Progress on Kerbal Space Program has continued steadily: having accomplished landings on the Mun and Minmus, and recovered debris from space, the Career Mode contracts were asking for more advanced manouvers.
There was, for example, the contract to perform a docking in orbit around Kerbin, and thus begin constructing my first space station. Building a rocket bigger than any before, I launched a science laboratory – with attached solar panels and viewing cupola – into a polar orbit, hoping that this would allow me to collect more science as the station passed over Kerbin’s different biomes. Science labs, once loaded with data, are able to harvest science points; while the science takes longer to collect, you get more in the end than you would simply returning the data to the space centre. After I sent a shuttle with a docking port after the space station, it took some time first to catch it on its unusual orbit, then to master the use of reaction control thrusters and get into position for docking. Finally, the docking ports came close enough to drift together, and as the Spice Girls would say, two became one.
My Kerbin space station has not seen any usage since that initial docking mission, however, as I can’t find much use for it; the only new science I can collect in Kerbin orbit is through EVA reports, which don’t yield very much. The Mun and Minmus, however, could be much more profitable. I constructed a new space station in orbit, with a nice big engine at the rear, two big fuel tanks on either side, and a lander attached at the front – next stop, Munar orbit! Except when I ignited the engine, the twin fuel tanks proved to be very unstable, causing the space station to wobble all over the place. Not to mention, acceleration was slow with all that weight, and by the time the space station arrived at the Mun, much of the extra fuel had been used up. However, there was still plenty left for multiple landings, yielding lots of science. When sending a space station to Minmus, I avoided placing so much stress on it by sending the station and its extra fuel in two separate launches, performing a docking in orbit around the smaller moon. Landing missions from this space station have proven very fuel-efficient, given the lower gravity which means less need to reduce and add speed.
With that done, I was now looking outside Kerbin, for it is far from the only object orbiting its sun. There are, for example, asteroids which may drift close to Kerbin, potential sources of science and ore for mining. Arming a spacecraft with a giant claw which would grab anything that it touched, I decided to try and snatch one of these asteroids, which was due to pass closer than the Mun. Getting the spacecraft on the right inclination, however, used a lot of fuel – so I became cautious, wanting to get out to the asteroid quickly, grab it, then slow it down until it was orbiting Kerbin. But it wasn’t quite that simple: even when I managed to get my spacecraft on target for a rendezvous with the asteroid, it was clear that with their speed relative to each other, they would either zip right past each other, or the asteroid would smash the spacecraft out of its way like a bowling ball. There was nothing else for it but to consume more fuel and slow the relative speed. By the time I did manage to grab the asteroid with my claw, there was only enough fuel left to place the asteroid in a wide, unstable orbit; and even that was hard as I wasn’t quite lined up with the centre of mass, and the asteroid spun wildly whenever I lit up the engine.
The contracts, meanwhile, called for an even more distant target: Duna, the in-game equivalent of Mars. First, I had to time-accelerate until Duna was in the correct position – it’s much harder to catch another planet than a moon. Then, following online tips, I built an unmanned spacecraft which I named Watney 1, after the hero of The Martian. Sent on its way, Watney 1 became the first spacecraft to leave Kerbin behind altogether, and enter orbit around the Sun. Nearly two hundred days and some little manouvers later, it was headed for an encounter with Duna, but a significant problem became evident: there was not enough fuel left to put the spacecraft into orbit, let alone land it.
Luckily, there was a way to slow the probe down without using fuel: aerobraking in Duna’s atmosphere. It was a tense time as Watney 1 flew above the surface of the red planet, surrounded by flames; three solar panels were ripped away as they could not be retracted, though fortunately the probe had spares. Watney 1 emerged on the other side, battered but with enough fuel to enter orbit. After broadcasting a bucketload of science from above Duna – and even Duna’s moon, Ike – Watney 1 used all its remaining fuel for a one-way landing on the surface. The atmosphere made a heat shield necessary, but as with Mars, the atmosphere of Duna is much thinner than that of Earth, so a combination of parachutes and retro-rockets were used to slow Watney 1 down to a safe landing, in a middle of a lonely desert plain. Unfortunately, Watney 1 didn’t have quite enough electric charge to use all of its scientific instruments, and its rover couldn’t be controlled as it had the wrong sort of antenna, but it was still a very productive mission in terms of science.
Meanwhile, I’m looking at even more ambitious contracts, including constructing a base on the Mun, which I still have no real idea how I’m going to pull off. Well, I’ve done okay so far…