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(Not) Rocket Science In Kerbal Space Program

Trans-Lunar Gaming Scotsman

There is nothing wrong in not being very good at Kerbal Space Program. Being bad at it is a state almost everyone will be in for a very long time indeed. Join me in admitting how tough it is. The elite rocketmen will sneeringly deride your honesty, saying: "It's not rocket science", but then you can point to the tube of metal and fuel that you've spent hours preparing, and then point to the sky, and it'll dawn on them that it definitely is rocket science, and that everyone is in fact laughing at them.

Anyway, I've spent the day playing KSP and I'm not very good at it.

Your mission in KSP is to build a rocket capable of escaping the planet Kerbin's orbit and exploring the solar system. But KSP's tutorial only imparts odd chunks of knowledge. You'll be able to build a basic ship that's able to touch orbit, but it won't land. You'll be told how to manoeuvre a craft from orbit into another planet or moon's gravitational grasp, but you won't know what all the various parts do in the vehicle assembly building. It's one of those games where the tutorial is well-meaning, but leaves you confused and disoriented when you try to apply what it taught you, because it only covers the basics. And that's sort of the point.

This part of the game is interested only in getting the Kerbalnaut into orbit, and all that takes is a command pod, a rocket, and some fuel. They're all clicked easily into place in the vehicle assembly building, a sort of shop and ship-builder in one. It reminds me of Spore's Creature Creator. No safety precautions are taken, of coursem but then the tutorial doesn't have to look at the smiling face of Jebediah Kerman in the bottom corner of the screen. I did. I built the tutorial ship and launched it, jabbing at the surprisingly simple controls: throttle and various directional prods that aren't much more complicated than an FPS. I was with Jebediah all the way, the pair of us grinned as we thrust through the atmosphere and into the edge of space, his smile mirrored in the slice of Kerbin that poked up from the bottom of the screen. We were one as we watched the blue day peel away and the stars wink into place.

The orbit wasn't quite enough to keep the ship 'up', though: it slowly tilted towards the ground, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. All the while the idiot Kerbalnaut was still emoting happily at me. I stabbed at my keyboard (and reminded myself for the millionth time that I had Stickykeys enabled). I swiveled the craft, hoping that the additional forces would knock him unconscious. Nothing worked, and he grinned all the way to his death.

RIP, Jebediah Kerman. You were one of the good ones. I vowed then to never risk another Kerbalnaut.

KSP really requires a second monitor. Right now I have the controls wiki, and this video series open on mine.

I could hug you, Wernher Von Kerman. It's a bit out-of-date, but the basics of the game remain the same. Along with the command pod, rocket, and fuel, all I needed was an Advanced S.A.S. module to enable flight control, a decoupler to uncouple the command pod, and a parachute. I took off, we hit orbit, I hit "space" and the pod split from the fuel tank, and as it plummeted back to the surface the parachute popped open and slowed the drop. Why the tutorial doesn't go that extra few steps is bizarre, but the above series honestly took me from scared to cautiously optimistic. I felt more Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 than Tom Hanks in The 'Burbs.

Believe it or not, but I consider that wonky, looping flight path a success

So it gave me the confidence to take on an orbital transfer to the Mün. This is where I figured I'd mess up, because it involves understanding complicated flight paths, but Kerbal had me covered. In space a press of 'M' will pop-up a map of the solar system. It's a functional overview that allows you to control the craft while looking at the bigger picture. That's a huge boost, as it enables the player to predict their orbit. Maneuvering up here is functionally the same as the on the planet: you can thrust, and control the yaw and tilt of the craft. But unlike in the atmosphere, you'll need to counter every move with an opposite thrust to arrest the movement.

It's not like Elite, where moving from the planet to the moon is a case of pointing the craft at it and speeding up. Kerbal requires you to swap orbits, increasing the ellipse around Kerbin until you get close enough to the Mün for its gravity to capture the craft. That involves a few considerations: your prograde and retrograde vectors, which basically means where your velocity is taking you and where the opposite of that would be. They're marked on the craft's navball. You'll mostly use these to alter your apoapsis and parapsis, the highest and lowest points of your orbit. Confusingly, in order to raise the apoapsis you'll need to thrust towards the prograde vector while at the parapsis.

It's one of those concepts that becomes second-nature when you've had a shot at it, but sounds horrendous when written down. Don't panic. It's just terminology, and the instruments in the craft are there to help. The Advanced SAS is really handy in this case, enabling you to aim the craft knowing that if things get a bit too spinny, all you need to do is hit "T" and it'll stabilise.

You should take further comfort in the knowledge that I, yes me, made it to Mün orbit. It took a few goes, because once again the tutorial fumbled a required nugged of information (it told me to aim at the moon, but didn't really explain the best way to do so), but I eventually managed to align all those elements and burn the craft out to Mün orbit. I watched as the ellipses changed, and instead of immediately circling my home planet, I was in the grip of its child. I celebrated as a NASA technician would, before noticing I was zooming past it: I'd forgotten to slow down. But that wasn't the end. There was no script at that moment. Just me and everything I'd learned. I swung the craft around and burned fast and hard. I hadn't pushed too far off course, and achingly crept back into position. I was in orbit.

What now? I still have to learn how to land, which my brain tells me I should have known before I got into the ship, and I expect the tutorial to only show me 50% of that, so instead I'm going to watch more of Wernher Von Kerman's series before even attempting it. There's a lot more to KSP than I first realised. It seems like the solar system is persistent, so it's possible to leave 'bases' on planets and return to them. This is exciting and frightening: I'm not sure I can be a fully functional human being and know what Kerbal's capable of.

But now I need some help. Any must-have mods, or a mod-manager? I'm thinking higher-res textures and a camera helper for taking screenshots, and something that might help automate a few systems. The community site doesn't really have a helpful tag system, and search has failed me. Is any of what I want possible? I don't want to add new ships or big old hunks of equipment until I'm comfortable, but if there's a 'must-have', I'll absolutely toss it on my equipment pile.

Help me reach the stars, people.

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About the Author
Craig Pearson avatar

Craig Pearson


I love square sausage, cats, and climbing pretend rocks.

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