Archives for category: Video Games

Shelley Base Complete
Extraplanetary construction is no joke. I have been been working on this thing for over a month. It is the most ambitious project I’ve undertaken in KSP so far. And it has been immensely rewarding. My goal was to build a modular moon base on the surface of Minmus that included several major modules: Command, Communications, Science and ISRU. This is Shelley Base. It’s named after the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. For those keeping track, Keats Station was named after John Keats.

I looked at a number of approaches for moon bases. The simplest would be to just settle a collection of landers roughly near each other and call it a base. Fair, as far as it goes, but not really a construction project. Another solution would be to utilize some of the base-specific mod part packs. These are appealing, and I may look into this in the future. But this time around, I wanted to work with parts I was already familiar with. I wanted a station that was contiguous, where my kerbonauts could move from section to section without needing to go outside. I wanted it to stand on its own legs above the surface. And I wanted it to look cool.

This left me with the third choice. I could try to adapt the orbital construction techniques I practiced with Keats Station and Atlantis 1 to microgravity. I looked at Kerbal Planetary Base Systems, USI Kolonization Systems (MKS/OKS) and the Stockalike Station Parts Expansion before deciding on a combination of parts from the Stockalike Station Parts Expansion and Near Future Construction. I was familiar with these parts from the Atlantis project and I’ve really grown to like the aesthetic of them when used together.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The next step was coming up with a design. I knew the features that I wanted to include. I wanted a generally horizontal layout– like my early Minmus station design. I tried out a number of configurations until I settled on something I liked. The next step was more challenging. It’s easy to just click parts together in the Vehicle Assembly Building or the Spaceplane Hanger. The difficult part is breaking the design up into modular pieces. I had to ensure that the pieces could been lifted into orbit independently, had appropriate connection points for construction, and didn’t make a rocket overwhelmingly unwieldy.

Shelly Skycrane w/ Hab Module LandedIn parallel, I worked on designs for two construction vehicles: a skycrane and a crawler. The skycrane lifts modules from orbit to the surface. The crawler moves modules into the required positions on the ground.

The crawler design was straightforward. I needed something low and flat that could fit underneath my modules to attach. Modules need just enough clearance for the crawler and then the docking modules would lock them together. The modules permanent landing legs serve double purpose as a jack. When the legs are retracted the entire piece settles onto the wheels on the ground and can be driven into correct position. When the legs are deployed, the docking port just barely clears the port on the crawler. I experimented with various wheel configurations. I used different wheel types and placements to make standard, high- and low-riding crawlers. I even designed a crawler using Infernal Robotics that allowed for a form of variable clearance. In the end the small mid-range crawler functioned most consistently– but introduced the requirement that all the base modules must have almost exactly the same clearance underneath. That affected the overall base design.

Shelley Skycrane w/ Connection Tube on Descent 1The skycrane design was more complicated. I knew rough dimensions required for the skycrane’s engines to clear the expected cargo. I estimated my requirements to include safely landing 15-25 metric tons of cargo from orbit, return to orbit and rendezvous with orbital spacecraft. How to find the proper balance of thrust, loaded weight, unloaded weight, control and fuel reserves to handle the specific tasks? I anticipated staging a fuel depot in orbit to allow for multiple surface trips; it was the capacity testing that was challenging. The intended sphere of operation was Minmus orbit. My testing grounds were on Kerbin. Minmus has no atmosphere and minimal gravity (0.05g). Light engines with low-thrust and high-ISP engines are ideal. Except those don’t work well at all on Kerbin. Kerbin’s gravity is twenty times greater than Minmus. Kerbin also has a thick atmosphere. A skycrane that tests successfully on Kerbin will be considerably over-powered for Minmus operations.

I could always boost various designs to Minmus and test each one there. I rejected that approach. Too slow; too expensive. Too wasteful. Instead I mocked up a rough design, flew it on Kerbin and revised it a number of times– checking my current capabilities against what I anticipated on Minmus. Kerbal Engineer was particular useful for calculating available delta-V and thrust-to-weight ratios for various designs. The result was a practical, if somewhat overpowered skycrane. It carries far more fuel than it needs, and not enough RCS monopropellant for my liking. But it’s close enough, and capable of operating on Minmus and I hope the Mun and Ike.

