My Own Personal Space Agency
I’m a chronic computer gamer.
Lately, I tend to limit my addictions to one game at a time. For years, this has kept me limited to spending still a little too much time in the multiplayer world of “Dungeons & Dragons Online,” a very enjoyable world of adventurers based in the Eberron and Forgotten Realms campaign worlds. When that game is offline or time prohibits me from playing in a world where you can’t press “pause” (a multiplayer world is a real-time environment), I’ve normally revisited some classic games, installed on my computer, in single-player mode.
But I had heard for years about a game–a simulator, actually–called “Kerbal Space Program.” A few weeks ago, I took the plunge.
I am now hopelessly engrossed in the thing. It’s about spaceflight. I blunder through it. It’s great!
KSP (the popular short-name) involves a solar system that’s not very different from our own. A yellow sun. The third world is a blue-green watery world like Earth…except it’s populated by (literally) little green men and women, who are just starting out into space.
KSP’s Earth-like world is Kerbin. It’s smaller than our Earth but with similar features. Your concern is centered on the infant space complex, conveniently located on an eastern shore nearer to the equator for better rocket launches.
The Kerbal Space Center at dusk. You have a Vertical Assembly building, a Mission Control, a tracking station, research-and-development labs, an astronaut complex, administration offices, and a spaceplane/airplane port. Look at the beautiful Mun in the low sky.
But your space agency barely have anything sufficiently advanced to reach their version of the Karman Line, much less orbit. So, in Career Mode, you’re tasked to aid the kerbals (the name of the actual little green people) in testing technology, launching anything they have to improve their cash flow, improve their science, better train their “kerbonauts” and improve their reputation to obtain more missions, technology and improved facilities.
As you reach suborbital and orbital status, you’re greeted by a whole solar system of your own to explore. The worlds are typically analogues of Earth’s solar system worlds with a few creative exceptions.
- Kerbol: A yellow star not unlike Sol.
- Moho: A hot, barren planet (analogue to Mercury)
- Eve: A purple, heavy gravity planet with a thick atmosphere and seas of effectively rocket fuel. It has a small moon, likely a captured asteroid. (Analogue to Venus)
- Kerbin: The kerbal’s Earth-like home planet. It has two moons: The Mun (analogue to Earth’s Moon) and Minmus, a small greenish icy moon, perhaps a captured comet. The Mun is tidally-locked to Kerbin, like our Moon.
- Duna: A red planet with large polar ice caps, no water, no axial tilt and a thin atmosphere, with one large moon named Ike. (Analogue to Mars with a little Pluto-Charon double-planet vibe)
- Dres: A barren, small gray world (Analogue to Ceres, the dwarf planet)
- Jool: The system’s only gas giant, big and green, surrounded by five moons, one of which has blue skies and is dominantly ocean-covered. (Analogue to Jupiter)
- Eeloo: A distant icy small world with a very eccentric orbit. (Analogue to Pluto)
Progression begins with testing simple solid and liquid fueled rockets and related tech, learning to build and fly a jet plane, working your way up to your first sub-orbital and orbital missions.
Then things get complicated as you learn orbital rendezvous, first by close-proximity non-docking rescues of stranded kerbonauts, later with docking. Precision orbital insertion of space probes come next, then your first flyby and landing missions to the Moon-analogue called the Mun, and then to a unique tiny greenish icy moon, Minmus.
One of my landers on descent above Mimmus, Kerbin’s second moon.
Spaceplanes may be next on your menu, although I’ve skipped this progression for now in the Science tree of my first game save. Missions related to technologies only appear if you progress. Space stations and advanced rescues from stranded kerbals on a munar surface or at high orbital inclinations relative to Kerbin are offered before you’re invited to make flybys and landings on other planets, starting with Duna, naturally, as a Mars analogue. Documenting and even capturing asteroids are possible.
KSP is very free-form. There’s no forced path at all. Want to take a break and just fly something? Go for it. Want a cis-munar station? Okies.
One area that fascinates me are space probes. In KSP, you get manned spacecraft as well as robotic control modules, which are both known as command pods. A piloted spacecraft (you must have a kerbal pilot aboard) fly according to the experience of the pilot). Probe command bodies have varying abilities but have one weakness: Since they are remotely controlled, they must have a communication link. Go out of the antenna range available to the probe (including orbiting behind a celestial body), and you lose control of it.
A Pathfinder/Sojourner-like rover on powered descent to Mimmus. Skycrane deployments are popular in KSP, emulating what was used to land the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. This rover landed successfully but, in the low gravity of this moon, couldn’t roll around.
So you’ll need to launch relays–space probes with antenna which not only extend the range of space probes to work within Kerbin space but can also keep probes commandable as they go interplanetary. This communications network, CommNet, is also essential for piloted spacecraft to transmit back science data with minimum data loss for a more effective science score.
