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NASA Talks Kerbal Space Program

Red Thomas Posted:
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Kerbal Space Program is one of those indie projects that just keeps getting bigger.  What started off as a cool little platform with more content generated by users than the actual developers, has grown into a fantastically entertaining game.  KSP recently took a giant leap for indie-kind when they teamed up with NASA to roll out a whole new pack of missions and ship parts themed on NASA’s mission to capture a near-Earth asteroid.  NASA’s asteroid initiative is also one of the early stages of their mission to put a manned mission on Mars in the next 20 years.

I had a chance to sit down with Robert Jacobs from NASA and Bob Holtzman from Squad to talk about the new Kerbal Space Program mission pack, and how this great little expansion came to be.

Ricoxg:  First of all Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Holtzman, I just want to say I’m a huge fan of NASA and KSP, both.  What each you guys are doing in your fields is essentially carrying humanity forward, and that’s a truly awesome thing.  It’s an honor to have a chance to have this conversation today.  I guess first I’d like to ask about how this partnership with KSP developed.  How did that happen?

Jacobs:  The simple answer is, I asked. We’re always looking for creative and different ways to tell people about our exploration activities. Gaming is a multi-billion dollar business and provides an interactive platform for people to experience space travel.

A colleague was telling me how he and his son stranded a Kerbal in lunar orbit. I hadn’t yet seen Kerbal Space Program but I couldn’t get over how my co-worker’s son seemed so immersed in the execution of this mission, from development to execution. It seemed only natural that NASA should be a part of the Kerbal universe.

Through LinkedIn, I reached out to KSP’s leadership and they seemed genuinely excited about adding an asteroid exploration element to their game, and Kerbal’s gaming engineers took it from there!

Ricoxg:  What was it like around the office at Squad?

Holztman:  It started [as an idea] on Twitter, and it soon expanded to a conversation with Squad’s owners, Adrian Goya and Ezequiel Ayarza. Ultimately, we were communicating with the team at NASA almost daily to make sure we were doing their work justice. A lot of credit has to be given to Felipe Falanghe, KSP creator and lead developer, as well as our technical artist and developer, Chad Jenkins, and our QA director Ted Everett. The entire team crushed it but these three worked some seriously brutal hours to make this update the biggest the game has seen.

Ricoxg:  Can you tell me a little about the development process?  What were some obstacles, and where did the ideas for things like the tracking station/asteroid capture come from?

Holztman:  The team wanted to combine the real Asteroid Redirect Mission with the game as much as possible. The tracking station is intended to emulate real life, as NASA is working hard to evaluate all of the asteroids out there that pose a threat to Earth. Where the team took some liberty was the Advance Grabbing Unit, otherwise known as “The Claw,” that is used to redirect asteroids. It can actually grab other things too so if you want to redirect Kerbals, go for it – but please be careful!

Ricoxg:  How do you think games like KSP could be used to promote space-education in schools, or how is it being used already?

Jacobs:  The asteroid edition is relatively new so I don’t have any information about schools using it as a teaching aid. That said, classroom education certainly sounds like an interesting idea. Perhaps some teachers will see your article and do just that!

Often, you don’t enter into collaborations knowing exactly what you’ll get on the other end. Kerbal Space Program puts users in a challenging environment. There’s a lot of fun to be had, but you need to work hard and learn fast to achieve mission success. There aren’t a lot of games that allow you to design and execute your own space missions like that.

Ricoxg:  I love the idea that games like KSP are being used to excite kids about physics and space travel.  Are there any specific stories that you know of where teachers have used it in the classroom, or anything like that?

Holztman:  Absolutely! I’ve actually spoken with a professor at Penn State who did a study about using KSP in the classroom. It’s remarkable stuff, and he ultimately did a talk at an education conference about it. We are also proud to be working with TeacherGaming, which is making KerbalEdu, a mod of KSP built for the classroom and educational opportunities. While our team is focused on finishing development of the actual game and making sure it’s a ton of fun, these guys are adding elements that help teachers use KSP to educate students. It’s pretty amazing.