With these constraints in mind, I finally completed an acceptable base design. It included a central control tower, a huge communications mast, a science laboratory, a habitation module, and a giant nuclear reactor to power it all. I laid it all out in the Spaceplane hanger, then cut it apart into modular pieces and reconstructed it on the green space beside the KSC runway. A bit of tinkering with parts placement and a lot of learning how to drive a little tractor with tons of moonbase strapped to the roof and only a few unfortunate accidents before I felt I was ready. Patience, always patience. Patience is key. All of this took over two weeks of serious gameplay.

Minmus Orbital Fuel Depot 3
So I had my two construction vehicles. I had my basic base modules. Time to put some stuff in orbit! All of the vehicles are robots; no kerbals. The crawler, the skycrane, the orbital fuel depot and all the booster rockets were designed to be remotely operated. Earlier this year I had completed my RemoteTech communications network around Kerbin, the Mun and Minmus. I was able to leverage that infrastructure for almost the entire construction project. Once I had the major pieces in place and connected, I planned to deliver some enterprising kerbonauts to turn the lights on and put on some of the finishing touches.

The orbital fuel depot went up quickly: two major fuel tank sections connected end-to-end, and then a cluster of RCS fuel tanks around the center spine. The RCS fuel tanks provided a variety of docking ports as well as a bit of separation from the central spine and any vehicles that might rendezvous with the depot. About this time is when I learned a valuable lesson about large construction projects. I was individually boosting each module from Kerbin directly to Minmus orbit. In hindsight, I think it would have been better to boost all the components to Kerbin orbit, connect them together in a temporary configuration for the trans-Minmus injection. Once the collection was safely in Minmus orbit, I could disassemble each piece and lift them down to the surface. With the exception of disassembly, that’s exactly how I’d moved Keats Station around the solar system– first from Kerbin to Minmus orbit, and then to Duna and finally to Ike.

Shelley Skycrane w/ Connection Tube on Descent 1But I didn’t. I also began to see the value of SSTO lifters like the Space Shuttle program. A reusable low-Kerbin orbit vehicle would have significantly reduced the launch costs. I just have not had much luck flying SSTO vehicles. So I continued to employ my fleet of single-use boosters built with the beautiful parts in KW Rocketry.

The Phase 1 launches, in sequence:

  1. Base Tower
  2. 4x Connection Tube Cluster
  3. 2x Base Crawler Cluster
  4. Communications Mast
  5. Science Module
  6. Hab Module

The communications mast included a small amount of solar panels and sufficient batteries to power the station through the night. This allowed for the first kerbonauts to descend with the Hab in launch 6 and board the station.

Shelley Base w/ ISRU Modules Installed 1
Phase 2 of the station construction comprised of the delivery of the powerful fission reactor from Near Future Electrical, and appropriate radiator fins. Additional kerbonaut engineers descended with the reactor and oversaw its connection to the station. Connection tubes set the reactor far from the Hab on the opposite side of the communications mast.

The reactor is a prerequisite for Phase 3: ISRU. The reactor provides ample power for the science laboratory and deep space communication antennas on the mast, as well as sufficient power to sustain twin ISRU converters. These two converters were lifted down from orbit and carefully– oh very carefully– installed on branches from the reactor.

Shelley Base Fuel Module Skycrane RendezvousThe final phase, Phase 4, was the delivery of the Minmus mining truck and a huge fuel tank to store the output of the ISRU converters. With support of SCANsat satellites, the mining truck is able to explore the surface of Minmus, mine for resources and truck them back to the base for conversion into rocket fuel and monopropellant. The base can support four mining or tanker trucks and two fuel tanks, but is now a complete extraplanetary outpost.

Between each phase kerbonaut engineers removed unnecessary parts using Kerbal Inventory System (KIS) and Kerbal Attachment System (KAS). I did this for technical and aesthetic reasons. I wanted to keep the part count on my base low. Game performance decreases as part counts increase. Aesthetically I wanted to remove single-use docking ports and legs once pieces were connected in their final configuration. I’d never worked with KIS/KAS before. They’re very powerful mods, and the sort of functionality that I would love to see in the base game.

I kept a rough journal of the amount of time I’d spent working on each phase of this construction. Pre-planning, base design and construction vehicle experimentation totaled about 50 hours of gameplay over two weeks– not counting all the time I’d spent building the RemoteTech communication satellite network, or practicing the various orbital construction maneuvers.

