Kerbal Space Program How-to Series : 1 – For Science!

(Current for KSP version 0.25)

So I’ve recently been sucked into this game called Kerbal Space Program. It’s basically a rocket science simulator game; the story is that these little green guys called Kerbals want to explore their solar system. You can view it in all its glory by starting a game and going to the Tracking Center building. You can zoom out and in with your mouse wheel, and rotate your view by right-dragging. You may notice some “Unknown objects” near Kerbin’s solar orbit; ignore those for now. You may notice that their solar system resembles ours quite a bit; there is Kerbin: home, the Earth analog, location of the Kerbal Space Center, and where you’ll start all your missions from. It has a tidally-locked grey rock orbiting it called the Mun, which is often visible in the sky at night. The nearest planets are Eve, a planet with a thick atmosphere much like Venus (but is purple), and Duna, a red desert planet much like Mars. Their solar system is somewhat smaller than ours though; and there are notable differences, like Minmus, Kerbin’s second moon; it is smaller and more distant, and hardly visible from the planet itself.


(click to zoom) Fig 1: Ripe for conquest!

Incidentally when you start a game you’re given the choice of Sandbox, Science, or Career. Basically, Sandbox gives you all the rocket parts available in the game, Science will start you off with only basic parts, and require you to accumulate “science” around the solar system to unlock more parts with. Career is much like Science, but also tracks the Funds and Reputation of your space program. Launching rockets will cost you funds, and reputation is lost if any of your Kerbals gets killed in the line of duty. In Career mode you earn funds and reputation (and some science sometimes) by completing missions, given to you from the Mission Control building. (If you view older material about KSP you may find a “career” mode that only has science; this is because what we know as science mode used to be called career mode, while career mode got new stuff added to it). Science mode is good for a first game; it gives you the freedom to explore and relaunch missions that you’ve already completed to gain more confidence in them. You can also try Sandbox, but you’ll probably be overwhelmed by the sheer number of rocket parts available to you. In career mode, due to funds, you have the pressure to do something with every launch, probably completing at least one contract each time, and wringing out every last science point you can get from that launch (at least in the beginning; later on funds become easier to come by). It does, however, have a nice tycoon-game feel to it, and puts you in certain interesting situations that would take some setup if you wanted to recreate them in Science or Sandbox mode. My personal recommendation is to play all three at once; learn how to construct rockets and do things like getting into orbit etc. in Science, apply what you’ve learned in Career, use Sandbox to test things you haven’t unlocked in Science mode, or to try out the “stock” vessels preloaded in the game (they aren’t too useful at teaching you how to design rockets in Science and Career mode, however, as they use parts from all over the tech tree). This series will be written for both Science and Career mode; if something here only applies or works better in one mode or the other, it’ll be noted.

Anyway, back to “wringing out every last science point”, and the title of this chapter. You’ll find that even in the more-relaxed Science mode, you may be at a loss as to what exactly you need to do to start getting some science points. Well, basically, science points are earned by performing experiments during missions, and either transmitting it, or bringing it home safely. Each experiment may be done in various situations for a new entry in your Research and Development lab. The “Science” tutorial included in the game gives you a starting point, but leaves out important details as to exactly what experiments are available to you and how/when to perform them. (Incidentally the included tutorials kinda have this feel throughout; they’re helpful, but there are gaping holes; they teach you how to build a rocket, how to fly it, then suddenly they’re teaching you how to do orbital maneuvers… what’s glaringly missing is how to construct a spaceworthy vessel and get into orbit in the first place. Later they also teach you how to transfer yourself from a Kerbin orbit to a Mun orbit… but then the next tutorial starts you on the surface of the Mun ready to get back to Kerbin, skipping the entire “landing” thing. This seems to be a conscious design decision to encourage player experimentation, but it can be frustrating. Well, at least it gives me lots of things to write for this series.) You may be able to discover some of them for yourself by mucking about, but the science points required for each tech tree level quickly grow, and you may find yourself in somewhat of a stall, as simply repeating activities in the same situations will give you rapidly diminishing returns, and you may not have enough science points to unlock the parts that may be helpful to get yourself into new situations.

