• TerraBuilder: Moon

    TerraBuilder:Moon review

    By Derek Lowell (8 February 2008)

    Introduction

    TerraBuilder:Moon has been out on the market for close to 3 months, and yet, there has been no reviews for it. I've been following a few forum discussions and it seems that, from what I've read, people don't know what exactly to make out of this add-on. A few user comments that were out there after the release were all very positive, but not enough for me to form an objective opinion. Although the screen shots on the TerraBuilder web site look pretty, I have, like many users that probably had their interest piqued, been sitting on the fence trying to decide whether I should invest time into this new offering. However, since I am a huge spaceflight buff, I decided to give it a go. I've acquired TerraBuilder:Moon a few weeks after it was released, not really knowing what to expect. There are quite a number of software add-ons that change various aspects of the FS world, from the sky, to the water and ground textures. Other add-ons contain a particular aircraft, instrumentation, or an airport structure, or a landscape scenery. TerraBuilder:Moon, in that respect, is quite unique - it offers all of the above. This add-on, in simplest terms, is an "alternate" environment set up for FS2004 - Century of Flight (FSX version is in the works, according to the authors). It attempts to depict, as accurately as possible, lunar environment and modes of lunar transportation. I have been "flying" with TerraBuilder:Moon add-on for a few months now, and I feel I have a good grasp of all of its aspects and feel qualified to give it an in-depth review. I have also been interested in how the authors made it all work, so I've been taking apart and tinkering with a few components, and I'll explain some of those "tricks" in the paragraphs below. I apologize in advance if this review is on the lengthy side, but the sheer size of the add-on warrants this. I tried to keep the topics separated and independent of each other, so if you are interested only in a specific component, feel free to skip to the sections of your particular interest.

    Installation

    Installation is as automated, streamlined and as devoid of user interaction as it can be. The only time I was prompted for input was when entering the user registration info. This is when the things got a bit dicey: The installer kept telling me that the registration info was invalid. A quick glance at the TerraBuilder's troubleshooting section of their web site fixed the problem: I was actually typing my name in. The registration info MUST be entered as provided by TerraBuilder, because the user name and the key are interdependent. It turns out I was typing my name with the different capitalization than the one I provided during registration. Minor annoyance, but the one to watch out for. Aside from the registration panel, the installation is the standard series of "Next" key presses, with dialogs showing you copyright notices and version info. The installer also "sniffs out" where the Flight Simulator 9 is installed and asks you for the confirmation.

    Set Up

    Once the installation is finished, the familiar "new software installed" balloon pops up at the Windows' Start button. Checking the new entries, I found a new "TerraBuilderMoon" folder with the standard author's web site link, uninstall link, PDF manual links and the actual TerraBuilder:Moon configurator application. Clicking on the configurator application, a dialog application opens with a nice graphical layout basically consisting of a small graphic of Earth, and a larger graphic of the Moon. The smaller graphic shows what "mode" the Flight Simulator is currently in, and the larger graphic "lights up" when selected, prompting you to click on it to change to Moon mode. This is basically a toggle switch between the two modes, and it is all you have to do to use FS2004 in either an Earth or Moon mode. Your FS2004 setup runs off two completely separate configurations, and the appropriate files and folders are kept separate with the lunar and earth-specific content. Even the "Saved Flights" area is kept separate, so that your lunar adventures won't mix with their terrestrial kin. It is important to note here that it may not be clear to the user that the "Lunar mode" must be activated prior to entering the Flight Simulator. I can see a situation where someone installs the TerraBuilder:Moon, enters the Flight Simulator unaware that a lunar mode activation is necessary and sees no change whatsoever. The registration instructions are quite clear on how to activate the lunar mode following the installation, but perhaps a small reminder, or even an automatic lunar mode activation would have taken care of a few stragglers who don't quite read all of the instructions provided, and avoid any residual ambiguity. As to the complete separation of the two modes, I have found no "intrusion" of any lunar content to the default FS configuration, and the switching scheme worked quite well. One thing to note is, if you are running FS2004 under Vista (for all of you brave souls), it is likely (depending on the "tightness" of your security settings) that you will have to run the configurator with Administrator privileges.

    switching modes between Earth and Moon.

    User Interface

    Upon entering Flight Simulator, first thing you will notice is a splash screen: It is, appropriately, themed with lunar graphic, reminding you that you are in the lunar mode. Then, the things really start to change. I was surprised and delighted to see a completely re-skinned interface with a nice lunar look and feel to it. The dialogs and menus are darker and are all shades of gray, with subtle watermarked imagery of lunar surface. I have to say - the graphics are much better looking and crisper than the default Microsoft FS2004 "skin". It almost feels as if I purchased a completely different product (or at least a derivative of Flight Simulator). There are signs of attention everywhere: The spacecraft menu has a lunar background, the time of day menu has the appropriately rendered shots of lunar surface in the appropriate sun elevation, the weather menu has nothing but "clear skies" in the weather themes pane. The aircraft (or in this case, spacecraft) selection area has the lunar themed background as well.