Shelley Base at Night 1
Phase 1 took about eight hours over three nights. I thought delivering the reactor in Phase 2 would be simple. It was just one piece, but designing a booster for that payload took some time, and then I forgot to include an antennae and lost radio contact during the Minmus transfer. And then the first time I fired up the reactor, I forgot to deploy the radiators and the reactor overheated and exploded while I was working on delivering the ISRU converters in Phase 3. So, about six more hours and two more nights. By the time Phase 3 began, part count was growing and causing some game instability. It took ten more hours over four more days to get those converters attached. Designing them on the fly after I had decommissioned the Kerbinside model to save on part count didn’t help matters.

Abort, retry, fail.

Similar problems plagued Phase 4, compounded by designing a light booster that had to contend with a huge drag force on the nose. Eight more hours, at least. So, altogether eighty- to eighty-five hours over the course of at least a month.

Immensely satisfying.

Advertisements

Burroughs 4 Before Lander Separation
I’ve been thinking about several exciting developments in spaceflight recently as I tend to my own nascent Kerbal Space Program— some of the real world highlights, a few notable anniversaries and one catastrophic failure. While spaceflight has been with us for decades, I’ve been playing this game for about a year and a half and it is as enjoyable now as it was when I first started. On April 27th the game finally came out of beta. With a couple quick patch updates following, KSP is mature to a significant degree. Here are some of the actual news items I’ve been thinking about while playing.

New Horizons arrived at Pluto: sent back extraordinary images and an incredible amount of new data about the dwarf planet. This completed the set of high definition images of all of the planets in the grand tour.

Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Returns View of Sunlit Earth : The last time NASA released a full image of the Earth from space the year was 1972 and the photo, snapped by the Apollo 17 astronauts, was called the “Blue Marble.” Today we have this.

Kepler Mission Discovered Exoplanet Kepler-452b: It is the closest match of any exoplanets found so far to our Earth-sun system. Kepler-452b is the first near-Earth-size planet in the “habitable zone”– the area around a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of an orbiting planet– of a G2-type star, like our sun.

50th Anniversary of the Mariner 4 Flyby of Mars: On July 15, 1965, after an eight-month voyage, Mariner 4 performed the first flyby of Mars, becoming the first spacecraft to take close-up photographs of another planet.

40th Anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz Mission: On July 16, 1975 two Russian cosmonauts and three American astronauts met in orbit on the Apollo-Soyuz mission. In spite of the political cold war that encompassed world politics, this mission began an era of international cooperation in space that continues today with the International Space Station and its inclusion of NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA.

46th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing: The Apollo missions blazed a path for human space exploration. In hindsight it may appear unfortunate that NASA was conceived in the midst of what was essentially an arms race; the consequence of which was an organization that was fundamentally unsustainable once the goal was achieved. To survive, NASA has had to transform itself– slowly– into something else. Nonetheless, this consummate achievement of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth cannot be underestimated. Today, Mars beckons.

Falcon 9 Resupply Mission Failure: Falcon 9 disintegrated minutes after launch resulting in a total loss. The unmanned Falcon 9 was carrying cargo intended to resupply the International Space Station. This marked the first primary mission failure for Falcon 9, following 17 fully successful launches.

Whirl and Princess and Farmboy and just about anyone who will listen to me has heard me go on about this game. I have never felt such a sense of accomplishment playing a video game as I have with KSP. I attribute that to the the unstructured nature of the game combined with the true difficulty of space flight. I decide I want to do something. “Let’s put Jebediah on Duna [the Mars analog] and get him back to Kerbin [the Earth analog],” I tell myself. Then I have to figure out the rocket science to make that happen. It’s not easy. And this is a game! I find it incredibly rewarding when I succeed.

So this post is me discussing a few of my accomplishments, showing off a few screenshots and just blathering about KSP.