Well… you can actually get quite a number of science points without launching a single rocket! This unlocks more techs to give yourself some freedom when designing your rocket. First off, go to your Vehicle Assembly Building. Then click on a Command Pod Mk1, found under the Pods category. Your screen should look something like this:


(click to zoom) Fig. 2 One little pod

Then click the green launch button near the upper right corner of the screen. Yes… this thing ain’t going anywhere; but there is science to do! First, right click on the pod itself and click “crew report”. Then hover over your little kerbonaut at the bottom right of the screen (get to know Jebediah Kerman; he’s a very enthusiastic kerbonaut, and is typically the first to hop onto any ol’ vessel you build, no matter how dangerous it looks) and click “EVA”. This stands for “extra-vehicular activity”, and will cause him to exit your pod. Then rightclick on him and click “EVA report”. You’ll likely see “EVA report while flying over Kerbin’s Shores”… this is due to an anomaly in the game, where your kerbonaut is considered “flying” because he is just slightly off the ground, hanging onto a ladder. Anyway click on the green “Keep Data” icon with the clipboard on it (there is also a “Transmit” button, but you need an antenna for that), then right click on the pod and click “Store Experiments”. Then hop off the ladder with Space (keys may be rebinded from Settings under main menu; this guide will use the default keys except where noted). Note that you can walk around on the outside using the W, A, S, and D keys. Rightclick on Jeb again, and click EVA report yet again; now that his feet are on the ground, it should say “EVA report on the Launchpad” (note that your kerbonaut can only carry one EVA report with him at a time; if you didn’t “Store Experiments” earlier, you will be asked if you want to overwrite it). Note that you can also “Take Sample”; this takes a dirt sample of the ground when you’re landed. You can also plant a flag if you want, but the launch pad will be cleared every time you use it. Go back to your pod and reenter it with F. Then hover over your altimeter at the top and click “recover vessel”.

Tada; you have earned your first science points! Go back to your Research and Development building. The only tech you can research at the start is Basic Rocketry, so go ahead and research it. Note that three more techs are now available for research. Leave them be for now; it’s time to go back to your Vehicle Assembly Building. Go and add the Mystery Goo Canister to the side of your little pod… then “launch” the thing yet again. Right click on the canister, and click “Observe Goo”, this will give you a “Mystery Goo Observation on the Launch Pad”. You can try a crew report and EVA report, but note that they give no science. Getting another sample of the ground does give you some science though; note that it is much less than the first time round. You see, some experiments (Crew report, EVA report) are only productive the first time you do it, while others (Mystery Goo, Ground Sample) can be repeated but will give rapidly diminishing returns. So go ahead and relaunch this “mission” a second time; you may be able to wring fractions of science points out of the third and fourth time, but you may feel it isn’t worth your time to do so.

We’re still not done yet though. Note that most of these (except the “flying” one) mentions the Launch Pad. This is one of the many “biomes” around Kerbin (“shores” is another); doing an experiment in a new biome is considered a whole new experiment, and earns you more science points! We’re not going to walk around though; Kerbin isn’t quite as big as the real Earth, but it is plenty big nonetheless, and traversing it by foot will take you ages. Instead, go to the Spaceplane Hangar. We’re not going to actually construct a plane for quite a while; they’re harder to design, control, and land safely than rockets, not to mention you don’t have suitable parts unlocked; but you can use the same immobile Command Pod trick. Except that you may note that it is placed in the sideways position!… that’s because it thinks you’re going to build a plane. To fix it, click on the pod and tap W to rotate it. You can now attach the Mystery Goo Canister to it and perform your experiments. Note that the Runway is considered a whole new biome to experiment in. Well, except the “flying over Kerbin’s Shores” bit; the parts of the space center each are considered their own biomes, but they uniquely do not apply to the “flying” sphere. Let us also perform an experiment of our own; it won’t gain us any science points, but it demonstrates something that would be useful later on. If you do a “Crew Report” and keep it, and then try to do a Crew Report again, note that it asks us if we want to overwrite it. Go and do an EVA again, right click on the pod and click “Take Data”. Now reenter the pod. If you try to do a Crew Report again, note that it will let you without overwriting your previous one! There is no benefit to having two identical Crew Reports, but what this means is that on your travels to the atmosphere, space, and beyond, if you encounter a new situation, you can do a Crew Report, then do an EVA, then take an EVA Report (and Sample if you happen to be landed), then Take Data before reentering. This will then allow you to do it all over again if your ship gets into a new situation.

This technique works in both Science and Career mode. You may think that “launching” these missions will waste precious starting money in Career mode better spent fulfilling contracts… but it isn’t so. You see, when you recover a vessel, you get funds back based on the surviving parts, and how far from the Kerbal Space Center you are. Well… all your parts are still right there on the launch pad or runway, so you get back 100% of your cost, so this science is essentially absolutely free! (Well if you’re playing on moderate or hard difficulty, you needed to pay to unlock the Mystery Goo Canister… but that is something you’d eventually have done anyway.)

A good tech to spend your science points on is Survivability. This unlocks the LV-909 Liquid Fuel Engine, a small but efficient engine that would be very useful when we start building orbital rockets, and also leads to the Science Tech node, which unlocks a new science part.

On the next part of the series, we will actually launch some rockets, and do some more science! If you’re on Career mode, we’ll also complete our first contracts and earn some funds.

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