A year ago, I wasn’t in the greatest shape. Many things changed me over the last year, especially the arrival of a new, more genuine love as well as an addiction I’ve developed. It’s an addiction to some little green men who fly around in rocket ships, and they exist in my computer’s hard drive. I’m talking, of course, about Kerbal Space Program! And KSP, well, KSP deserves all the attention it’s gotten in the media. It is the brain-child of a company called Squad, and it is a master-piece. As a game, it is both simple to learn and literally impossible to master – players make their own challenges, after all! As an educational tool, it is incredible in how it captures the nauseatingly complicated nature of orbital physics and transforms it into an accessible adventure. Most of all, however, KSP has a community behind it that wholly completes the game – and, while there are many names in its hallowed halls, today we’re going to talk about just one of them.
What is Kerbal Space Program?
You, the player, are the somewhat-omnipotent ruler of the ‘mighty’ people of the planet Kerbin!
In particular, you control a bunch of these guys. Never fear, though; for all of their crazy grins and scared expressions, to say nothing of their green (arguably photosynthetic) skin, you are the greatest threat they have ever faced. You see, you serve three distinct roles: You are the designer of their rockets, you are the planner of their missions, and – ultimately – you are the controlling force behind their actions. In all three phases of the game, your decisions are the ones that matter.
Let’s start with rocket design. There are some pre-made rockets, but in 99/100 cases you will be designing your own. You will, as a beginner, make mistakes with staging them; you will forget to install solar panels; you will forget a strut that causes the entire thing to tip over and explode. It will make you laugh, mainly because you will be able to hit the “revert flight” button and try again. Well, most of the time.
Then there’s planning a mission: You don’t want to just send your Kerbals up into space with no real agenda, do you? Maybe you want to visit a moon? For starters, there’s…Mun! Yes, many of Kerbal Space Program’s many planets and moons are analogues to Earth and it’s sisters. Duna, for example, is roughly equivalent to our Mars. The Mun is our Moon, but on the other hand Kerbin has a second moon called Minmus. What if you want to build a space-station? How will you design it? Will you try to launch it up in one piece? (Tip: This ain’t gonna work, well). If not, you have to design both launchers, maneuver them into place, and make them work. If you think this is easy, you’re going to be surprised.
This is a rocket I built. It’s designed to perform basic scientific reconnaissance. I took the collection of parts I was given and slapped it together, I launched it and steered it into Kerbin orbit, and I believe this mission made a successful return to the planet. In the bottom-right hand corner you can see my little alien pilot. He looks happy and safe, doesn’t he? Well, I’m good enough to make a satellite network and to launch a rocket ship out to the Mun and back. I cannot land on the moon, yet; I cannot reach Minmus. I cannot even begin to seriously consider a jaunt to another planet. For anyone who believes NASA is playing small-ball by launching rovers to Mars, and for everyone laughing at the failure of China’s latest mission to the Moon, I invite you to create a similar mission in Kerbal Space Program and pull it off. You’ll find dozens of players duplicate the Apollo project’s method as one of their first milestones: You don’t want to know how many launches end up failing and being written off a “simulations.”
The Kerbals themselves are fun. While random name generators give you an endless supply of astronauts, the game’s development initially gave players three to command. Bill and Bob are often viewed as navigators or technies, mainly because their names both start with B, but there is no mistaking who Jebediah Kerman is. Jeb is the legendary ace pilot, and whenever a miraculous landing is accomplished (without, of course, a fatal dose of lithobraking), rest assured that it is Jeb’s spirit being channeled.
But, let’s skip ahead a bit. Let’s think “end-game.” What happens when you are good enough to build space stations in orbit around other planets? Well…You add modifications to your game. Some, like the Flight Engineer in the picture I posted, just give you more data and help you make better decisions. They’re not “easy-mode,” they’re just better displays. There are “easy-mode” mods, but there are also additions like Ferram Aerospace Research and the Interstellar Mod that add more realistic physics engines, or stitch on entirely new story arcs to the development of Kerbal-Kind. From new parts to play with down to entire re-arrangements of the Kerbol star system (and the addition of other stars), KSP is almost infinitely expandable. What’s more, sometimes the best mod-makers are hired by Squad as game developers, giving enthusiastic Kerbal fans a chance to really change their game’s development.
Ahhh, but where would I be if I discussed “enthusiasm,” but didn’t mention the Youtube, Let’s Play, and Twitch communities – and, in particular, one man stands out in my mind as the best – as the Jebediah Kerman of Kerbal Space Program Players.
Scott Manley Takes It To The House.
…The house he built.
I originally found out about the game by watching a Scottish man, aptly named Scott Manley, play Kerbal Space Program on his Youtube Channel. Bear in mind, I don’t usually sit back and watch other people play video games, but I was intrigued by two things having to do with KSP. The first was that it was so damn realistic looking (green men aside), and second that Manley wasn’t just some talking head – he’s an actual scientist. He studied astronomy, and he works in the field of computer programming. He doesn’t just play a game, but he explains actual physics as he puts them into play. He also plays on “hard mode,” using many of the mods I mentioned above and more to create a game which is incredibly difficult. And, well, he sticks with the results – I watched him play live, for an hour and a half, as a single bug in the game destroyed a mission he’d spent hours developing. But, you can chase the link to that video. I’d rather embed something different!
Instead, here’s Scott Manley playing Kerbal Space Program with NASA veteran Ed Lu, a man who has been into outer space, himself, and who now heads the B612 Foundation, which is dedicated to no less a goal than protecting Planet Earth from, you guessed it,
little green men! asteroids! Why this one? Because it’s an important goal, investigating and preventing potential asteroid strikes. In case you’ve forgotten, I’ve conveniently linked you to Humanity’s latest “holy shit this is a problem” wake-up call, Chelyabinsk.
The bottom line with Kerbal Space Program is this: It is amazingly fun if you don’t take it too seriously, and if you are willing to accept failure. To watch it played by a steady player, an expert, is incredible. Overall, it’s a great time. Give it a try, or at the very least watch a few videos by Scott and some others and you’ll get a much greater idea of just what our place in the universe is!