They flew a freaking Kerbal to the International Space Station

A Kerbal flying into space.
(Image credit: Boeing)

Kerbal Space Program is a simulation game, released on Steam early access in 2013, where players take charge of an embryonic space program crewed by Kerbals. These little green humanoid-y things are pretty charming, and one of the game's joys is watching these muppet-ish characters come up against the game's extremely in-depth physics system: if your skill level is anything like mine, it often doesn't go well for them.

But I imagine Boeing's engineers are pretty good at the game, and indeed seem to love it. The company's Starliner capsule recently docked with the International Space Station, and it had brought a surprise passenger along for the ride: Jebediah Kerman, one of the four original Kerbals from the game, was strapped-in next to a humanoid test dummy (thanks, Engadget).

I suppose this somewhat fits the Starliner narrative: the project's had a few high-profile failures and in the popular perception lags some way behind other private space exploration endeavours such as SpaceX. Various mishaps followed by a successful launch certainly sounds like Kerbal Space Program.

This is also something of a tradition in space flight. The first successful cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, carried a small doll with him to watch it float when he entered orbit in 1961. This practical application, using a toy as a 'zero-g indicator', persisted: following his flight Gagarin was later gifted a Geisha doll in Japan, which three decades later Japanese journalist Toyohiro Akiyama would take into space. The first teddy bear in space, Magellan T. Bear, went up in 1995 and is now in the Smithsonian.

Boeing told CollectSpace that "Jeb's presence aboard the Starliner was kept a secret until the uncrewed capsule successfully docked to space station. He was left for the station's Expedition 67 crew to discover floating on the end of a tether when they opened the hatch to the commercial spacecraft."

The Boeing engineers in the past have spoken about Kerbal Space Program as something of an inspiration, a game that encourages kids towards an interest in the field. Jeb will spend the next few days on-board the ISS until it is returned to Earth in Starliner.

I'm not really sure what else to say about this other than: boffins gonna boffin.

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Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."