Blast off! (space-related computer programs) (Buyers Guide)
by Philip Chien
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong took one small step and forever changed the scope of exploration. In the 25 years that have passed since the first manned moon landing, man hasn't physically ventrued farther than the earth's moon. Although humankind hasn't moved out into the universe, personal computer technology has allowed much of the universe to come down to earth where we can explore it in the comfort of our own homes. There are dozens of space-related programs that let you learn about the heavens, pilot historical spacecraft, or carry manned space exploration on to its next step.
One of the earliest space simulation programs was the classic Lunar Lander program created by high-school student Jim Storer. It was a relatively simple 40-line program with no graphics. You typed the amount of thrust to use, and the program calculated your velocity and height as your lunar module descended. If you landed at a velocity of less than 1.2 mph, the mission was considered a success. A velocity of less than 10 mph was considered a survivable landing, and anything higher would create a new crater. The concept was refined as a commercial arcade game with black-and-white, 2-D graphics and joystick control. A 1980 Apple II version of the arcade Lunar Lander by Bill Budge (of Pinball Construction Set fame) was one of the first fact-based space simulations.
We've come a long way since those early space games. With the massive storage offered by CD-ROM, the realistic graphics provided by SVGA, and the greatly increased processing power of new PCs, modern space programs are the next best thing to being there.
Return to the Moon ($49.95), a CD-ROM application from Lunar Eclipse Software, includes an updated graphical version of the lunar landing simulator. This one is far different from its text-only predecessor, though, with the lander's windows featuring video based on actual Apollo footage. The package has a database which includes an atlas of lunar features, including landing sites of U.S. and Soviet lunar probes, as well as hundreds of photos, video clips, and sound bites from the moon race. There's even a Lunar Academy feature, which includes quizzes on the moon and space exploration, but unfortunately, there are some mistakes here. True to its name, the package also includes information on current proposals for returning manned spacecraft to the moon.
Shuttle: The Space Flight Simulator ($39.95), from Virgin Games, is very likely the most complex flight simulator designed for personal computers. Available for the PC and the Amiga, Shuttle puts you on the flight deck of the most advanced, complicated machine ever designed, NASA's Space Shuttle. Every aspect of an actual shuttle flight, from launch to the gliding landing, is simulated in exacting detail. You'll deploy and repair satellites, run SDI experiments, and deal with in-flight emergencies. Although the program's over two years old, it still stands out as the most authentic spaceflight simulation available for the PC.
Two upcoming simulations will try to wrest that distinction from Shuttle. A-OK!, The Wings of Mercury from Innovative Technologies is a full simulation of the original Mercury space capsule. The developer says it's an absolutely faithful replication of the first American space capsule, with the 95 switches and controls, 22 status indicators, and 21 gauges all functional. The program is currently available only for the Macintosh, but a PC version could follow if there's enough interest. (Send electronic mail to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.) The other contender, Microsoft Space Simulator, has been kept under tight wraps by the developer. However, it promises to accurately simulate both past and future space systems, and if the company's Flight Simulator is any indication, this program may set new standards.
This spacecraft simulator unfortunately isn't available for microcomputers. PILOT (Portable In-flight Landing Operations Trainer) runs on a Panasonic Solborne, the portable equivalent of a 25-MIPS Sun 2 workstation. PILOT simulates the view out the shuttle's windows, as well as the primary flight gauges for a shuttle landing from the time the commander takes control through landing. Astronauts have used PILOT on long missions to refresh their skills before they have to land the shuttle in real life. I got a chance to try PILOT and landed it successfully twice, but I'm embarrassed to say that I also crashed it twice.
Sim (Space) Cities
For a look at what life on the moon might be like after man does return there, check out Lunar Command ($49.95), from Mallard Software. This is an updated version of Wesson International's Moonbase simulation, and it puts you in the role of administrator of a lunar colony. You have to decide how to allocate your fixed resources toward building new structures and mining raw materials, all the while hoping for technology breakthroughs. The program includes an excellent novella which describes your roles and responsibilities.
Similar in concept, but far more advanced in execution, is Sierra's Outpost CD. You're in charge of a space fleet containing the last survivors of a destroyed earth. You have to find a suitable planet, determine the best spot to settle down in, and then create and manage a colony on the surface. Although the program is set in a distant, technologically advanced future, all of the theories and technologies used in it are based on actual space exploration research, including NASA data.
