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UAHuntsville students to design, build Apollo Command Module simulator

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(From release) For those of a certain age, the word “Apollo” is reminiscent of America’s great race to the moon in the 1960s, and more specifically, the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. For others, it more commonly refers to the 1995 Ron Howard movie, Apollo 13, which dramatized the nearly disastrous 1970 Apollo mission manned by astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. And that’s OK. Both interpretations are equally useful when it comes to understanding the goal of The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s Apollo Project: to design and fabricate their own Apollo Command Module flight simulator.
“We want to provide the same environment the astronauts trained in during the 1960s,” says founder and project lead Zachary Groff, who is currently pursuing a master’s in software engineering at UAHuntsville. “The main focus is authenticity,” adds assistant project lead and senior Alexander Antonison. “We really want the simulator to have the same look and feel as the real one used in the 1960s.” Even though it won’t be flight-ready, as the original module was, “you will still be able to sit in it and simulate every Apollo mission,” says junior Anneliese DeVyldere and publicity team leader.
Given how ambitious the project’s mission is, it’s surprising to learn that it began with a very humble conversation between Groff and two friends over lunch at the UAHuntsville cafeteria one March day in 1999. “One guy wanted to build a robot, one guy wanted to build a cold fusion generator, and I wanted to build a simulator,” says Groff. They decided that the simulator would have the greatest success at realization, given that it had the most historical documentation. Ultimately, the other two moved on while Zach began the arduous process of recruiting team members and securing funding, all before the project’s official start date of January 2010.
“We only had five people when we started,” says Groff. Now, nine months into the project, active membership has grown to 50, of which three are graduate students and 47 are undergraduates. There are also 110 prospective members, 42 of which have completed post-orientation training. Members are divided between seven teams: Project Management, Communication and Publicity, Computer Science, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Physics and Mathematics, and Special Projects. Each team may be further subdivided. “The Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Team is actually split into two groups: panel construction, which deals with the 12 main display panels, and enclosure construction, which deals with the enclosure that houses the simulator,” says Antonison, who is also the acting Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering team lead.
Because the project requires such a broad skill set, from engineering and software development to math and communications, members are drawn from among four of the university’s five colleges and more than 14 different departments. Most of the work is considered extracurricular, says Groff, so that “if a student can’t do what they want in the classroom, they can do assignments and tasks in their own focus area by working on the project.” Eventually, though, some project tasks may become what Groff refers to as “co-curricular,” that is, so similar to a department’s current curricula that a member may receive classroom credit upon completion. “We are working with all the departments to offer projects and find ways to outsource credits,” says Groff. “We are also working with the honors program to come up with courses that are specific to the project.”
In the meantime, the project’s members are getting invaluable hands-on, real-world experience, such as learning how to work in a team. “Students from different disciplines see how their small part fits into something bigger,” says Groff. “They’re not working with people they’re used to or that they see every day, so it’s inspiring.” Adds Antonison, “the project is a unique opportunity for students to work with others from all walks of life.” This gives members “a broader perspective of how all the disciplines are connected and depend on each other,” says DeVyldere. Groff cites this as one of the “nonfinancial advantages” of being part of the Apollo Project – “seeing your individual work contribute to the progress of a large scale project makes it much more satisfying.”
Not surprisingly, the emphasis placed on teamwork and joint responsibility has engendered a strong work ethic among the project’s members. “Because the project is based on small group design, the students don’t just show up as one of many people and leave,” says Groff. “They feel they have an obligation and that the project needs them, so they treat it more seriously.” Many students “even treat it like a part time job,” says DeVyldere, which lends the project a certain gravitas that differentiates it from other extracurricular groups. “We may be a student organization, but we kind of think of ourselves as a university organization,” says Groff. “We treat it as a responsibility.” But, as he is quick to point out, it’s not all blood, sweat, and tears! “It is also a fun environment where you can see your work and your ideas become reality,” he says.
As for funding, Groff says it’s “an ongoing process.” Fortunately, much of the equipment and resources used by the team is supplied by the university. “The Computer Science Department provides free access to computers and development software,” says Groff, while “the Physics and Mathematics team has basically no expense.” So the only real cost is basic materials, like switches, dials, gauges, and wiring, in addition to “a little bit of project overhead, such as print materials for publicity,” says Groff.
Currently, the team is working off a $1,000 donation from M&S Productions, a national multimedia convention production company, but Groff is hoping to solicit more corporate donors to meet the project’s estimated $40,000 budget. The team is also open to thinking outside the box when it comes to financing. “One of the things we’ve been talking about, as opposed to a company making a general donation, is maybe having them sponsor a panel,” says Antonison. “Or, when they help, we can advertise their company.” In addition, says Groff, “we’re also looking at developing relationships with some print facilities, so that we can cut down on the actual cash expenses we have.”
The hope is that these corporate relationships will eventually yield long-term benefits beyond branding. “I’m doing a lot of work with companies that are looking for employees – that’s their angle,” says Groff. “They want their name to be on campus so the students go to them.” And not just any students, but the project’s team members, who bring to their employers a valuable skill set gained from their unique experience working on the simulator. “When our team members reach their employer, they already know how to work within a team, to communicate with people in other fields, and to work with people they may not like,” says DeVyldere. This is especially important, she says, “given that today’s workforce is shifting toward a small team environment.”
It was precisely this real-world knowledge that Groff felt he was missing when he joined the workforce after earning his bachelor’s degree – and what inspired him to return to school and create the Apollo Project. “Had I known what the corporate environment was like when I was in college, I would have done some of my electives differently,” he says. “And had I taken these other classes, I would have been much better off.” Groff knew he’d been lucky to get a job fairly quickly after graduating. But, he says, he “didn’t really know what the big companies did or what they were like.” That’s why he was determined to emphasize pertinent and practical skills and relationships when he started the Apollo Project. “I wanted the students on the project be able to learn about these companies, see what they do, take a plant tour, have a mentor, hear a guest speaker – I just wanted to make it easier and less scary,” he says.
Thanks to Groff’s willingness to give back, team members joining the labor pool today won’t have such a difficult adjustment. “The simulator itself is important,” says Groff, “but the most important part is what the students learn and get out of it through building it.” This is especially true for Antonison, who hopes to go into project management and systems engineering. “You can only gain so much from being in a classroom or reading a textbook,” says Antonison, “so this is a unique opportunity to get that workplace feel.” The Apollo Project also helps make that transition is as smooth as possible, says DeVyldere, who likens it to “a bridge to get from the stepping stones of university to the workforce, offering a smooth path instead of jumping from one to the other.”
As for the near future, the team is looking forward to reaching its first milestone on January 1, 2011: the construction of the first panel. A year after that, should everything go according to schedule, the simulator will be complete.  “When it’s done, it will be a great publicity item for the university,” says Groff. “We’re even looking at a high school or college tour to encourage interest.” As for what will happen after that, Groff is hopeful it will be a continuation of his efforts to give UAHuntsville students crucial real-world experience. “We’re learning as we go,” he says, “but we’re trying to evolve this into a student simulations program at the university and build on our relationships with businesses.” As DeVyldere sums up succinctly: “we’re not going away in two years.”

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