Kerbal Space Program chronicle, part three — Coconut Monkey presents Fuel Trader

Ian Birnbaum

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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, here are Part One and Part Two .

Last time, Wildo Kerman earned a spot in the history books by becoming the first Kerbal to survive the rigors of spaceflight. Now, our attention wanders deeper into space to our nearest neighbor, the Mün.

To break completely free of Kerbin's orbit, though, requires a lot of fuel. My rocket scientists tell me that there are two ways to go about this. I can make an incredibly huge rocket to get all the way to the Mün in one shot, or I can just get a regular rocket into orbit and refuel it from an orbiting station.

Designing colossal rockets has never been my strong suit, and I watched way too much Deep Space Nine, so it's decided: we'll be setting up Coconut Monkey Space Station, a permanent orbital station that will serve as a fueling stop for our eventual mission to the Mün. It will be the system's first 7-11 stocked with premium rocket fuel and lottery scratch-off tickets, a vital stop for future flights in space.

We head down to the Vehicle Assembly Bay and hey, woah! This place looks amazing! Apparently the ground support team found time to redecorate and, well, rebuild the entire complex since last week. Nice job, guys. Love what you've done with the walls.

The rocket design nerds already have a prototype done up, and it's nice and simple. A pair of solar arrays, a full complement of batteries, a spacious living module and a docking hub: everything a permanent space station could need.

I've been attending a lot of conferences with other rocket designers, and my favorite new trick is a simple one: I attach spare fuel tanks to the support clamps and hose them in. Now I can ignite the engines and bring them to full burn without wasting any on-board fuel. Does it help get into orbit? No one's sure, but it definitely looks cool.

What once felt like a major achievement has now become routine: I launch the base module for Coconut Monkey Space Station into orbit. Remember when that was a huge deal? Life was simpler back then.

In a solid, circular orbit, I extend the solar panels and turn on the scientific instruments. Kerbin now has a resident living permanently off-world. He tells me over the radio that he ran up a bunch of credit card debt before he left because bill collectors will never find him now. He cries when I tell him I'll be rotating the crew every few months, poor guy.

I head back to the Vehicle Assembly Bay. The construction teams tear off the space station portion of the CMSS plans and reattach a giant fuel tank in its place. They throw on some solar panels, a remote control hub and a docking port, then leave early for the pub. It may be a crucial piece of our plan for a Mün landing, but a complicated design it is not. It's a metal can full of rocket fuel.

Now comes the part of the mission I've been dreading: docking. Orbital rendezvous and docking are incredibly tense procedures, and the margin for error is minimal. Go a little too fast, a little too high, and fuel gets wasted, objects get lots in orbit and, sometimes, everything explodes.

Someone has written on a chalkboard, Objects in higher orbits will circle a planet slower than objects in lower orbits . Got it. In order to make my station and my fuel tank meet, I need them at different orbits. Bringing them to the same orbit would make them stay the same distance from each other, circling forever.

I launch the unmanned fuel tank to an orbit about 20% lower than CMSS, then watch as the two ships circle Kerbin and gradually get closer to each other. When they're pretty close, I open a maneuver node and start fiddling with dials.

The maneuver nodes are programs in the flight computer that let me plan changes to orbit speed, inclination and attitude. When I've got it lined up just right and the computer thinks we'll have a pretty close intersection, I approve the node and line up. When the node arrives, I just point at the target and burn engines until the computer tells me to stop.

Success! I'm now on track for a nice, close intercept of 3.9 kilometers. As mission control watches the two craft orbit the planet, the intersection gets closer and closer. When they're as close as they'll ever get, I point the engines against orbit and burn until our relative velocities match perfectly, giving the illusion of motionlessness. Both ships are still tearing around Kerbin at thousands of meters per second, of course, but compared to each other, they're standing still. It's in this relative-velocity neighborhood that orbital maneuvers can take place.

At this point, I decouple the lifting engine from the spare fuel tank. Without the extra mass, the fuel tank alone will be much more maneuverable and easier to dock. Pointing at the station, now a little over three kilometers away, I use the on-board thrusters to close the distance.

When the distance closes to just a few dozen meters, the real horror begins. Switching between control of the tank and CMSS, I line up the docking ports and lock the orientation controls. Then I carefully, carefully close the distance. If I mess up, there will be a huge explosion and I'll have to start again. Plus, HR will be all over me like never before.

I come in slightly off-center and the docking rings kiss at an angle and just hang there for a moment. I don't breathe.

The sections snap together and suddenly I have a refueling station. Phew.

Deep breath. Now... I have to do it all again. The second time is even worse because the stakes have just gotten that much higher. If I mess up now, it's three missions I have to fly over again. I'm incredibly stressed. Lazy Kerbals should do their own flying, see how they like it.

The second tank comes in a little crooked as well, but I back up, adjust and try again. Everything snaps together without incident, and just like that: Coconut Monkey Space Station is ready for business. CMSS will now help refuel flights on their way to the Mün and, possibly, even further.

Next week: the first manned flight to the Mün blasts off, and I try desperately to keep everyone alive.

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