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A Computer Game is Helping Make Space for Everyone

Chris Gebhardt
June 3, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)

Kerbal’s Developers built a space program for the rest of us back on Earth.

Since the first human-made satellite was launched in 1957, space has been available to every country with an advanced program. The Outer Space Treaty, which entered force on October 10th, 1967, even bars nations from claiming ownership of any natural space object and expressly states that space is “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.”

Basically, space is for everyone.

But it can be hard to feel that space is for you when you’re not an engineer, when you’re not a rocket scientist, when you’re not part of the very few professions NASA deems “worthy” for spaceflight, when you don’t see yourself represented among the people who have gone to space.

Sure we get internet, TV, weather, and GPS maps from space, but it’s not a personal connection. Space doesn’t always feel like it’s for everyone when the price of a ticket to Earth orbit is $55 million U.S. dollars minimum, and a quick suborbital flight for a few precious seconds of weightlessness is at least a quarter of a million.

So what does “space is for everyone” actually mean? And how do we achieve it?

The answer, it turns out, may lie partly in a computer game. Kerbal Space Program to be precise.

The game is a grounded, real-physics simulation that doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of space travel — like building a rocket that works or the complexities of docking your capsule to a space station.

The game also gives you people, called Kerbals, your spaceships have to protect during flight — an aspect of the game made all the more real when players realize that protecting people is an element of orbital space exploration so far only entrusted to four organizations in real life: the Space program of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Soviet Union)/Roscosmos (Russia), NASA, the China National Space Administration, and SpaceX.

The game is immersive, challenging… but a lot of fun to play. You naturally learn the same lessons and make the same mistakes that the world’s space agencies, like NASA, have made for the last sixty years.

“The thing that bodes well for using realism… is that the game is still tough. It still takes some effort to learn how to get into orbit,” Paul Boyle, Lead Designer from Squad, the Mexican videogame company jointly responsible for Kerbal Space Program, told me.

“But when you get there, you feel like you’ve achieved something. This is actually a real-world challenge that you feel you’ve accomplished.”

I could relate on a personal level.

I’m an English and American Cultural studies major and a spaceflight and space technology reporter with more than 12 years experience in the field. I have no engineering or aerospace training or study. So when I first started playing Kerbal Space Program last year, it took me days (working around my other jobs and family life) to learn how to build and fly a rocket that didn’t explode, and was powerful enough to get a payload to orbit.

After a few more days, I was ready to dock my capsule to a target on the side of the rocket that took me to orbit.

I aimed my craft at the outpost and fired thrusters to get closer. But I didn’t move toward the station. I moved away from it. How was that possible? I kept firing my craft’s engines to push it toward the station. But every time I did, I kept getting hopelessly farther and farther away from where I wanted to be. With fuel levels running low, I had to give up and come home.

Now go back to 1965. The real world. A key element of landing a human on the Moon and getting him back safely involved flying in formation (station-keeping) with another craft. The first human Gemini mission from NASA would test this.

After reaching orbit, Gemini 3 separated from the second stage of its Titan II rocket. Gus Grissom and John Young turned their spacecraft around to face the rocket and fired their capsule’s thrusters to push themselves forward. But instead of moving toward the target, they moved away from it. They kept trying. Fuel was draining. They still had other things to test on the short four and a half hour mission. They had to call off the station-keeping test.

The same issue I encountered in Kerbal Space Program happened on an actual NASA human spaceflight. I was learning by failure just as NASA did 50 years prior.

The issue for me and Gemini 3 was a lack of understanding of orbital mechanics, which can be completely counterintuitive to how things work on Earth. 

Say you're driving to work. You need to first reach the stop sign at the end of your block. So you turn the car's wheels to aim toward the stop sign and press the accelerator. You move toward the stop sign. Simple.

But in space, that might not work. Aiming your spacecraft at the target and firing your engines can sometimes cause you to move away from the object instead of toward it. This is because moving around in space is not just a matter of where you’re pointed but also your velocity.

The faster you go in orbit, the higher your altitude (and the slower you move compared to objects below you). The slower you go in orbit, the lower your altitude (and the faster you travel compared to objects above you).

Docking in Earth orbit is all about managing if you’re going faster (below) or slower (above) then the thing you’re trying to dock to. This means you sometimes have to fire your engines as if you want to move away from the target.

