Monday, July 22, 2013

It's not just a game, it's an addiction!

Kerbal Space Program. That is my crack these days.

It all started quite a few months ago when a friend stopped by, we don't get to catch up much anymore and over the course of the night he told me about this new game he had bought on steam, it isn't even out yet, it's still in development! He also told me it is highly addictive and once you sit down to play it, the next thing you know is that half the day has gone by.

He wasn't kidding either. I'm an engineer by training, so anything that lets me build stuff is always dangerous.

So Kerbal Space Program (KSP), is basically this: You are on the planet Kerbal, you have these little green guys (Kerbals) and they have built a space center. There is a tracking station (to let you pick any ships already in space and do things with them), A Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) and a Hanger like assembly building to build aircraft and rocket planes (this portion still has the most development to do, so I haven't been using it).

You have a bunch of parts, sub-assemblies is more like it really, and you put them together to build space ships. Which you then launch and fly into orbit. Or to the Mun (Kerbal has two moons actuall, Mun is the closet). Or to one of the other planets (there are two planets closer to the sun, three or four farther out - many of which have moons, one of which is a Jupiter analog and has about six moons). And all of this is in relativistic space with full physics.

Oh, and there are no instructions, yet. A few tutorial videos made by those who have gone before us, but that's it. It's still in dev remember.

It took me a few tries to get a ship built that could achieve orbit and stay there. My BSEE included a LOT of physics courses, so I have an advantage over a lot of folks. Docking is an art form in that you have the most basic of computers and the camera angles can change at random and there is no 'cockpit view' which for a pilot like me makes it really hard. It took me literally weeks to master it. But I did it, and can still do it if pressed to (like last night), but one of the nice things about KSP is the ability to make modules for it, or download them. So I downloaded 'MechJeb' which is basically a flight computer, and a mod my friend wrote that contains a fuel cell powered by electricity.

MechJeb is great because I no longer have to fly my ship into orbit. Or land it. I just call up the 'console' that does it, program in the data and let it go. As taking off and getting into orbit takes about a half hour, you can understand how helpful this is. Same for landing. I can go do something else while that takes place and just take a look every so often to make sure things are progressing properly and don't need human intervention.

Docking especially so. Docking can take hours! I'm not kidding on that either. Even with the docking program running things it can still take an hour. Last night took me I think four, and I was using the autopilot on and off - the ship was too big and had some render issues apparently which was driving the autopilot crazy. But big ships move slow. So I would let the autopilot run it for a while, then jump on and make some corrections, then back to autopilot. Except for the last hour, that was all by hand. I'll come back to that.

So at this point in KSP I have sent probes to every planet, and landed actual people on every planet but two. I have had to rethink and build special landers to rescue stranded astronauts (asto-kerbals?) from planets that there lander could not take off from. I even sent a swarm of 22 rovers to Eve to try and blanket the planet for fun. Due to a bug in the program I have lost about a half of those on re-entry at this point. KSP doesn't handle MIRV'ed landers very well. If they spread out too far, they are automatically deleted in atmosphere. As it took me days in realtime to get the space ship carring all those rovers, it was a little annoying. You can speed up time in KSP, but when you have a ship that is made up of 1500 parts, well it chugs along really slowly. 10 rl seconds to make one game second. So speeding it up 10,000 times doesn't help all that much on a year long voyage. Especially when you have to do course corrections and delta V-burns in order to end up in orbit around your destination.

I tell you I have really learned a lot about orbital mechanics and insertion burns over the last month.

So at this point I have been to all the planets, have flags on almost all of them, and probes on all of them. I even have some automated fuel station satellites around some of the further planets and a couple of (now empty) rescue vehicles out there should I need to use them again. I may download one of the modules that has habitat stuff and start launching those into space and see about colonizing a few of the other planets, but we will see.

My current project has been to build 'stupid space ships'. One is a massive launcher so big that it can burn straight out of orbit on a direct flight without having to do a Holtzman's transfer or any other fuel saving activity. Of course half the time it blows up on ascent; with so many struts and parts on it, it only takes one failure of a linkage somewhere and the whole thing starts to come apart. A quick staging action will save the upper stages, but then you've still lost all that speed, so that sort of defeats the purpose.

The next 'stupid ship' was one that had the command module buried in the bottom of the rocket between the boosters and was one really large and interconnected tank with a loooooong probe boom off the top. Difficult to fly, but easier once you jettisoned the boom (which could be controlled remotely). The third stupid ship was a bunch of tanks in a cross pattern with a central tank that they were all attached to. I put engines out on the arms to counter the stresses they'd be seeing during ascent, and a lot of struts to keep the thing from tearing itself apart. Amazingly enough, it actually made it into orbit.

So I made it the hub of my newest space station, and I took my stupid rocket number 2 (actually two of them) and docked them to two of the four arms to start on making a truly large and ugly space station. I think I spent 10 hrs doing that yesterday, I'll see if I can't add a few pictures so you can see what I'm talking about.

So if you like building things and have an interest in space KSB is definitely something you might want to stay away from. Or you'll end up losing days of free time running your own little space program.