Microsoft Flight Simulator update could lead to a virtual space shuttle

In a recent behind-the-scenes video, the head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann took a field trip Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The stated purpose was to promote the game 40th Anniversary Update, which will add iconic planes like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Flyer to the game in November. Speaking to Polygon a few days prior, Neumann also revealed that he and his team were considering an even bigger addition — the space shuttle Discovery.

“I flew to Washington and had this exact conversation with people who actually have a space shuttle,” Neumann told Polygon in an interview. “I have to sign an agreement and it will take some time. But, fundamentally speaking, can we? Should we? I think we should.”

Microsoft Flight SimulatorThe 40th Anniversary Edition will be a free update for the base game. It will feature a number of new aircraft, including those mentioned above, as well as a huge upgrade to its already robust physics system. This is called the “Fluid Dynamics Simulation” module, and it is extremely important for the implementation of two new types of aircraft: helicopters and gliders.

Fixed-wing aircraft — the majority of which can be flown by Microsoft Flight Simulator currently – generating lift by flying into the wind, using the powerful thrust generated by an engine to create forward speed that pulls an aircraft off the ground and into the air. Rotary wing aircraft, including helicopters, operate very differently. While the vehicle itself remains stationary, the helicopter’s engine spins its wings – called rotors – around the airframe to generate lift. The rotors can be adjusted so that the lift axis can be tilted forwards and backwards, or side to side, to give the vehicle speed. This style of flight requires a completely different and much more complex physics simulation, hence the November update.

Gliders require even more subtlety to simulate virtually. This is because these planes have no engine at all. Instead, pilots must rely on the air around them to contribute both to speed and elevator to their cells. Neumann understands gliders on a deep level. In fact, he started riding them in his tweens.

“That’s actually how I grew up,” Neumann said. “They teach you to look for certain kinds of cloud chains that spin a certain way. It’s hard to say, but when you fly there, that’s where the air spirals up, and you can fly your glider there and spiral it in. That’s how you gain altitude because the thing has no motor. […] You have to read the air, which is a little different from what we’ve done so far.

Things get a bit trickier when trying to land a glider. Since there’s no motor to propel you out of a bad landing, you essentially only get one hit to hit the runway. Miscalculate and you’ll have to lose weight – in the form of ballast, usually water – in order to gain enough lift to try and land somewhere else.

“I remember coming to a pitch,” Neumann said. “I missed the airport, as often. All you see are trees and fields and you think to yourself, OKAY. And sometimes I had to drop water to get over the trees just to land.

Once Microsoft Flight Simulator can accommodate gliders, it can accommodate the most sophisticated glider ever made, the space shuttle.

As NASA’s reusable launch vehicle soared into orbit atop huge liquid-fueled rockets, it returned to Earth without any power, streaking through the upper atmosphere at 16,000 miles per hour before slowing to a paltry 215 miles per hour on touchdown. And – unlike baby Jorg Neumann cruising the Rhine – the shuttle pilots had no ballast to drop or nearby terrain large enough for a crash landing.

There are no firm plans in place at this time to bring Space Shuttle Discovery to Microsoft Flight Simulator. But, after the November update, the platform will have everything it needs – hopefully including a deal with the Air and Space Museum – to make it happen.

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