NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab is obsessed with a certain game, and I bet you can guess what it is
NASA had a booth at this year's E3, and I stopped by for a chat with one of their software engineers to talk about why NASA decided to have a presence at a video game expo. During the course of our conversation we got to talking about video games. It turns out that quite a few of the folks at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory are video gamers and they're obsessed with one game in particular.
“The only thing that would make this week complete, and you may or may not know about this game, is if the developers of a game called Kerbal Space Program showed up. Half of JPL is playing that game right now,” said Douglas Ellison, a visualization producer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He's one of the people who helps make JPL's scientifically exact digital recreations of NASA missions like the Curiosity Mars Landing.
Kerbal Space Program is a sort of cartoonish space mission simulator. The player is given command of a space program run by little tadpole-esque creatures called Kerbals. The game is a sandbox title where the player can build completely custom rocket ships to blast off the planet and attempt to fly their ship through space to reach other planets and moons. You could even piece together your own space station or build a little solar-powered rover to take with you on your voyage.
The game is growing all the time, because technically it hasn't actually released yet. The game's developers, the indie team Squad from Mexico City, have launched Kerbal Space Program in a Minecraft-esque paid Alpha. So the game is constantly getting new and better features.
One of the allures of the game is that the constantly upgrading game client and mod scene actually give the game a feeling that's very much like a real space program. Back in the 1960's space race, nobody actually had the right tools at their disposal yet. They had to be invented. By coincidence or by design, Kerbal Space Program replicates the feeling of being part of a growing endeavor to reach the stars.
The physics of Kerbal Space Program aren't anywhere near as unforgiving and restrictive as NASA has to deal with in real life, but your rocket still needs to be logical and well-constructed.
Fuel-efficiency, wind resistance, and thrust balance are all things that need to be taken into account. It's just complex enough to engage the player mentally, and just simple enough that a single person could design a great rocket that doesn't require a team of mathematicians and engineers.
There's also a thriving mod scene that's constantly creating new devices and toys for players to tool around with. The game itself is somewhat barebones. It's exceedingly difficult to fly a mission to another planet without the help of the rocket parts and software created by the modding community. Some parts even have built-in telemetry tools that can automatically fire your engines for the proper amount of time and put you on the perfect heading. It might sound like cheating, but hey, NASA's got that mod too.
“I've actually tried to land on Duna using the sky-crane method and I have killed many Kerbals along the way,” said Ellison. Duna is the equivalent of Mars in the Kerbal universe, and Ellison just got done working for nine months to perfectly recreate the landing of NASA's Curiosity rover on Mars which used the sky-crane landing method. Basically, what happens is a small rocket carrying the rover parachutes down to the Martian surface, then fires rockets to hover in mid-air before lowering the rover the rest of the way to the surface on a cable. Suffice to say that in Kerbal Space Program, that's overcomplicating things a little bit.
The amusing part is that many of the parts needed to perform this method are unavailable in the base game of Kerbal Space Program. So clearly NASA has been scouring the Kerbal forums looking for mod packs that will help them get the job done.
“It's why racing drivers like racing games…no real responsibility,” Ellison said. “Time to go a little crazy. Some of the engineering principles are very sound within KSP, but you can go just a little bit crazy. Everyone who works in and around the fields of science and engineering has a thousand crazy ideas they've thought of but would never try in real life. KSP is a place where maybe, in Kerbal's unique way, you can give them a try.”
But even if you're not a NASA engineer there's still a lot to be gained from playing Kerbal Space Program. Like Ellison said, there is some real science at work in this game, and you can actually learn a small bit about what it takes to launch a rocket through playing the game. You'll learn to speak the lingo with words like perigee, azimuth, and retrograde. So the next time a NASA or SpaceX launch is happening, you'll be able to tune in and understand a tiny bit of what's happening, like ordering lunch at a French McDonalds after taking a few French language classes.
Kerbal Space Program is a game that can be taken as seriously as you want, and it's neat to see that even NASA agrees…even if them being silly with the game involves an incredibly complex multi-stage landing on a planet I've only dreamed of reaching.