So, from time to time, certain gaming blogs write 'Game Diaries' documenting their experiences playing, say, Minecraft or Civilization. They're a lot of fun to read, and usually get me in the mood for playing the game in question. I recently discovered an interesting little gem called Kerbal Space Program, which seems like a cartoonish rocket-building game but is actually an incredibly detailed simulation of orbital mechanics. Its misadventures and smiling green spacemen lend themselves to storytelling, so here we go:
“So it’s Jeb, then?
“Kerman’s our best shot. I’d be lying if I told you his scores were off the charts, but you’ve seen the others...”
“The man can hold his breath for over 5 minutes without so much as a whimper.”
“If that’s what you think we need, sir.”
“It’s not what we need, Lieutenant. It’s what he needs.”
A bright morning greeted the Gary I as it trundled out to Kerban Space Center. Rising above the eastern sea, the sun was a flaming ball of heat, chasing off cool morning breezes.
My fate? Wondered Jebediah Kerman, or my destiny? Hand-picked after years of training and months of testing, Jeb was to be the first Kerb lofted into space. No stranger to the skies, he was still not acclimated to the concept of leaving behind his precious jewel of a planet, not even for a few minutes. Staring at his craft as it reached the gurney, he felt precious little confidence in the beaming engineers who looked on from afar. Still, though...if anyone can fly that thing, I can.
That was just the problem, though. More than anything else, Kerbals were a people composed of rank amateurs. The rocket assembly area was a veritable circus tent of clownish bumbling--wrenches dropped on toes, pants lit on fire, a true study in the art of slapstick. The Kerbonaut Selection Committee, unsure quite which characteristics to select for, had made a good show of improvisational technique: An obstacle-course one day, swimming the next, a chess tournament, and a surprise pie eating contest were all good examples of the curriculum. So, on reflection, it was quite possible that nobody on Kerbin could fly that rocket, precisely because it was Kerbals who’d built the thing.
|Gary I in the factory|
Gary I was a single-stage, sub-orbital design, boasting 3 single-stack fuel tanks and a fixed nacelle. 2 stubby boosters had been comically affixed to the body, and 3 winglets were to be Jeb’s sole means of control once airborne. ‘Keep it simple, succotash,’ was chief engineer R. Glabowski’s response to any design criticisms--Jeb, for one, was not quite sure how well those wings would function above 20,000 meters. ‘Yer headed up there to find out!’ reminded Glabowski.
So he was. The mission profile was simple and not particularly ambitious: Break free of the atmosphere by reaching an altitude of at least 70 km, and splash down in the ocean, east of Kerban Space Center. Everyone was certain that 3 tanks of fuel would be enough to finish the job, especially with 2 boosters attached. In fact, some were worried that Jeb might accidentally achieve orbit and be left with no way to return home: Doomed to live his remaining days in a cramped, one-man cockpit.
‘I’m a good jumper,’ he would reassure fawning ladies at the KSC bar. ‘I’ll pole-vault my way back down if I have to.’
In fact, Jeb was terrified of heights, and kept his eyes averted as he was strapped into Gary I. Soon, though, the hatch slammed shut and the gurney retracted. Jeb was alone.
“Gary I, mission control, radio check.”
“Five Five mission control, awaiting instruction.”
“Gary I, Gary I, be advised, refer to this station as Dragon, over.”
“Roger, uh...Dragon.” Jeb sat. His nails needed clipping, and he tried to bite at them; his fingers ran into the glass faceplate.
“Gary I, do you require a flight tutorial at this time?”
“Negative Dragon, not necessary.”
“Are you sure you don’t require a tutorial?”
“That’s--yes, that’s affirmative.”
A droplet of sweat trickled between Jeb’s eyes.
“Gary I, would you like us to ask you about the flight tutorial on your next launch?”
“What? No! Can we just launch the rocket!”
“That’s affirmative, Gary I, you are go for ignition.”
Game time. 3...2...1... Jeb slammed the throttle forward.
“I say again, Gary I, you are go for ignition.”
Maybe a little tutorial wasn’t the worst idea...Slamming the ‘engage’ button in front of him, Jeb was thrown backwards as Gary I leapt away from Kerbin. 100...200...the rocket hit 400 m/s within moments! Never in his life had he felt such speed, so light, so powerful! The boosters died after 30 seconds, and Jeb regained his composure: He had stability to maintain.
60 seconds in, this became a problem. The rocket began oscillating back and forth, Jeb’s efforts at control seemed to feed into the wobble. Nothing seemed to be working properly: With a glance at the altimeter, he realized he was well over 30 km into the sky! There was no hope of regaining control! As this realization sunk in, the rocket truly broke loose; the engines still at full burn, it tumbled end-over-end in a drunken dance through the sky.
Resisting the nausea, Jeb reached forward to blow the stack charges, hoping to evade the death carnival he’d been dragged into. He was kicked hard in the back, but no joy...a sickening mosaic of sky, sea, and land still filled the windscreen.
Remain calm, thought Jeb, panicking. He repeatedly slammed the console, hoping against hope. For long seconds, nothing changed. Then, as ‘28,000’ whizzed past on the altimeter, he was free. Peacefully floating in the air, Jeb breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Now whatever ya do, don’t pop chutes above 5,000 meters! Deceleration’ll pull the thing right off of ya!’ intoned R. Glabowski, from some distant memory. Looking skyward, Jeb confirmed that the parachute had, in fact, pulled him off the rocket stack, and then realized that his speed was in excess of 450 m/s! Only the pilot was extended, but could his chute possibly survive the entire fall?
“Gary I, this is Dragon. Do you wish to report an equipment malfunction?”
“Affirmative Dragon, I lost control at about 30 km up, I had to jettison the rocket. On the way down now...hope my chute holds!”
“Gary I, please report any pilot errors during the debrief. Do you have equipment malfunction at this time?”
“How about you just kiss my little green ass! I’ve gotta land this thing, Gary I out!”
Jeb turned off the radio and prepared to land, popping off his helmet and blowing up the inflatable life raft he’d been strapped into. The altimeter and airspeed indicator ticked down; one quickly, one slowly.
A thundering explosion sounded from below--for a moment, Jeb thought he’d been killed. But he realized it was just his rocket stage crashing into the sea. Then, without further ado, the chute fully deployed and yanked Jeb’s capsule to a stately 6 m/s. Fluttering in a stately breeze, he could see KSC to the west, disappearing over the horizon. Short flight, long swim.
He clicked the radio back on.
"Dragon, Dragon be advised: Gary I has landed." The hatch popped, shorting the radio as Jeb clambered into the ocean.