Gaming

The Best Way to Celebrate the Moon Landing Is to Build Your Own Space Program in a Video Game

Kerbal Space Program cover: Four Kerbals are on another planet or heavenly body working on science
Squad

For even longer than there has been a space race, authors and filmmakers have imagined space travel’s wonders. For me, the go-tos have been Star Trek, Remnants, Sunshine, Galaxy Quest, The Orville, and an incredibly convoluted Harry Potter–Star Wars fan fiction universe (don’t ask). The idea of leaving the planet and traveling among the heavenly bodies is both intoxicating and a little terrifying, but I worry all that flashy, quippy fiction has spoiled me against the literal wonders of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin’s accomplishment. As we mark the 50th anniversary of one of humanity’s greatest technological achievements, the moon landing, I thought I’d try to create my own story about the moon landing, one as close as possible to the real deal. For that I turned to the video game Kerbal Space Program, a spaceflight simulator first released in 2011 by the Mexican developer Squad. It felt like the best way I could be a little more hands-on with space: by getting to the moon—or in the game’s parlance, the Mun.

And you know what? Traveling to space is hard. Before you can leave your own planet, Kerbal makes you build a ship. Crafting one fast and strong enough to escape, then make it to the moon, land safely there, and then do it all in reverse is daunting—and dangerous. I just tried to do it all at once, with endless imaginary money and no lives at risk. Instead of well-fought success, I encountered a litany of problems with my shipbuilding, my piloting, and the completely iron hold a planet tries to keep on objects that want to leave.

Kerbal Space Program has three gameplay modes: Career, which balances both spacefaring and earthbound resource management on the planet Kerbin; Science, in which you focus on technological advancement; and Sandbox, where you boldly do literally whatever you want with limitless money and time. For the sake of my sanity, I stuck to Sandbox mode.

The first step was building my rocket. I’d done all of the very detailed in-game tutorials, which explained the game’s very realistic physics and the principles of best rocket ship practices. With the game holding my hand, I could build rockets that would, in theory, make it to orbit and beyond to the game’s Mun. So I built a steady-enough craft with four liquid fuel engines and four solid fuel rocket boosters. In my head, it had enough stages to lift off, burn hot and fast enough to make stable orbit, then slingshot my Kerbal pilot Jebediah to the Mun.

A rocket ship in Kerbal Space Program’s shipbuilding simulator. It is shaped like a pencil, with four rocket boosters attached to the bottom.
Baby’s first munar-bound craft.
Screenshot by author

KSP shoots for realism in its physics, so there were a lot of a very simple and annoying hiccups from the outset. First: preflight checks, like on an airplane. It wasn’t just a matter of hitting the Go button: Was my throttle off? Stabilizing system on? Was it too windy for a safe launch? Would I have enough time to align my trajectory with the Mun? Would my ship move and break apart in the order I wanted, without prematurely exploding or risking any of my other steps?

That last one is a bit of a clue, but I did not set up my ship correctly.

The four rocket boosters decouple from the ship and shoot off toward space right at the launchpad in an unintentional malfunction. In the pilot view window, Jebediah Kerman looks positively distressed.
Jebediah’s face was also my face.
Screenshot by author

Here, we have my solid fuel rocket boosters shooting off from the radial decouplers attached to my engine right at launch (instead of while in the air), torching the launch site and also frightening poor Jebediah. With one engine remaining, this craft did not make it out of the atmosphere, and in my frustration I didn’t pay attention to crew safety and ultimately lost the pilot. RIP Jebediah.

Even after fixing that problem, Baby’s First Munar didn’t make it out of the atmosphere because I can’t do simple geometry, so pitching the craft at a 90-degree angle once its velocity hits 100 m/s—the first step in achieving orbit—took so long I actually used a text tutorial from the game’s wiki in addition to relearning everything from the in-game flight tutorials I’d already completed.

It took several tries, and I lost many incarnations of Kerbal pilots Jebediah and Valentina Kerman along the way. They were very brave.

Baby’s Second Munar, now with wings, is about 16,000m in the air when the tutorial says the ship has gone off-course.
The tutorial was very straightforward whenever I got it wrong.
Screenshot by author

Eventually, I managed to get a craft into space, but I started running into a different problem: My ships weren’t fast enough to make orbit stable. Instead of launching crews into a self-sustained circle around the globe, I’d created the world’s worst roller coaster: Ships would arc up high, high enough that I was more in space than on Kerbin, but the course’s parabola wouldn’t fully form a circle, causing ships to eventually crash-land back in the ocean. To overcome this problem, I needed something bigger—and another tutorial.

The first ship in the Dimitri series. It has three very large fuel engines and four very large rocket boosters, and it’s vaguely in the shape of a paper airplane for aerodynamic purposes.
Dimitri I
Screenshot by author

The result was a functional ship named after my dog that made it to stable orbit. Every subsequent ship in the mission was named after him. I called it the Dimitri series. And like my dog, each of my Dimitri ships had enough speed to get to space, but none of them reached the Mun.

It was devastating in its own way, not just because I felt like I failed the Apollo astronauts or NASA. Each flight with Jebediah or Valentina at the helm started out with such promise: preflights checked, angles maintained, periapsis achieved, and stable orbit reached. But from there, it became a series of increasingly difficult maneuvers to launch the ships out of orbit and into the Mun’s path, and something in my timing, or my angling, or my impatience bungled it every time.

Five Dimitri series missions ended in failure this way. Five emergency landings with five successful craft recoveries, so at least Jebediah and Valentina will live to see another launch.

The craft Dimitri V, from stable orbit, points toward a Mun it will never reach. In the pilot view, Jebediah looks stoically at the heavenly body.
This is as close as I ever got.
Screenshot by author.

As part of the actual Apollo 11 moon-landing anniversary, I’ll be closely studying Ruairi Walden’s Apollo 11 re-creation tutorial, which will probably help me figure out where I went wrong. Maybe the whole problem was that I tried to wing building a Mun-appropriate craft instead of using a template. Or that I extremely lack the patience and precision necessary for space travel.

Of course, Kerbal Space Program’s community already has Part 1 of a more detail-oriented, less it’s-the-journey-not-the-destination Apollo 11 tribute than what I’d envisioned.

My crafts didn’t cost $6 million or take 10 years to build. Their missions weren’t captured on television, and they ultimately didn’t even succeed at the purpose for which they were built. But just for a moment, each time I could see the Mun from an orbiting Dimitri, I still felt the wonder. Sorry I had to blow you up a few times, Jebediah.