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UND: Sim U

he pilot held up a small control pad, awkwardly clicking buttons, trying to direct a large green cross at the center of the screen by pointing a yellow arrow at its center - perhaps a futile attempt to dock the spacecraft.

he pilot held up a small control pad, awkwardly clicking buttons, trying to direct a large green cross at the center of the screen by pointing a yellow arrow at its center - perhaps a futile attempt to dock the spacecraft.

The pilot overshot, first left and then right.

He collided with the body of the International Space Station. Lost lives. Billions of dollars in damages. Catastrophic consequences.

Except, in this case, the spacecraft simply dissolved through the space station's body, like a ghost on TV passing through a wall.

"Well, now we're basically lost in space," said John Polansky, a UND senior in mechanical engineering. He was one of several students who helped Space Studies research associate Pablo de Léon construct this space flight simulator.


Polansky took the control pad from the pilot - this newspaper reporter - who piloted the catastrophe. Then, Polansky began correcting the pilot's errors, slowly working the craft back around to the correct side of the space station.

Polansky lay to the pilot's left. To his right lay Emily Chwialkowski (pronounced Fall-kow-ski), a Space Studies graduate student who also worked on the project. All three lay on their backs, in a row, on black fabric cots, staring up at a computer screen display.

They were surrounded by the small, cone-shaped simulator, about 8 feet in diameter at its base, tucked into a corner of UND's Ryan Hall.

De Léon sat at a computer outside the spacecraft, simulating mission control and speaking to the crew inside the simulator through radio headsets. He could see the pilot and his trainers from a video camera inside the simulator. He also could create emergency situations to train advanced students, such as draining the craft's fuel supplies or cutting off the power.

This pilot, though, was not that advanced.

"OK, guys, you've only got three hours of oxygen left, so you'll have to do an emergency re-entry," de Léon said.

Taking back the control pad, the pilot began positioning the spacecraft's heat shield toward the Earth so the craft wouldn't burn up on re-entry. Growing more adept, but only slightly, he adjusted the heat shield, up and then down, against the pressure of re-entry until parachutes deployed as the craft broke into Earth's atmosphere and plopped safely into a patch of blue water.

"I wonder where you are on the planet," de Léon mused, using his computer screen to shift to a bird's eye view of the spacecraft and rapidly pan out.


"It looks like you're somewhere in the South Pacific," he said, eyeballing the coastlines. "You're somewhere between Australia and the coast of Chile. I hope you have your fishing gear because it will be a few days before anyone comes to get you."

De Léon and his students began building the simulator a little over a year ago, first with materials on hand and then with about $10,000 supplied by the North Dakota Space Grant Consortium, a pool of money supplied by NASA through the state of North Dakota.

So far as anyone in Space Studies knows, de Léon said, this is the only space flight simulator on a university campus in the country. The craft can simulate every aspect of space flight, from takeoff and orbiting the Earth to docking at the space station or landing on the moon.

The simulator's controls also can be adjusted to reflect different spacecrafts, including those from the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury missions, as well as several Russian spacecrafts.

De Léon and students are beginning work on a horizontal simulator they expect to finish next year. That craft will simulate a different set of spacecrafts, including the NASA Space Shuttle and SpaceShipOne, which made the first privately funded space flight in 2004.

The simulator's software also can be updated to re-create any future spacecrafts or flights, de Léon said.

The simulator will be used to train students throughout the aerospace school, including pilots in the school's hallmark aviation program, said Suzette Bieri, a Space Studies program coordinator.

A number of Space Studies graduates have gone on to work at mission control at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Bieri said, though they and most others in mission control have never experienced space flight.


"This will give our students an advantage when they apply for jobs," she said, "because they will have experienced exactly what astronauts experience."

Marks reports on higher education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or jmarks@gfherald.com .

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