09 December 2011

"Launching little green idiots into space."

That was my reply when somebody asked me what I was doing the other day. And lo, I was telling the truth, because I was playing the alpha build of the fantastic game-in-progress Kerbal Space Program. Read on for all the details and pictures of things blowing up.

Space: as beautiful as it is pants-shittingly horrifying (notice 2/3 of the crew in the lower right). (Image Source)

I went through a big space phase as a kid, and while my interests eventually gravitated (lol) toward biology, learning about the vastness of the universe and humanity's infinitely small place in it was a large influence in forming my personal philosophies. And now, in a bit of a reversal, my outlooks on life have played a part in fueling a renaissance of sorts in my interest in space and space exploration; a major factor is my increased cynicism causing me to doubt we'll be able to save this planet from ourselves and need to look for new places to ruin inhabit.

But I should shut up about all that pessimistic crap, because Kerbal Space Program isn't a bummer-fest about contemplating extinction or struggling hopelessly with a society that's lost its ability to dream and cuts your funding time and time again. NO, it's a game about exploding little green men—exploding them for SCIENCE.

Pictured above: SCIENCE (Image Source)
Being that it's currently in the alpha stage, the game is pretty simple, but in a good way, if you ask me. Basically you've got a bunch of rocket parts, and it's your job to slap them together in the least explosiony way possible so that your little dudes can make it into space. It's got some tutorials, but they're not very helpful, and I'm okay with that.

The fact that you start off so clueless is part of its charm. The folks in the US and USSR who were developing the fledgling space programs of the 1950s and 60s were doing something unlike anything that had ever been done before, and while they were smart people and weren't entirely just bumping around in the dark, it was scarily close to that. Now imagine if that epic drama of bold experimentation, inspiring victories, and catastrophic failures were instead a comedy, with all the engineers and astronauts played by bumbling morons. That's Kerbal Space Program, because you're the one calling the shots and you probably have no idea what you're doing.

Maybe you can still salvage this... (Image Source)
Eventually developers Squad plan to turn KSP into a real game, with a tech tree that needs to be unlocked, missions to perform, and astronauts to train. But right now it's a pure science toy, and a lovely one. I pored over all sorts of space books when I was younger, but I never really understood what a retroburn was until I had to do one in the game, lest I leave my little green men stranded in the void forever (or at least until orbital decay caught up with them). Right now playing the game consists of trial-and-error efforts framing ventures to the internet to find out how to achieve your goals. And since this is all permeated with explosions, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a game kids would also like despite the technical elements, and one they could learn from.

(Image Source)
The game is free right now, so there's really no reason for you not to give it a try. I suppose your enjoyment may depend on how much you're able to get satisfaction from setting and meeting your own goals. But if you're like me, you'll find yourself with a list of ambitions very similar to early space programs in the real world: first just to make something that'll leave the ground, then something that can reach space, then achieving orbit, and so on. The latest update also added a moon around the planet, and while there aren't proper landers in the game yet, you can certainly finagle something close if you're clever enough. I've personally gotten pretty decent at orbiting Kerbin (the planet in the game) and my next goal is to orbit Mun.

Along with the science-y goodness, the game also has a great sense of humor. Be it the part descriptions or the fact that two of the astronauts are almost always scared out of their minds while the third is nearly unflappable, the game just has a wonderfully dry goofiness to it. (By the way, if that third astronaut, Jeb, does in fact get scared, you know you've really fucked up and he and his friends are probably about to get a lot more dead.) This humor has also been taken up by the community, which is fantastic and entertaining to see. A good example is the fan-made loading screen for the game, which also does a fantastic job of summarizing the game as a whole:

Speaking of the community, it's also certainly worth mentioning that the game already has a huge number of mods available. I haven't delved into that aspect yet myself, but from the screens I've seen it looks like there are a lot of cool things out there that people have added on their own.

Go play it now.

Like I've said, part of the fun of the game is figuring things out, but it can definitely be pretty impenetrable at first, so here's some of the things I've learned so far that might help you out. The orange reticule in the middle of the navball is the direction your nose is pointed, while the yellow circle is the current direction of your ship's travel; these will often be very different, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Kerbin's atmosphere extends to about 70km above sea level; consider yourself in space once the altimeter ticks past 70,000m. If you're having trouble designing a rocket to start off with, just try to keep it simple: a capsule on top of four fuel tanks and a nozzle, with several boosters strapped to the side through radial decouplers should work nicely. To place multiple of an item evenly around your rocket, use the symmetry tool in the top center-left of the build screen. If you need help orbiting: to orbit is basically to fall continuously without ever hitting the ground. If you look at the map view (hit M) you'll notice a point labeled "AP." This is your apoapsis, or the highest altitude you'd reach given your current mass and velocity. There's also a periapsis (the lowest altitude you'd reach), but to start off it's inside the planet. You'll notice as you get higher and move faster, the apoapsis moves up and the blue path spreads; if you can get high enough and go fast enough (about 2,200m/s) the periapsis will appear on the opposite side of the planet. If you now cut the engines and drift, you'll be in a stable orbit. You can fine tune the orbit by firing your engines either in the direction of your movement or against it. To come back down you need to do the latter (a retroburn) until the periapsis falls back within the planet; at that point you've ruined your orbit, and you can get back to the surface. If you need more assistance, this video was very helpful for me:

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