How I learned I could never be the head of Nasa
Feckless young person of limited talents that I am, I live my fantasies through TV, film, books, and computer games. Whether I want to enter a world of magic, or slick, stylish action, or live the simple charms of a quest, I can turn to all manner of choices. When I want to manage my own space program, I turn to Kerbal Space Program (KSP).
I returned to KSP after a long period of neglect. This new run was spurred by a realisation that Football Manager games are the worst kind of addiction: you realise that you didn’t get anything out of the game other than repetitive strain syndrome. KSP is a game where a sense of genuine achievement is possible. Its accuracy is a reason it has been used in schools and is promoted by Nasa: it gives an impression of the realities of space exploration.
I started my career from the beginning. A bit of science, a few basic technologies: enough for the early missions. Getting to space is achievable; going into orbit is a little more challenging. It’s all about getting the science resources up as much as you can so you can acquire new technologies, new rockets, new opportunities. I had my heart set on landing on the Mun (the nearest of two moons to your home planet of Kerbin). I reached the point, after managing an orbit of the Mun and back, I thought “It’s time.” With the same tenor of seriousness as when Rafiki tells Simba to take his place as king.
I set to designing the ship that would take my first Kerbal (the citizens of Kerbin) to the Mun. This Kerbal would be the Neil Armstrong of his kind. I fiddled, I mused, I ummed and errrrred over the design. I added; I subtracted. I checked mass, fuel, engines, rockets. In time, my ship was built and ready to fly. Lift off. Abort. I noticed a mistake in my sequencing. Try again. Lift Off. Abort. I forget to keep my main engine off, wasting precious fuel at launch. Try again. Lift off. Here we go, up, up and away! 1000m, 3000m, faster and faster it rises into the sky. I notice a wobble. The wobble increases with my speed. The rockets detach. What the hell!? My ship goes into an uncontrolled spin. Abort. Adjust the design. Start again. This time. Lift off. My ship reaches the exosphere. I’m in Space. I’ve done this part before. Get the orbit going. Errors are made. I have to start again. It’s okay. I know this is doable, I just have to stop making stupid mistakes. It’s only rocket science!
Then, o bliss! o rapture! I have my orbit of the Mun. Now for the moment we’ve spent hours working for: the great landing. I put my ship into retrograde, engines on. Major Tom to Ground Control? We are a go! I watch my trajectory change until it indicates landfall in a sunny spot. I cut my engines, I wait a bit. 60,000m I turn on the engines again, to cut my horizontal momentum. I want to get vertical. My speed drops, my navball shoes the retrograde indicator slowly shifting. Soon it is plum at the top, I’m vertical. I descend, too quick. More engine, cutting speed. I’ve had the engine on too long! I’m rising again. Engine cut. Descent speed picks up. I am in a mad tussle, adjusting my thrust up and down as I try to maintain a descent speed of 6-7m/s. I admit, I’ve already blown my ship up a couple of times attempting the landing. The speed is sweet, the landing is going well, the landing gears have been extended. I touch down. My ship teeters over, lands on its side. I’m stuck. My landing gears were placed marginally too high on my ship, my engine exhaust was not designed to be used to balance a ship on. Mission failed. I’ve saved it, so I can’t start again. Damn.
Well, my ship didn’t explode, so that’s something! My pilot lives and I have collected bits and bobs of research. I only need to revisit my design, make sure my landing struts are in the right position, then I can rescue my Kerbal and return home. Result! So I did all that. I designed a new ship, with an extra space to carry a passenger. I added more fuel, double and tripled checked the landing gear. Shouldn’t be a problem. I make it to an orbit of the Mun. So far, so good. Feeling pretty proud of myself. Look at me all responsible, leaving no Kerbal behind, pushing the boundaries of Kerbal space technology. After several attempts, I manage to land my new rescue ship close to the landing zone of the first misadventure. I change ships, my lonely Kerbal exits his, collects his research from the capsule, and makes his merry way to his friend, probably desperate for real food and a real toilet. Maybe even a bath. Both Kerbals now aboard the rescue ship, I take off. We’re ready to go home. I’m looking forward to all the juicy new tech that the copious new science data will provide. Zoom, space. Ready to start to make an orbit in anticipation of a return to Kerbin. My engine cuts out while I am looking at the map, planning my journey. What? I go back to view the ship. My ship spent all its fuel getting back into space. I restart, try again, try to be more conservative. No good. I don’t have the fuel to make it back home. Bugger.
So, the lesson I have learned: were I the head of NASA I would have managed to abandon two valiant astronauts on the Moon at great expense already, with the possibility of further expense on a third mission. I would likely have lost my job. Though, considering Nasa people are far more intelligent than I am, they probably would have noticed those attributes which would make me inadequate to the task of Director. Then again, what do they know? My Kerbals are still happy with my command.