Sunday, December 28, 2014

First step on Mun (Kerbal Space program)

So, after testing and breaking in my first space ship in KSP, I decided to put the KSS Explorer to work and make the run to the closest Moon of Kerbin.

I docked the explorer, reloaded all of her full tanks and double-checked all systems to make sure they were what I needed them to be. Then... I launched for Mun.

Second time out, and the sight was still dramatic as hell!
The exit burn from Kerbin orbit. 

The first realization that this wasn't going to go according to "the plan" was when the exit burn to get out of Kerbin orbit took longer than expected. I didn't skimp on fuel, but I did but a full quarter of my supply just getting on my way. I could have aborted, but I decided that it was worth it to keep going, and that my ultimate goal was still within reach.

Burning Retrograde (slowing down) as I enter Mun orbit. 
The The trip to Mun was shorter than I expected, I think it was less than a day (game time), and I took up orbit 20 kilometers over the surface. to its credit, the ship handled like a dream, and managed to take up stable orbit without any problem. My fuel usage was actually less than projected for that part, so I was feeling optimistic about the rest of the voyage. Again, the visuals made the game for me, and I think I got a slightly better appreciation for what the crew of Apollo 11 must have felt when they first took up orbit. (Yes, I know they weren't the first to orbit the moon!)

The Landing

While the Explorer did come with two lander, the mission was always to land one, and then the second if needed or if it looked promising. I detached the first lander, and put it into a 20K orbit with a landing zone in the middle of a clear field. Watching the decent was nerve wracking.

Right when the engines started burning was when I realized that my math was horribly off. I had expected to land with 2/3rds of my take still full, but rather, I landed with less than half, there was no way the lander would be able to launch and meet up with the Explorer.

Still, with the lander on the ground, I did do the moon walk and plant a flag to mark the event.

Then... I had to get back home!

I knew I could get the lander into orbit (barely), and use the RCS thrusters to do fine tuning. After that, it would be up to the explorer to close the distance so the lander could dock.

KSS explorer in its ad hoc configuration. 
This had its own complications. With one landing ship gone, the Explorder was now asymmetrical, and not able to  maneuver. I remidied this by docking the remaining ship to the Explorer's note, moving all of the weight along the ship's center-line. Then, I ran the explorer through no less than five intercept burns so that I could get it within RCS distance of the lander. The whole process was tedius and time consuming, and... drank fuel at a prodigious rate.

It was over 4 hours (game time, 2 hours real time) of maneuvering before I saw the landed from the Explorer. Even still, it was another hour of waiting before it was close enough for me to chance docking without eating all of the RCS propellant on the lander's two tanks. It took another (very real world) half an hour before the lander closed in for the final docking maneuver.

Heading home... finally!

Once I had the Lander finally docked, I moved the second lander back into its position, and then dumped its hyperbolic propellants into the Explorer's tanks for added capacity. At this point, I would need all the help I could get.

The final burn home was like watching a hangman's noose tighten as the ship ent through its fuel supply. For a minute I thought I wouldn't make it, but when it finally completed the last burn into Kerbin orbit, I knew I could at least be able to get the crew home.

But... fortune was with me, I had enough left to actually dock with the Station.

Final orbital burn.... "Mir" in the distance. 

Final lessons:

The explorer was a proof of concept, and the concept worked. I could make a ship in segments, fly it into orbit, and assemble it there. Using the station as a staging point was a good idea. The use of two landing craft was also proven as solid, and doable, even in a pinch.



The first major shortcoming was the fuel capacity. The bottom  line is that I estimated the fuel usage too tightly, and almost stranded a crew and ship for it. The first thing I will need to do with the next design is to triple the fuel capacity outright. 


The atomic engine worked as planned, but the ship was drastically under-powered. In the future, I am going to need to build with two or three engines, possible even a quad assembly, with a massive fuel load if I am expecting to make true interplanetary trips. 


