This week, I started playing a PC game I’ve had my eye on for a while: Kerbal Space Program. This game involves building rockets and aircraft, which are generally limited by realistic laws of physics, and piloted by little green beings called Kerbals; with the right setup, you can launch your rockets into space, and even visit moons and other planets. To me, it sounded like the perfect game. By the time I was able to play it, I’d already watched a number of YouTube videos on KSP, by experienced players like Scott Manley, and I hoped I’d be able to take something away from those. But it didn’t take long to realise that I’m going to need a lot of practice to be even halfway competent at this game: I’ve made quite a few mistakes already.
The main part of the game is Career Mode, where you have a limited amount of money, and launch missions to fulfill specific contracts and unlock new parts. But after completing some of the Training videos, I thought I’d be better off starting in the Sandbox, where all parts are available and money is not a factor. Deciding to try a sub-orbital launch first, I built a little rocket which I dubbed the Kestrel. With the intrepid Jebediah Kerman seated inside the capsule, the rocket was transferred to the launchpad, and…ignition!
The Kestrel lifted off successfully and began maintaining a straight course upwards. It didn’t seem to be climbing as fast as I’d hoped, but by the time the rocket ran out of fuel, I found that it had built enough momentum to climb to an altitude of about 400 kilometres! (Space begins at 70 kilometres in KSP.) Brilliant…or was it? I had tried to steer the rocket sideways a little during launch, but clearly this had not been sufficient, and the capsule was now going to come down very steep and very fast. And with no fuel left, there was nothing I could do about it.
As Jebediah’s capsule commenced its alarmingly fast plunge back into the atmosphere and I jettisoned the spent booster, I also realised that I had neglected to add a heat shield. With flames beginning to surround the capsule, I hoped that just maybe, it would survive anyway. The G-force meter started climbing to levels I really didn’t want to see – then, at about 15 Gs, there was a bang. The capsule exploded, and Jebediah with it. Damn.
Well, I would just have to learn from my errors. Aside from adding a heat shield, I kept the Kestrel as it was for the next flight, but made sure to follow a shallower flight profile. This time, Valentina Kerman was fortunate enough to get into space, and return home to tell about it. Hooray!
Now to try for a rocket capable of reaching orbit. I put together a two-stage booster, with two solid rocket boosters at the bottom; I named it The Beast, which was what my high school chemistry teacher called his favourite Bunsen burner. Valentina was in the pilot’s seat again for launch, but the Beast’s ascent was nowhere near as smooth as the Kestrel’s. It rolled and veered north, and after the SRBs were jettisoned, the first stage fought my attempts to correct the flight path. Once the second stage was firing, I was able to get the craft back on an eastern trajectory, but probably wasted a lot of fuel in the process. Once the fuel ran out, the capsule was certainly not going to reach orbit, but Valentina did come back down without any problems.
I modified the Beast with four SRBs instead of two, and winglets for extra stability, and tried again. The winglets – and possibly the additional symmetry of the boosters – certainly prevented the lack of control I had experienced for the first launch, and as the second stage crossed the boundary into space, it looked like I might be able to make orbit. Adding a manouver to my flight path, I began firing the engine, but which would run out first: the fuel, or the prescribed time for the burn? With a sliver of fuel remaining, I shut the engine down, with a few seconds to go on the burn. I was technically in orbit – but to my disappointment, the periapsis (lowest point) was at 50 kilometres, and once the spacecraft got to that point, it was slowed by the atmosphere and could not maintain its path. Despite a little tumbling on re-entry, Bill Kerman also got back alive, having come closer to a proper orbit but still not quite there.
In the meantime, I also headed to the Hangar to try building a plane. Throwing a little one together called the Falcon 1, I transferred it to the runway and started the engine. It gave a brief sputter and then died; I hadn’t given it a jet intake. When one had been added, the plane successfully accelerated forward. I prepared to pitch up and hopefully take flight – but then the plane started veering inexplicably to the left and off the runway. I hit the brakes and started some comical attempts to get the plane back onto the runway, going back and forth like a learner driver trying a three-point turn. Then, while accelerating in a reasonably straight line, the plane went over a bump and became airborne; I retracted the landing gear and hoped for the best – but it came straight back down again, and the pilot, Valentina, perished in a fiery explosion just like Jebediah.
Since then, I have managed to get into orbit on the Sandbox – by building an absolutely massive rocket. I think I need to figure out how to get a smaller design to work before I have a real hope at Career Mode. Hopefully not too many Kerbals will have to be sacrificed along the way.