Kerbal Space Program: To the Moon

By guest editor, Christopher B. Durr.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard —John F. Kennedy

This famous quote by Jack is one of my favorites and one that I think we often forget to remember. President Kennedy, of course, was talking about what would become the U.S. space program. A program that involved strapping human beings to giant stacks of fuel and launching them 230,000+ miles away from home, in a time when computers were the size of rooms. Hard – I might have picked a different word.

I’ve always admired the scientists and engineers that worked, and still do work, to put humans into space. Yet, my admiration was always from a distance. I thought their job impossible, but in the way you might think a theoretical physicist’s, or a cardiovascular surgeon’s job is impossible.

However, recently I discovered something that made the intangible tangible: a game called Kerbal Space Program. We don’t ordinarily do video game reviews on AF, but Kerbal Space Program is far from ordinary.

The premise of the game revolves around the Kerbals, a race of little green people who have decided they’d like to embark from their home planet (Kerbin, an Earth-like body) into space. You, the player, are in charge of building their space program. You design the rockets, the lander, the satellites — all of it. And you’re up against all of the physics and mathematics that go with actual space exploration. [1] In the mode I’ve been playing, all your resources are free, but you unlock better parts by collecting “science.” [2] You start off with just enough parts to get you off the ground and from there, save for a few brief tutorials, you are on your own.

I put some thought into my first flight. I made sure to have the right thrust to weight ratio. I checked to make sure my re-entry pod was able to decouple from the fuel. I even added some winglets for added aerodynamic stabilization. [3] Then, in a blaze of glory, I launched my first Kerbin into the upper atmosphere.

My Kerbonaut looked at me triumphantly.

He looked proud.

He looked happy.

He looked for where I had placed the parachute release switch.

He looked a bit pissed when he realized I’d forgotten that small detail.

I couldn’t watch the end result.

This was not the first (nor, unfortunately, the last) Kerbal that I’ve sacrificed for the sake of fictional science. As that poor pioneer was hurtling back towards earth at 9.8 m/s2, I honestly felt bad about it, and it’s been a long time since a game made me feel something like that. The forgotten parachute was my oversight, my mistake, and I had to own that in this game.

This feeling of ownership only grows as your space program evolves. Eventually, I learned how to escape the atmosphere. I learned how to orbit. I thought I learned how to fly around outside my orbiting ship. I know there is a Kerbal in geosynchronous orbit somewhere over Kerbin right now, forever out of the reach of his spaceship. [4]

So far, the crowning jewel of my tiny space program has been successfully flying to Kerbin’s closest moon, the Mün. [5] I flew the third iteration of my fourth generation space craft. I finally hit all of my orbital burns. My periapsis was perfect. [6] I was on my way to the Mün after hours of failures and dozens of lost Kerbonaut lives. After a few precarious rocket burns, I drifted into a stable orbit. Halfway there, with almost no fuel left, I took some observations and contemplated my way back to Kerbin. I knew that if I didn’t correctly calculate the return trip, I’d strand my Kerbal in space forever. I literally held my breath until I was on a course for home. I cringed as I watched the pod re-enter the atmosphere at 400 m/s, and my heart was racing as it gently splashed down in the ocean.

I had done it.

I had reached the Mün in a spacecraft I had designed, launched and flown. And it was not easy. Actually, it was exceedingly hard. Today’s video games can be hard, but they’re hard because you don’t have the same reflexes as someone else or you have to go collect 20,000 of something. This game was hard because it took planning, skill and discovery. Kerbal Space Program will leave you frustrated and fed up, but it will also leave you with something a video game can rarely offer: genuine satisfaction.

Kerbal Space Program is a great game and you should choose to play it; not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

  1. I hope you remember your calculous.
  2. I wish it were that easy in real life.
  3. Because, you know, science.
  4. Don’t worry. He’s in a stable orbit and apparently Kerbals don’t need to eat, drink or breathe. One day when I get better I’ll send a rescue mission. I’ve heard he’s enjoying the view.
  5. Yes, umlaut included. Editor’s note: Yes, I had to look up what an ‘umlaut’ was.
  6. Learning what a periapsis is was fun. Learning how to spell it was less so.

Friday, 17 July 2015

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