When I last blogged about Kerbal Space Program, I was having difficulty just getting my spacecraft into orbit, let alone landing on other worlds. A few weeks later, however, after getting to grips with the mechanics and watching some more tutorial videos on YouTube, reaching orbit is now second nature, and I’ve been able to raise my ambitions.
Even with my struggles in Sandbox Mode, I still decided to try Career Mode – where you are given a limited amount of money to work with, and have to complete specific contracts and earn “science” to unlock more parts – to give myself some clearer direction. In the early stages, I felt it necessary to complete just about every contract available – and some of those included flying aeroplanes to collect data at specific waypoints. Unfortunately, no matter what I tried, my planes refused to rise from the runway. Then I right-clicked on the wings and realised that I wasn’t extending the flaps; that did the trick. Such are the pitfalls of a game with so much detail. After a contract which involved flying a plane halfway across the planet, landing it on a plain, and driving it around to reach ground waypoints, I haven’t completed any aeroplane contracts, being in a position where I can pick and choose.
Naturally, the more you achieve, the more difficult the contracts become. For example, sending one Kerbal tourist on a suborbital space flight in a remote-controlled capsule was simple, but what about four? The only available capsule only carried one, so (not realising I was permitted to send each tourist on a separate flight) I stuck a couple of two-person cabins beneath the capsule. Unfortunately, this caused problems on re-entry: the spacecraft became inclined to point nose down and came in too fast for the parachutes to open safely, with the result that the hapless tourists ended their experience by slamming into the ocean at a few hundred miles per hour. I managed to overcome this with some manual effort to keep the spacecraft nose-up during descent, and the tourists lived to presumably share their photos on Kerbal Facebook. Then there was the first contract to rescue a Kerbal stranded in space: I accepted before realising that the Kerbal in question was orbiting further out than the Mun, the nearer of Kerbin’s two satellites. Getting out there was a challenge, as was the delicate orbital dance of rendezvous necessary to complete the mission. But worst of all was getting the Kerbal to spacewalk from one spacecraft to another; the controls were a nightmare. When performing rendezvouses, I try to park the spacecraft no more than a few dozen metres from each other to minimise frustration.
Eventually, there came the really exciting stuff: contracts to fly by, then land on, the Mun. My first intended Mun landing had to be aborted as I was also trying to complete a contract involving a rendezvous in Munar orbit, and as it turned out, I did not have enough fuel for both. I did at least get to try a high-speed re-entry with a materials bay attached to the bottom of the capsule, which required keeping the spacecraft right in the middle of the retrograde marker to prevent it undergoing intolerable stress and exploding. Soon after, another landing craft was dispatched to the Mun, with nothing else to do but land. Many failed attempts and re-loads ensued as I tried to cancel out both vertical and sideways speed. The first few times, the whole craft plowed into the surface and exploded; eventually, it was going slowly enough that only the bottom half blew up, and the capsule came to rest in one piece but with no way to ever get off the surface again. Finally, I managed a soft touchdown – only the craft came to rest on its side. Once my heroic Kerbalnaut had had a little wander and planted a flag, I proceeded to retract the landing legs and try to take off sideways. It wasn’t easy – if the craft hit a bump, it would explode – but I just about managed it, and my Kerbal came home to tell the tale.
The next spacecraft to visit the Mun was an unmanned probe, there to take temperature readings. Once that was done, rather than sending it on a suicide dive to the surface, I decided to try a soft landing and let it transmit an extra sliver of science to Kerbin. After a few more failures, I got the hang of keeping the probe in line with the retrograde marker as it came down; the probe had no landing legs, yet I managed to land it right on its nozzle! I launched another manned mission and, using the same technique, successfully brought it down on its feet, in the middle of a large and scenic crater. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a total success: the lander had enough fuel left to return to Munar orbit but not to get back to Kerbin, so I had to send a rescue mission.
I’ve since sent more spacecraft to Kerbin’s second satellite, Minmus, a much smaller moon the colour of mint ice cream. Despite being further away, Minmus provides an easier environment than the Mun as there is lower gravity and speed involved; I managed to land successfully first time there. I’ve also progressed from rendezvous to docking, which – like EVAs – has led to some frustration with the controls. The most recent contract – to recover space junk with a giant claw – also met with difficulty on re-entry, as the interlocked craft tended to rotate while entering the atmosphere and subsequently disintegrate. Eventually, there came an attempt where the craft was high enough that it was not slowed sufficiently by Kerbin’s atmosphere and flew back out into space, only to orbit around and re-enter again; on the third re-entry, it had lost enough speed to come down with everything intact.
So, I’m still enjoying this game a great deal: not just because of the fun involved, but because it’s giving me a whole new appreciation of the mechanics of spaceflight. Looking at an image of the Cassini probe’s planned orbits between the rings and atmosphere of Saturn, I can visualise and understand it in a new way thanks to this game. It’s one thing to read about the manouvers that set a spacecraft on a correct path, but as with most things, you can learn even better by trying it out for yourself!