Malcolm Cross is the author of Orbital Decay which is available now as part of the Journal of the Plague Year post-apocalypse omnibus from Abaddon Books. He lives in London and enjoys the personal space and privacy that the city is known for. When not misdirecting tourists to nonexistent landmarks, Malcolm is likely to be writing science fiction and fantasy. A member of the furry fandom, he won the 2012 Ursa Major Award for Best Anthropomorphic Short Fiction. Malcolm’s blood-type is O-positive, and he has a cough. Not long, now…

Kerbal Space Program and Orbital Mechanics
How Playing A Video Game Helped Me Learn And Write About The Wonders Of Life Without Gravity

by Malcolm Cross

This is easy, I think, as I begin to prepare to attach the latest addition to my long-running (and suffering) space station in my current game of Kerbal Space Program. All I need to do is eject the engines, then separate the command module from the fuel pod, then open the command module’s shielded docking port so I can redock on the fuel storage pod’s rear docking port (exposed now that I’ve gotten rid of the engines) and finally guide the pod to my station’s upper docking port.

In shorter, layman’s terms, I’m taking the nose of my rocket — where the little green alien astronauts sit — and sticking it on the back end, so I can plug it into my space station facing the right way around.

Space missions? They’re complex undertakings, even when they’re part of the charmingly simplified Kerbal Space Program. Experience helps, and I’m lucky enough to have been playing since early 2012, shortly after the game introduced the Mun, the moon above the Kerbals’ home planet of Kerbin, but before the introduction of Kerbin’s second, mint flavored moon, Minmus. (Minmus only looks mint flavored. Please do not eat the scientific samples.)

The physics are a little simplified and Kerbin’s a little small, about a tenth the size of Earth, making it easier to get around, much more forgiving in terms of time and distance — a mission to the Mun can be completed in a half hour, rather than the eight days it took Apollo 11 — but the key elements are still there. The things about space and orbital mechanics that are incredibly counterintuitive. The things that, as a consumer and producer of science fiction, I’ve obsessed over all my life.

Did you know that, in orbit, the more you speed up, the slower you wind up going? It’s true. If you want to overtake a satellite, you have to drop your orbit beneath it, by slowing down. If you want to slow down and get behind it, you have to lift your orbit by accelerating.

In a geosynchronous orbit you’re going at around three kilometers a second, fast enough to carry you around the Earth in just about twenty-four hours and make you a fixed point in the sky, stationary relative to the ground. A low orbit on the other hand, like the International Space Station’s, carries you along at more than seven and a half kilometers a second, and you go around the Earth in ninety minutes while almost skimming the atmosphere. You have to accelerate march harder to reach the high, ‘slow’ orbit than you did to reach the low, ‘fast’ orbit.

This made no sense to me at first, even if the many helpful YouTube tutorials the player community’s made helped me work it out eventually, but the technical details aren’t what Kerbal Space Program’s all about. It’s about experiencing space the way a child learns — by playing with their toys as imaginatively as they can. Kerbal Space Program’s the best toy chest of rocket parts any child, or adult, can get their hands on.

Hard Science fiction often claims to be about the facts — that usually means dry numbers and mathematics — but in reality, I think Hard SF’s about the experience, and short of going into orbit, Kerbal Space Program’s the way I’ve gotten a glimpse of how it feels to be up there. What it’s like watching the way objects in space twist and turn as they bump into each other, how dizzying it is to turn your viewpoint around and transform something towering over you into a horizontal plane.

So here I am, in orbit, preparing to dock my new fuel pod to my station. It’s peaceful — I didn’t expect that, not at an orbital velocity of over two kilometers a second. Carefully maneuvering around, with just a feathery touch here and there, everything feels slow, almost dreamily trapped in amber. I’m only moving at a rate of inches a minute, relative to the fuel pod.

Naturally, like a good writer, I pull out my notebook and start making notes about how this illusion of peaceful stillness feels for the next bit of space-based writing I’m working on. Unfortunately, without realizing it, all this time I’ve been approaching my space station at about four hundred meters a second…

Oh well. There are always more rocket parts in the toy chest, right? And besides, explosions make for great science fiction.

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