    TerraBuilder:Moon user interface: a new look and feel.

    Learning Content

    Poking around the main Flight Simulator panel, I was happy to discover that the lunar theme wasn't just superficial. The "Century of Flight" section contains a huge database of information, appropriately named "History of lunar exploration". Laid out in a visually-appealing way similar to the original layout, it contains plenty of textual information and multimedia content, all cross-linked and referencable. The amount of data is mind boggling: if you are inclined to learn more about our nearest celestial neighbor, there is plenty of material here that covers everything from the history of observation through the ages, to the modern day hardware and facilities used to explore the moon, to the extremely detailed descriptions of each and every Apollo mission undertaken. Also included is the pictorial lunar atlas with high resolution photographs of different lunar locations and surface features. This section in itself deserves a review of its own, however, I will not go into it at this time. Suffice it to say, the learning content portion of TerraBuilder:Moon is a solid reference on the topic of lunar exploration, and adds a great value to an already comprehensive expansion package. Other sections have also been completely "lunarized": "Getting started" section contains general information on the package, and offers two cool promo videos on the features and capabilities of the package. "News" section links to the TerraBuilder on-line news page, and "Flying Lessons" section offers brief descriptions of instrumentation and video lessons on the operation of MoonHopper, plus links to the PDF documentation. All in all, a complete and well-rounded user information section - if anything has been left out, I haven't found it yet!

    Incredibly extensive lunar educational content.

    Documentation

    Documentation is nicely presented, and it consists of a PDF manual which, over 17 pages, describes the operation of MoonHopper LEV (Lunar Excursion Vehicle). The documentation covers principles of operation, propulsion system diagrams, schematic diagrams of the spacecraft, flying tips and, most importantly, operational description of every single display, switch, lever and knob on the spacecraft. At the end of the manual are several tables with specifications for the spacecraft. Some of the values seem a bit off, but then again, in the 1/6th of the gravity, things are a bit different than here on Earth. The documentation comes in two versions: screen and print. They both have the same contents, and differ only in the color scheme. The screen version has a dark document background with bright text, and it fits nicely into the overall look and feel of the UI. The print version is a standard document black-on-white color scheme with inverted graphics to save on the ink when printing the hard copy - a nice touch.

    A few pages from the operating manual.

    Lunar Environment

    Let's face it - moon is a desolate place. Even Buzz Aldrin, second man on the moon, described it so eloquently with his famous description of "magnificent desolation". Nothing grows there, nothing flows, no seas, lakes, there is no weather, no winds, clouds, no fog, thermals, thunderstorms, ... well... you get the idea. The only thing that moves, and only perhaps once in a few eons, is an odd rock, pushed, disturbed or kicked by an internal lunar quake, or a cosmic collision event. The size of the rock in question depends on the severity of the aforementioned event. That's it, folks - that's the extent of lunar geological activity. Moon as we see it today was formed during the early stages of solar system formation, and since then, not much has changed. As Msgt. Apone would say: "Whatever happened here, I think we missed it". With all that desolation, one might think that the virtual re-creation of the lunar surface would be just a matter of removing all the above terrestrial attributes. Indeed, the landscape is devoid of details that would otherwise allow scenery designers to showcase their artistic skills. What little was left, the good folks at TerraBuilder have taken and polished as far as the scenery engine would allow them.

    For starters, the ground: At boot levels, the lunar surface is represented in much more detail than its counterpart on FS Earth. A special detail texture is used to portray a dusty, powdery surface that looks very convincing from up close, and blends in with the landscape texture as you move away from the surface. The result is the scenery vista that is rich in detail in both the close up terrain and the landscape that's farther away.

    High-detail texture up close, blends into a landclass texture from farther away.

    The rocks: You will probably think "OK, rocks - who cares?", but I do feel that, given the nature of the lunar landscape (and the scarcity of the features), these landscape elements do deserve a brief glance. Being the only naturally occurring scenery elements available, the rocks seem to have received a special attention.They are depicted using, from what I can see, a custom autogen scheme. They are the only autogen object available (and I would have to think very hard to come up with anything else that could be used as autogen object on the moon). From the number of textures available, there seems to be 12 general varieties in all kinds of sizes and orientations, giving a fairly diverse spread. They get progressively more detailed as you approach them, which hints at the LOD scheme - a nice frame rate saver. In their most detailed form, they are as bumpy and lumpy as Yoda's forehead, and each variation has its own texture with shadows rendered into it. This extra shadowing really does bring about the contrasting features of the rock surface, and the effect is extremely close to what I've seen on the Apollo photographs. The rock density is controlled by the autogen level setting, so depending on your system ability, you may want to adjust the amount of rocks displayed, as they do have an impact on the frame rates.

    Rocks and boulders of various sizes, dotting the lunar landscape. Note the incredible detail and texture.

