From the Kerbin to the Mun

The munar capsule descends, falling now at only a dozen or so meters per second relative to the surface. Its landing gear extend, as though heroically reaching for the gray, dusty ground. Below, the ground inclines at a mild but unexpected angle, and a decision must now be made. Either close the last few hundred meters or so to touchdown and risk the possibility that the incline is sharper than it looks and could capsize the lander, or attempt a lateral maneuver to reposition the landing site — risking the loss of precious fuel and the near certainty that I will somehow misread the navball and send the entire crew pirouetting out of control and into the side of some mountain.

It wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.

This is the third munar landing attempt of the day. Let’s just say that the crew of the first two attempts shall live on as heroes in our hearts and minds. Specifically because they are not living on in any other measurable capacity.

The first Mun Monster Mk 1 — named by my nine-year-old son — did actually touch down, but the lateral movement of the craft along with, shall we say, questionable lander-design choices caused it to topple end-over-end and break apart. One lone Kerbal stepped from that wreckage onto the Mun, jetpacked around a while and then landed too hard himself. Mun Monster Mk 2 — well there’s no gentle way to put it. It crashed into the Mun.

Frankly it’s shocking that the crew of the Mk. III went anywhere near that death trap, though it does explain some of the expressions on their faces during the flight.

To be fair, getting to the Mun at all seems even now like a pretty big deal. It wasn’t so long ago that I was having around a 50% success rate at just getting rockets off the launch pad and going up in a generally straight direction. Given the death rate for astronauts applying into the Kerbal Space Program, I should probably be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity. Err, Kerbinity.

The Kerbals are a trepidatious species, though. And though not known for building cities, or roads, or houses, or actually any free-standing structure not directly associated with space flight, the Kerbals do have a certain aptitude for jamming together giant, explosive fuel tanks and setting them on fire. I’ve actually grown quite an affection for them, though not enough so that I plan to stop sending them toward near-certain doom at any time in the near future.

I don’t really think of Kerbal Space Program as a game, though it is certainly fun, and when I use it I am clearly at play. It is among an interesting class of software that provides you as a player with so much creative freedom that you barely notice the clear lack of direction. It’s a growing class of games that primarily offer tools and an environment in which to use those tools.

In the case of KSP, those tools are the many bits and parts of rockets, a handful of capsules for Kerbals to fly in, and a selection of hazardous fuel containers ranging in size from very large to extraordinarily large. From there you can pull wings, stabilizers, orbital thrusters, parachutes, struts, ladders, landing gear, staging modules, and so on and so on. These parts click together like Lego, and what you’re usually left with is a Frankenstein’s monster that would give rocket engineers nightmares.

There aren’t many things as entertaining, however, as managing to get your lethal abomination to stand upright on the launch pad, throttling up your engines, counting down to liftoff, and watching in horrified glee as your various rockets immediately break free from one another and go shooting off in a myriad of directions, leaving twisting contrails like Shirley Temple curls in the sky. All this as the central stage of your rocket explodes against the launch tower. Occasionally, perhaps just to add to the bizarre comedy, the crew capsule will survive this conflagration, and the permanently traumatized Kerbals wander back to the Vehicle Assembly Building.

The most brilliant thing to me about KSP is the way it manages to have you feeling like an idiot half the time and a genius the other half. Even more than that, it manages to make both of those states equally fun, though for different reasons. After a good, long Kerbal Space Program session, it’s hard not to walk around talking about transfer burns, orbital insertion, gravity wells, planetary encounters and apoapses. And, while KSP certainly allows, encourages and even rewards a willingness to dive in at the deep end and start calculating things out with Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equations, it never requires it.

Somehow, KSP never takes itself any more of less seriously than you do at the moment you are playing it. It is remarkable because as a game that should be entirely impenetrable and complicated, my nine-year-old can manage to get a three-stage rocket into a stable, elliptical orbit. It makes the experience fun, even if you realize ten minutes in that you’ve staged your rockets incorrectly and your Kerbin escape stage has suddenly found itself burning into the dark sans crew.

