Kerbal Space Program crash course: 10 steps to the Mun and back

Suborbital spaceflight on kerbin

After four long years in beta, Kerbal Space Program has been officially released as version 1.0. This is an intimidating game full of real science and engineering to learn. Even with endless hours to learn the ropes, it won’t appeal to everyone. However, if you like tinkering and simulation-style games, Kerbal Space Program may come to dominate your free time. So, how do you get started? Check out these ten tips and you’ll be go for launch before you know it.

Play the tutorial and take it slow

You might be tempted to think that getting from one planet to another in a rocket is simply a matter of charting an intercept course and burning fuel. Ah, if only it were that easy. Traversing the emptiness of space is actually all about controlling your orbit.

Playing the tutorial before you start building rockets is a good idea. After all, even the best designs will crash and burn (literally) if you don’t know the basics of piloting. In the tutorial, you’ll learn how to read the nav ball, burn at perigee and apogee, perform a Hohmann transfer, and more.

Your first few rockets ought to be simple and cheap so you can practice without blowing up anything (or anyone) important. Work up to the complicated stuff gradually — reach space, orbit Kerbin, build satellites, and so on. Most people who try Kerbal Space Program never even make it to Kerbin’s closest moon, conveniently called Mun. Keep a cool head and you can be one of them.

Choose the right game mode

In Kerbal Space Program, you manage a space program on the planet Kerbin, which resides in a solar system not unlike our own. There are small rocky planets, moons, and gas giants to explore. There are three ways to play: sandbox, science, and career.

Sandbox has all technologies unlocked and you have unlimited funds to build your rockets and space planes. In science mode you begin only with basic rocketry technology and unlock more parts by exploring, taking readings with instruments, and collecting samples. You still don’t have to worry about money in science mode, though.

Finally, there’s career mode, which is the “real” game. You unlock technology with science points, but those rockets are expensive! You have to earn cash to pay for your launches by completing contracts (randomly generated missions) and implementing administrative policies. This mode is more challenging, but also much more fun.

Failure is part of the fun

Your first rocket will probably blow up. Heck, numbers two and three are probably at risk too. Sometimes figuring out why a design failed is as fun as building and flying a working one. Kerbal Space Program teaches you not to fear failure, and you can always revert a flight to before you blew it up and try things differently.

Even when a mission goes wrong and your brave Kerbalnauts are stranded, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Now you get to design and launch a rescue mission.

Mind your center of gravity and aerodynamics

The building interface in Kerbal Space Program includes a tool that shows you a rocket’s center of gravity. Use this to make sure you aren’t wasting time trying to get a top-heavy design into space. This is one of the primary reasons your early designs will fail. You also need to take into account how that center of gravity will change as your fuel tanks are emptied.

If your center of gravity is off, you’ll have trouble aiming the rocket in the right direction. RCS thrusters and reaction wheels can help you wrestle a somewhat awkward design to its destination, but that’ll only get you so far.

Aerodynamics really matter in the big 1.0 update. Previously, you could get just about anything into orbit if it was balanced well, but now you need to make sure your payload doesn’t have too much drag. Start by making your rockets shaped like a rocket. Simple. Also, make use of the new procedural fairings to cover the payload and make it more efficient for the ascent stage.

When in doubt, add struts

Even if you’ve come up with a well-balanced design for a rocket, you might find it’s a little droopy on the launchpad. Just because two parts are physically connected in Kerbal Space Program doesn’t mean they will stay that way under acceleration. Luckily, there are struts.

These parts are in the structural tab when you’re assembling your craft. They are especially useful for strengthening the connection between stages where your docking ports or decouplers act as a weak point. Simply attach them anywhere you need a little more support. They weigh very little and will automatically disconnect to release stages.

You aren’t dumb, docking is hard

You can only get so much mass into orbit at a time, and that means you might occasionally have to assemble larger craft in orbit or refuel at a space station (which you also have to build). Doing all these things requires docking two craft. It involves very precise control of your orbit, speed, and angle of approach.

Your first attempt at docking will be discouraging, as this is one of the first advanced skills you learn in Kerbal Space Program. Just look up some tutorials on YouTube (here’s a good one) and give it a try. Once you sort out the steps and learn how to read your orbital map, it won’t seem so intimidating.

Pay attention to delta-v

The delta-v of a rocket is its ability to change velocity, and it’s the key to knowing how big to make a rocket. If you want to get really sciency, you can do some math to calculate the delta-v of your designs, which is a function of the mass of your rocket and the amount of thrust it can produce. Kerbal Space Program is designed to be extendable, so there are mods you can add that crunch the numbers for you.

The delta-v figures for reaching various destinations in the solar system are posted all over the internet, so it’s a relatively simple matter to design the right rocket for a task. Just make sure you’re efficient. Use multi-stage designs to dump dead weight so it doesn’t drain your fuel.

Level up your Kerbals

There are three different classes of Kerbalnauts: pilots, engineers, and scientists. Every manned mission needs a pilot, but the other Kerbals serve their purpose too. Scientists increase the value of data you send back to Kerbin, and engineers can repair your craft if something breaks. A fully leveled pilot also has more control over vectors in flight. The catch is that they need to have experience first.

The level system was added fairly recently and adds a little incentive to keep your Kerbals alive. They gain a few experience points for orbiting, landing on planets, planting flags, and so on. Make sure you don’t always fly the same Kerbals or you might find yourself in trouble when a rescue mission comes up. Basically, make sure you’ve got a deep bench.

Mining

One of the big additions to version 1.0 is resource mining, and it can totally change the way you play this game. Ore is available in various quantities all around the solar system, and with the right equipment, you can mine it and produce fuel. This allows you to plan extended missions because you don’t have to fly all your fuel up from Kerbin.

Mining equipment is heavy and oversized, but that’s probably intentional. There are storage containers, drills, and scanners. It takes a lot of planning to set up a viable mining operation, but it wouldn’t be any fun if it were too easy. Before you can find the best ore deposits, you need to send a scanner to survey each body, but once you do, you can set up refueling depots and expand your reach.

As mentioned above, Kerbal Space Program is very mod-friendly. The stock game has filled in the feature gaps over the years, but there are still plenty of cool mods. Some of them change the gameplay, and others add new parts to augment your vessels.

You should probably check out MechJeb, which can be used to display detailed information about your spacecraft and also includes various autopilot features. MechJeb can automate a lot of tasks if you let it, but I think it’s best used to speed up some of the tedious bits of the game. For example, some low-thrust, high-efficiency engines might require you to execute a burn of several minutes to alter your orbit. Why not let MechJeb do that for you?

Kerbal Alarm Clock is also a valuable mod that reminds you when you need to check in on a mission. As you get deeper into Kerbal Space Program, you’re going to launch missions that take years of game time. Rather than speed up time and wait around, you can do other things and come back. Kerbal Alarm Clock makes sure you don’t forget.

If you really just want to play around with Kerbal Space Program and don’t care about “rules,” there’s Hyperedit. This mod allows you to alter anything about your orbit or location of ships, asteroids, and even planets. It can be a lot of fun to play around with, but also handy for compensating for any bugs you might come across.

One final word of warning, mods that add new parts to the game can cause issues when KSP is updated. If they aren’t compatible, you’ll have to wait for the mod developer to update. Otherwise, the game simply won’t load any craft you’ve built that include those parts.

If you follow the above steps, we don’t guarantee that you’ll become the most decorated Kerbalnaut the world has ever known, but we do guarantee that you’ll get to live longer than most of your Kerbalnaut peers.

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