    Landscape textures: The textures that cover terrain are of a gray dirt variety, with various sizes of craters drawn into it. The great variety of random patterns gives a very convincing coverage of lunar surface. There are a few things that are off with this scheme, though. First of all, the small craters have shadows drawn into the textures, so they can appear to be dimples in the terrain only if the sun is in the east. If you set your time to afternoon, the craters may appear to be little bumps because the landscape shadows will dictate that "everything with a shadow to the right is sticking out of the ground". Second, real lunar surface is actually a composite of different levels of gray. The low areas (so-called lunar seas and oceans) are made of darker, older material, while highlands are a bit brighter. Very recent impact craters are surrounded by relatively bright material called "ejecta". This variation is missing in TerraBuilder's representation of lunar surface. Even more puzzling is that, upon closer inspection, the darker and brighter textures do exist, but are apparently not used at all. Perhaps they are there for future implementation or upgrade of scenery/landclass configurations.

    Landclass texture coverage, from flat terrain, to increasingly hilly and heavily cratered. Flat areas appear uneven and rough, but that is in fact how the texture appears. Note the landclass change on the steep crater edges - a fine powdery surface cover has slid off, exposing the rocky surface.

    Sun effects: Carefully looking and comparing the FS Earth counterpart, it is clearly evident that the sun effects have been adjusted to give a sensation of a much more brighter, intense sunlight. The textures for the sun and solar corona have been enlarged and desaturated (yellow hues have been removed) and this gives an effect of a bright, white sun. The lens flares have been enlarged and given a bluish tint, which actually does contribute to the sense of intensity of the light (probably from the fact that blue or white flame is actually hotter than yellow or red flame) I suppose that would be how one would perceive sun if standing on the lunar surface - its intensity would make it impossible to notice subtle yellowish color of our star. On earth, atmosphere cuts out much of that intensity, especially during the sunrise/sunset, but on the moon, it is always at 100% from the moment sun rises over the crater rims to the time it sets on the other side. Certainly, all the photographs from the Apollo missions I've seen (with actual sun in the frame) always show incredibly bright light with bluish lens flares. Perhaps the folks at TerraBuilder were looking at the same pics when designing the sun effects.

    Sun effects: the lens flare and corona have been enlarged for the effect of high intensity. The sun is at full intensity as soon as it rises. The last screenshot has an over-exposed feel of some of the Apollo imagery.

    Earth effects: Obviously, the Earth in the lunar sky has been created by swapping the lunar phase textures with its Earth complement. Compared to other environment elements, the depiction of the Earth is a bit of a let-down. It is too small and too faint. Certainly, Earth would look several times larger from the moon as moon does from Earth. This, however, might be "as real as it gets" for that particular detail, because I myself tried enlarging the Earth texture sizes and adjusting a few values available in the "suneffect.cfg" file, with no visible change whatsoever.

    Earth effects: Earth near the horizon as it appears at default zoom level and at 2X zoom level. Some spectacular vistas of the Earth and an astronaut.

    Terrain: Terrain coverage in TerraBuilder:Moon is a bit of a source of confusion. According to their web site, the entire earth is converted into the lunar landscape. That is true, but only to a point. The entire globe is indeed covered with lunar textures, but otherwise it is flat, except for the area of approximately 300,000 km. sq. (which in itself is a vast area). The lack of terrain coverage is overwhelmingly due to the limitation of the FS2004 terrain engine. As flexible as it is, it was never intended to model any other celestial bodies aside from Earth. Therefore, it is impossible to "shrink" the earth to the size of the moon. It would be pointless to create real lunar surface topography since there would be a lot of land left over, and the landscape wouldn't "wrap around", due to its size. Another limiting factor is that, as hard as it is to believe this, the moon's topography was never digitally mapped in any great detail. The highest data set NASA offers is a lousy 4km resolution, global lunar coverage. So, TerraBuilder:Moon doesn't depict any real locales on the moon. Instead, the terrain is generic, representing the geological formations commonly found on the moon. However, the topography that IS included is stunning: The 300,000 km.sq. area is rendered at LOD7 (300m between data points) resolution, with medium areas rendered using LOD11 resolution and smaller areas rendered using LOD13 resolution (19 and 4.8 m between data points, respectively). The high resolution terrain is located around lunar bases, where the areas of interest are. Highest resolution terrain is indeed beautifully rendered: the craters of various sizes are strewn about, small hills and humps dot the landscape, and small canyons (called rilles) weave about the landscape like dry river beds (one of those rilles, Hadley, was visited by Apollo 15). These small canyons really do push the limit of the terrain resolution on FS2004. If you have ever flown even the highest resolution scenery in FS2004, you'd probably notice that small or abrupt terrain deviations (such as river canyons or sheer ridges and cliffs) are often completely missed in the scenery, due to the coarseness of the original data set and the way the terrain is "averaged" when processed for FS use. That's not the case in TerraBuilder's lunar terrain - the rilles in particular are very precise and pronounced, just waiting to be traversed and explored. I can't wait until TerraBuilder creates a lunar rover, so I can do some lunar 4X4-ing!!! Steep slopes sport a rocky texture, a feature of FS2004's scenery engine that replaces automatically default landclasses with rocky landclasses - a nice attention to detail. Coupled with the autogen rocks of various sizes and the detail ground textures for immediate vicinity, the landscape is quite convincing in realistically portraying the lunar vista. And the best part is - it covers hundreds of thousands of square kilometers - plenty of room to explore!

