Saturday, June 30, 2007
I'm not a big fan of games these days -- for the most part, there just isn't time, and really, there are so many better things a man can do with his life than play with a computer or a Playstation.
However, over the years, there were a few that captured my imagination -- one of them being Microsoft Space Simulator. What made Space Simulator something special was that it literally put you in a space craft and allowed you to do, go, or land anywhere that you wanted in the the solar system -- and it even had a feature that allowed a type of "fantasy" ship with drives that would get you up near light speed. With time accelleration, you could visit other stars -- and it all fell within the realm of 'real' physics. Of course, if you didn't know a whig about orbital mechanics, the game would do all the hard work for you and let you cheat -- nobody wants to learn math to play games, right? :)
I'd pretty much forgotton about it, but then I discovered a couple years back that someone had taken the idea and ran with it -- in an open source, freeware kind of way. The result was something called "Orbiter: Space Flight Simulator", and it is just exactly that. This is, first and foremost, a simulator of physics; while it is technically a 'game', there are no real objectives other than trying to get, say, the space shuttle into a stable orbit or to do the complex orbital calculations required to get your landlubber butt to the moon. And I really do mean that -- the game's website reccomends that anyone who wants to try the game read a large primer on orbital mechanics and physics. Learning how to get into a stable orbit takes quite a bit of time; learning to get to and dock with the ISS is nearly impossible, and a moon shot is so complicated that you wonder how in the hell anyone ever managed to do it.
Now, as far as the shuttle is concerned, the game is somewhat unrealistic in that it forces the player to manually fly the thing. The shuttle is mostly flown by computer; the astronauts generally sit there and run through checkflights, pressing buttons and flipping switches -- they aren't expected to manually roll and pitch the shuttle during the ascent and re-entry, at least up until the actual landing. But it's a great simulator of what it'd be like if you literally had to grab the stick of the shuttle and pilot it into space.
Anyhow, what makes this game interesting is that it actually makes you a bit smarter. If you can figure out how to get into orbit, you understand quite a bit more about physics than you did when you started, unless physics is already your specialty. If you can figure out how to execute an orbital transfer to Mars, you probably know more than most freshman Physics students about orbital mechanics. I've often thought that one of the best ways to learn things via computers is by experiments and simulations that allow you to play with settings and try different things and see what happens -- this game does exactly that.
Above is a video capture of a shuttle from launch to the beginning of orbital insertion (there is still a good 5 minutes of burn left after the end of this video, and a apoapsis burn on the other side of the planet, but that would be boring.)
Posted by Ryan McGinnis at 6/30/2007