Which all goes into part of what makes getting to Mun in the first place such fun, and also such an achievement. It took a week for me to finally understand how to get myself into a good, solid equatorial orbit. Only then did I trust myself to plot out a burn that resulted in an intercept with that big, enticing target of a satellite.

Which brings us back nicely to the intrepid crew of Mun Monster Mk III.

I decide, finally, that I’m willing to risk the landing on this inner slope of a giant crater, and I continue to let the craft manage its gentle fall. Under 7 m/sec, I see the shadow of the lander now rushing to the point of intersection that will be where I finally touchdown. It is around this point that I finally begin to wonder if the modifications I’ve made to my munar lander actually result in the engine bell extending farther than the landing gear, but with only a hundred or so meters to go, there’s now no turning back. The gap closes. Slower. Slower.

It is worth noting at this point that Jebdiah Kerman, whose long, green face can be seen at the bottom of the screen, is having the time of his life. His wide mouth open and grinning, Jeb clearly has nowhere else in the known universe he’d prefer to be at that moment. Bill Kerman, on the other hand, is a study in entirely different emotions. He is terrified, and his face conveys the full complexity of his horror in a way I might not have previously realized possible with so few polygons. It is best described not as an expression of fear, but a visage of mortal damnation. As I glance at the ground, I begin to see why.

The slope suddenly looks steeper than I had planned, and now I’m certain it will be the engine bell that touches down first. I grow increasingly certain that this excursion, like so many before, is destined to fail. I make small corrections, trying to equally compensate for the lay of the land and the horizontal velocity while controlling the vertical descent. Finally, I touch down.

Now, by “touch down,” what I mean is that the superheated engine bell digs into the dusty remains of a million annihilated comets. The craft immediately begins to lurch awkwardly downhill, the landing gear still fully extended yet a couple of meters above ground. As the craft begins to fall over, finally the gear digs in, and instantly becomes the fulcrum for an elaborate, slowly — but irrevocably shifting — lever.

What saves the day is the SAS flight system, which I had had the good sense to turn on immediately prior to landing. The SAS system simply tries to keep your vehicle in a constant orientation, so if you have it, say, pointed up during a launch, the system works the controls to try and keep it pointed up. Even as the vehicle finally settles into place, barely upright, the RCS thrusters are firing slightly, fighting against gravity and depressingly poor spacecraft design, to keep the ship from falling over. That said, the mood at mission control (read: my office) is that this was a triumph.

Jebediah Kerman, fearless and happy as ever, steps out of the ship, jetpacks around for a little while, and finally plants a flag to signify the success of their Munar mission. I share his joy, and marvel at this new world we have settled, already turning my eye upward toward Kerbin’s other moon, Minmus, and some of the planets beyond. Finally, fully sated, I send Jeb back to the vehicle, and prepare for takeoff.

Taking stock of my surroundings, I realize again what an accomplishment a game like this is. I don’t just feel satisfied having played a game, but in a strange way genuinely happy with the results. Without story, without plot, without even clear goals and objectives, I feel connected to this game in a way that is relatively rare. With great satisfaction, I power up the thrusters and leave the surface for the return trip to Kerbin.

Three minutes later, with too little fuel in the tank to even re-enter Munar orbit, the crew of Mun Monster Mk. III crashes into the side of a hill at 450m/sec. Jebediah Kerman is smiling the entire time.

Comments

Wonderful. Haven't tried KSP yet, despite having the feeling I'd love it. It seems like another one of those games where losing is fun and is so good for generating great stories through play.

I really love the way you write, Sean.

Jeb, afraid, and Bill happy?

Are you sure you don't have Jeb and Bill switched?

I think maybe I do.

Wonderful!