      LOD11 Locations for Clavius, Copernicus and Tsiolkovsky bases. Framed areas are LOD13 resolution areas around the bases

    The image above shows total mesh terrain area included in TerraBuilder: Moon. This area is approximately 545 km wide and 545 km long, and represents approximately 300,000 km. sq.
    The grid represents LOD7 blocks, each 78 km wide and long.
    The yellow rectangles represent locations of three lunar bases (from top to bottom, Clavius, Copernicus and Tsiolkovsky). The locations are rendered in LOD11 resolution terrain (shown on the right) and each location in turn contains another mesh of higher resolution (LOD13) in the immediate vicinity of the lunar base.

      LOD 13 Locations for Clavius, Copernicus and Tsiolkovsky bases.

     

    A few examples of TerraBuilder's depiction of lunar surface. Note the high resolution detail of some of the features.

     

    Spacecraft


    Early concept of the One-Man Lunar Flying Vehicle, developed by North American. Other concepts were developed by Bell Aerospace (Sourced from astronautix.com)

    There is only one spacecraft that comes packaged with the TerraBuilder:Moon: the MoonHopper. It is an open-cockpit, side-by-side seated single rocket engine spacecraft, sort of a "Huey" for the Moon. This spacecraft, while original in design, is not purely a product of science fiction. There is a discussion topic in TerraBuilder forum, where the author states that the spacecraft is actually based on the studies done for NASA by North American and Bell Aerospace in the early 70's, during the heyday of the Apollo missions. The study proposed a single-occupant, rocket-propelled "Lunar Flying Vehicle", intended for short excursions of up to 15 miles from the landing site. An extension of the design proposed modifications for 2-occupant, side-by-side seating with extended range, which is what the MoonHopper represents. The MoonHopper indeed reminds me of the Things To Come's LLRV, with its open-cockpit seating and no apparent consideration given to the aerodynamics (which would make sense in the airless environment)

    Visual Model: MoonHopper is extremely detailed, and a true joy to behold. Built around a tubular frame, all of its components are textured with a high degree of fidelity, without any visible seams or tearing. The tubular frame is textured with the wrinkled cloth effect (the kind visible on the remote manipulator arm of the Space Shuttle) and the "saddle packs" seem to be made of similar material, but quite dusty on their undersides. The attention to detail extends to the smallest of features: The landing gear compresses under loading, animated with the articulated landing foot "fingers" rotating and chromed cylinders compressing. During astronaut ingress and egress, the cockpit components fold out of the way for the ease of access. Virtual cockpit instruments are fully functional and all of the switches and buttons are also rendered and animated in 3D. All the lighting on the spacecraft works and is controllable from within the cockpit. There are gold plated fuel tanks in the back of the spacecraft, with the lunar-specific reflection map (which also nicely reflects on the astronaut's gold visors). All in all, as far as the "concept" models go, MoonHopper looks as good as it can.

    While not based on a real spacecraft, MoonHopper seems to be engineered with function and purpose. The exterior model is well designed and highly detailed.

    Flight model: The MoonHopper's flight model is built around FS's helicopter flight model. However, upon comparison of the flight model files, it is obvious that there has been extensive modification of the parameters. The helicopter engine systems have been transplanted into the rocket engine component equivalents: There are turbopumps, just like in the rocket engine (however, they are only represented by the scaled value of the actual engine RPM), and the igniter (which, it seems, is actually a rotor clutch). There is an "auto-thrust" mode (which in reality is a rotor governor) and the oxidizer dump lever (or, in reality, a rotor brake). Purists may cringe at that, but believe me, it really is rather clever how it was all put together, and moreover, how well it does work!

    So, how does it fly? Well, I have had the TerraBuilder:Moon for more than two moths now, and have racked up about 200 hours of flying time. I can honestly say that it is, above all, fun! At low speeds, the flight model is superb. If taking off from a perfectly level surface, MoonHopper will rise and hover as steady as a rock. There are no helicopter residual momentum effects and no surprise unrecoverable wobbles that some VTOL vehicles I've tried before have. If properly leveled, MoonHopper will be suspended in hover for as long as there is fuel. Any slight nudge of the controls, and the thrust vector geometry changes and introduces the lateral velocity components. This makes the spacecraft go backwards (if pitched up) forwards (if pitched down) and so on. The laws of newtonian physics seem to be obeyed quite nicely. To pick up some forward speed, you must pitch down and allow some of the thrust to develop a horizontal (backward) component which will push you forward. All the while, you must observe your vertical speed and add a bit of thrust to maintain balance with the lunar gravity. Once you reached desired speed, you can level the spacecraft and fly only on momentum - just like the "real thing". In the "cruise" mode, the engine is used only to counter lunar gravity. There is no wind resistance, and the spacecraft will maintain the course and speed as long as the balance of forces is maintained.