Kerbal Space Program Missions: Completed

Minmus Station
Minmus Station : Science Station On Minmus: When KSP was released at 1.0, I decided to start a new game in Career Mode. I had the basics of orbital mechanics worked out. In sandbox mode, I could reliably get to the two Kerbin moons and back. I understood how to collect science to unlock technology in the tech tree. I’d done all that before, but I had not played using the contracts and economic systems Squad had added to Career Mode. Nor had I experimented with the experience system or specializations added to the game in version 0.90. All of those are integral to Career Mode. Minmus Station was my first major contract fulfilled: I had to collect science from a permanent station on the surface of Minmus. The station needed to support five Kerbonauts. This is my design. I got it there and managed to land it in one piece. It does not fly well. At all. I originally planned to hop around to various locations on the moon to explore but quickly abandoned that idea on descent. The good news is, I collected a lot of valuable science. The bad news is, I’ve stranded several Kerbals on the moon for quite a long time. I should probably do something about that.

Eve Surface Explorer Aerobraking
Eve Surface Explorer : Extraplanetary Probe Exploration: After the moons, the next major target was to put a probe on the surface or another planet. Initial development of the Burroughs program was underway– I was experimenting with lander designs– and I knew there were a few techniques I would need to perfect if I were to make that mission successful. I would need to complete an interplanetary transfer. I would need to work out having a two-vehicle design: an orbiter and a lander. And I would need to use aerobraking from interplanetary orbit. Additionally, I needed to do these things cheaply. I was running in Career Mode. I did not have a limitless budget. So I decided to build a small probe to fly to Eve, the Venus analog. It worked. I used ion thrusters on my vehicle due to the very high fuel efficiency. The trade-off was needing to complete an hour long burn for Eve capture once I arrived. Patience paid off. The entire mission was successful from the first attempt.

Burroughs 4 : Manned Mission to Duna and Return: This was my next major science mission. In short, the Burroughs program is a combination of the manned missions to the nearby moons with the Eve Surface Explorer program. Time to get my ass to Mars! Err, I mean Duna.

Burroughs 4 Command Module Burns to LDO (Low Duna Orbit)I decided to try a mission profile based on NASA’s Apollo program. I built a single booster that would carry three kerbonauts and two vehicles to orbit. One vehicle would be the service module: it would perform the trans-Duna injection, Duna capture and Kerbin return maneuvers.

Burroughs 4 Lander Descent 2The second vehicle would be a smaller two-man lander module that would descend to the Duna surface and ascend again to rendezvous with the service module in Duna orbit. I constructed the various vehicles individually and then assembled them in one big rocket. Like the actual Apollo mission, the transfer vehicle detached from the booster, rotated around to dock with the lander and removed the lander from its fairing once in orbit.

Burroughs 4 Lander Descent 4What complicated things was that Duna, like Mars, has a thin atmosphere. This was useful, in that it allowed for aerobraking and parachutes to assist the descent to the surface. But it also meant I needed to include a heat shield and a powerful ascent stage for my lander, or my kerbals would never make it home.

Burroughs 4 Landing Site
Burroughs 4 was the successful mission. There were three previous Burroughs missions that were less successful. Burroughs 1 missed Duna entirely on the trans-Duna orbit insertion burn. My kerbals were left drifting helplessly around the sun forever. The lander on Burroughs 2 burned up on Duna descent, killing the two aboard. Burroughs 3 made it to the surface of Duna just fine, but did not have enough delta-V to return to orbit and rendezvous with the transfer vehicle. It crashed into the Duna highlands, again killing the two kerbals aboard. Unlike the real world, I could simply reset the game from a save point and start again, but the lesson is very tangible: do not hire me to fly you to Mars. Your odds of survival are, at best, five in twelve.

Keats Station in Orbit Around Minmus
Keats Station : Orbital Construction, Science, ISRU: I named this station after the Romantic poet John Keats. It was my first attempt at a large-scale space station constructed in orbit over multiple launches. I had experimented with simple one-piece stations, where I built it all on the ground and then attached large enough boosters to get the entire station into orbit in one go. I wanted to do something bigger than that. I could easily see how to double the size of my station– just do what I had done before and dock them together nose-to-nose. That just seemed like cheating. Keats was my attempt to build a station that would serve multiple functions as well as teach me orbital construction techniques.

The station is comprised of eleven sections:

  • 1 Station Core
  • 1 Communications Module
  • 1 ISRU Module
  • 1 Science Module
  • 4 Solar Panel Masts
  • 2 Habitation Modules
  • 1 Thruster Module

Each section was launched separately and connected together in orbit using a small tug craft. The tug consisted of two docking ports on a probe core, a big reaction wheel, some solar panels and lots of RCS fuel and thrusters.

