The hanger where you build your spacecraft.  (Source: Steam)

A spacecraft landed on one of the moons found in game.  (Source: Steam)

Not all launches will be successful.  (Source: Steam)
One of the best indie games around, and popular at NASA's JPL.

If you haven't had the privilege of playing Kerbal Space Program thus far, you are sorely missing out. The game is still in active development, but you can obtain it through the developer's website or on Steam's Early Access. KSP is being developed by a small studio based out of Mexico called Squad.

The basic premise of KSP is simple, build rockets or aircraft and launch them. You can even build different payloads like Rovers and deliver them to other planets for exploration. Currently only the sandbox mode is fully operational, but with the .22 patch a limited career mode has been introduced requiring you to perform science experiments in order to unlock more parts  as you go. You have total freedom, and unlimited budget thankfully, to design and implement any design you can imagine. The game features a fairly advanced physics engine that will simulate the same problems that real rocket scientists faced during the space race.

The game simulates a fictional solar system for you explore. You start on your home planet of Kerbal, equivalent to Earth. It is here you design and launch your spacecraft into outer space. It can be frustrating to watch your designs explode on the launch pad, or break apart during its boost through the atmosphere, but persistence will pay off when you finally do make it into a stable orbit. Being able to look down at Kerbal and see how much you learned since your first attempted launch is inspiring.

Being a sandbox, the game currently has no set objectives. The KSP community however is very vibrant and supportive; they have created tutorials and references to assist new rocketeers in getting their feet wet. There's even a community driven campaign to help take you from rookie to expert. Once you've mastered getting things into orbit, the community has provided plenty of challenges to test your skills against the harsh realities of outer space and even pit your designs against others within the community. There's even a current challenge to complete the scrapped NASA Constellation Program in game.

Common objectives (in rough order of difficulty) the community recommends is:
  • Launch an unmanned probe into orbit.
  • Get a manned spacecraft into orbit and return the pilot safely home.
  • Establish a permanent space station around your planet.
  • Land on the Mun, The game's equivalent to Earth's own Moon.
  • Land on Minmus, A second moon around your home planet.
  • Land on Duna, the game's equivalent to Mars.
The game features several more planets, most of which have their own moon(s) for you to explore as well. It will take a long time to run out of goals to pursue in this fictional solar system.

The landing of your brave Kerbals on a moon or planet for the first time is exhilarating. Having them exit the craft in their EVA space suits and explore their surroundings reminds us of watching the footage from the Apollo missions. The game requires an incredible amount of planning before you ever leave the ground. Just because you can get into orbit doesn't guarantee you can make it to your destination. Fuel is heavy, as are spacecraft themselves. Figuring out how to get enough fuel and spacecraft into orbit that can safely ferry your brave Kerbals to their destination can be very challenging and the method is up to you alone.

The game features a fairly good selection of parts, with more patched in with each update. Just about every part is derived from a real world equivalent within either the US or Soviet space programs. There are even tutorials on the KSP Wiki on recreating the historic Apollo or Sputnik missions.

Last but not least is the KSP modding community. They are a very talented and dedicated group of people who constantly are patching in enhancements to the core game. Things like mining and refining natural resources on other planets, or adding new parts to create more impressive spacecraft and space stations, the modding community has all of that and much more.

The game is said to be the most popular game for people working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and there is little wonder why. The physics engine is powerful and gives you the freedom to experiment with different ways of accomplishing whatever your objective may be.

With the upcoming holiday seasons on the horizon, KSP can be a great gift for children interested in science, mathematics, or aerospace in general. It also has the added bonus of being very educational in helping children grasp orbital mechanics and problem solving. With a standard price tag of $22.99 on Steam, you don't need to break the bank either.

"If you mod me down, I will become more insightful than you can possibly imagine." -- Slashdot
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