    The spacecraft's directional control is maintained by something called Control Moment Gyro (according to the user manual). Such a thing actually exists and it is used in satellites and spacecraft for orienting and maintaining attitude. Another way of accomplishing the same thing is using RCS (reaction control system - they are small gas/rocket thrusters positioned around the spacecraft, for example, used on all of the Apollo lunar hardware). MoonHopper uses CMG to orient itself towards the path of flight, rather than having the pilot use the attitude adjustments on separate axes of movement. For example, if you banked the spacecraft without CMG, it would continue to fly straight, and then after a little while, it would start flying straight and sideways, from the forces induced by the sideways thrust. MoonHopper behaves more like a helicopter in that respect, as it yaws automatically into the turn. The CMG control of the spacecraft attitude makes it easier and more natural to fly, and I would go out on a limb and make a prediction that such a system could very well one day be implemented on lunar vehicles.

    To slow down the spacecraft, you must reverse the process and pitch up, giving the thrust a forward component, thus slowing the spacecraft. This is where it becomes obvious that the flight model has inherited some flight components from its helicopter kin: during pitch-up, the spacecraft starts to gain altitude, where, in reality, it should start falling. This effect is a characteristic of helicopter flight, where, when pitched up, the rotor acts as a wing and provides lift. This can be minimized by throttling down the engine, but it still deters somewhat from the experience. Another flight model anomaly is the tendency of the spacecraft to enter an unrecoverable dive, which, again, is the legacy of the helicopter flight model. I have read in one of the posts on TerraBuilder forum that the authors are working on a fine-tuned, more realistic flight model (which will go to the basics and forego the above mentioned CMG control as well). Let's hope they are able to fix the above issues and produce a more believable experience.

    Avionics/Instrumentation: MoonHopper's instrumentation consists of a completely original set of digital gauges, nicely packaged in several instrument clusters. The graphics are high quality, crisp and clear, and well laid out - as should be expected for payware. The main cluster is the MFD (multifunctional display) console. It is basically a large, touch-sensitive screen with several modes of operation: Navigational, Landing, Hover, GPS and Clear modes. The gauges contain basic flight data, but the particularly impressive one is the Land mode. In this mode, you can position yourself over the landing pad with incredible precision. The gauge displays a large graphic of the pad beneath you, and as you move over it, it shows your orientation to it, to the scale. In the hands of a skillful lunar pilot, the landings can be made literally within inches of the centerline and without even looking at the pad itself. Second cluster is the Engine Console. It contains two smaller displays that show the parameters of various engine and environment components. It also contains a large, animated starter knob, light switches and a few other controls. As with the MFD Console, the graphics are crisp and clear, easy to read and control. Third cluster is the Fuel Console. This piece of hardware contains the fuel cut-off switch, oxidizer purge lever, throttle lever and "Auto-Thrust" switch. Again, superb graphics and functionality.

    2D Panels and cockpit instrumentation. Visible in the first image are the main MFD (center), the Fuel Console (far left), Engine Console (top right) with the starter knob and switch. In LND mode, the approaching landing pad can be visible in the instrument graphic. In the next images, HUD is also activated, showing the primary flight data. Last image is the virtual cockpit mode - very close to its 2D counterpart, so that there isn't much apparent change when switching between two views.

    Virtual Cockpit: VC of the MoonHopper is an exact representation of its 2D panel counterpart. In fact, it seems that the cockpit hardware components have been designed in 3D and rendered with correct perspective for 2D panel purposes (which should be the commonplace practice these days). It is well laid out and functional, and a great amount of detail and thought has gone into its design, considering that is is fictional. All of the controls, switches and buttons are modeled in 3D and fully animated and functional. Viewing around the cockpit (especially if you have the Track IR system) is a pure pleasure,as the open-style layout offers great view from the spacecraft. I have shifted and swiveled everywhere, swooped in and out, checked out every nook and cranny - it looks solid and feels great! You can even look down to the ground you are about to land on, as there is no floor, only foot rests. This *really* helps when landing in rough terrain! Seated to the right of you is your astronaut copilot. It is superbly modeled and textured (you can see the stitching on his helmet cover) and it has some wonderful interactive features. In fact, they have been modeled and animated with such care that I've decided to give them a mini-review of their own - read on!

    MoonHopper's Virtual Cockpit - a few perspective shots taken with Track-IR head tracking system. All of the switches are clickable and functioning. The detail on the astronaut co-pilot is astounding - you can see the stitching in the hemet cover!

