months ago, they convinced NASA to let them come and film the James Webb Space Telescope. "We're all about getting into places we shouldn't be," Mars laughs over Skype. "But when NASA agreed to let us come check out the telescope, I was just stunned."

The duo are what would happen if the Dukes of Hazzard opened up a space tourism agency. With a hilarious disregard for danger, they always stumble into the best kind of trouble. I'm not sure if Elite Dangerous' developers love or hate them, because Mars and Spawrks have a knack of finding every broken element in Elite Dangerous' galactic simulation.

When NASA agreed to let us come check out the telescope, I was just stunned.

Mars

"You can't do or see what we do in most of our videos," Mars explains. "Because after we release them, Frontier removes the bugs ." In one of their more popular videos, Mars leads Spawrks to a system where a small planet is clipping through the rings of a much bigger one. Flying closer to inspect, the pair suddenly find themselves inside the planet, as the game glitches out and can't decide whether they're in space or on the surface.

Their magnum opus, however, is the time they tricked Frontier Developments into teleporting them 16,000 light years outside of the galactic plane. Mars explains that part of Elite Dangerous' authentic recreation of the Milky Way includes several clusters of stars that have actually broken off from other galaxies. One of these is a cluster of neutron stars floating 16,000 light years above the galaxy. While it shows up on the map, there's absolutely no way of getting to them—unless Frontier helps, that is.

Mars had asked Frontier if they would teleport him there for his birthday. "They knew who we were," Spawrks laughs. "They were very much like, yeah we can't let you two go there."

Everyone in Elite has a perverted sense of time and distance. But at the same time, our sense of the galaxy is much grander.

Spawrks

So Mars had a friend ask the same thing for his birthday. Frontier agreed and even let them choose a friend to take with them. What they didn't realize, is that Mars would be that friend. "The next time we both log on, we were out there and I'm like, oh my god, that's the whole galaxy. They actually sent us!" Mars says excitedly. 

While Frontier wished to keep the location somewhat secret, Mars couldn't resist. "The first thing I did was livestream it and show everyone," he confesses. "I felt kind of bad about that."

But why would NASA allow two small-time YouTubers who make videos about Elite Dangerous to visit their Goddard space center? Mars and Spawrks aren't entirely sure, but I have a hunch that their more recent videos have a lot to do with it.

Finding the voyager 

There's countless ways the galaxy of Elite Dangerous mirrors our own. After all, it was created from a data provided by NASA's own probes. But one of the most intimate ways Elite blends fact and fiction is with the inclusion of the Voyager space probes. Frontier Developments originally added the probes as an easter egg and, for several weeks, players could easily track the probe by locking onto its signal. Mars explains that, around a month after its initial discovery in-game, the Voyager 1's signal stopped broadcasting and the probe disappeared as it drifted beyond the boundary of the solar system. For two years, the Voyager 1 space probe has been lost inside of Elite Dangerous. Until he rediscovered it last month.

By mapping Voyager 1's real-life trajectory in game and extrapolating it to account for the distance it traveled over a thousand years (Elite Dangerous is set during the year 3303), Mars was able to determine its new location nearly 2 million light seconds from Earth. Their video, demonstrating how to find the probe, highlights the fundamental authenticity that ties Elite Dangerous and our own galaxy together. It's brilliant.

These videos inspired Mars and Spawrks to find new ways to educate people about actual science using Elite Dangerous. Mars tells me that, months ago, he and Spawrks had asked their community for ideas. Incredibly, one of their fans works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and suggested they see if they can get in.

"What did we have to lose?" Spawrks says.

"I sent a media request to NASA, telling them that we wanted to create an educational video about the James Webb Space Telescope and they were like, okay, show us some education videos. I said, we don't have any, but I promise you, we're really good at it," Mars laughs. "All I could do was show them our videos of Elite Dangerous and just explain how rooted in science it is."

Apparently NASA saw the potential. A few weeks later, Mars was standing inside the Goddard Space Flight Center, watching as engineers raised the 70-foot-long James Webb Space Telescope to begin preparations for its move to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"When they picked it up, the mirror was reflecting everything in the room—it was beautiful," Mars remembers. "It was amazing. I'm seeing something that is never going to be seen by humans ever again. I'm seeing something that is going to be sent into space, but after it's gone, there's no repair missions, no service missions—that's it. It's going to be in the darkest spot in the solar system and we're going to leave it there."

"It takes a minute for your brain to understand that, wait a minute, they've been working on this for 20 years," Spawrks adds. "Twenty years for one particular mission that has to be so perfect, that even the slightest deviation—if just one part screws up—the whole thing fails."

There's no way to describe it without making it sound like NASA is pulling some Harry Potter crap.

Mars

If the October 2018 launch is successful, the James Webb Space Telescope will vastly improve our understanding of the cosmos. Unlike the Hubble Telescope, which captures images from the visible spectrum of light, the James Webb has an infrared camera that can see far deeper into the surrounding universe. It's infrared camera can see behind obscuring nebulae and clouds of matter, picking up the faint traces of light left over from the birth of the first galaxies. "It's literally a time machine," Mars jokes. "There's no way to describe it without making it sound like NASA is pulling some Harry Potter crap."

Standing before the telescope, which measures about the length of a tennis court, Mars tells me the enormous complexity of space exploration felt overwhelming. Last year, I argued that Elite Dangerous and the recently released No Man's Sky failed to capture the gravity of space exploration because they trivialized it. When NASA first discovered Trappist-1, a system of seven Earth-like exoplanets an incomprehensibly distant 35 light years away, Elite Dangerous pilots could cover the distance in a single jump. 35 years traveling at the speed of light done in seconds.

But Mars and Spawrks have a different perspective. "Travelling to the center of the Milky Way galaxy, in Elite, is like a nice road trip," Spawrks explains. "Put that in the perspective of actual spaceflight, and you realize everyone in Elite has a perverted sense of time and distance. But at the same time, our sense of the galaxy is much grander."

Games like Elite Dangerous let us experience how insignificant we are—to fly light years away and turn back to Earth and see it as Voyager 1 once saw it, a pale blue dot, a mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam. And in the same way that Elite Dangerous trivializes our sense of scale when it comes to our galactic backyard, the James Webb Space Telescope will do the same to our entire known universe. "The scope of the mission is so awesome," Mars says excitedly. "The first galaxies and first stars being formed, holy shit I can't wait to see that."