Thursday, May 1, 2014

This Game IS Rocket Science

When I had first heard of Kerbal Space Program (KSP) via an advertisement in Steam, I pretty much ignored it. My first reaction was that it looked like another real time strategy game, Civilization in Space. However, after seeing this comic from the famous XKCD site:

How well I understand orbital mechanics. (Creative Commons)
I decided to have another look.

As a kid I followed the space program from Mercury to Apollo with intense interest, and even tried to master the mathematics of orbital mechanics well before getting my degrees in Math and Physics. So when I saw this my curiosity was naturally piqued. 

After some further reading I quickly grabbed the game from Steam and have been nearly obsessed with it ever since.

What is the Kerbal Space Program? In a nutshell it is one of the most advanced space simulators available on a home computer, but with a sense of humor. Rendered in beautiful 3D worlds in space. While the game has a deep physics model and all of the advanced math of real world space travel, it doesn't take an actual math degree to play. In fact the interface can be mastered by just about anyone with a couple of hours of playing around. As long as you don't worry overly much about the lives of your intrepid Kerbalnauts. There are built in tutorials, but to be honest, the game is one big sandbox with little or no objective other than the desire by you to want to successfully explore the Kerbin universe which gives you quite a lot to explore indeed.
Opening screen sums up the humorous side of KSP.

You can think of yourself as the director of your own space program. You have a myriad of components from (un)manned capsules, fuel tanks, liquid fuel engines, solid rocket boosters, batteries, solar panels, landing struts/gears and docking collars. There are even various science packages that will allow your kerbalnauts to carry out experiments throughout the system as you explore. Measure everything from temperature, atmospheric pressure and seismic phenomenon to gravitational fluctuations in the region of the moons and planets you have available to explore.

You can build a one man lander to take to a moon and back as a single package, or you can completely simulate the original American space program, creating both Command and Service Module with a separate Lunar Excursion Module for landing one or more more kerbals on the Mun.

Oh and by the way, unlike Earth Kerbin has two natural satellites: Mün and Minmus. That's just the start of what is an intriguing and satisfyingly large number of places to explore in KSP. Of course, you will first have to master the intricacies of obtaining orbit, and launching your ships to greater and greater distances along the way.

And that is where KSP really shines. The physics model is extremely accurate. At least within a couple of sigmas of real world physics. Within a few hours you will be thinking in terms of Delta-v, Thrust to Weight Ratio (TWR) and escape velocity. You will learn how to determine if a ship is capable of entering orbit, or going further. You will learn why getting away from the home planet means overcoming not just gravity, but the density of the atmosphere. Most importantly, you will learn why you must trust and use the Navigation ball and not your own intuition. You'll learn when faster is slower and lower is faster.

Of course, if you simply want to get there quickly, there are a myriad ways to do that. Besides being an intricately detailed orbital mechanics simulator, KSP is also an open sand box. Meaning that others can play by providing third party addons and modules. These come everywhere from modules with a few additional parts to make even more kinds of space craft to advanced guidance and control systems that can calculate and even auto-pilot your ship to anywhere you wish.

While I love the diversity and creativity that the community has provided to KSP, I personally have preferred playing the game with little or no extras until I have mastered each flight dynamic on my own and can say I did it without assistance. Of course, that is a matter of personal preference, and others should feel perfectly Okay to go about directing their own space program in any way they wish. It seems to me that if NASA in the 1960's had systems capable of simulating even a tiny fraction of what KSP offers, they would have gladly jumped on the opportunity.

That said, I do highly recommend that anyone hopping into this game take the time to watch one or two tutorials on the Web. I found things that the KSP interface allowed me to do that I probably would never have figured out on my own. YouTube is a good place to start, but there are also a number of great tutorials on the KSP forums.

And I haven't even mentioned that KSP doesn't just offer rocketships to outer space. Their is also an elaborate aerodynamics model in the software. So you can design and fly any number of aircraft in and around Kerbin and a few other places with sufficient atmosphere.

KSP is available for direct download or via Steam. The price is currently under $30. Steam offers a small warning that the game is in Beta. However, the game has been under constant development since it first was "released" by Squad several years ago. They provide new updates with added features and functionality every few months without extra charge. Which seems to me to be a very good thing. There is also a free demo if you just want to see what it looks like on your own computer.

It's a single player game, but if you do give it a try, please drop me a line and let me know what you think. And remember to send along some postcards from your explorations.

I hope to see you on the Mün!