    The astronaut characters in TerraBuilder:Moon are clearly modeled after Apollo-era astronauts, down to the last details of their EVA suits. They are nicely textured, and come in two face variations: shaven and unshaven. All kidding aside, I've checked the texture folder, and the face textures are right there, available for an intrepid painter to change them to any racial or gender human (or alien, for that matter) variation. The astronauts are static characters, seated in their MoonHopper spacecraft, looking as if they mean business. Their joints are segmented (as opposed to connected and seamless). I thought that was odd, since they were not moving at all while in flight. That was, however, until I pressed the door opening sequence: To my delight, the pilot got up, climbed out of its seat, stepped onto the lunar surface, and took out some kind of a digital camera in his right hand. I thought that was pretty neat! Pressing the door-close sequence reversed the animation and the pilot obediently re-entered the spacecraft. You'd think that the reverse animation would look odd, but it looked just right. This was a very pleasant surprise! I have never seen this before, in any of the freeware or payware aircraft. Taking off with the pilot still on the ground produced predictable result: he took off along with the spacecraft, standing suspended in the mid-space. OK, fine, I won't do that again. Who flies with their aircraft door open anyway?

    A few examples of the detail and astronaut animation. In the first picture, astronaut has exited out of his seat and stepped onto the lunar surface. The bottom row illustrates how the helmet can be configured by clicking on its components.

    A few annoying things I noticed are the texturing of the space suit features: The chest box and the hoses that plug into the astronaut's front valves are not modeled, but simply rendered in the texture. Then again, checking the Apollo photos, it seems they had 3 or 4 hoses hanging off them, so I suppose modeling them in 3D would be a bit too much on the polygon count. While poking around the virtual cockpit and testing what can be pushed and grabbed, I noticed that, when I hovered around copilot, the cursor changed to the "click me" icon when pointed at the helmet. To my surprise, clicking on the helmet visor lowered the gold-plated outer visor. More clicking and prodding yielded 2 more helmet visor elements that were animated and independently adjustable: Side shades and a central shade with a flip-up window. I loved this feature - Looking at the real Apollo pictures from the moon, I always thought they wore different helmets, depending on the lighting situation and the mission. Well, now I know - the helmets were adjustable! While nothing more than an eye candy, little details like that really do add to the overall picture and the depth of the simulation.

    Sound: Sound set for MoonHopper is a derivative of the default jet engine and, for what it is intended, it does the job nicely. The "spool-up" and "wind-down" of the engine happens within a few seconds, and the full throttle sound has a very convincing effect of hot gasses rushing through the nozzle. I would personally like to hear more of a rocket "rumble" than a "whine", but that is a matter of taste. Also, the purists may argue that, due to the vacuum, the sound should not even be present in the outside view of the spacecraft, and that in the cockpit, sounds should be barely audible, more like vibrations from the engine propagating through the structure and the pilot's space suit. I would completely agree on that point - there indeed would be no sounds coming from the spacecraft landing on the moon, if you were standing nearby and watching. But it is obvious that the authors have taken a bit of a creative license and kept the sounds for the "dramatic effect", much in the same way that you can hear TIE-fighters and X-Wings screaming through the vacuum of space, or hear the engine whine of the Eagles taking off from Moonbase Alpha. Although this is certainly not a show-stopper, I would prefer to see some kind of a configuration panel for MoonHopper, with a sound setting for "realistic" and "hollywood".

    Effects: When landing or taking off, or when close to the surface, MoonHopper kicks up a real dust storm, and honestly, I love watching these effect! This is another area where TerraBuilder:Moon shines! Coupled with the sound of the rocket turbopumps spooling up, the effect reminds me of the Space:1999 series, with Eagle transporters taking off from the Moonbase Alpha. There is a surface dust swirl and large clouds of fine dust, which settle as you turn the engine off. The nozzle also spews out a nice 3D rocket exhaust plume, although its size doesn't depend on the throttle setting - a detail which would have been nice to have. Also, the nozzle plume cuts out abruptly at a certain altitude (which did seem unrealistic - I thought my engine cut out). Then again, I read somewhere that the Apollo Lunar Lander nozzle plume was visible, and barely, only close to the surface, when reacting with the dust particles.

    Landing wash and nozzle effects.

    Lunar structures

    TerraBuilder:Moon add-on package comes with three lunar bases. They are at some distance from each other, but in the same general area. Each base is surrounded by the high-resolution mesh terrain (LOD13) and is unique in how it is adapted to the local terrain. All three lunar bases are, of course, fictional, but they do reflect some of the design elements from the real-life lunar base concept studies. You can reach each base via a pre-saved flight under the "Select a flight" menu option. When you choose a base to take off from, a page full of details about the base is displayed, along with the coordinates and technical specifications - a very nice touch! As you press "OK", you will be placed on the landing pad of the base, engines running, ready to take off. The lunar bases are richly detailed, containing many 3D elements such as access paths, cryogenic tanks and vessels, pipes and other hardware. This might task some older systems, but fortunately, the base detail can be toned down using FS's "scenery Complexity" slider. Also, most of the 3D hardware elements have 3 LODs built in, so their complexity shows only from up close. Even with the maximum detail setting, the structures are forgiving to the frame rates, due in part to the fact that the rest of the lunar environment is, well, desolate.

