Kerbal Space Program chronicle — part two: the first Kerbal in space

Ian Birnbaum

Kerbal Space Program is an open-world universe simulator that specializes in modeling orbits, atmosphere, gravity and rocket physics. With nothing but your wits and an array of space vehicle parts, your task is to explore. In this chronicle, I will be recording the first missions of the PCGSA, PC Gamer's ambitious new space program. If you want to get caught up, start from part 1 .

Last week, we successfully launched our first satellite into a stable near-Kerbin orbit. Today will be a day that heroes are made: the first Kerbal in space will orbit a few times and come home to an adoring public. Let's get him there and back again safely, shall we?

I'm once again in the Vehicle Assembly Bay having massive hunks of steel attached and detached at random. My engineers make construction seem so easy, snapping parts off and on at my order. They must be really handy around the house, these Kerbals.

Adapting rockets is simple: I just pull up the schematics for PCG 1, the satellite already in orbit, and saw off the satellite part. Setting aside the lifting rockets, I get PCG 2 started with a new central pod. Every spacecraft needs a command module, but this time the module needs to support life and keep one of our highly trained Kerbal pilots from going splat-pop-sizzle. I bring in the Command Pod Mk. 1, a small, lightweight, single-Kerbal module that comes complete with a window. The luxury!

PCG 2 requires a few basics. I need the RCS and stability systems, as well as a battery and a few small solar panels. A small fuel tank and efficient engine wouldn't be enough to break Kerbin's gravity and reach orbit, but according to our scientists they'll work just fine to come down again. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, a parachute nose cone. This strip of silk will be the most crucial piece of equipment in the entire mission: smoking craters don't look very good in photo ops.

I get a tap on the shoulder, and it's an officer from our Kerbal Resources department. Uh-oh. Do I remember what happened last time? Yes, I do. Am I aware that there's a real live Kerbal on the rocket this time? Yes, I am. After a thorough scolding and a referral to our health insurance providers, I do myself a favor and double-check the staging, and it's a good thing I did. Sometimes disassembling a rocket can scramble the automatic staging set up by our computers, and another embarrassing mistake would have meant a lot of paperwork.

Once again, we're on the launch pad. Young go-getter Wildo Kerman drew the short straw in the pilots' lounge to fly this mission, so he's strapped in. The throttle's up. Let's make history.

Liftoff looks explosion-free, so 10 kilometers up I begin my gravity turn. Wildo doesn't do anything but scream the whole way up, so it's a good thing that I'm doing the flying. Once the high point of our projected orbit, the apoapsis, reaches an altitude of 100 kilometers, I kill the engines and coast to the top of the parabola.

I didn't spend much time talking about the navball on the last mission, but it's an important instrument. The navball is the steering wheel installed on all spacecraft, and it's not as daunting as it looks. The flight team hooked me up with some post-it notes explaining the situation: orange faces down to the planet, blue faces up to space. Once in orbit, the yellow circle points in the direction of movement, the yellow X points directly behind me. To speed up (and increase distance from Kerbin), I have to burn the engines in the direction I'm already facing. To slow down (and reduce distance from Kerbin), I turn around and burn the engines in the opposite direction.

Orbiting is one of the most bizarre phenomena in physics, and I had to take a special seminar to understand it. Basically, all objects fall toward the planet they're orbiting, from poorly launched rockets to apples falling out of trees. The trick to orbiting is to be going so fast in one direction that when you fall toward Kerbin... you miss the ground.

With this in mind, at the top part of my parabola, I point to the yellow circle and burn engines, increasing my speed. Soon I'll be going so fast that the lowest part of my orbit will be roughly the same altitude as the highest, and that will give Wildo Kerman a nice, circular orbit.

As the engines burn, I see the blue line representing my orbit climb out of the oceans of Kerbin and rise to meet the 100 kilometer mark. Kill the engines and separate the stages, we're in orbit! Wildo is the pride of a nation! He starts to sing a warbly, Kerbal cover version of “Space Oddity” until I threaten to vent the crew hatch and asphyxiate him.

Wildo circles the planet a few times, taking pictures and mooning the entire northern hemisphere. After a few rounds he's made his point and proved that Kerbals can survive space travel, so it's time to bring him back.

Engaging the RCS thrusters, I stabilize the rotating spacecraft and point it toward the yellow X on the navball, facing the engine against my orbit. As the rocket burns, Wildo's velocity slowly drops until he is falling back toward the planet like a regular old steel can. As the atmosphere approaches, I rotate the craft to point the command module down and engage my last separation stage. The fuel tank and engine pop free and move a safe distance away.

Left with only the command module, I rotate the fat, heat-resistant bottom to face the atmosphere. Wildo says his prayers and braces for reentry.

Flames lick up around the command pod, lighting up the night sky. Wildo's ship is going so fast that individual oxygen molecules can't get out of the way, and a thick pillow of them start to pile up. The oxygen gets so violently compressed that it bursts into flame. Within a few moments the craft has slowed down enough for the fire to die away, and we're through the worst of it.

I'm watching the whole business carefully when one of my flight engineers reminds me: “Here's the thing about altimeters,” he says, “they are filthy, filthy liars.” He's right: altimeters measure height above sea level, but mountains and flatlands at high elevation can be hundreds or thousands of meters above that.

It's bad luck, but we're headed for a landing right on top of a mountain range. Watching the altimeter is a sure way to end up with a greasy green smear on the side of a mountain, so I'll have to do this old-school: I spin the camera and watch the ground.

With jagged rocks filling my screens and my airspeed down to 200 meters per second, it's time to pop the parachute. Silk jumps into the sky above the craft and fills out, jerking our hero to a slow, gentle descent.

Wildo's capsule crashes down safely and rolls part way down the mountain. He climbs out, kisses sweet Kerbin dirt and becomes the first Kerbal to survive a trip to space. Government officials quickly begin plans to hold an elaborate parade in his honor.

The march of progress continues! Next week, I'll launch a space station into stable orbit to serve as a fueling depot for our eventual mission to put Kerbals on the Mün.

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