I mean, we're talking about this Jebediah Kerman:
IMAGE(http://cdn.steamcommunity.com/economy/image/WtYinnfNx6FYrt3rJKnlCuKa6C8zvcn_nWEG_Y1TtKWH3gx-IJqQufF2xxkAiLeZ88H7PmT3he2bYFj8j1K-vZPXADc82pS69SrKXA6WqJ3u065tOaDWvM9wDuSCWeSCl9IAbjDVm_3XPNAXDoj-neeP-zo0p9O9jD0CpdwO6PzL1V1rO4fH4fpslkxb07qXst6uOWql37XbZV-k3hKzuJWWB2Ur0JakwzDPGwiD5cbp2K1sO6OH6I1hBqDfXb_ww9ZdPz2AwO-qYcMbCoDvxbvc-Tw99tGimWoAtpgB6A==/360fx360f)

This article perfectly encapsulates how I love KSP. The past few weeks I've routinely gone to bed telling my fiancee these epic stories of gargantuan rockets blasting little green men towards a little grey rock, an objective given by nothing or no one else besides myself.

KSP is one of the best games of all time. The end. Yet, I'll bet someone at PC Gamer (no hints) probably didn't even put it in their top 100!

:p

You know for the past year or two I've been trying to stay out of the threads for those games I'm not explicitly interested in and it's saved my gaming budget and countless forlorn looks at an unmanageable Steam wish list (not to mention pile). It is therefore not fair that every time you put one of these stories on the front page I wind up enabled and pulling the trigger on something else I never knew existed, yet desperately need.

So yeah, good job.

Great writing Sean. You capture my enjoyment of Kerbal so well.

Going back a very, very long time the first program I ever saw run on a computer was an Ascii landing on the moon. I had so little control and so much fun. It's been cool watching my son get some of that same feel of late both with Kerbal and Minecraft. Two places he helps write the story himself.

I have no head for science, so I enjoy stories of Kerbal Space Program more than I imagine I would playing it.

This story did not disappoint.

I'll probably try to convince my Dad to let my brother install it for my niece on their desktop. Seems like a wonderful game for kids.

Meanwhile, back at the Space Center...

And I defy anyone to watch this one and not want to play the game

Plug: Moonshot (1994), the best documentary ever (but still not on DVD)!

Well said, Sean. I've been playing this since the 0.8 days, and it's been so refreshing to play such an open-ended game, with no fixed goals. Sure, everyone goes for orbit, then for a Mün landing, etc., but it's nice not having those goals written down in a mission description somewhere, or having an achievement ding off when you get there.

I think the most remarkable thing about KSP is that it remains incredibly challenging, despite each release making it easier to get things done. That ease comes not from artificial changes, but from refinement in the selection of parts (eg: having a range of engine sizes for different stages), new features (docking was a huge game-changer) and improvements in the UI (the orbital map, maneuver nodes, rendezvous targeting, etc.).

Those improvements, however, are beautifully balanced by ever-escalating challenges. In the first releases, your only goal was Kerbin orbit. Then came the Mün, then the smaller moon, Minmus, then a whole solar system filled with varied planets and moons to explore, each bringing their own unique (and sometimes hugely daunting!) problems to solve. That's not to mention new systems, like spaceplanes and unmanned probes, that also bring new challenges to the table.

I've done a lot in KSP, but it's a big solar system, and there are big challenges that I'm still yet to attempt. Maybe one day I'll get back to my plans to land a manned SSTO spaceplane on Jool's watery moon, Laythe...

If anyone's curious about how improvements in KSP have made it easier to do a bunch of things over time, here's a Mün mission of mine from 0.12, the first version to have the Mün:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/photos/1...

Some newer stuff of mine is here: http://pneumanspaceprogram.tumblr.com/

I think this is my favorite part:

There aren’t many things as entertaining, however, as managing to get your lethal abomination to stand upright on the launch pad, throttling up your engines, counting down to liftoff, and watching in horrified glee as your various rockets immediately break free from one another and go shooting off in a myriad of directions, leaving twisting contrails like Shirley Temple curls in the sky.