    Base introduction pages

    First lunar base, called "Clavius", is a sprawling complex of structures organized concentrically around a centralized hub. The structure is inspired (to say the least) by the lunar base by the same name, in a SF classic "2001:Odyssey in Space". The structure is located in a large, shallow, "old" crater (meaning, the walls of the crater are eroded). This complex is rather huge, with most of the structures buried under ground, to shield from the harsh solar radiation. (according to the base description text, when selected from the flight menu). The attention to detail is, again, spectacular. The main base structure is rimmed by circular double-laned pathways that provide access to base's surrounding infrastructure. The central hub has a hangar access area and airlocks with service paths crisscrossing everywhere. The paths in itself are incredibly detailed - you can see the vehicle tracks but there is still underlying dust texture showing through. There are no sharp transitions - all of the path edges blend nicely into the undisturbed dust. All of the paths are lit with light poles that also cast a brightly lit area underneath them. Service paths extend and encircle the entire base in 2 lanes, providing access to the various support structures located around the main structure cluster. There are several satellite structures (they look a lot like tank farms or small refineries) located at some distance and connected via lit pathway. Off to the side of the main base structure is a smaller circular structure housing a landing pad at its center. The pad is even more detailed than the central base structure: The texturing shows scouring and blasting from the landings and takeoffs, the rim of the pad is detailed with recessed lighting, and on the pad itself there is a beautiful effect of blinking position lights, pulsating and fading away in a warm red glow! Landing pad structure is also rimmed with a double-lane pathway, connecting the support installations. There are also four "auxiliary" structures that encircle the pad at some distance, and they seem to be navigation aides, possibly the guidance positioning markers. The base at night is properly rendered with night-time textures, and with all the utility and signal lights all around, it really brightens up the scenery and makes it look like a "busy place" in an otherwise dark and unforgiving lunar night.

    Clavius base

    Second lunar base, "Copernicus", is a much smaller structure, located in a relatively flat area full of smaller craters. The structure actually "caps" one of the craters using the inflated bags (ballutes) that form a "roof" over the crater, suspended by the triangular truss structure. The sides of the crater are tunneled in three locations around the crater (every 120 degrees) providing an access to the outside of the base. As with the Clavius base, there are access paths circling the base, with various tanks, pipes and other hardware rimming the crater. There are also satellite structures connected with lit pathways. The concept is rather interesting and definitely plausible from engineering point of view. The ballutes covering the base support a rigid central part that serves as a landing pad. As with the Clavius base, the landing pad has a pulsating marker effect on the pad itself (bright white, rather than red as in the Clavius base) It is textured with incredible attention to detail, and rimmed with 3D tanks, pipes, connectors, conduits and other eye-candy details. Nestled in a bowl-shaped structure, it provides a real challenge in landings - I would definitely recommend "no crash" option for beginners! The night lighting textures are superb throughout, with the pad surround lit with nice accent lighting. The tunnel access gates are lit uniformly regardless of the time of day - a nice, yet very under-appreciated detail. It is well known that FS2004 didn't support emissive texture materials, and this would make cavernous structures (inside of the hangars, for example) lit even though they should be shadowed. Nice to see that the designers have "licked" that problem. If you slew under the landing platform, you will find yourself inside the crater and under the ballutes. There is, however, no detail there, since it is not possible to lower the landing platform and actually bring the spacecraft inside the base. Too bad - perhaps FSX update will include that.

    Copernicus base

    The third base, "Tsiolkovsky", is located on the inner wall of a large, deep crater. This base is my personal favorite - With its spider-like supports and Eiffel-inspired ironworks, it looks like something out of a James Bond movie. Yet, this structure, out of all three of them, has probably the most scientific merit. The concept of a base located on the lunar south pole in one of the permanently shadowed craters has been studied by scientists as one possibility for a future location of a manned lunar outpost. Such locations, which never receive sunlight, are thought to harbor permanently frozen deposits of water ice, brought there by comet impacts and never given enough solar energy to be able to evaporate. Tsiolkovsky base is built around a large central structure comprised of three hexagonal pads, one on top of the other, each with a hole in the middle. Through this hole, a landing pad is elevated to all three levels, making it possible for spacecraft to be serviced on lower levels, and then brought to the top level for a take off. Once again, the pad is not actually animated, since this is not possible in FS2004. The structure is anchored on one side with four large pipes that extend from the top pad all the way down to the lunar surface. On the other, slope side of the crater, the structure is anchored by three "spokes", large truss structures connecting the top pad with the rim of the crater. Another set of spokes is directly underneath the top set, connecting the middle level pad with the crater wall. Each spoke houses a number of habitat units suspended underneath it. There are also habitat unit chains arranged concentrically and linking the spokes, on both levels. These habitat units are trailer-sized modular blocks, linked between levels via three elevator shafts. The shafts, built from the truss construction, have elevator cabs moving inside them - yes, they are actually animated! While they are nothing but an eye candy, it is fun to watch them getting to the top, and having all the doors open and close, and then back to the bottom, to repeat the cycle over and over. The landing pad is on the top level, which is connected to the elevators via three access ramps (which are rather steep - but hey, in 1/6 of the gravity, you can probably climb it using the famed "One Giant Leap"). The pad itself is extremely detailed, with flood lighting, position lighting and the pulsating pad marker (blue and circular this time... I guess they didn't have the landing pad standardization meeting yet). Again, too bad that the pad itself can't be animated in FS2004 - it would be really cool to see your spacecraft being lowered onto the sub-levels. Sub-levels also contain three smaller auxiliary landing pads. They are nicely modeled, with open "pits" of the Jiffy Lube variety, for servicing the underside of the spacecraft. The detail, again, is incredible. Slewing around the pads, the underside is supported by truss framework, and insulated piping runs along its sides. The pads are lit with effect-driven floodlights that throw a shine on the textured surface. In every aspect, this structure has been designed and modeled with a tremendous attention to detail and functionality.

