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NASA’s Favorite Video Game, Kerbal Space Program, Launches Today

Succeed where SpaceX failed.
April 27, 2015, 5:44pm
​Image: ​Squad

​Here's a phrase you won't read often: after two years of constant feedback from paying customers and excited fans, a new game is ready for launch. That's exactly the situation for Kerbal Space Program, a game that has sold tens of thousands of copies, caught the attention of two space agencies, and earned a hundred thousand fans on Reddit before release.

Kerbal Space Program began as a pet project for Squad, an interactive marketing agency based in Mexico City. Kerbal's creator, Felipe Falanghe, started with an idea for a simple rocket-launching game. After picking a few components, players would launch and see how high they could get before the surly bonds of gravity brought them back.

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It wasn't long until the team got more ambitious and decided they wanted to simulate more. They wanted to model real rocket flight, real orbits, and real physics in a simulated solar system ripe for exploring. But remember, this was supposed to be a pet project. How could they fund such a big idea?

Credit: Squad

The answer came when the largest PC games marketplace in the world, Steam, began accepting unfinished independent games for sale as long as they had popular support. Years after putting the game online in 2011, Kerbal Space Program hit Steam's Greenlight voting platform in spring 2013. After being voted through, KSP started selling an unfinished version of the game with the promise that buying in early would get players future updates for free. That summer, KSP was featured on the front page of Steam's semi-annual sale. The developers in Mexico City later that year called the resulting spike in new sales "cataclysmic."

With this new source of funding, the idea for the game continued to grow. It added a planet, a moon, aerodynamics, orbital physics, space planes, docking, space stations, unmanned drones, a solar system full of planets, moons, asteroids, scientific exploration, budgets, and reputation management, until it became a full-blown space agency simulator.

Image: Squad

The more it grew, the more it caught the attention of scientists and educators looking for a way to make space travel accessible and cool. Science and physics teachers started using it in school to explain astronomy and gravity, and a company was soon founded to give copies of the game to teachers along with educational materials. NASA and the European Space Agency officially licensed their logos and helped the Mexico City team develop special parts and missions. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX, name dropped Kerbal Space Program during one of his Ask Me Anything interviews on Reddit.

The team at Squad has added everything it set out to add. Along with a robust community of players adding their own parts, missions, and content to the game free for all, there's very little in the world of space exploration that can't be modeled and experienced inside KSP's little clockwork solar system. Want to drop a rover on to Mars with a skycrane like NASA's 2012 Curiosity? No problem. Recreate the ESA's successful asteroid probe? Done. The nature of this fandom is cyclical: every time SpaceX does something, someone recreates it in Kerbal Space Program. Remember the time SpaceX failed to land a rocket on a floating platform in the ocean? Kerbal fans did that, too.

Today, the Kerbal Space Program completed a multiyear journey when it flipped the switch and turned the game from a playable prototype to a finished product. Along the way, Squad has tapped into something deep within us about exploration, space, and stepping out into the unknown. While the developers can be proud of all the attention they're bringing to space exploration, they should also be happy with their more immediate accomplishment: to build a damn good game.