Mostly because that's basically all I've managed to accomplish so far! And yet, like you said so beautifully, even when KSP makes you feel like a complete moron, you're thoroughly enjoying yourself. Here's hoping I, too, will go from Kerbin to the Mun someday...

Great piece, thanks so much for sharing!!

Great piece. This game is the only one I have spent more hours in than Minecraft. All the crazy stuff you can build, all the fun places to explore, and all the strange things you can accomplish with just a few tools and an area to explore.

This game has an absolutely thriving community of modders, if you want a part or have an idea about something you want in the game somebody has probably already made it.

plavonica wrote:

This game has an absolutely thriving community of modders, if you want a part or have an idea about something you want in the game somebody has probably already made it.

Steamworks? Because, you know, as Sean said a week or two ago.

/WWSD?

No, not Steamworks for some reason.

They have a mod community at www.kerbalspaceport.com but it's hard to find anything on the site. Most mod developers keep up-to-date versions in dedicated threads in the official forums.

Not the best situation but that's what it is.

I have to get back into KSP. I never took the time to research how to achieve orbit. I simply just built crazy rockets and blew them upwards. Still loads of fun.

The dreaded landing tip over!

IMAGE(http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3706/8846967943_513ecc2875_z.jpg)

Great article Sean! Love to hear more stories about Kerbal!

Demiurge wrote:

I really love the way you write, Sean.

"Paint word-pictures of me, like one of your French Girls."

I had tons of fun just doing the tutorials that are in KSP now and then just going for broke with my own rockets without digging into any "How-To's" or walkthrough's of how to build a rocket. This game is really superb at just letting you go wild and rewarding you simply when you actually get a sorta straight ascent.

Now to finally figure out how to get into orbit once I've actually gotten into Kerbin atmosphere...

Awesome piece, I really need to put more time into this thing.

I am afraid of KSP. I've played a couple hours and I love it, but I'm afraid if I really love it, that I'll lose even more of my life to this game than I have to CK2 or other games I've been obsessed with over time. This is like the One Game to rule them all.

Some of the best I've ever read so far this year... great piece as always Sean.

Great read. The emotions of the crews really are conveyed amazingly well.

Frankly it’s shocking that the crew of the Mk. III went anywhere near that death trap, though it does explain some of the expressions on their face during the flight.

I prefer to think of the crews as death row inmates, given the choice between guaranteed death via execution or becoming heroes on the minimal chance of making it back to Kerbin alive.

You sir, owe me a new ass. I laughed mine off, so much so that I had to explain myself to the few people who were in the office at the time. After reading just some of your writing they have now expressed interest in the game.

The idea of playing KSP brings both interest, as memories of all the hours I spent building things in Lego fill my head, and dread, as reminders of physics, the only science classes I couldn´t master in school, reverberate through my skull.

Great read as always Sean.

mwdowns wrote:

I am afraid of KSP. I've played a couple hours and I love it, but I'm afraid if I really love it, that I'll lose even more of my life to this game than I have to CK2 or other games I've been obsessed with over time. This is like the One Game to rule them all.

This is what happened to me. I am now ~6 hours in and have gotten a good grip on orbits (One satellite in stable orbit, and one maned vessel in degrading orbit.) The urge to get to the next stage of challenge in this game is natural and maddening...

This is very much going to be my crack for the next few months.

Lovely writing. I read this to my KSP addicted 8 year old son as a bedtime story. Since he and I have become rocket engineers, space rocket designers, and mission controllers in the Kerbal Space Program we have spent many happy hours in shared playtime, as we sacrifice Kerbals in the name of science.
"In Kerbal Space Program" is the 1st thing to supplant the phrase "In minecraft" as the opening in 50% of my son's sentences.

Bob

This was a very fun article to read, with a very Kerbal conclusion.

I have been playing since version 0.18 and as you have said, it's great fun whether you reach orbit or not.