You know that phrase you sometimes hear your coach roll out, when you’re attempting something challenging? Maybe making a three-point jump-shot or turning a 6-4-3 double play? “This ain’t rocket science!” Your face reddens. You redouble your efforts and try again. And again. There’s a reason why it stings. You know what you’re trying to do is not so difficult. Lots of people have done it before you. But rocket science! Rocket science is hard. Really hard. So hard that we use it as the stick by which we measure all other difficult challenges.
Spaceflight has fascinated me for a long time. That’s not really surprising. You grow up in the space age, and such fascinations are bound to happen to a few of us. That fascination has extended into a lot of different interests and hobbies.
My most recent engagement with spaceflight came on the heels of NASA’s announcement of liquid water on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. I started playing Kerbal Space Program. KSP is a sandbox game currently in development. As a player, you control a nascent space program operated by Kerbals (rhymes with gerbils), a race of small green humanoids, who have constructed a fully functional spaceport, Kerbal Space Center. KSC bears a striking resemblance to Kennedy Space Center back here on Earth. At KSP, you build rockets and spaceplanes. You stage them on the pad and hit ignition. Once you’re in flight, you execute the proper maneuvers to establish your desired orbits. KSP uses a very sophisticated physics engine to model all of this: thrust, drag, aerodynamic forces, material strengths are all accurately represented. Planets have different atmospheres that affect the efficiency of wings and parachutes. The physics engine is accurate enough that real-world spaceflight techniques are viable methods to get around. For example, you use Hohmann transfer orbits to transit the Mun and aerobraking to return to Kerbin. Gravity-assist slingshots, geosynchronous orbits, and orbital docking maneuvers are all possible.
It’s fascinating and extremely empowering to have the entire solar system at your fingertips. It is also extremely humbling. When I began playing, I roughly modeled my attempts after the historical progression. Could I get a rocket off the ground? Could I establish a stable orbit? Could I establish a polar orbit? Could I start in one orbit and move to another? I tried these things– and failed more than a few times– while being fully aware that I was reproducing experiments with more than half a century of real world spaceflight experience to support me. The technological advancements in computing in that same time interval are also immense. But that doesn’t make things any easier.
Even with the deck stacked so far in my favor, the most basic tasks were challenging. I’m emphasizing this to reinforce just how difficult spaceflight is. And how rewarding it can be when it succeeds. Kerbal Space Program makes these points with crystal clarity. It’s an extremely challenging, and thus extremely rewarding sandbox to play in and it has completely captured my imagination.
There was a time in world history when rocket scientists were heroes, and I wonder sometimes if the lustre of their accomplishments has been lost. Do we now think of GPS satellites and pictures of Titan as somehow ordinary– pedestrian. My enthusiasm about a manned mission to Mars is, in part, an attempt to enkindle human imagination toward a seemingly impossible goal and then achieve it.
When I started writing this post, I started making a list of space-related points of my childhood. My sister’s birthday is the second anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. In grade school, I had a Space:1999 metal lunch box. I designed and built my own LEGO models of the Apollo Command Module and Lunar Lander. My friend Jim and I flew Estes rockets, and even took a trip to Penrose to the company headquarters for specific kits. In 1980, I watched Carl Sagan on Cosmos on PBS; I read the book the next summer, and still own it. I still have a copy of the Feb 10, 1986 Time magazine the cover of which is the dramatic photograph of the Challenger shuttle explosion.
In the last couple years, Mooch and I have played several sessions of High Frontier, a spaceflight boardgame by Phil Eklund. When Eklund is not working as a game designer, he works as an aerospace engineer and rocket scientist. Smokes and I watched live as Felix Baumgartner broke the sound barrier in freefall during the Red Bull Stratos project. And just today, Randall Munroe commented in his webcomic xkcd on his dramatic increase in understanding orbital mechanics through playing KSP despite the fact that he worked at NASA for several years.
So now I’m looking to the heavens. I’m queueing up “An der schönen blauen Donau” by Johann Strauss, strapping my Kerbals into their command module and lighting the fuse. Come with me.