If we go back to the analogy of the car, it would be the equivalent of aiming the front of your car toward the stop sign, putting the car in reverse, pressing the accelerator, and moving toward the stop sign instead of away from it.

On Gemini 3 and my Kerbal Space mission, the lesson of “sometimes you have to fire your engines as if you want to move away from the docking target in order to move toward it” had to be learned. And once it was, understanding how to move around and dock in orbit became easier to accomplish.

When I finally succeeded in docking. I clapped and fist pumped to myself. Members of the Kerbal Space Program community and my colleagues congratulated me. Somehow, knowing that NASA rocket scientists had failed and then succeeded in the same way made me feel that if I ever got the chance to pilot a spaceship, I could do it.

And it was fun to fail, another aspect of the game that Nestor Gomez, Lead Producer at Squad, sees as an advantage. “Failing is also fun. Crashing a rocket, it’s fun. But with every new launch you go a bit further, and that’s part of what makes it easy for people to spend a lot of time [playing].”

What’s more, the game is easily accessible and engaging to non-gamers like myself, as well as those you wouldn’t normally expect to find in the computer game world, like people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.

“Everyone can and does play the game,” offered Nestor. 

“Players can approach it with no preconceptions. They can jump right into it,” added Paul. “It lets people into it gradually,” and lets players make their own decisions, build their own craft, launch, fail, learn, launch again… all while not assuming they know how to play the game. The majority of the learning is left to the player.

It gives people a sense of ownership and connection to space. The larger Kerbal Space Program community, where thousands from all around the world share ship builds and missions, help each other solve problems, and offer tutorials on the game’s more challenging features.

And it doesn’t hurt that U.S.rocket company United Launch Alliance actually encourages its entire workforce — including its rocket engineers and rocket scientists — to play the game.

In essence, Kerbal Space Program brings to everyone’s fingertips the same multi-million dollar simulation technology used by the world’s space agencies to train astronauts and engineers.

Given the game’s broad accessibility, it’s no wonder news organisations as well as science communicators such as Tim Dodd, better known as Everyday Astronaut, use it as part of their reporting and outreach.

“I think a lot of people now come to spaceflight from very non-traditional backgrounds. There are a lot of fans from all walks of life, which is really really cool,” Tim told me.

Tim himself has become one of the most well-known and immersive spaceflight communicators since he began his space venture in 2014 after a few years as a professional photographer. It was a passing interest at first, until he saw his first launch. After that he dove in headfirst, self-teaching himself how rockets and spaceflight work.

“I loved what I was learning. It was so cool. So I started trying to teach it to others. The important thing was the information, the education, taking something that could be really intimidating, and remembering my own path to how that clicked in my head. Because each one of us has that journey of having to learn this and that. And then when we finally remember that this is this, it all makes sense.”

Kerbal is a great physics simulation for Tim. While he doesn’t use the program to solve real-world issues, he does use it to visualize some of the really hard to understand elements of space exploration, like docking two spacecraft together, in his education videos.

But for Tim, Kerbal goes beyond just being a simple tool to help teach people about spaceflight; it's a way to connect with people from different cultures who don't speak the same language.

He related a 2014 trip to Myanmar and a visit to an orphanage where he spent hours playing Kerbal Space Program with children as a way to bypass the language barrier.

“I spent two weeks at this orphanage in Myanmar, and these kids didn't really speak any English at all. And I didn't speak any [Burmese]. So I would actually sit and play Kerbal with them for hours.”

For what was almost certainly the first time, a group of Myanmar children from a country that has never launched anything to orbit finally felt a connection to space.

“Space is really something that’s starting to resonate with a new appreciation and fondness with people who’ve never really experienced it before,” offered Tim.

So what does “space is for everyone” actually mean?  And how do we achieve it?

Making space for everyone isn’t about getting information beamed down to our phones or tablets from space. It’s about helping people become part of a space community. It’s about forging relationships with people from as many different cultures as we can.

It’s about helping people feel connected to space even if they live thousands of miles from a spaceport or if their country doesn’t have a space program.

It’s about igniting that sense of accomplishment felt when succeeding at something really difficult.

Because when we can achieve those things, space seems a little bit closer. Space feels like it could be for everyone.

And a computer game with adorable little Kerbal people is just the way to do that.

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Chris Gebhardt
June 3, 202010:00 AM UTC (UTC +0)