lunes, marzo 02, 2009

The Eagle has landed once more

An interview with Ronald Monsen, author of Eagle Lander 3D.

Ron was a kid by the time the last man walked on the moon.

Like many other kids, captivated by the blurry TV images and garbling voices coming from the space, he probably dreamed to become an astronaut himself.

Life had different plans for him, though. Like many other kids, Ron grew up, married, had a son and forgot about becoming an astronaut.

Luckily, he did not forget about flying, and became an airplane nut.

Many, many years later, working as an expatriated petrophysicist for the Saudi Oil Company in Dhahran, and since general aviation is simply banned there, he had to forget about his full scale pilot skills and focus instead on remote controlled models, something he had been in for over 35 years!

But flying RC models or homebuilt designs, running along roads or diving was not enough, for Ron still had the astronaut child inside.

So he started a project of his own to build a virtual Apollo lunar module, making it as realistic as possible, and to offer it to the world.

He called it Eagle Lander.

It quickly became an acclaimed piece of software for personal computer flight aficionados, competing on his own lane next to other gigantic efforts like Orbitersim.

But unlike them, Eagle Lander was a Solo project.

As risky as it can sound, Ron had to carry on with the entire project on his own, and after version 212 was released by January, 2006, development seemed having come to a halt.

So a few weeks ago, we decided at Aerial Phenomena to take a step ahead and knock on Ron’s door.

Honestly, having been a bit concerned on Ron's mysterious disapperance, we were delighted to see him well and plenty of energy and new ideas for an upcoming new version of his celebrated Eagle Lander 3D.

So now please come join us and meet Ron Monsen, the man behind one of the most exciting lunar landing simulations ever!

Hello, Ron. It's good to have you with us today.

How did you start thinking on writing Eagle Lander 3D? What was the purpose of it? Does it compare to other simulators?

I started back in 1992 with very modest goals: I wanted to duplicate one of my favorite arcade games from the early 80’s.

The first version of EL3D was a simple 2D arcade style game and only simulated a short flight. It was fun to include the audio – and the spliced audio at the correct altitudes found its way into the 3D version.

EL3D is created to simulate the flight dynamics of the LM to the greatest extent possible.

What is interesting about the LM is that it is a flying machine that will never fly again.

A WWII P-51 Mustang can be restored and flown. The LM will never be able to be “restored” and flown – at least not for a few hundred years!
EL3D is a small piece of the flight to the moon. There are some other space simulators such as Orbiter that are fantastic at general spaceflight and orbital mechanics.

EL3D really is targeted at the people who really want to fly the LM in the most realistic possible way, and fly it at the most exciting point of its flight – those last few minutes before touchdown.

...I still get goosebumps when I hear the words, “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed"...

What is the main problem or barrier you have found in your way? Where did you source your means to carry it on?
I think the main barrier is just finding all the time to do the work. To get every detail right takes a lot of time.

Luckily once I got going a lot of individuals began feeding me tons of Apollo documentation and technical assistance. Guys like Frank Obrien – sending me gigabytes of Apollo docs, or guys like Paul Fjeld who provided valuable insight.

What is the main lessons you have learnt along the way?
Take the time you think it will take – and multiply it by three.

Other then that I was astonished and very proud to find a great following of dedicated people to the sim.

A very special contributor, Capt. Gene Cernan, Commander Apollo 17 and last man on the moon, teamed up with Ron in 2004 and took the EL3D controls to become a test pilot once more. Photo courtesy Ron Monsen.

Has the growth of Eagle Lander 3D surprised you? It does seem coming to a stop now… why?
Yes it did – but after all the support from the users group and others I guess I should have been too surprised.
I know – it has been awhile since a release.

I am working on several new versions with a fantastic new moon, walking astronauts, updated graphics and a whole host of other features.

It is just running a little behind. Nevertheless I am committed to and interim release soon…

What do you think on open source movements and volunteers groups? Can they compete with commercial products?
In a way they can.

The problem with open source projects is that their greatest appeal are to people that are interested in the subject matter but are also computer geeks (like me).

So, often installation and operation is not accessible to the occasional “flyer” who wishes to shoot a few approaches.

What would it be your main advice for other people seeking to start their own project?Go for it! It is a great learning experience for both 3D programming and the space program.

Did direct payment prove enough to support a project like this? Did you consider other financial sources? Luckily I have another job! Yes I was able to pay the cost of development myself, which was really the hardware and my time.

Ron, we thank you sincerely for your words. What are the plans for the future?
I want to add to the realism, extend the missions a bit, and add more capability.

Kicking up dust.
We were so excitead at Ron unveiling for us a sneack preview of the upcoming version! The moon, more realistic than ever! Check here for more.

Lots of people make suggestions about expanding to the full mission from launch to splashdown.

Maybe I’ll add in that direction incrementally, but in the end I don’t want to lose focus on the main focus of EL3D – the piloting of the LM to the surface of the moon.

I still get goosebumps when I hear the words, “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”