Keats Station supports up to twelve kerbals. The ISRU Converter can convert ore and electricity into liquid fuel, oxidizer, or monopropellant– this is a critical piece of real-world technology for most manned missions to Mars. The Mars Direct proposal depends on ISRU. So of course I wanted to include it somewhere. The Mobile Processing Lab has the capability to process data obtained from experiments for science. Any decent space station has a big lab! The communications module allows for interplanetary transmissions and includes a survey scanner for orbital low resolution resource scanning. The station core contains a huge fuel tank, allowing for refueling operations for other spacecraft.

Prometheus 2 Rendezvous with Keats Station 2
Prometheus Program : Minmus Mining Operations, ISRU w/ Keats Station: A complimentary program to Keats Station, the Prometheus Program comprises the operation of the robotic mining probes. The probes land on Minmus and bring ore to orbit where it is processed on Keats Station into rocket fuel. Through Prometheus I can support refueling depots outside of Kerbin orbit, allowing for bigger and more powerful interplanetary rockets. Get it? The Titan who stole fire from Mt. Olympus? Yeah, okay. Moving on.

Hyperion 2 Moving to Minmus Escape 1
Hyperion Program : Kerbin-LKO-Mun-Minmus Ferry: Once construction of Keats was completed, I needed a way to shuttle crew to and from the station. I have not had particularly good success with building spaceplanes in KSP, so my method is closer to the Soviet Soyuz or SpaceX Dragon V2 model, partially reusable two-stage spacecraft designed for bringing personnel and supplies to and from various orbits in the Kerbin-Mun-Minmus system. Hyperion 1 brought the initial two members of the Keats Station crew from Kerbal Space Center, however the craft and pilot were lost on the return to Kerbin– the parachutes aboard Hyperion 1 were insufficient to slow the descent from orbit; the pilot and craft was lost at sea. Still want me to fly you to space? The craft was redesigned to address this flaw and Hyperion 2 has successfully ferried the rest of the crew to Keats.  Hyperion 2 proved capable of ferrying crew from Kerbin to the station at LKO and back. Midway through the Hyperion Program, Keats Station was elevated from LKO to Minmus orbit and Hyperion 5 assumed the duties of ferrying crew and supplies.

Whitman 3 Deployed in Orbit Around Dres 2Whitman Program : Altimetry and Biome Scanning Satellites: Whitman 3 is a research satellite deployed around the dwarf planet, Dres. I included two new mods into my game: SCANsat and Infernal Robotics. Those mods defined the project. SCANsat supplied the RADAR altimetry and multispectral biome scanners. I used Infernal Robotics to create a compact launch design that expanded once achieving orbit. I like the dramatic presentation of the design. I planned to launch several of them to explore the major planetary bodies, including Moho and Eeloo. However the amount of fussing over electric capacity, scanner and solar panel orientation doomed the project. It was promptly canceled. Whitman 1 and 2 never saw the launch pad. No one hears your barbaric yawp when you sound it over the roofs of space.

Complete Kerbin-Mun-Minmus Communication Network
Kerbin-Mun-Minmus Communications Network : RemoteTech is one of my favorite mods to KSP. It overhauls unmanned spaceflight by requiring probes to have a connection to the space center. Without it, unmanned probes cannot be controlled. It’s a great reason to put satellites into orbit, and to be precise about those orbits. Once a network is built, the satellites do work for you– namely, they allow communication among all the craft in flight. RemoteTech provides a variety of dish and omnidirectional directional antennas, enforces line-of-site and signal delay and introduces a flight computer that can be used to schedule actions ahead of time to carry out basic tasks during a communications gap. It raises the degree of difficulty, and discipline is rewarded.

At my work, I build computer networks. Many of the criteria I use at work, I can apply here. They’re both networks. The satellites serve as routers. They’re just always moving. I built my first communications network very quickly. Just putting things together and putting them up there to get familiar with the mod and the process. Once I had that down, I set out in earnest to build KerCOM 2.

