Kerbal Space Program: Learn to program for science!

It is a cold, breezy afternoon and we are getting ready for our first orbital vehicle launch. The idea is to send a satellite orbiting around the planet in the upper confines of the atmosphere. The moments are tense as we count down to ignition and (hopefully) an eventual liftoff. Orbital or interplanetary, space launches and subsequent travel are no joke; there is a lot that can go wrong.

Fortunately for us (and perhaps for other inhabitants of this planet), we are just playing a video game, and there are no actual lives (or careers) at stake. The game is titled Kerbal Space Program, and in it are always more rockets and spacecrafts to build, destroy and build again.

It’s an infinite loop of nerve-wracking fun, challenging experimentation and endless learning.

kerbal space program

Speaking of loops, let’s step back into reality for a moment to understand why titles such as the Kerbal Space Program are about so much more than just killing time on a lazy weekend. The whole world is moving towards automation; from your local grocery stores all the way up to corporate enterprises, everyone wants (and indeed needs) to do as much work in as little time as possible. That’s where computers and smartphones come in. We often consider them to be tools for getting a job done, but they can actually be programmed to do your tasks for you.

Games like Kerbal Space Program (KSP) build upon the paradigms of invention through necessity, and cause-and-effect, two of the most basic fundamentals of computer programming. You program a machine to do what’s necessary to you, and you see the effects of your programming in real time. For many, games like KSP are a two-way street; you grow an interest in programming playing such games, and you can up your game in the virtual spacetime that is KSP by learning programming from the very basics.

We would be remiss if at this point there was no mention of an awesome platform known as Scratch programming, where beginners can learn to program, create their own games, stories and animations. Such platforms not only provide a fun way of learning, they can also inculcate a sense of creation or ownership that drives mankind towards new ideas and innovation.

Most importantly, games such as Kerbal Space Program or platforms such as Scratch are about the scientific approach to solving real world problems. You start with a basic theory or concept, you build upon it, you test it out and collect quantifiable data which you then use to make modifications and improvements. And then you repeat the process. This objective method of reasoning and scientific approach to observation and problem solution is the cornerstone of every major achievement and technological advancement humans have achieved throughout history. People rarely discover electricity or invent the internet through accident, now do they?

It is T minus zero seconds, and the ignition switch has been flipped. Now all that remains is for us to sit back and observe this awe-inspiring rocket launch simulation that Kerbal Space Program has brought us. The orbital launch vehicle takes on a straight trajectory upwards, carrying our hopes with it. But whether it will level off in the upper atmosphere as planned, or descend back to crash and burn on the surface, it will teach us something new.

Either way, it will be a victory for science.

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