Spend some time around the Kerbal Space Program community and you'll see a lot of parallels to Minecraft's early days. Here players are building spaceships and launching them into the universe rather than building home out of blocks, but both are great sandboxes full of creative potential for building, exploring and picking apart each new update. Just like Notch's blocky playground, when people encounter something missing - whether its a feature, a ship part, or an aesthetic preference - they turn to mods to set things right.
There are hundreds of tweaks and additions on Kerbal SpacePort (KSP's mod repository), ranging from specific parts to wide-ranging overhauls. The good news is that they're easy to install. Just extract the mod's main folder into the GameData folder of KSP's directory. As for what to install, here are twelve of the best mods available today.
If you're writing about Kerbal Space Program mods, then MechJeb is an obligatory inclusion. Install it and you'll find a new 'AR202 Case', which, when attached to your ship, enables a full autopilot system. The flexibility it offers is remarkable, and your mechanised Jebediah can manoeuvre and adjust with a precision unmatched by human fingers crudely bashing a keyboard.
Inevitably then, there's a schism between those who see MechJeb as an essential part of the game, and those who view it as cheating. Personally, I'd argue that its more an expression of what makes KSP's sandbox part of the game so enjoyable. There are enough ways to plan, customise and expand your space program that the flying part can become an unnecessary distraction for those who want to take the wider view. And MechJeb's array of panels, and the extra information they provide, can make it a useful installation even if you aren't running on autopilot.
Install if: you keep pointing your rockets at the sea.
Chatterer has the dual honour of being both one of my favourite Kerbal Space Program mods, and one of the most pointless. It doesn't add any new things to discover, challenges to unlock or parts to try. Instead, it plays radio chatter. Using audio taken from NASA, and remixing it to sound like the nonsense babbling you'd expect from the game's green astronauts, Chatterer adds an extra level of accuracy to your orbital endeavors. Periodically - based on the interval frequency you've chosen - these garbled transmissions will be played, and then, sometimes, you'll hear a beep. It's pretty game changing stuff.
I'm only half joking. The lack of these quiet, stilted communications isn't something you notice until you've heard them used in the game. It's a lovely touch that gives your exploration a more authentic feel. And here's a quick tip for even more verisimilitude: download the proper Quindar tones, as heard during the Apollo Moon landing, and add them into the mod's 'beeps' folder. It's instant space atmosphere.
Install if: you have ears.
B9 Aerospace Pack
Kerbal Space Program's pages of parts can be initially overwhelming, but spend some time with the game and you'll start to see the limitations. This is where parts packs come in. Rather than adding new features, they increase your options and let you pursue more esoteric ship designs.
I haven't spent much time in the game's spaceplane hangar, because strapping giant rockets to a thing is easier than crafting aerodynamic aviation that's capable of achieving orbit. For those that have, the B9 Aerospace Pack is one of the most expansive content collections available. It vastly increases the number of construction tools available, adding new engines, fuselage systems, wings, intakes and more. The latest update organises parts into a tech tree, meaning it works with the game's new career mode too.
If you want an idea of what's possible in B9, take a look at this gallery of 'inspirational images', taken by the mod's makers.
Install if: you prefer runways to launchpads.
Another parts pack, this time with a focus on rockets. KW Rocketry was originally designed to offer a more balanced selection of fuel tanks and engines, but has since expanded in scope. While the parts list still focuses on launch vehicles, each component has a custom texture, and each engine a custom sound. More significant are the fairings options, which let you protect your payload in an aerodynamic casing. That's helpful if you don't want to precariously bolt your satellite to the top of a G-force generating explosion.
As with the B9 Aerospace Pack, KW Rocketry has been recently updated to support KSP 0.22's career mode. The mod makers have sensibly sprinkled their parts through the tech-tree, ensuring continued balance to modded campaigns.
Install if: you want a more phallic class of rocket.