Kerbal Space Program – Adventure #1

I’ve heard a lot (at least, from the Twitterati that I follow) about a simulation game called “Kerbal Space Program“. I had downloaded the free demo and run the tutorials enough to see that it was probably as cool as everyone was saying it was, so I bought it.

The short version is that it’s a space flight simulator which is both fun and designed to be as realistic as possible as far as the physics and orbital mechanics go. This is why it’s so popular with folks at NASA, JPL, science fiction authors, reporters who cover the space program, and so on. I games I love the most are not first-person shooters (except for “Doom III”), but things like Sim City and Outpost. The more detailed and realistic, the better!

I started by running the first tutorial again, which is supposed to show the fundamentals of building a rocket. I put something “simple” together:Capture01Now that’s a spaceship the way Robert Heinlein meant it to be! Four huge solid rocket boosters (SRBs) surrounding a huge central stack of fuel tanks, and wings! Launch it!

Capture02Cool! “Catastrophic Failure!” We only got to 520 meters and 142 meters/second, before impacting at 2.7 Gs. On impact we also managed to take out the Space Plane Hanger! That’s how a highly experimental space program is supposed to start, with epic failure! Sorry, “catastrophic” failure!

Capture03Then I wiped out the Research & Development center with a huge explosion…

Capture04…before wiping out the Vehicle Assembly Building. There’s a pattern here.

Obviously I’m doing something drastically wrong, and this is where I come to the one thing that I’m not real happy about with KSP so far. The amount and quantity of information you get to get started is terrible. If you don’t have someone who’s already on the inside to show you some pretty basic stuff, I’m not sure how you ever would figure out some pretty fundamental points about playing. I suspect that many casual gamers might get really frustrated and give up fairly early.

A couple of points here:

  • I understand that KSP is still in beta, seriously early in the development cycle, and being improved almost daily. I’m not expecting a glossy, perfect program or system.
  • I understand that KSP is largely supported and promoted by hardcore gamers, techies, geeks, and nerds (wasn’t that an old song by “Cher”) and those groups may really, really want to make the learning curve extremely steep and the “cost of entry” to be very high.
  • I understand that I am most certainly not a “hard core” gamer. Maybe they like just poking things until they figure out how things work by hundreds of hours of trial and error. I don’t, and I don’t have hundreds of hours to spend before I even get off square one.

The fact remains that it took me almost three days of screwing around with the program for a couple hours a day before I finally figured out (i.e., “stumbled upon”) some information that let me finally get started. I just about got frustrated enough to quit and write it off, and I wouldn’t every classify myself as a newbie or non-technical. Building a ship and getting it to launch is shown to be similar to writing a computer program, putting together equipment and events that lead to an end result. I know how to program, I’ve done that for a living, this should be a fun variation of that sort of thinking. Right? But the information you need to get the first simple successes are very well hidden.

For example, I knew from the demo that hitting the spacebar during launches caused the next staging operation to occur. For example, with my ship above, in general I would like it to “program” the following general sequence:

  1. Light two of the SRBs to get us off the pad
  2. When they burn out, jettison them
  3. Light SRBs #3 and #4
  4. When they burn out, jettison them
  5. Light the liquid fuel engine, hopefully putting us into orbit
  6. Shut down the liquid fuel engine
  7. When ready to come down, turn around and light the liquid fuel engine
  8. Jettison the liquid fuel engine so the heat shield is exposed
  9. Once in the atmosphere, pop the parachute to land gently. Success!

I could put together a simple version of the hardware that I wanted, but for the life of me I could not figure out how to do the “programming” to make actions take place. I poked, I prodded, I looked for a “help” button, I ran through the tutorial a second and a third time.


I went to the website and looked at the FAQs and on every page I could find. I set up an account figuring there might be pages and information available only to members. I found a wiki that seems to have every miniscule detail known about which part does what, but couldn’t find a thing that could answer my simple questions. How do you sequence or program events to happen? I looked at the Wikipedia article. I googled it. FWIW, googling “how do you sequence events in KSP” will bring up a number of YouTube videos and blog posts about how frustrated people are trying to get started. But help in overcoming that?


But the YouTube links got me thinking along those paths, and finally I found this, a really good video by Scott Manley, that walks you through the first couple of missions. It’s great, and I’m looking forward to working my way through the later tutorials, but this is what they should have on the KSP website for beginners.

Turns out the sequencing or programming functions are simple, a drag & drop operation — once you know what what buttons to push to get into that mode (lower right of the screen).

Oh, and a few more things. The first day or two of stuff that I did? It was in “sandbox” mode, which pretty much gives you access to everything and lets you play around and experiment. The later days I did in “career” mode which is more of a game. In career mode you start out with just a handful of components available to build with, but as you do simple missions you do experiments to earn “science”, the game’s currency. Once you earn science, you can spend it to buy fancier components, which allow you to do more complex missions, which allow you to earn a lot more science, which allows you to buy increasingly complex and powerful components, which in turn allows you… You get the idea.

Here’s the thing. Nowhere in any of the tutorials, the FAQs for beginners, the wiki, or anyplace else at all did I see any mention of:

  • Sandbox vs. career mode
  • Science
  • Programming the sequencing

It’s just my opinion, but that would have been pretty useful information to have in the tutorial. (End of rant about what I don’t like, time to get on to what I do like so far.)

Now that I’m only 99% clueless, I put together another simple rocket (two SRB stages, a liquid engine stage, and a capsule) this time with simple activities programmed in:

Capture05What happens when I launch it?

Capture06 Epic Fail FlightAnother catastrophic failure! But this time there’s a big difference. This time I can see what’s happening and I know how to change it! In this case, the staging sequence was done in reverse order, so I released the parachute (and sat on the pad), fired the liquid engine (and sat on the pad on fire), fired the second stage (and sat on the pad exploding), and fired the first stage (seen above) at which point I lift off, on fire, trailing the parachute. Needless to say, I didn’t succeed.

But I learned.

Capture 06a - reprogrammed rocketThis time I knew how to correct (i.e., reverse) the sequence (shown in the lower right corner, compare to the picture of the previous rocket above), and then launch again.

Capture07 - First 'Successful' FlightSuccess! My Kerbal passenger had a great flight, staged correctly, popped the parachute, did some experiments to earn science, and splashed down safely to earn more science.

I’m on my way. Better yet, while floundering around looking for the key to how to take the first steps, I got to see plenty of examples of the incredibly complex vehicles (space planes, lunar landers, space stations, interplanetary spacecraft) folks have built, and the incredibly complex missions that the game allows (suborbital, orbital missions, rendezvous & docking, travel to and landing on a couple of moons, other planets in the Kerbal system), all done with highly accurate and detailed orbital mechanics.

I’m really excited about this “game” and the things I can learn and get creative with. There doesn’t seem to be any limit, and with the game still being developed and built and improved, it will only get better. That’s why this is called “Adventure #1” up there in the title – I suspect that I’ll be boring entertaining you on a semi-regular basis as I learn how to build and operate things, creating (and sharing) new missions and vehicles.

I just suggest that the tutorial make the initial learning curve just a little less steep.


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