A lot of practical information had to be deduced to make this work. I needed to ensure that my satellites had enough battery capacity and solar power to power themselves and all their antennas through a complete orbit. I couldn’t have communications gaps caused by satellites going down for lack of power. I needed to determine geostationary orbit. I had to design a delivery vehicle, and a procedure for bootstrapping the system before it was fully in place. I couldn’t rely on the existence of my communication network to control the probes; that’s what I was building.

KerCOM 2D Decouple
The KerCOM 2 Network Deployment Vehicle carried six communications satellites to geostationary orbit directly above Kerbal Space Center. It was built using the mods RemoteTech, KW Rocketry and
Near Future Technologies. RemoteTech’s inclusion is obvious. I included the other mods for mostly cosmetic reasons. The vehicle could easily be adapted using stock parts. I used KW Rocketry because I love the look of the tanks and engines, and I used Near Future Technologies for the extended probe batteries, the structural platform on the deployment vehicle and the cool-looking circular solar panels.

KerCOM 2FThe orbit was modified to a 5/6s resonant orbit– meaning I dropped perigee to a point where the orbital period was only 5/6s the duration of true geo-stationary. I launched one satellite at apogee of each sequential orbit over the next six orbits. Each satellite immediately circularized its orbit and established a full communications network above Kerbin. When I was through, I had a six-node network that provided nearly complete satellite coverage of Kerbin using omnidirectional antenna. I designed each satellite with two additional directional dish antennas, one aimed at Mun and the other at Minmus– uplinks for additional networks to be deployed around each moon.

MunCOM 1 Deployment Vehicle at Mun Capture [3/3]MunCOM 1 repeated a similar process around Mun, except I only required a four-node network due to the moon’s smaller size. So I repurposed the last two sattelites. I boosted the delivery vehicle from Mun to Minmus. The two remaining satellites joined Keats Station and formed a three-node network around Minmus.

Atlantis 1 Port Truss Boom [2/3]
Atlantis 1 : Jool System Exploration Platform: My second attempt at large-scale orbital construction had a number of inspirations– Discovery One from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hermes from The Martian and the International Space Station. Like the Hermes, Atlantis 1 uses a nuclear-powered VASMIR engine for a low-thrust, high specific impulse design. Long, slow burns give it a tremendous amount of delta-V, at a significant increase in complexity. The modular design is based roughly on the current configuration of the ISS– minus the giant VASMIR– with a science module, a huge communication module and a structural truss with two huge solar panel booms. Atlantis 1 has capacity for seventeen kerbals and enough delta-V to achieve orbit around Jool or any of its moons.

Atlantis 1 Core + Engine [2/3]It took me two days to arrive at the design. It is comprised of seven sections, launched separately and constructed in orbit with the use of a small tug craft :

  • 1 Station Core
  • 1 Engine Module (VASMIR, Argon Tank, Nuclear Reactor)
  • 1 Science Module
  • 1 Communications Module
  • 1 Truss Mast
  • 2 Solar Truss Booms

I used a number of mods to achieve the particular look and design: most of the station parts came from Near Future Technologies and Stockalike Station Parts Expansion. I continued to use RemoteTech and SCANsat for functional components. I want to establish Atlantis 1 as a remote command station, a feature where a manned vehicle can be used to provide remote control of probes without the requirement of reaching all the way back to KSC. The last two mods I included primarily for the particular look they give the game and some of the rockets. They are KW Rocketry and Distant Object Enhancement.

Odysseus 2 Docked with Atlantis 1After completing Atlantis 1, I designed two support craft. Poseidon 1 is a small two-man lander that also uses an argon ion thruster. It has sufficient thrust to land and depart from Minmus and the smaller moons of Jool. As a shake-down mission, I launched Poseidon 1 from KSC to Minmus orbit and landed in the midlands. Poseidon 1 continued on to rendezvous with Keats Station, and exchanged crew. Jebediah and Bill Kerman boarded Poseidon and ferried down to Atlantis 1 in medium Kerbin orbit. Once aboard, Jeb and Bill tested the nuclear reactor and VASMIR engine by firing them up and pushing the ship to high Kerbin orbit above the Van Allen belt.