    Tsiolkovsky base

    Final Thoughts

    If you are looking for an off-world visual and simulation experience - TerraBuilder:Moon is hard to beat. It is a true testament to the Flight Simulator's extensibility. It provides a virtual, immersive experience into a completely new world, and with it, some technologies and ideas that just might become a reality in not too distant future. I have had a lot of fun flying and skimming the lunar surface in MoonHopper, and, while not perfect in every aspect, it truly is addictive. I've been using TrackIR hardware and the immersive feeling it gives you really does come close to what I would imagine astronauts would see and experience on the Moon. And the best part is, it is still the familiar FS user interface and procedures - there is no need to re-learn the new sim. Also, if you are design-inclined, there is a whole new world out there to populate with add ons, from terrain and landscape, to lunar bases and vehicles. While it is an FS add-on, TerraBuilder:Moon should in fact be treated as a "base package" for the Moon (much the same way FS2004 is for the Earth), an alternate environment where, thanks to the extensible architecture of FS, new possibilities are open. I would love to see a lunar sim community grow out of this and spur the creation of lunar-specific add-ons much in the same way the FS (earth version) did. I can't wait for the extra vehicles TerraBuilder promised - they will definitely add the value into an already excellent product. On the other side, if you are looking for orbital transfer mechanics modeling or a complete and accurate lunar topographical coverage, hold off on making a purchase until these things are possible in future versions - perhaps FSX, with all the new possibilities it offers, will allow for these features to be implemented.

    What I liked

    Visually, simply stunning. A whole new world to explore and experience. Incredible and meticulous attention to detail. Lunar vistas look close to the NASA's pictures of the real thing, and way better than some pre-rendered computer graphics art I've seen on the web! And all this, rendered in real time at 40 to 60 fps! Then again, a surface as devoid and barren guarantees - guess what... (read below)

    Frame rates: Devoid of weather, atmosphere effects, extensive autogen and polygon scenery, this add-on makes an already fluid FS2004 running like a dream! And even if your system can't cope with the full density setting on the lunar structures, they have been designed with LODs so you can always turn them down.

    Flight model: Aside from a few problems stemming from residual helicopter effects (listed below), the flight model is truly a joy to fly, and a lot better than any other FS VTOL model I tried over the years. Skimming the lunar surface at 200 feet is definitely a thrill, and exploring and landing in all kinds of lunar nooks and crannies are definitely satisfying!

    Animated detail: Compressing landing gear, astronaut's mobility, helmet animations - small "wow, cool!" easter eggs are very gratifying, and a tribute to the author's creativity.

    Ease of use: You can flip-flop between the lunar and earth modes using a single button (and a re-start of the sim).

    Completely re-skinned interface, with lunar-specific content. It did feel as if I was using a new product, not just an add-on.

    Original, lunar-specific instrumentation: Come to think about it, somebody had to think up and design these from scratch, not just re-work the existing instruments. Great job, visually and functionally.

    Documentation and training: Detailed and well-written manual and video lessons left no questions unanswered. The learning content, if you are so inclined, will alone keep you busy for months.

    Support: TerraBuilder folks are readily available to answer any and all questions on their forum or through direct support e-mail channel. They have also been very receptive of suggestions for future improvements.

    What I didn't like:

    Only one spacecraft to fly: Lets hope that folks at TerraBuilder will live up to their announcements and soon procure a set of flyable spacecraft and drivable rovers.

    Shifty flight model: some flight characteristics inherited from the helicopter. There was some talk on their forum of upgrading the flight model and fixing the helicopter residual effects, so I'll reserve the judgment on that one for now.

    No real lunar topography or orbital capability: Since it is not technically possible to achieve this, I am whining about this more as a limitation of FS2004 rather than author's omission. Perhaps in the future, FSX will allow for the true, accurate topographical coverage and some simple orbital mechanics.

    The price: At $60, one might argue that this is a rather expensive add-on. Then again, with payware aircraft alone averaging $30, and considering what else is in the package, that is a judgment call I will leave up to the reader. Keeping in mind that TerraBuilder promised to release additional modules (spacecraft, rovers, bases, terrain) at no extra charge for the existing customers, this deal will become a little sweeter with every add-on release.

    Derek Lowell
    lowellderek@gmail.com

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