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.
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.
It used to be that if you wanted to add some game to your space sandbox, Kethane was your main option. KSP's 0.22 update changes that slightly - thanks to a tech-tree focused career mode - but even now, Kethane's additions make for a much more detailed and involved campaign. It populates planets with the titular resource, and provides a series of new parts to help scan, mine and store it.
Kethane, while scarce, can be found buried beneath the surface of all planets and moons. Once scanned and successfully mined, it can be converted into fuel. That makes it a valuable resource for long-distance travel. With the correct setup, you're able to embark on missions to distant planets, gather up their kethane reserves, then convert it to fuel to power the next leg of your self-sustaining journey.
Install if: you want an intragalactic mining operation.
Most people won't need Kerbal Alarm Clock until they've already spent several hours in the game. But as your plans to colonise the galaxy become more grand, the demands on your attention are greatly increased. Get ambitious enough, and you'll be managing a persistent fleet of satellites, ships and space stations, all in need of controlled burns, docking procedures, and orbital transfers.
Kerbal Alarm Clock is the most effective way to manage that chaos. You can create alarms based on maneuver nodes, apoapsis, periapsis, closest approach between two vessels, and a variety of other options, all of which are displayed in a small list of on-screen countdowns. Each alarm call can be assigned to its target ship - or a specific Kerbalnaut - meaning you always know what needs doing, and where. You can even set alarms based on Earth time, with messages like, "no seriously, go to bed now."
Install if: you enjoy spinning plates.
If you still think MechJeb is cheating, take a look at HyperEdit. It is cheating. Install it, tap Alt+H, and you're given a menu full of options that let you tweak and edit the game. With a few clicks, you can teleport your craft to the orbit of any planet on the solar system, then use the landing options to gracefully touch down.
Alternatively, you can instantly replenish your fuel, obliterate a selected craft, or readjust Kerbin's gravity to make escaping its atmosphere unnaturally difficult. HyperEdit is a flexible toolbox that, when used without restriction, completely destroys the difficulty. With a little imagination, though, you can use it to create your own custom scenarios. It's as simple as popping an abandoned craft on a distant planet, and suddenly you've got the basis for a tricky retrieval mission.
Install if: you don't like trying.
Like Chatterer, Universe Replacer doesn't add new parts or features. Instead, it expands KSP's potential for atmospheric exploration by letting you change the game's textures to customise its look. By placing png files in its 'Textures' folder, you can create new surfaces for planets and moons, give ship parts a new paintjob, or swap out the skins of your Kerbals.
If, like me, your artistic skills don't extend much further than crudely writing on planets, the community have already done the hard work. A number of retextured files have been shared online, many of them catalogued by Reddit's r/KSPTexturePacks. If you're looking for some recommendations, Celestial Bodies Revamped provides a nice planetary upgrade, and these custom Kerbals have a lovely '50s feel.
Install if: you want prettier planets.
So far, this list has focused on mods that add things, improve things, or make things that little bit easier. Masochists: I've been neglecting you. I'll make it up with FAR, which completely reworks KSP's aerodynamics to better simulate rocket drag and aeroplane lift. What that means in real terms is that will crash more. A lot more.
A new Flight System widget keeps track of just how much trouble you are in. Climb too sharply in your spaceplane, for instance, and it will inform you when minor stalls occur - something that becomes more visually apparent when you experience a major stall. To help you get to grips with these new laws of physics, a selection of pre-built vehicles can be loaded to give you an idea of their best building practices.
Install if: you found rocket science too easy.
KSP's EVA (extra-vehicular activity) options are great. Pop a Kerbal out of his ship and you can make data readings, plant flags, and… er, jump about a bit? Okay, currently they're pretty limited. That's something the Kerbal Attachment System mod is designed to fix, and it does so through an ingenious array of tools that your Kerbals can interact with once they've landed their vessel.
The parts KAS adds are designed to be securely fixed to the ground. Through them, your Kerbals can bolt together winches, struts and pipes to build elevators, cranes and anchorings. This lets you create off-world pit-stops, performing resource transfers, permanent base construction and vehicle towing. All of the new parts will fit inside of containers, which can be attached to your ship for easy interplanetary travel.
Install if: you like to go hands on.
The misspelling of laser never stops being annoying, but Lazor System offers more than enough features to make up for it. Installing one of its laser modules enables a variety of effects, from the mundane but useful, to the spectacular but impossible. The docking camera, for instance, gives you a greater view of a tricky orbital procedure. The tractor beams, on the other hand, are less routed in sensible science.
It gets stranger still. A teleportation system lets you beam Kerbals down to a planet's surface, while the remote resource transfer can warp fuel across a 10 km gap. An included achievement system will also track your greatest moments, be they through hard work or sci-fi futurism. For the less pacifistic among you. Bombs, missiles and weaponised lasers can unleash destruction on the once peaceful worlds.
Install if: you really like Star Trek.
KMP has been out for less than a month, and its creators stress that the current build is a highly experimental alpha. Still, it's a multiplayer mod for KSP, so I couldn't not include it. Things will go wrong and it will regularly refuse to load, but on the occasions that it does work, the experience of loading into a universe that's teeming with life makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Because there's no server browser, you'll have to load manually enter your intended destination. A quick internet search will bring up a few dedicated communities that are already exploring in tandem. Alternatively, a separate download gives you the option to start your own server. Once you're together with a group of people, head to the Tracking Station to see what they've been up to.
Install if: you want a multinational space program.