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History of CapFlight 2000

by Ted Kyle

The idea for CapFlight 2000 started in 1996 when I bought a copy of a space shuttle simulation game at Egghead Software.  The game is titled “Shuttle” and was published by Virgin Games.  I designed my own plastic bag, using techniques I learned in high school for sheet metal drafting, so it looked like the shuttle when inflated. Les Peterson and I decided to see if we could make two of these shuttles and used the commercial “Shuttle” game as part of our program. Les added the idea of using CAP and CB radios for communications. Joyce Shields added the idea of using Tyvek hazardous environment suits for space suits, and using medical training to teach cadets how to report a persons vital signs.  She also brought several experiments they could try while "in space." We had a lot of fun that weekend, but it was not enough. It had no mission control and only involved one person at a time.  I wanted to get more cadets working on the “shuttle’s” systems.  I thought, “What if we had our own software?” We could add mission control and involve more cadets.

The shuttle bubble concept dates back to an Aerospace Education conference held in 1990 in a Portland, Oregon school.  Betty Ann Moiser shows her space bubble class room at the conference.  She said it allowed students to feel the confines of a space vehicle or space station. Kids always like playing in tents.  The bubble was made from clear plastic sheets and was inflated with a box fan.  This concept is part of CapFlight 2000, which uses a bubble shaped like the shuttle and inflated with a box fan. Betty Ann Moiser's very inventive idea is one of the most important contributions to CapFlight 2000.

Some years later, I went to the US Government Book Store in down town Portland and saw the US Air Force Space Manual sitting on the shelf.  It was only $13.00 so I bought it.  This manual held the key to simplified orbital mechanics, propulsion, and reentry.  Since it was written for Air Force officers, it had enough detail that I could get started writing the program.  I started with Visual Basic, which I had never used before.  I wrote my first VB program to plot orbits to scale around the earth. Then I added a satellite, and then I added a way to fire its engines to change the orbit. Well, I was off and running.

From there, I found the NASA press reference guide for the space shuttle on the Kennedy Space Center's web site.  It presents a very detailed descriptions of the shuttles systems and how they work.  I had to refresh my knowledge of physics, chemistry, trigonometry, and vector mathematics before I was done.  I make a Visual Basic program that simulated the operation of the shuttles electrical power systems.  Players could turn system on an off and deal with emergencies.  Then, I add atmospheric pressure control. Then, I added a ground control console for these systems.  I called it EECOM, NASA mission controller for these systems.

These basic system worked OK, but needed a way to communicate with other computers.  My wife works for Marylhurst University and was able to buy some old computers from them for $5.00 each.  I still have these first 10 machines, which were the original computer systems for this “new and improved” shuttle simulator, and I think she regrets her $5.00 purchases ever since, because I have been busy writing software constantly for over 8 years.

After having a basic computer setup, I found the system needed to be built with higher performance software.  So, I switched to C++ and had to learn a new computer language, the internal workings of Microsoft Windows, and how the internet communicates. With these tools, I was able to use local area networks for computer to computer communications.  I developed a simple satellite and expendable booster simulator as a test bed for software and computer to computer communications.  This feature is still part of the system and will get more attention when I figure out how to rendezvous two objects in orbit.  This is not as simple as it looks.

It was now possible to have “real telemetry”. I converted my programs for EECOM and orbital mechanics programs to the new system and added a flight director’s console, which controls the timing of everything.  I also added the Shuttle Main Engines and Auxiliary Power System, with their associated mission control consoles.  Then came the orbital maneuvering systems and its mission control consoles.

The biggest programming challenge was the cockpit of the shuttle.  This required me to dive into the world of three dimensional graphics programming that big-time game developers use.  I got the DirectX tools from Microsoft and refreshed my knowledge of three dimensional vector mathematics. I started with the attitude indicator which took months to develop.  Then I added the view outside the shuttle windshield. This finally gave us something that gives players the sense of being in space.  But landing was a challenge for later.

With all this complete, we were ready for our first real flight with cadets. Armed with my 10 junk computers, a little network wiring, some plastic, duct tape, and some very fine cadets, we made our first launch of CapFlight 2000.  The cadets of the McMinnville Comnposite Squadron, Oregon Wing, picked the name, in part because this first flight happened in early 2000.  Later on, the Cadets named their shuttle "Evergreen" when we built the white over black bubble.  The first flight of this new vehicle lifted off from the Evergreen Avaition Musium in McMinnville, Oregon, the home of the Spruce Goose.

From there, I finally released version 1.1 of CapFlight 2000 and the instruction manual to the public in January 2001 after I got a copyright approved.  This version is now in seven countries, over 30 states, and has over 50 users.  I gave this version of the software to users free of charge, as my gift to aerospace education.  Each copy costs me about $5.00 in supplies and postage.

Boeing used this version of CapFlight 2000 as part of its summer science camp in Cerritos, CA. Dave Pearson, one of Boeing Co.’s camp leader, also contributed to my efforts.  He worked on the shuttle for many years and he has provided sources and leads to invaluable information that I am using for the next version of CapFlight 2000, including aerodynamic and engineering information, and NASA training documents.

Al Pendleton, a teacher at the New Dimension High School in Kissimmee, Florida, used CapFlight 2000 in his classroom.  He was so excited about its educational possibilities he wrote 24 lesson plans and a users manual.  These plans and manual are part of the CapFlight 2000 kit.

CapFlight 2000 Version 2.0, includes real world aerodynamics calculations in the decent portion of the simulation.  This allows players to pull on the joystick and see what happens to the control surfaces. The program calculates lift, drag, gravity forces, but not thrust because the shuttle has no propulsion during decent.  I have also added voice over computer so that players can use headsets and microphones like the ones used by Mission control and in space to communicate.  I know this feature will be very popular.

Many people have contributed to the CapFlight 2000 simulation.  Betty Ann Moiser's idea helped me see how I could bring the space shuttle experience to kids.  I offer a special thanks to Al Pendleton for his work on lesson plans and manuals.  I could not have writen version 2.0 without Dave Pearson's, of the Boeing Co., help.  He gave me a big tip on where to get NASA documents so I could make the shuttle more realistic.  And most of all, I want to thank Les Peterson, Commander of the McMinnville Composite Squadon, CAP, for his years of support and friendship.  He has always been there to help and gives his time to cadets.  I am grateful to all of these people, including my family that doesn't see much of me anymore.

Cap Flight 2000 is about kids.  I spent years creating this simulation software because I want people anywhere to be able to help kids learn about space travel and aerospace by having fun.  The most notable comment I ever got from a cadet after the first CapFlight 2000 weekend was, “I had a lot of fun, but I have a lot more to learn.”



logo Copyright (c) 2006 Theodore S. Kyle
Launch of STS 114, Return to Flight, July 26, 2005
Background Photo by NASA