Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Orbiter

I've been noticing a few posts recently about the spaceflight simulator Orbiter. I've been messing around with this very cool program for about a year and a half now, so I thought I would post my own observations.

First of all, this is definitely not a game, even though it plays like one at times and has some nice graphics to rival some commercial flight simulators. However, for the sake of comparison, let's treat it like one for a moment. I've always thought that the best video games I've ever played are ones that are very easy to begin playing, but the difficulty continues to rise to match the players ability. The addiction factor common to many of these games is: How do I get just a little bit further? How do I do just a little bit more?

Orbiter definitely has this addiction factor. Using the delta flyer one can quickly take off, fly around, and even attain orbit, all with comparitively little difficulty. Once on orbit, one of the first things you'll probably want to do is dock with the International Space Station. So, once basic control of the spacecraft has been mastered, one next turns one's attention to deciphering the control panels. Locating the ISS is not hard, but getting anywhere near it is quite a trick. It took me almost a week of trial and error before I was finally able to get within docking range and another day to actually dock. But you see, this is exactly what I was talking about. It's easy to get started, but to do anything more than simply flying around at random, you must begin to master new skills and gain more experience. And not just any useless computer gaming experience, this is experience with flying and navigating spacecraft under very realistic conditions. What could be better!?

Of course the delta flyer is an incredibly forgiving spacecraft. It's performance characteristics are purposefully exagerated to make it easier to get started. If you're ready for a challenge, then consider one of the other launch vehicles included with the program. The space shuttle Atlantis, for instance, has characteristics more closely modeled after the real thing. Trying to get the space shuttle into orbit is not an easy task. After failing to reach orbit on several occasions, I definitely have a greater appreciation for how precise they have to be to not only get them into orbit, but the exact orbit they need to be in to achieve their mission objectives.

Orbiter is much more than a flight simulation game. It's more like a flight simulation environment. With the SDK and API interface, one can modify nearly all aspects of the simulator. Not only can you add in custom built spacecraft and planetary bases, you can also modify the planets themselves. You can fly a spacecraft of your own design through a solar system of your own design if you so desired. It is this incredible flexability combined with its realistic modeling of the physics of spaceflight which makes Orbiter such a powerful program.

Now, I wouldn't apply for a job at JPL touting my proficiency at Orbiter. However, if I could hold my own in an interview talking about the intricate details required to navigate and pilot a spacecraft to any destination in the solar system, then their might be something to be said for using this program as a training tool.

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