Each celestial body, except for the sun, have biomes, areas of unique science interest. To unlock more technology by earning more science points, you use your science tools to scan each biome you can find on a planet. (The term is a misnomer in that biomes imply life existing in a region, where it’s really implying a unique location on a body.) Special achievements (first flyby, orbit, landing, walk flag-planting and surface samples) have varying weight in science points depending on the planet.
Naturally, some places can’t be reached. You can’t land on the sun or the gas giant Jool unless you like suicide. KSP limits you to its solar system; no interstellar flights (at least without mods). There’s lots to see and do despite that limit.
As for the probes, I’m looking forward to getting rovers on Duna and Ike and in getting a ion engine-powered probe flying by the outer planets for now.
KSP’s visuals are a delight. The worlds smoothly render from far away to close up on a surface. The game freely supports third-party modifications, or mods, to add passive and advanced features and even new parts and challenges. For instance, KSP normally doesn’t bother you with life support issues, but one mod, for instance, can add food, water, air and waste heat as limitations to press your time.
KSP loves to offer you complex orbital mechanics. Inclinations and delta-V all have to be accounted. You can use slingshot maneuvers, aerobraking and aerocapture. Heavy-gravity or heavy-atmosphere worlds have special needs. Eve, the Venus-analogue, is more terrifying than its Solar System counterpart with seas of “Explodium”–what might be easily converted into rocket fuel.
KSP works in game time, so it may take the better part of several game days (a Kerbin day is 6 hours long). So you can use “Time warp”, to speed up the game to move your mission along. The only problems in using time warp are that you can’t fully control any spacecraft while in this mode, and any other missions in your solar system are also accelerated. If you forgot that you left one spacecraft in a suborbital trajectory for atmospheric re-entry while you time warped to get another spacecraft to the Mun, well, one of these crews are going to die!
Depending on your game settings, your kerbals will re-spawn eventually–but it’s bad form to use them as fodder, since, like humans, there are things that only a Kerbal can do and probes cannot.
My first space station on the launch pad at night.
Some players just use time-acceleration to move things along, playing one mission at a time, especially interplanetary ones. I, for one, have enjoyed the vistas. After landing a small rover on the Mun, I decided to travel over 30 km to a crater at 10 meters/second (22 mph), taking over 45 minutes in real-time to drive there. You can’t time-accelerate the game while driving on terrain. Others have complained of the fragility of rovers, often damaging wheels or overturning them.
I, for one, know better. While we players have the benefit of operating rovers in “real-time” as if driving a car, rovers aren’t cars. Better to plan a straight-line trip for a few kilometers, making very minute changes to avoid rocks or grades, stop to assess, then continue. In a much shorter way, this is how NASA has done it since they can only safely plot movement of their two rovers this way. Real rovers move glacially slow for a reason.
I’ve developed a rover with twice the speed of my first, that should work in many more places. It’s un-flippable on Kerbin at speed, but lower-gravity terrain is less forgiving. I’m more worried about control authority as the rover makes its landing attempt on airless worlds. Duna should be easier with drogue chutes, a wide inflatable aerobraking heat shield and thrusters to stabilize.
But that super-rover was just too super–too large and so too expensive to fly, requiring large boosters to get it anywhere. I’ve since redesigned it to be 1/2 the size for easier flights.
I was captivated by the details of the Mun, so much like Earth’s moon. I had to work out traverses over large craters and steep slopes without flipping, colliding or falling off precipices. Eventually the sun would rise and set slowly on this tidally-locked moon and I’d have to stop travel due to the loss of battery power while my solar panels passed into shadow, forcing me to move to another mission until sunrise.
My Sojourner-like rover on the surface of the Mun.
As you unlock the technology in Career Mode (or choose to have everything available to you in Sandbox mode) KSP offers advanced science such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators for weak-sun missions such as to Eeloo (Pluto-ish world) and Jool, the gas giant. Fuel cells are available, too. Rather than gases, they generate electricity from your liquid fuel and oxidizer stores.
KSP doesn’t require you to emulate NASA’s progression. For kicks and giggles, the first space station I built looked a lot like America’s first station.
But unlike NASA’s version, not only did my station reach planetary orbit without calamity, after docking a Command/Service Module with it, I sent it to the Mun!
KSP relaxes some of the design constraints of actual spacecraft. You can send a single-pilot munar lander and skip an Apollo-style CSM/LM version. I’ve done some of these just because it’s cool, but KSP allows fuel transfer between docked vehicles, allowing you to refuel and send landers for additional excursions. Likewise, separating lander and ascent modules aren’t required unless weight becomes a serious concern.
Your kerbals have varying personalities, noted simply by two criteria: Courage and stupidity. Some love perilous events, right to their doom. Others freak out at the slightest vibration. You have pilots (who can fly any spacecraft without need for a commlink from home), scientists (who can reset one-use experiments and generate more science points over time) and engineers (useful for repairing things should they break when far from home, as well as improving the efficiency of mining operations). KSP shamelessly takes on tourists who pay KSP big bucks for joyrides around Kerbin orbit or the moons to boost your funding for other things.
