Simulating Space Flight on a Mac
Last year I began fiddling around with a program called A-OK! The Wings of Mercury, a computer program written by Joe Nastasi that completely simulates a Mercury space mission from the 1960s. Nastasi realized that today's computers are sufficiently advanced that they can replicate not only the interior of a Mercury capsule and simulate its flight in video-game quality detail, they can also simulate the entire Mission Control Center.
A restricted-feature version is available for download. Paying the registration fee gets you a code to enable the missing features, which include networking a room full of Macs together as a mission control center.
Installation is straightforward. The program runs on both OS 9 and OS X. System requirements are fairly moderate - you need a PowerPC and you must have a video card that handles QuickTime RAVE (OS 9) or OpenGL (OS X).
I've run the program on both OSes, and it works identically. A faster processor helps, but it ran reasonably well on a Beige G3/300 tower - well enough for me to use it as my primary machine for the simulation at school. Even though it was a bit under the recommended requirements on the website, it ran well.
On a 1 GHz TiBook it was extremely smooth in animation, although there was a small problem with the 3D rendering leaving an artifact above the rocket in flight when your point of view was below the plane of the rocket (from underneath, the screen shows a vertical bar above the rocket).
Aside from that, the program runs great, the documentation is excellent (although I have some suggestions noted below), and the simulation is fun. If you have the slightest interest in the history of space flight, simulation, applied physics, or rocketry, you will love this program. Try it out, pay for it, use it. We purchased the site license from some grant funds we used to develop curriculum for our space academy courses.
The program essentially recreates the interior of a Mercury space capsule, down to the last switch. Just to give you a comparison, here is a screen shot of the primary control panel.
For comparison, here is a screen shot of a Mercury capsule mockup exhibited at the Chabot Space center in Oakland, California this month:
Can you spot the missing indicator instrument? My students have to describe the differences between these two pictures as part of an assignment.
The question that remains for me as an educator is what do you do with this software? Do you just turn kids loose on it or do something organized?
If you run the simulator, as is, there's not a lot for students sitting at the Mission Control Center consoles to do. That's not a flaw in the program; it's just the nature of working at Mission Control.
Your job at Mission Control in this simulation, if you were to do the job right, would be to call for holds as necessary before launch; abort if conditions warrant; report on values of such things as fuel supply and blood pressure according to your schedule or if asked.
Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, solves this problem by carefully scripting a launch. When you attend Space Camp (and they have versions for teachers, adults, and whole families) you get a binder with step-by-step instructions and words to read for each person. There's not much decision-making involved, but then you only get a couple of days to prepare for the simulated mission.
A-OK could benefit from a scripted manual for beginners that not only tells what buttons to push but what to say along the way.
Here is what my classes did this year, because I did not have time to write such a scripted manual.
First, I ran the simulator in automatic mode for a sub-orbital flight. As the program displayed on my projector screen, I talked students through the terms on a vocabulary puzzle I provided for them. They learned BECO (Booster Engine Cut Off), the name of the first American in space (Alan Shepherd), and the name of the base of the capsule (the heat shield).
After that, I gave them a packet that asked them to fill in the steps of a launch according to the timeline provided in the program's help files, estimate the model rocket engine code that a Mercury Redstone would be rated, and guess what stations are which in a photograph of Mercury Mission Control based on the Mission Control Center simulator.
While most of the class worked on the packets, I had volunteers attempt to run through the simulation manually. That worked well, although there were a few buttons and switches that we couldn't find or were not labeled as they appeared in the checklist (oddly enough, we could not find the Abort Handle in step one), and twice students pulled out the oxygen snorkel while trying to see if it was in the proper position during a countdown - and then discovered it wouldn't go back in.
Eventually I changed the setup to give a little more realism by connecting an old joystick to the computer for maneuvering thruster control (which worked once I got the settings figured out for my stick - they were conflicting with the mouse when the Finder was running).
I installed two extra video cards in the PCI slots of the Beige G3 and ran three monitors - one for the astronaut, one with the clock (for me), and one with the external view and view through the window (for the class). Performance took a hit, but not so much that we couldn't enjoy the simulation. And this was on a machine below the minimum system requirements. Pretty impressive for a REALbasic application.
I learned enough this year that we may take things a step further next year and hold astronaut applications and plan a mission from start to finish (I'll supply the freeze-dried astronaut ice cream for the in-flight snack).
We could have done a little more with it if I had started earlier. There's a lot of physics and math buried in here - projectile motion, Newton's Laws, orbital mechanics, ellipses, speed-distance-time problems, logistics, nutrition, and more.
Overall, I think this is a great package and plan to use it in the future. Even though it didn't quite capture the attention of that girl in the back who just talks constantly and does makeup when she's not talking, everyone else enjoyed it (especially when we crashed).
is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.
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