Now Playing: Reaching for the stars in Kerbal Space Program

Graham Smith at

This article originally appeared in issue 231 of PC Gamer UK.

There are three little alien faces in the corner of my screen. Those on the left and right are screaming in terror, but seated in the middle, Jebediah Kerbal is smiling. He is always smiling.

I am smiling too. Kerbal Space Program a long way to go before it’s the galaxy exploring management game it wants to be, but it’s already amazing.

Jeb is smiling because he’s 3,000 feet in the air in a spaceship that I designed, and the journey is going well so far. I hit the spacebar to trigger stage 4 separation, sending the now empty fuel tanks tumbling back to earth. But when I press it a second time to fire the next stage of rockets, these separate from the ship as well. There is a bright flash, a burst of smoke, and the camera feed on the three alien faces turns to static.

Back in the Spore-style ship builder, I discover I’ve ordered the stages of separation incorrectly, so that pressing the button to fire new rockets also disconnects them. That makes them missiles. I fix that and, while I’m here, bolt on another stage of rockets to the bottom of my ship.

On the launch pad, I initiate these new first-stage rockets and... go nowhere. My spacecraft is now too heavy to leave the ground. There’s a fun physics system at work here, called rocket physics.

How do you fix a problem in rocket physics? More rockets. I add three more to the base of my ship, for a total of six. My rocket makes it off the ground now, but soon starts pulling off course. One of the new rockets is misaligned. It doesn’t matter. I control the ship’s ascent and keep her in line until the fuel runs out at 3,000 feet. The next stage of rockets is more responsive, as the ship is lighter now. I hit 16,000 feet, trigger another separation, and keep going. The ground is a long way behind me now.

34,000 feet, and another separation, another blast. I pass 43,000 feet, my previous best, and just keep going. I’m aiming to break into orbit, but I’ve no idea where that starts. I don’t even know if it’s been added to the game yet.

I’m at 67,000 feet when the fuel runs out and I cast off the empty tanks. It’ll take them minutes to fall back to earth.

The capsule is all that’s left now, still being carried higher by momentum. The blue sky that was once above me has gone. I see stars, I see other galaxies. I hope one day I get to explore them.

70,000 feet, 71,000 feet. I’m at 72,000 when the momentum stops and I start to fall back down. No orbit this time, but in the corner of my screen are three beaming smiles.