The star-chasing sandbox of Kerbal Space Program

“Let’s hope this works.”

Famous last words from the launch director, which are now running through the mind of Bob, the brave Kerbal astronaut perched atop a potential disaster. Because that “potential disaster” is, in actuality, a multi-staged spacecraft with more than 20 enormous rocket boosters. This is the machine Bob has been training all his (short little Kerbal) life to pilot; it is the machine that is now sitting on the launch pad, ready to ascend to the heavens. Or explode on ignition.

Unfortunately, this time, it’s the latter: a design oversight means an almighty kaboom as the first stage of booster rockets try to separate after use. Fortunately, the primary rocket (including Bob’s command module) is clear of the explosion, and he can eject the module, launch the parachute, and make an emergency landing in the bay just off the Kerbal Space Program’s headquarters.

The brilliance of Kerbal Space Program is in discovery. Without any primary objective beyond “explore space” and "build stuff," you’re given a garage full of rocket parts, a seemingly endless supply of eager wannabe astronauts to hurtle into the stars and license to make your own fun and solve your own problems.

I’ve spent time playing the demo version of the game, and while it’s fun, I’m also quite bad. It’s an engineering challenge to break out of the atmosphere and reach space. Many attempts to change my design and add more power have ended in abject failure or explosions on the launch pad. I could be tried for Kerbal genocide if it weren’t in the name of science and exploration.

However, my friend Steven (the launch director who uttered those famous last words above) has applied an engineer’s touch to the proceedings. I don’t have the patience for the fine details of rocket design – things like “proper staging” to ensure that rockets light and decouple in the correct order, or “making sure the ship is structurally sound” – but Steven revels in these details. I’ve stolen some ideas for my next forays into ship design.

When I recently joined him to see the status of his nascent space program, he was in the midst of figuring out how to save his national hero of an astronaut, Jeb. See, Steven had designed a rocket to try and explore the next planet over from Kerbal, Eve, but it was a great experiment, so things like “a return trip” weren’t factored in. Poor Jeb had touched down on the planet Eve, the first Kerbal to successfully do so, but was now stranded. So now Steven’s project was figuring out how to get another rocket to planet Eve, retrieve Jeb from the surface, and then to return back to Kerbal.

This gameplay loop - setting a goal, then solving the problems - is fantastic fun. This is a true “sandbox game”; this is the sort of emergent gameplay seen in games like Civilization. You create your own story and decide your fate. Want to go to the moon? Cool. Now, with the full version of KSP, you can also include landing craft, so recreating the Apollo moon missions is not out of order. Recent updates have also added parts to create jets, shuttles, and all sorts of other reusable spacecraft; there are stories online of people rocketing parts into orbit and building space stations…using the same methodology as in real life. Bring a part up, add it to the structure, return, repeat. You can also use a planet’s gravity to “slingshot” yourself around and aid in your journey. Steven hadn’t quite figured this out yet, so his usual course of action was launching from Kerbal pointing the right way to make it to the intended destination. Who wants to take the long way around a planet?

While mulling over the problem of Jeb, we decided to try for a home-run shot of another magnitude: A manned exploratory flight out to the planet Jool, a gas giant far away from Kerbal. This is how we found brave Bob sitting on the launch pad once more, as a second-generation Jool-bound rocket (beautiful in its simplicity, as opposed to the “LET’S STRAP MORE POWER TO IT!” approach that proved so explosive earlier) waited. This one worked – it broke atmosphere, Steven steered and throttled the ship into a proper course, and Bob settled into a bearing to meet Jool in its orbit in due time. Hundreds of millions of miles from home, this was truly a ground-breaking flight for Kerbal-kind.

When I bid farewell for the evening, Bob’s Jool-bound craft was still on its way. Later, I received a message from Steven. There had been further developments. “Made it to Jool,” he said. “Found out how to do slingshots.”

But his note included one last line. “Almost got Jeb’s rescue ship in orbit.” The tests continue.