Poseidon 1 Over MinmusThe Hyperion program proved inadequate to deliver the number of kerbonauts needed to supply a full crew to Atlantis 1. I designed a new crew delivery vehicle to support the large complement aboard the interplanetary flagship. Odysseus 2 is capable of bringing nine kerbonauts above geosynchronous orbit and return them to Kerbin. It delivered the remainder of the crew in two successful launches. Odysseus 1 is a complimentary unmanned supply ship that can deliver argon and monopropellant beyond Minmus orbit.

Atlantis 1 [7/7]

Kerbal Space Program Missions: Planned

With all of that completed, I’ve been thinking about what missions to do next. As soon as I complete one thing, a number of other options present themselves. That’s one of the many reasons I love this game. Here are some obvious ones.

Minmus Station Rescue : I need to launch some sort of vehicle to rescue all those kerbals I’ve stranded on Minmus. They’ve been there for years. I bet they’d like to get a shower and a beer.

Deep Space Communication Network : I am going to need some larger satellites in Kerbin orbit to communicate with probes and systems beyond Duna and Dres. So a mission to supplement the existing communications network is in order. Additionally, I’m going to need to do some corrective maneuvering to get some of the satellites back in position. They’ve drifted from station over time.

Atlantis 1 Burns to High Kerbin Orbit
Poseidon Program : Atlantis 1 Jool System Exploration : This is the big one. I’m ready to transfer Atlantis 1 to the gas giant Jool and establish a long-term exploration program. Atlantis is functioning well. The Poseidon 1 lander has successfully landed and ascended from Minmus, proving capable of doing the same on Pol and Bop. Additionally setting up a remote command station for the Jool system would allow for further automated exploration of the many moons and Jool itself. I also intend to park Atlantis in an inclined orbit around the inner moon of Laythe and initiate a thorough altimetry and biome mapping.

Epimetheus Project : This is the second generation of the Prometheus program. It will involve the relocation of Keats Station to Duna orbit, the establishment of Duna-Ike comsat network, mining operations on Duna’s moon, Ike, with ISRU at Keats Station.

That’s plenty to keep me busy for the rest of the summer, I’m sure. And by that time, I suspect something else will appeal to me and I’ll be off on another interplanetary adventure.

ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.

Kerbal Space Program : Docking Manuever

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.

Felix Baumgartner, Red Bull StratosWhen 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.

Time Cover, February 10, 1986

February 10, 1986

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.

I learned about Tom Bissell and the publication of his book Extra Lives by listening to Michael Abbott and his “Brainy Gamer” podcast. In June’s episode, Abbott spent the majority of the episode interviewing Bissell about the idea of video game criticism in general and writing the book in specific. Since reading “The Lester Bangs of Video Games” by Chuck Klosterman in Esquire in 2006, I have quietly tried to see if any authentic voice has risen to the challenge. Have we finally found a voice that specializes in explaining what playing a given game feels like? Or provides meaningful analysis of what a game mean in a context outside of the game itself?

But to continue down an overly-long prelude about the book, I feel obligated to note that I am interested in Abbott for more than just his attempt to answer Klosterman — if that was Abbott was trying to do in the first place. No, what really captured my interest in Abbottis the fact that he is a Theater professor at my alma mater, Wabash College. In the Fall of 2008, Wabash Magazine published a profile on Abbott highlighting his Brainy Gamer work and the Center for Inquiry. In August of this year, Wabash posted the profile online. I suspect this may, in part, be in reaction to the Abbott’s inclusion of Portal as a text in his freshmen seminar. The blogosphere suffered a few minutes of apoplexy in response before being distracted by Halo: Reach. (Then again, the profile could also have been posted in anticipation of a second feature in the Fall 2010 edition of Wabash Magazine. Abbott is writing this second piece to discuss his experiences with Brainy Gamer. — Nah, it was about the press.)

Okay, now that I have digressed rather far afield, let me get back to the topic at hand, namely the book Extra Lives by Tom Bissell. Well, maybe not. I mean, I’ve given you enough leads to start your own discussion about the roles of video games in education, art, literature, entertainment, business and attention deficit disorder-derived hysteria. My work here is done. Besides, I’ve got a book to read.