Non-player character kerbals are peppered throughout. A white-vested Gene Kerman offers you missions from Mission Control. Wernher von Kerman is near the Vertical Assembly Building and the Research & Development labs to guide you along. KSP is loaded with all kinds of humor, hidden and obvious.
Mass and stability are a big concern that can bite you in the ass. I had just docked yet another fuel tank on a space station around Mimmus when the station literally shook itself apart. It took me a second try–and subsequent explosion–to realize that the station’s elements were too imbalanced. Thankfully I had made the station modular and could rearrange everything to put things to rest. (The station you see in the preview image is the rearranged station, which looks like Skylab fused with the International Space Station–it actually wasn’t intentionally built that way.)
I had a great time emulating an Apollo-style Mun mission, complete with transposition and docking. The docking indicator to the right is a mod that greatly aids in accurate, safe docking.
I mentioned ion engines are available–highly efficient, although slow. Advanced science gets you a nuclear engine for sufficiently powerful but fuel-efficient manned interplanetary ventures.
As for spaceplanes, you can make Space Shuttle-like vehicles or go for a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle. You’re not limited to low-Kerbin-orbit versions, either. You start off by making small jet aircraft (emphasizing the aeronautical side of KSP) with an airstrip, and can gradually unlike tech for high-speed jets and then go for space in whatever way you’d like.
As for my first spaceplane, I thinking of going Jurassic on KSP and revive Dyna-Soar. Or, for something practical for low-Kerbin orbit crew or cargo ferries, I’ll make a Dream Chaser-like variant.
One thing that pleasantly annoys me about KSP is how you’ll find yourself spending far more time (at least for me) in planning and construction of missions over actually flying. The permutations of how to do something, especially the way you want, preoccupy my subconscious each night, often causing me to wake up earlier than I should if I’m to complete my work days without nodding off. While you’re in build mode, all mission time is suspended, so you’re not penalized in time.
Inside your Vertical Assembly Building, you’re in build mode. Here’s my Skylab-like space station, with a fairing protecting its telescope mount, in a rather non-Saturn V launch arrangement.
Reusability is a feature. You can design your boosters to go all SpaceX and make powered landings. Such vehicles can be then recovered and its cost partially refunded to you.
Like the real universe, you also have to wait for transfer windows to more efficiently get to other planets. You really begin to get a better understanding of orbital mechanics with KSP and how what seemed to be counter-intuitive burns make sense to get your spacecraft where you want them.
But the accomplishment value of these tasks–landing on the Mun, or getting your first probes and stations away–it’s indescribable. KSP makes creativity and thinking fun.
Interplanetary missions require you to carefully monitor your fuel needs. You may need to consider using advanced tools for in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) that search for ore you can mine from a moon, planet or even asteroid that can be converted into fuel at distant locations.
An expansion of KSP, “Making History,” adds parts that look much like American and Russian spacecraft and launch vehicles. You can make an R-7/Soyuz launch vehicle as well as Saturn rockets, and even go down the Nova route. Vostok and Voshkod modules are available, although you’ll have to hack about a Soyuz spacecraft variant from your own creativity. There is a Munar Excursion Module, or MEM–the ascent stage analogue of a Lunar Module. You have to build your own descent stage. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle Orbiter elements can also be fully recreated, and you can choose to make your spaceplane glide back to Kerbin or add some jet engines to it.
A mission planner also allows you to generate your own missions with failure modes where your kerbals’ skills will be essential to completing a task.
My Munar Module separates and lands on the Mun. Like the real LM, fuel is at a premium for a Mun landing. You’ll have a better time on Mimmus landings. You can choose to fly up the ascent stage, but most of the time, keeping the descent engine as your sole engine works better.
KSP has a great player community with the mods available. You can add more environmental effects, such as clouds, to make the planets more realistic. The downside is that mods can cause bugs, particularly after a game update. I’ve stuck to three essential mods: Kerbin Alarm Clock, which allows me to coordinate many missions at once by having it remind me to manage another spacecraft as well as calculating launch windows for landing; a docking tool that makes that task much more easier than in-game resources; and Kerbal Engineer Redux, which gives you stats, accurate burn times and delta-V calculations to ensure you don’t make an under- or over-powered launch vehicle or spacecraft.
My knowledge of actual space travel has made my progress a bit faster in Career Mode than I liked in my first campaign. You can adjust the difficulty settings to force you to be more determined in unlocking parts in the science tree than where I’m at.
Kerbal Space Program is a treat. If you love space exploration, it’s an inexpensive way to enjoy having one of your own–with much less political issues that underfund our actual space programs on Earth.