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.