Kerbal Space Program: ten years of space flight taught by a video game


The Squad and Private Division game is approved by ESA and NASA and fuels the passion for space of millions of players. We talked about it with those who, as modders, develop it today

(immagine: Squad/Private Division)

Elon Musk he plays it regularlyis. So does his ramp neighbor in Cape Canaveral, Tony Bruno, CEO of the United Launch Alliance (on whose rockets we saw the departure of Solar Oriber).

It is not known whether during the planning of the next moon landing of Artemis Kathryn Lueders, key figure of the Nasa, nor whether David Parker, director of human and robotic exploration of theEuropean space agency, keep her company. However, he is sure that by collaborating with both, that is, with Nasa and ESA, the developers of Squad and the publisher, Private Division, have perfected it to make it what it is: Kerbal Space Program, one of the most loved space simulators ever, as well as the positive answer to the question: “Is it possible to use a video game to learn about space? ”. To learn, that is, the complex laws of orbital flight, the merciless constraints of movement in microgravity and the enormous weight of even minimal errors?

Yes, it is possible and for exactly ten years Kerbal Space Program proves it. With Elite: Dangerous, is the videogame with the most rigorous approach to the physics of extra-atmospheric flight. Certainly the one who surprisingly built his fortune on the dynamics of space travel. In short, it will be rocket science, but it’s fun as hell – literally, given how easy it is to leave your feathers behind for some incorrect maneuver.

Waiting for it to hit the shelves next year the second chapter, the initiatives to celebrate a video game that has become a paradigm begin these days, ten terrestrial laps around the Sun from that June 24, 2011 who saw the first launch. The curious, or emblematic, thing is the type of testimonies promoted by the authors of Kerbal Space Program to celebrate the birthday: not the declarations of the many impallinati around the planet, so tied to the game from having it improved at the pace of mod since its inception, but even the official statements of space agencies, the definitive confirmation of how much gaming and extraterrestrial activities converge.

Nothing is easy in Kerbal Space Program. Not even plant your own flag (image: Squad / Private Division)

To reiterate it is Emmet Fletcher, head of the branding and partnerships department of ESA, which a Wired summarized what could be a programmatic manifesto of the space simulator: “The cooperation between the European Space Agency and the team working on KSP has always been a meeting between space fanatics. From the beginning there has been a mutual desire to share the challenges and thrills of space exploration with a wider audience. And qhen launchers Ariane 5, with missions Rosetta e BepiColombor, they were chosen to be included in the universe of Kerbal, the ESA felt honored. As an agency we have a duty to both educate citizens. is to communicate with them. Kerbal Space Program it’s a perfect channel to do both. This is important to us, because today’s young players have the potential to become the engineers, the scientists or astronauts of tomorrow ”. Clearer than that…

We started from this premise for an exclusive chat with Jamie Leighton e David Tregoning, co-lead engineer at Kerbal Space Program, and with Nestor Gomez, who is the production manager of the game.

It is true that a Kerbal Space Program play Elon Musk and Tony Bruno?

(Gomez): “We understand so: Bruno has tweeted on several occasions that he is playing KSP, although, I guess, he doesn’t have much time to do it. We know less about Musk, but he too has stated on more than one occasion that he knows the game and that he is very interested in its sequel “

About Kerbal Space Program 2, what will be the common characteristics and what are the differences compared to the predecessor?

(Gomez): “I think a sequel represents a huge opportunity, both to correct any mistakes from the past, and to keep alive the essence of the game, which in our case is intact: it will always be one. space game with realistic elements of physics.
A novelty concerns the learning curve, which we have decided to sweeten. We have a new awareness of the difficulties ”.

A preview image of Kerbal Space Program 2, due out next year (image: Squad / Private Division)

What kind of link is there between gaming and space?

(Tregoning): “Space represents an incredible adventure for mankind. It is one of the frontiers where many activities in the fields of science, physics and education are concentrated. Gaming is a means of escaping reality, so yes, I think there is a strong link between the two. Video games give the opportunity to experience experiences that most of us could never experience in reality. KSP offers, in this sense, a new opportunity: that of experiencing in a plausible way what it means to travel beyond the atmosphere, an experience very different from that offered by traditional space game”.