Broderbund proves that entertainment and education can go hand in hand without being preachy with its classic Carmen Sandiego series. Where in Space Is Carmen Sandiego? ($79.95) sends Carmen out into the solar system. This time, Carmen's henchmen are cartoonish aliens, and she's stealing actual planets and moons. You fly a Cosmohopper 911 Turbo space vehicle and use a VAL 9000 computer to track Carmen down, viewing beautifully rendered images of the various celestial bodies you visit. The program comes with a pocket astronomy guide to help you determine where Carmen has fled.
Interplay's Buzz Aldrin's Race into Space ($69.95) is a historical strategy game based on the American/Soviet race to the moon. You're the head of the U.S. or Soviet space program, and you can compete against another player or the computer. The CD-ROM version, which features more sound and actual digitized video, also lets you play via modem or mail. Your must make decisions regarding hardware purchases, astronaut training, research and development funding, and testing or cutting corners to stay ahead of your adversary. The game's universe has made minor changes to history to keep the game manageable. Four different NASA centers have been integrated into one supercenter, with astronaut training combined with purchasing, designing, and assembling launch vehicles. There are some minor technical and historical mistakes, but the program still gives an excellent historical perspective of the difficult moon race.
Media Clips' Worldview CD-ROM ($39.95) contains 100 still images, 100 audio clips, and 25 QuickTime movies covering various aspects of the space program. The movies include launches, lunar spacewalks, and President Kennedy's moon speech. Each photo includes a short accompanying musical score and a description. The audio clips include important speeches and sound bites.
Space Shuttle ($49), from Software Toolworks, is a database of the first 53 shuttle missions. It features information on astronaut training, the shuttle program's history, video clips, and digitized pictures from each of the first 53 shuttle missions. Don't try to access the mission data for classified shuttle missions, though--the program will stop you! Unfortunately, the CD-ROM has some problems. It doesn't note that there were unclassified military shuttle missions, it identifies many pieces of hardware incorrectly, and it includes errors in its narration. Still, it's an interesting overview of the shuttle program, and it would be superb if an error-corrected update were made available.
If you have access to a computer interfaced to a videodisc player (many schools have such equipment), consider NASA's 12-inch Pioneer video laser disc containing earth observation images taken by shuttle astronauts. A 2MB text file on the disc includes descriptions of the pictures. All together, there are about 91,500 video resolution images from the first 44 shuttle missions! The laser disc retails for $55.
If your interests lie more in the bodies in the heavens than in the machines that explore them, you should check out the many excellent planetarium simulators available. These will show you not only what the night sky looks like outside your own house but also what the sky looked like in ancient times. Some even let you see what the sky would look like from a spot on another planet! There are many such programs available, including Orbits, Dance of the Planets, Expert Astronomer, and Distant Suns.
One of the most impressive is Redshift ($99), a Windows CD-ROM from Maris. The program has an extremely powerful celestial simulation engine programmed by former Russian spacecraft controllers. You can put yourself anywhere in the solar system and show the sky view in several different coordinate systems. The disc includes digitized photos of solar system objects, stellar targets, and other astronomy-related topics.
If you're looking to dig deep into learning about the heavens, you can obtain the actual data obtained by NASA's science satellites and view it on your PC. NASA stores spacecraft scientific data at the National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC) at the Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. CD-ROMs available from Goddard include data from the Magellan Venus radar mapper, the TOMS ozone mapper, the Extreme Ultraviolet Explorer, the Viking Mars mission, and Voyager's encounters with the outer planets. The CD-ROMs sell for about $20 each, and most include a viewer right on the disc.
Unfortunately, the pictures and instrument readings from the Hubble Space Telescope--some of the most fascinating data yet obtained about space--aren't available on CD-ROM yet. The Space Telescope Science Institute is cooperative about giving out photographs and slides of images, but seems unwilling to part with the actual data so far. Here's hoping for a CD-ROM packed full of images from the newly rejuvenated space telescope soon.
There is a Hubble-related CD-ROM. Hubble requires a large database of guide stars to point it at its targets. The entire sky was mapped from ground-based observatories, creating a database containing the locations of 18 million stars. The Hubble Guide Star Catalog is sold on a pair of CD-ROMs by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for $52.95. That's less than $0.000003 per star!
Whether you're a frustrated astronaut wannabe, a space program watcher, an astronomy fan, or a parent concerned about science education, you'll find a wealth of space-related software out there. So load up your favorite space program and prepare to blast off into a universe of fun and learning.