In case it may have slipped your mind, or your children haven’t reminded you, Christmas is a month away. But, given the lousy economy, many families aren’t in a position to shell out a lot of money during the upcoming Xmas season. In recognition of this fact, I would like to make a few suggestions in this and in future postings. Since it is very unlikely that the national economy will make a spectacular recovery in the next few weeks, allow me to introduce two of the most realistic (and educational) software packages that are available at no cost to you.
Orbiter 2010 is, to my knowledge, the only spaceflight simulator that is programmed to conform to the laws of physics rather than contrary to such well-established principles. In otherwords, it acts like a real spacecraft. If, for example, you want to dock with the International Space Station you must speed up to raise your own orbit rather than just “point at” the docking port or, if you aren’t careful on re-entry, you either “bounce” back into space or burn up in the atmosphere. Obviously, this program is going to teach you and / or your child a lot about the physical and mechanical aspects of spaceflight
Also, unlike most high-priced spaceflight software, Orbiter 2010 isn’t built around the plot of Star Wars or Star Trek, so you won’t have to worry about exposure to the violence that seems to be central to the commercial success of most entertainment software. There are, however, a number of add-on modules available for the base program that include “fictional” spacecraft and scenarios that could challenge any science fiction buff.
Orbiter 2010 has some of the most realistic visuals of any simulator program and is, by far, the best spaceflight simulator that I’ve been able to locate. Orbiter can also boast of a well-organized, and loyal, developer and user community (as an example, see the Orbiter Wiki ). On top of that (need I remind you), Orbiter 2010 is free , as in “free beer and free speech.”
The only potential drawback to the Orbiter 2010 package is that, like any other “visually intensive” software, it needs a “fast” video card (and a big chunk of RAM) in order to function as advertized. Fortunately, this won’t be a problem for most recent desktop computers. Also, since there are a number of excellent add-on modules available (screenshot ), you will have to resist the temptation to add more software than your computer’s memory can effectively manage. (Note for Windows users: the “basic” Orbiter MSI download is ~135Mb and unzips to around 250 Mb).
If you, and/or your children, prefer to do your simulated flying entirely within the Earth’s atmosphere, then I suggest that you download a copy of FlightGear 2.0.0 because, in my opinion, it is the simply the best conventional flight simulator software that you will be able to locate. Not only does it accurately reproduce the experience of flying a light civilian aircraft under a variety of conditions, it even rivals Orbiter 2010 in the visual effects catagory!
To get an idea of what FlightGear can do, you can start by reading (or downloading) the FlightGear Manual (218 pages PDF or online HTML ) . As you explore the online documentation and related pages, you will also learn that there are computer-generated representations available that simulate practically every major airport in the world, including the scenery under both the approach and departure routes. On top of all that, there are also literally hundreds of different aircraft available to include in your flight simulations. You might not be able to pilot every aircraft available, but it adds a little realism when you find yourself “Number two to land, following the F-16 turning final ahead of you.”
As with Orbiter 2010, above, you will need to control your enthusiasm in adding additional modules lest you soon find yourself with more scenarios than available computer memory (The base package MSI is ~ 300 Mb. With a few add ons, you easily could be pushing 1 Gigabyte).
Both Orbiter and FlightGear are essentially ready to use “out of the box.” I would, however, recommend that you purchase a 3-button joystick if you don’t have one already. Both the above programs make a provision to detect and calibrate any additional hardware, so practically any manufacturer’s (e.g. Logitech) device should work just fine.
In closing, although many families may be reluctant to fork over a lot of money this Xmas season, Orbiter and / or FlightGear offer sophisticated computer software that is freely available online. In upcoming posts, we will take a look at other free software that you can download in order to surprise your children on Christmas morning.