Ricoxg:  What about NASA?  I’ve heard rumors of the guys at JSP using KSP to test out ideas.

Holztman:  I joined Squad last summer and visited the team’s HQ in Mexico City the week after E3 and we were all in amazement at a story written by Andrew Groen for Penny Arcade Report about how the Jet Propulsion Lab guys were there at E3 and asking if the KSP team was there because they play the game so much! Doug Ellison, one of those JPL engineers, actually took third place in our LANfest tournament at SXSW Gaming Expo earlier this year.

Ricoxg:  Hah!   And I notice Mr. Jabobs is declining to comment.  Well, is there a copy of KSP on the ISS?

Jacobs:  Not yet…

Ricoxg:  How close did the guys at Squad come to simulating the early days of rocketry and space exploration?

Jacobs:  You’re speaking with a guy who has degrees in the Liberal Arts, but there is no shortage of real engineers who are engaged in Kerbal Space Program.

Back when I first started exploring Second Life, I was stunned at the size of the community. And it was populated by a dedicated group of people who were truly interested in advancing immersive experiences. I see the same kind of interest in Kerbal Space Program. If you walked into your local mall, you might not find as many people who have experienced KSP as might have Angry Birds Space, but don’t let that fool you. There is a considerable KSP community out there.  A community that shares best practices and helps each other, and it’s one that is keenly interested in space exploration. Again, I can’t think of any space program that wouldn’t want to be a part of that universe in some way. I’m glad the guys at Squad read their emails. I may need to send them one soon looking for advice on maneuvering a captured asteroid.

Ricoxg:  Could we expect additional packs from NASA for the game?  Perhaps to explore certain icy moons or develop habitats on other planets?

Jacobs:  That’s up to Kerbal Space Program’s executives, but we are open to the future. After all, that’s what space exploration is about – being open to the future and seeing what can be explored and discovered. We go into any collaboration with the hope that the relationship is both successful and sustainable. Individual projects are fun but they have little lasting value. I like the kind of alliance that looks beyond the “right now” and can evolve and grow.

Ricoxg:  Any plans to team with other games?

Jacobs:  We already have, actually. Two years ago, Rovio released Angry Birds Space. The basic idea for that game started as a Twitter exchange between myself and Peter Vesterbacka.  Although at the time, we didn’t know who was speaking with whom.  It was just @NASA exchanging tweets with @Rovio.

Again, it was an opportunity to move that gaming experience into space where players could experience gravitational fields and get links to real NASA mission information. Many members of the Rovio team are space enthusiasts and have become our friends, and it doesn’t hurt that the game has been an incredible success story – but that’s for another conversation.  That’s a great question for our friends from Kerbal Space Program, though.

Holztman:  Good question. We really enjoyed our collaboration with them and are open to working with NASA or other real life space agencies. We actually met some of the SpaceX guys at GDC this year and I was drinking my morning coffee out of a SpaceX mug they hooked me up with while we visited their booth! Right now, our team is focused on update 0.24, which is geared toward Career Mode and ultimately completing development. We will obviously explore other opportunities but one of our main goals is to finish development so players can finally experience the full scope of the game.

Ricoxg:  A conversation I will definitely be looking forward to having one of these days.  Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Jacobs.  Mr. Holtzman, I’m looking forward to 0.24 a great deal.  That you both for giving me a bit of time.

Jacobs:  Not a problem!

Holztman:  Take care!

Well, I’d like to give a special thanks once again to Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Holtsman for taking time out of their busy lives over there at NASA and Squad to talk about video games for a bit.  I’m glad to see NASA making these connections and reaching out to the youth out there through video games.  It’s never too early to get excited about science, and this is an incredibly exciting time to be involved with the science of exploring space.

If you haven’t played Kerbal Space Program, I can’t recommend it enough.  It’s one of those games that travel on my laptop with me whenever I’m out of town on business, and the last several updates have moved the game forward by miles.  If you played it before and set it down, now is definitely a good time to pick it back up.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.