What are the ingredients that made it Kerbal Space Program a successful game for ten years?

(Leighton): “I think it’s because you get attached to the characters, the Kerbal: nobody understands how these crazy and extravagant green men manage to build a spaceship, or to conquer the cosmos!”
(Tregoning): “I think the realism of the game is another strong point: physical simulations in which aerodynamics or fluid dynamics converge make one perceive what it means to build an airplane, a boat or a railway”.

(Gomez): “Plus KSP it is configurable by users, ‘moddable’ as they say in the jargon, and this has allowed it to last all these years. Our community supports us and helps us to improve on the first day ”.

How did the relationship with the community begin and how have you managed it over the years?

(Leighton): “The modding has always been one of the pillars of the development of Kerbal Space Program. Any improvement or novelty has always been conceived as a function of mud who, without difficulty, must be able to play as they prefer.
Who started this project had this idea in mind and we have done nothing but carry it forward, guaranteeing the player maximum freedom in creating what they like best. Actually, David and I started our adventure with KSP just like mud, playing it and imagining ourselves acting in a different way than expected. Today, if we realize that many people are interested in robotics, for example, we are able to modify the game and improve it, so that it can be more appreciated not only by robotics enthusiasts, but also by non-experts who, in this way, will come. stimulated to approach robotics itself “.

This is why the relationship between space and play is significant: considerate KSP an effective way to learn orbital mechanics and more generally the physics of space? You do not believe they are elements capable of removing the casual gamer?

(Tregoning): “I am convinced that this game helps to learn a lot about orbital mechanics or mechanics in general. I myself have developed an increasing interest in these topics during development, to the point that I spend a lot of my time deepening my knowledge. From some conversations with members of the development team and the community I know I’m not the only one: many of those I spoke with developed this same passion of mine, which then prompted them to study the celestial world. Greater knowledge helps to appreciate more events such as the launch of a rocket by NASA or ESA, for example ”.
(Leighton): “As for the second question, I think the key is the balance between realism and entertainment. We do not underestimate our players, we want to provide the necessary knowledge and tools so that they can recreate, while having fun, a space mission in the most realistic way possible “.

The European Ariane 5 launcher in its Kerbal Space Program version (image: Squad / Private Division)

So much so that space agencies consider gaming an effective way to engage ever larger audiences, right?

(Gomez): “That’s it: space entities share our same audience and therefore it is a common interest to work together. Our first collaboration was with NASA a few years ago. It was a natural process, since, in his staff, there were already those who used Kerbal to find some more inspiration, and immediately the idea of ​​giving a gamer the opportunity to recreate his personal mission sparked enthusiasm. Even with the ESA the relationship was born spontaneously: we have worked with their scientists for years and achieved, I believe, a fantastic result “.

Will space affect more and more people?

(Leighton): “I believe that the 50th anniversary ofApollo 11 aroused a strong public interest in the space. Even the latest missions, from Space X to the most recent ESA or those of China, have contributed to increasing interest: people are increasingly sensitive to the possibility of returning to the Moon, or going to Mars, so yes, they are sure that space will affect an ever-wider audience. After all, the sector has undergone an incredible acceleration: innovations such as rockets and booster reusable have marked an important technological advance and without mentioning the amount of money invested, which is growing month by month ”.

Don’t you think that while greater accessibility is making space an increasingly democratic sector, the contrast between two blocs – the United States and Europe against China and Russia – risks making it a battleground again? What do you think the space will be like in ten years, at the next anniversary of KSP?

(Gomez): “I believe space activities have gone from being an evolutionary achievement for mankind to something we are capable of and will continue to do. It is always easier for an agency to participate in missions beyond the atmosphere and I am convinced that competition is a good and stimulating thing. I hope it will continue to be there, particularly in the race towards deeper space exploration ”.
(Tregoning): “I believe that in ten years the space scenario will be very interesting, with ever stronger and more articulated international collaboration and cooperation, both on a public and private scale. I am sure this will lead to incredible goals and I am referring as much to global access to the internet as to interplanetary travel ”.

Elon Musk couldn’t agree more.


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