Glenn's Mercury 7 flight takes off on Web
Students create virtual tour of early space program

August 17, 2006

By MARK HARPER
Education Writer

Daytona Beach News-Journal

You're a scribe at a small-town Ohio rag, and your hometown hero, John Glenn, is about to become nearly as famous as President Kennedy by riding a rocket ship right into outer space, where no American has ever gone. So you don your fedora and lug your typewriter on down to sunny Florida and check into the Starlite Motel . . . Historian Lori Walters wanted to tell this story, but she feared the printed word (invented in 1436) and hundreds of photographs she'd collected -- wouldn't reveal the world that Glenn orbited in 1962.

 
Then, talking to colleagues who specialized in digital simulation at the University of Central Florida, where Walters teaches history, an idea came to her. Why not take people through time by developing a virtual reality of Glenn's historic Mercury 7 flight?

Web users visiting www.capehistory.org can experience "Shadows of Canaveral," the school's first "virtual heritage" project. At the site, they can check into the Starlite, an actual motel at the time in Cocoa Beach, view a clip of the space-age cartoon "Tom Cat" on television and later witness the countdown, launch, landing and parade celebrating Glenn's heroics.

Narrating on the site is Calvin Fowler, the 77-year-old chairman of the board of the U.S. Space Walk of Fame Foundation. In the 1960s, Fowler served as launch conductor on several flights after Glenn's ride.

His voice and recollections added authenticity to the project, Walters said.

Six digital media students at UCF constructed the site using Maya, 3D Studio Max, QuickTime and Flash software. But their lessons weren't limited to building Web sites.

Alice Kramer, one of the students who worked on the project, said she learned a lot about the culture of 1960s America.

"There was an attitude for the space program, it was a large part of society," she said. "(Astronauts) were like superheroes. Now, it's like, 'A shuttle's going up, no big deal.' "

Kramer, who was born in Peru, will soon be starting as a graduate student in the digital media. She's planning to embark on her own virtual heritage project, re-creating Chan Chan, an endangered 15th-century archaeological site in her homeland.

Walters, a Deltona resident, said in a telephone interview her aim is to reach not just the students who worked on the project, but pupils in grades five and above, as well as anyone who shares her interest in the space program.

As a Florida child of the 1960s and '70s, Walters recalls her parents asking her if she wanted to visit Disney World.

"Yeah, sure," she would respond. "But can we stop at Cape Canaveral, too?"

Walters' interest went beyond the Apollo astronauts who were -- at the time -- exploring the moon. She was intrigued by the rockets that sent Glenn and other early astronauts into space, as well as the wing-guided launches of the 1950s.

"Shadows of Canaveral" will add more from those earlier days in coming months.

A $25,000 grant from the Florida Bureau of Historic Preservation made the project possible.

Academia's traditional humanities disciplines, such as history, have been slow to embrace technology's potential for reaching students, said Eileen Smith, an instructor in the Institute for Simulation and Training.

But she and Walters don't view attempts to reach the digital natives of the current generation of 18- to 22-year-olds as a dumbing-down of history.

Walters said when Fowler was viewing the site, he said: "It's just like I was there again."

That kind of experience, she believes, will influence viewers to pick up old-media materials, such as books, to learn even more.

To Smith, the project transcends bringing the world that was to the world that is: "I would also add that it's to inspire the world that can be."

mark.harper @news-jrnl.com