Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The Obama Administration has decreed the U.S. won’t return to the Moon, but NASA is headed there anyway with the help of some Virtual Heroes’ astronaut wannabes.

Virtual is the key word here.

First, NASA is not staging a mutiny. Rather, the return to the moon is in the form of a new game being released Tuesday titled

Second, the virtual astronauts are the game developers at Raleigh-based who worked with NASA to develop the title.

Third, this is an expedition into cutting-edge 3-D immersive Internet technology as NASA and Virtual Heroes for the moon return. To make the game as realistic as possible, Virtual Heroes utilized the Unreal 3 game development engine from Cary-based Epic Games.

The Unreal platform is one of the world’s most popular engines, used for titles across most game platforms, let alone Epic’s own best-selling titles such as Gears of War and the Unreal Tournament shooter.

A so-called “serious game” in which entertainment is combined with education, Moonbase Alpha promises:

• Realistic NASA exploration scenarios
• Immersive 3D graphics
• Solo or team play
• VOIP chat
• Alternate voicable text chat

According to NASA, “Moonbase Alpha is a game where players step into the role of an exploration team member in a futuristic 3-D lunar settlement.

The NASA project is the latest in a series of serious games developed by company founder Jerry Heneghan and his team, which is now part of defense contractor Applied Research Associates.

“In ‘Moonbase Alpha’, players will step into the role of an exploration team member and will be immersed in a futuristic 3-D lunar settlement,” Heneghan told Local Tech Wire and WRAL.com. “Their mission is to restore critical systems and oxygen flow after a nearby meteor strike cripples a solar array and life support equipment. Available resources include an interactive command center, a lunar rover, mobile robotic repair units and a fully stocked equipment shed.”

Moonbase Alpha, which is rated “E” for everyone, offers a variety of formats.

“The game includes both a single player capability and LAN or internet multiplayer gameplay for up to six active players on a tea,” Heneghan explained. "Selectable maps will be available for specific player numbers (two-player map, four-player map, etc.). Each of these maps is represented and tracked individually within the game’s leader boards.” (Read a Q&A with Heneghan )

Virtual Heroes is at the cutting edge of 3-D virtual world gaming and development, having created technology for training in a medical environment with Duke University and helping the U.S. Army break new ground with “America’s Army.”

Now Heneghan and company are teaming with NASA to help astronauts and those who always wanted to be or still hope to be someday revive manned exploration of space.

Too bad this has to be virtual. Perhaps if Moonbase Alpha is successful, some bean counters and politicians will revisit the idea of taking man to the Moon and then the stars.

To download the game,

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