Kerbal Space Program: A Journey Through Space and Time

Sam Quirke - April 23rd 2019

For anyone under the age of fifty and not actively pursuing a career in astrophysics, space travel is this strange concept pretty much removed from reality. We’ve grown up on a diet of popcorn science fiction. We’re accustomed to the idea of a Millennium Falcon or a Milano just leaping up from a standard-gravity planet into the vast depths of space, banking and flipping as it pleases and cruising to a smooth finish on an entirely different world. Sometimes it can make us a little apathetic towards the actual business of space travel; these clunky aluminium tubes blasting directly up into the stratosphere, engineers whooping just because something actually got off the ground. It can seem basic, a far cry from the accessible and readable fiction that translates space travel into something as simple as driving a space car on an invisible highway.

It’s no surprise that the sense of wonder and achievement that carried the space program through the sixties and seventies has been diminished by the sheer vastness of the human imagination, to conceive of something more powerful and easier to use. But one way to reclaim that fascination, that awe, is to put a regular human being in the pilot’s seat, or at the engineer’s workstation. That is the power of the simulation genre of video games. Despite its goofy exterior Kerbal Space Program is the detailed space simulator the layman needs, in order to fully respect the mind-boggling mental gymnastics that a space program must endure in order to overcome their greatest oppressor: gravity.

Like many fantastic simulators, Kerbal may not look the part on first glance. The game sees you manage a space center for a bunch of little green aliens trying to explore their local solar system. They’re cute and goofy looking, and their world is pretty bland in terms of textures and graphics. The space center itself feels like an anomaly alongside these little green guys — it’s a very functional, utilitarian space filled with grey warehouses and little sign of life. When you build your rockets in the Vehicle Assembly area, you might get the occasional funny description but what you are effectively building are some very real-world adjacent fuel systems and machinery — even the future tech looks and sounds plausible.

For those fearful of mathematics (like myself), it can all get a little daunting at this stage. Each part is littered with statistics that one can only assume are essential for the business of space flight. There are hours of tutorial scenarios in the game to talk you through how best to build you craft from the hundreds of parts on offer. If you follow the training, you’ll spend your first couple of sessions shooting small manned craft up into the sky without breaking orbit as you wrestle with the controls. It’s daunting, and frankly a little off-putting in the first couple of hours.

Then you crack the secret of reaching orbit, and the whole game changes.

Rather, the game in your mind changes. I hate to make those tired old references to Dark Souls in games that are clearly nothing to do with Dark Souls, but the first time I finally understood the mechanics of reaching orbit I had that famous “click” moment, where the game suddenly makes sense. When you realise you are supposed to fail in order to learn. In that moment you not only feel like you might actually be able to get somewhere, but you have a new appreciation of the game's design. In the case of Kerbal, that awesome moment is about understanding just how much attention to detail the developers have taken in making this a realistic experience. Every ounce of weight, every second of propulsion, every twitch of yaw and roll will dramatically impact the trajectory of your craft, and mean the difference between reaching a distant planet and crashing a hundred feet from the base. If you opt for the more difficult options in the game's career mode, you can also take into account the devastating financial burden of any attempt at space flight. A cobbled-together failure of a mission might not just mean the deaths of a few cute aliens, it might mean the end of the space program — such is the level of investment needed to get a rocket off the ground.

All of this leads to a much deeper respect for the human space-flight endeavour than I have been able to grasp from documentaries and other fictitious representations. I’m not an engineer, a physicist or a mathematician — but this small window into firing man-made objects in direct opposition of the universe’s natural forces makes me proud that humanity ever managed to do it at all. What's more, we were doing it half a century ago with the same primitive level of technological advancement that these plucky Kerbals initially have access to. Any game that is able to translate the sheer weight of a real-world undertaking is, in my opinion, worthy of praise.

Kerbal has come full circle with this understanding of itself as a pretty damn good analogue of real world space travel thanks to the History and Parts pack, which adds recognisable versions of real world missions such as Apollo 11 and 13 and is now available on Xbox One. Having schooled up on a basic understanding of the game’s mechanics I launched myself at these new scenarios… only to find myself hitting a new wall. I need to find the next “click” as more complex mechanics fall into place in my mind. Apollo 11 — the Mun landing — is my next tough boss that I must understand to overcome, and while the task seems impossible, it’s also exciting. I haven’t felt this way about space travel since my youth, when the idea of being an actual astronaut still seemed like a possibility.

The History and Parts pack has some other extra features too, such as the addition of a launch base on the Mun (Kerbal’s version of… well, you can guess). Here the Pack almost adds a similar melancholy as one might find in a Fallout game — a forgotten promise of the alternate future set out in the fifties and sixties. The equipment you can find and build on the Mun base feels like the kind of tech humanity was expecting in the years following Apollo 11’s historic landing, before the world mostly stopped looking up and dreaming. Maybe this innocuous little game can inspire another generation of dreamers.

Don’t judge a game by its cover. Despite appearances, Kerbal Space Program is a fascinating simulator suitable for anyone with a passing interest in the intricacies of space travel, and the History and Parts pack is a great addition for those wanting to replicate historic milestones. Hidden in the game’s humble exterior is a reimagining of humanity’s greatest triumph, and attempting to emulate that from the comfort of your own living room is a treat indeed. I will certainly keep tinkering in my Vehicle Assembly Bay, reading my tutorials and plotting trajectories to the next adventure — and in the real world, I will still look up and dream of distant stars.

A Xbox One code for Kerbal Space Program and the History and Parts Pack DLC was provided for the purpose of this feature.