Oscar Villalon writes in his review for NPR:

Parts memoir, criticism and reportage, freely mixing the high with the low, Extra Lives channels the author’s intimate history with games into something richer. At its simplest, the book charmingly informs us about the massive complexity and taxing labor entailed in producing a marquee title like Gears of War or Fable II. At its finest, Bissell’s book is a thrilling attempt at providing a critical framework for understanding and judging video games. [….] Lauding the medium’s great achievements and sharing his irritation with its longstanding flaw, Bissell makes a convincing case that video games are inching toward art, if not some mind-bending realm. Extra Lives, thanks to its insight and passion, may well end up providing one great push toward that end.

Tim Schafer, Brütal LegendTim Schafer loves heavy metal music. He loves the history, the power, the imagery, the scale and the ridiculousness of it all. He has channeled this love into the video game Brütal Legend, released this week: Rocktober 13th. I have been anxiously awaiting this game since I learned of its development a couple years ago. My excitement has two sources: First, I think Tim Schafer’s last game, Psychonauts, was one of the best games for the last generation of game consoles. Second, the particular focus of this game is something I’ve never seen in a game before. Not even the success of the Harmonix Guitar Hero and Rock Band games can approach either the breadth or depth of Brütal Legend with respect to heavy metal.

I must pause here to acknowledge an observation Vern, one of my high school friends, made many years ago. Whenever I talk music with people, his words come back to me. Vern suggested that all boys go through a metal phase. For some, this phase lasts a few weeks (or even just a few hours). For many boys the phase lasts a few crucial years between the ages of eleven and seventeen. For some, the phase never ends. Vern does not pass judgment on any of this. He does not use it to be particularly divisive or exclusive. At the time he said it, Vern was fifteen and intoxicated by Elvis. Two years earlier we had been screaming along with the rest of the fans at the Scorpions concert at the State Fair Grounds celebrating part of our own metal phases.

The game portrays an incredible amount of affection for heavy metal, a fact that has attracted a startling number of entertainers to be part of it. Lemmy Kilmister, Rob Halford, Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford all provide voice talent. Over 100 different artists from a huge variety of metal genres have contributed music to the soundtrack. The game is fantastically clever. The game is funny. The game is stylized and dramatic and epic. It is all of these things and at the same time Schafer is aware of the absurdity of metal as well. It has a sense of itself as a game. He does not allow the genre to take itself too seriously.

It’s a lesson we could all stand to remember from time to time.

In following with my return to science fiction, I have picked up the critically acclaimed BioWare action RPG, Mass Effect. I have not written much about video games since my departure from Midway a year ago. Whirl and I did pick up an Xbox 360 and an HD-capable television last summer. Whirl has been playing more games than I have, to tell the truth. I wonder if I needed to get some time away from them after the five years working in the industry. Mass Effect is something of a catalyst to return.

I have enjoyed a number of BioWare games over the years, most notably Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Jade Empire. Mass Effect has won a number of awards and received very high reviews from a number of critics, including “Game of the Year” from the New York Times and “RPG of the Year” from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. The inclusion of voice talent from Lance Henriksen (Aliens), Marina Sirtis (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”), and Seth Green (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) add to the significance of this piece of entertainment.

Reviews include:

The cinematic design is nothing short of masterful. This is a game that takes the aspects of film that make cinema so compelling and crosses it with the interactivity of games with unprecedented success. Linear storytelling feels quaint by comparison.
                            –IGN

Far from being a ponderous sci-fi exposition, Mass Effect boasts a dynamic, well-constructed story with a broad emotional range.
                            –Electronic Gaming Monthly

It’s the very definition of “widescreen sci-fi,” with its alien vistas, far-out music, and giant ideas. It begins with an ominous opening and ends with a fantastic finale that expertly intercuts between your individual actions with a massive space battle. It’s the rare title where the first thing I did upon finishing was to select “new game.”
                            –GameTap

I have been looking forward to playing this game since I first heard of its development. Jade Empire was an incredibly fun game with high replay value. This is all of that, plus being on the X360 console and being science fiction.

This is gonna be fun.

In honor of John K’s new X-box 360, I’d like to share a one of my favorite memories regarding video gaming with John and company over the years. The following took place years ago and is, perhaps, my earliest memory of playing a video game with this group.

I played Myth all the way through without one, single casualty using a combination of advanced strategy, astounding patience, cunning and meticulous use of level replay over and over and over until my stats were completely perfect. As I finished the game, John decided we should link up online with Mick and try some group missions, so Sean set up our end and we all convened one fateful evening.

Read the rest of this entry »