Now playing: flying to the Mun in the Kerbal Space Program

Phil Savage at

I have been steadily progressing through my Kerbal Space Program to-do list. My last major milestone was landing on the moon (or ‘Mun’, as the Kerbals call it). A little too enthusiastically, as it turned out. My capsule ran out of fuel during the descent, and sped helplessly towards its surface. On the upside, it got a great area-of-effect radius. I landed all over that moon.

The next step is to reach the Mun without reducing my Kerbals to green paste. It’s a logical progression, but one that will be dramatically more complicated – in part because it requires me to start caring about the safety of these oblivious alien astronauts. Previously, there had been little reason to ensure their survival. When one died, another automatically stepped up to the cockpit, fully trained and unconcerned about reasons for the sudden job vacancy.

Thanks to Kerbal Space Program’s recent update, you can now freely hire and assign the crew of each mission. That means I can give myself a reason to start looking after these trusting dullards. I’ve picked the starting crew – Bob, Bill and Jeb – as the hopefuls to take that giant leap for Kerbalkind. Each mission, I’ll need to bring one of them along. Assuming I can keep them alive, I’ll have as many attempts as I need. If not, my experiment could be over in as few as three launches. One of them will walk on the surface of the Mun. Or everyone will die trying.

First though, a test. My ill-fated lunar landing was in a small, one-man vessel, it’s downfall due to its pitiful fuel capacity. To do this successfully, I’ll need to move up to the larger three-man tier, and be more crafty about my power consumption. You need a lot of thrust to leave orbit, but shooting a rocket’s load all at once is inefficient and messy. I’m attempting a special launch method: placing six rockets around my main tank, then connecting them through symmetrical fuel lines so that each opposing pair is drained and discarded in sequence. The KSP community call this ‘asparagus staging’. I’m betting my space program on the efficacy of spring vegetables.

The result is crudely designed, meant only to ensure I can effectively put the theory into practice before moving onto something more robust. In all the intricacies of fuel line attachment, I forget to enact another theory: that unsecured rockets fall over and explode. Kerbal Space Program takes your ship design literally, and that can spell disaster when gravity is added to the equation. My payload and its terrified Kerbals fall mercifully unharmed through the chaos, rolling to a stop on the ground.

Next attempt: same design, this time with launch stabilisers. The ship takes off, then seconds later starts veering to the right. It flips in mid-air, capsule-over-engines, until the force is too much for the rockets and they awkwardly clip through each other and detonate. I silently curse alpha physics. It’s at this point I notice the again-terrified faces of my Kerbals – their expressions livestreamed in the bottom corner of the screen. More importantly, I notice their jumpsuits are all orange: a sign that they’re the original trio of Bob, Bill and Jeb. I’d hired new white jumpsuited replacements to pad out the crew roster, hoping to only risk one VIP life each flight. But I hadn’t reassigned them.

This is problematic. If the capsule crashes, I lose everyone, and I’ll have failed having barely cleared 300m. I hammer the spacebar through the ship’s staging, blowing out the rocket’s remnants and deploying the parachutes. They open, and, of course, clip through each other. It works, despite the bug, and the Kerbals drift safely to the ground. I silently thank alpha physics.