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

The whole flight lasted less than a minute, and proved nearly fatal to my crew and my mission. On the other hand, the fuel was correctly draining from the tanks in sequence, so the asparagus staging works. On balance, I'll call that a win.

Things I need to do, in order of priority: one, switch out my crew so that I can only kill one of the original three per trip. I do that. Two, redesign my ship so as to cut down on the acrobatics. This is trickier, and requires an almost complete redesign. I bolt one small and two mid-sized fuel tanks underneath the capsule, each separated by an engine and decoupler, then surround the tube with six of the game's biggest boosters. To that I add aerodynamic cones, support struts, cables and parachutes. Finally, I place 'RCS' thrusters: small multidirectional propulsion nodes designed to allow for turning and finetuning. My hope is that they'll help nullify the fact that my ship's centre of lift is still not central. The space vessel Fly Up You Bastard Mk 1 is complete.

I've played KSP enough to know the launch procedure from memory. I need to head straight up to 10,000m, turn into orbit, wait until the apoapsis (the highest point of my trajectory) is projected for 75,000m, cut the thrusters, drift towards the apex, boost to extend the orbit, escape Kerbin's gravity and start the slingshot toward the Mun. It's an elegant, efficient and masterfully cool procedure.

None of those words can be used to describe what actually happens, though. I kick the thrusters into full power for launch, and they instantly begin to overheat. While I'm busy managing my power output, the ship starts to spin. With the rocket too heavy to effectively use the RCS's rotational thrusters, I'm forced to tap tiny directional adjustments to keep it on an orbital trajectory. Stuck playing Dance Dance Revolution with the keyboard, I'm unable to check my course on the orbital map. By the time it's cajoled into stability, I'm on course to rise 160,000m above the surface.

It's wasteful, but not disastrous. I cut the thrusters and, while waiting for the ship to reach its elevated apoapsis, I replot a course for the Mun. I should be able to do a long, controlled burn and extend out the ship's flight path to put it in line for a direct encounter. Instead, less than halfway through the burn, my first-stage central fuel tank runs out. I've still got two tanks left, but both are attached to dramatically less powerful engines. The action takes longer than planned and, by the time it's done, the ship is only narrowly on course. What once was a near-collision is now barely a drive-by.

There's a long ride before we hit that point, which gives me time to plan a retrograde burn that will take us back towards the Mun's orbit. It's going to be tight: the navball's plotter wants 11 seconds of engine fire, but the current fuel tank shows only a sliver of remaining thrust. The planned manoeuvre is so unstable that, during the journey, the projected flight path flickers between two theoretical outcomes.

In the end neither one happens, and what does doesn't make a lot of sense. As predicted, the fuel tank empties moments before the burn is complete. I'm not in full orbit, but I'm close enough that the final half-sized tank should be able to handle the small burst of thrust needed to make the adjustment and still have enough remaining to descend to the Mun's surface. I hit spacebar to detach the spent tank. The entire ship disintegrates. Er, what? I've now lost the final fuel tank, it's engine and the RCS reserve fuel. These were all things that I needed for basic actions like moving. No, seriously, what?

The capsule is heading towards escape velocity, at which point there's no telling where it might go. Jebediah, my onboard commander, will essentially be lost. Not dead, but unreachable, on some erratic and lopsided orbit around Kerbin. I do the only thing I can think of to keep him in play. I eject him into space.

Each astronaut has a jetpack, and Jeb is carrying enough fuel in his to nudge his tiny mass into orbit around the Mun. This doesn't entirely help me. Rescuing him would likely be more difficult than my current mission. But he's not dead, and, more importantly, his gormless grin lets me know that he's happy with the situation.

The impromptu spacewalk has given me an idea. Back at the vehicle assembly hanger I load up the previous rocket, readjust the staging, and replace the vessel's nose cone with a smaller, upside down capsule. I add a fuel tank and engine, both the wrong way up, and attach the relevant RCS modules and landing arms. Essentially, there's a second, tiny rocket bolted on top of the first one. At every stage, fuel capacity has been my downfall (that, and human error). My new plan is to send three astronauts to the moon's orbit, transfer my chosen pioneer to the one-man capsule, detach the two ships, and ride the lighter one – with its unspent fuel tank – down to the surface. All that's required is for me to not make any mistakes.

Phil Savage

Phil has been writing for PC Gamer for nearly a decade, starting out as a freelance writer covering everything from free games to MMOs. He eventually joined full-time as a news writer, before moving to the magazine to review immersive sims, RPGs and Hitman games. Now he leads PC Gamer's UK team, but still sometimes finds the time to write about his ongoing obsessions with Destiny 2, GTA Online and Apex Legends. When he's not levelling up battle passes, he's checking out the latest tactics game or dipping back into Guild Wars 2. He's largely responsible for the whole Tub Geralt thing, but still isn't sorry.