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Microsoft Flight Simulator’s next update could make room for the Space Shuttle

The Halo Pelican was cool and all, but the OG NASA space plane would be amazing

Space Shuttle Discovery Arrives In DC Area, To Be Permanently Housed At Smithsonian
In this handout provided by NASA, Space Shuttle Discovery, mounted atop a NASA 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) is seen a few hours before being demated at Washington Dulles International Airport, April 18, 2012, in Sterling, Virginia.
Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls via Getty Images
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

In a recent behind-the-scenes video, head of Microsoft Flight Simulator Jorg Neumann took a field trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The stated goal was to promote the game’s 40th anniversary update, which will add iconic aircraft like the Spirit of St. Louis and the Wright Flyer to the game come November. Speaking with Polygon just a few days before, Neumann also revealed that he and his team are contemplating an even bigger addition — Space Shuttle Discovery.

“I flew to Washington and had that exact conversation with people who actually have a Space Shuttle,” Neumann told Polygon in an interview. “I have to sign a deal and that’s going to take a while. But, fundamentally speaking, can we? Should we? I think we should.”

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

Fixed-wing aircraft — the majority of which can be piloted in Microsoft Flight Simulator currently — generate lift by flying into the wind, using the powerful thrust generated by an engine to create forward velocity that pulls an airplane off the ground and into the air. Rotary-wing aircraft including helicopters work very differently. While the vehicle itself remains still, the helicopter’s engine spins its wings — called rotors — around the airframe to generate lift. The rotors can be adjusted so that the axis of lift can be tilted forward and back, or side to side, to impart velocity onto the vehicle. That style of flight requires a completely different and far more complex physics simulation, hence the November update.

Gliders require even more subtlety to simulate virtually. That’s because these aircraft don’t actually have an engine at all. Instead, pilots must rely on the air around them to contribute both velocity and lift to their airframes. Neumann understands gliders at a deep level. In fact, he began flying them in his preteens.

“That’s actually how I grew up,” Neumann said. “They teach you to look for certain sorts of strings of clouds that rotate a certain way. It’s hard to tell, but when you fly over there that’s where the air spirals up, and you can fly your glider into that and basically spiral out. That is how you gain altitude because the thing has no motor. [...] You have to read the air, which is a bit different from what we’ve done so far.”

Things get a bit more complicated when you’re trying to land a glider. Since there’s no engine to boost you up and out of a bad landing, you basically get just one shot to hit the runway. Make a miscalculation and you’ll need to drop weight — in the form of ballast, usually water — in order to get enough lift to try and land somewhere else.

“I remember coming in on a field,” Neumann said. “I missed the airport, like I oftentimes did. All you see is trees and fields and you’re like, OK. And sometimes I had to drop some 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.

While NASA’s reusable launch vehicle rode into orbit atop massive liquid-fueled rockets, it returned to Earth without any power at all, punching through the upper atmosphere at 16,000 miles per hour before slowing to a measly 215 miles per hour at touchdown. And — unlike baby Jorg Neumann sailing over the Rhine River — Shuttle pilots didn’t have any ballast to drop or a nearby field big enough for a crash landing.

No firm plans are in place at this time to bring the Space Shuttle Discovery to Microsoft Flight Simulator. But, after November’s update, the platform will have everything it needs — including, hopefully, an agreement with the Air and Space Museum — to make it happen.

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