The Landers worked... but only barely. Any followup trips will have to use larder fuel tanks, possibly with detachable cans in order to save weight on the exit launch. These were never going to be "the" landers, the gravity involved on true planetary landings after this will mean I need to start using larger and power powerful landers. Needless to say, I'll have to incorporate those into the design of the next ship. 

The fate of the KSS Explorer:
KSS Explorer right after
the Mun mission
I never intended the Explorer to be "the" ship for interplanetary travel, and even now with its weakness clearly demonstrated, I have no intent of simply discarding the ship. Rather, I launched a new section, and added a space lab to the main hull. The Ship is now an orbital research station, and maybe I can use it for orbital research of Mun, Luna and perhaps other planets. 

KSS explorer right before the final re-docking after having a Lab added to the hull. 

Trust me on two things. 

1. You will see more of the Explorer, she's a good ship, and she's more than able to do a lot for my space exploration program. 

2. There will be another ship, and she will build on the lessons learned here.

Until Next time.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Do-it-yourself Space exploration.

So, my birthday gift this year was a copy of Kerbal Space Program, a wonderful little space simulator that has just fascinated me for the past four months now. After a lot of trial and error (and a lot of finding out how to use MechJeb, the add-on autopilot) my nine year old son and I set out to build a space station based on the Russian Mir project, and then to use that as a launch platform for a manned exploration ship. 

Here is the Russian station in some detail so you can see what we were emulating. 

I started with the core module (Green), much like the Soviet space program and built out from there. 

The primary platform I used to get the component parts into orbit was my "Echo 1" heavy lift platform. This is a scaled down version of the Delta IV Heavy Lift Vehicle used by the US today.

The Core Module was relatively simple to orbit and I set it for an altitude of 450 km.

While the solar panels un the game are more than enough to power the station with just two, I opted to go for accuracy and placed a third one, just like the real unit. 

My Kavant-1 sits atop of the core unit, while I remotely guide Kavant-2
under the station for docking. 
I built the "Kavant-1" Module a little longer than it strictly should have been, but I'm not complaining about the final outcome. I also opted for smaller solar panels, mostly because I didn't think they were necessary. The "Kvant-2" unit was more or less as true to the source material as I could make it. I launched each of these separately in a Echo-1 rocket and docked them remotely/un-crewed.

I had a little fun with the "Spektr" capsule. Of course my model doesn't "do" anything more than the real one did, but I took some ascetic/artistic liberties with the module. 

Rather than a cylinder, I build this with some "exposed" components but I made sure to include the 4 large solar panels, two on the tapered end of the pod. 

At this point I decided to send a crew up to manage the station. While not strictly necessary for game play, I thought it would be more realistic to have one pilot up there to "keep house" while we build rest of the station. I used a one man Mk.1 pod with a small RCA system and engine. Just enough to get up there and dock.

I'm not normally one to talk up gaming graphics, but I was taken by how absolutely beautiful this in-game screen shot is of the station against the sun with the next module maneuvering in for docking.

The "Priroda" unit (with the large radio array, was another one where I got creative in order to capture the shape of the until without making another bland set of cylinders. And the "Kristall" module, which in real life held furnaces for zero-gravity mineral production was re-purposed by me as additional crew space and a docking port. 

Priroda (on the left) and Kristall (On the right) docked and running in the station. 
Now, this is where I took the next step and left history entirely. My whole goal for creating the station had always been to make a staging point for exploration. Rather than build a ship in orbit, I wanted to assemble a vessel while it was docked with a larger platform so that we had room for crew and supplies to build up.

The basic goal was to build a ship capable of transporting 4 crew and two lander to either of the Kerbal moons. I specifically didn't want an "Apollo" style vessel as I felt that it was both wasteful, and inefficient. This needed to be something that could move out like a sailing ship, take up orbit, drop and retrieve lander and then return. This would be a proof of concept that I would later expand into a larger and more capable vessel true interplanetary travel.

I built two "Apollo" style pods to get crew up to the station. Between the two pods and the one crew already there, I was supporting 7 men in orbit. 4 of which would be deployed to the ship once it was assembled. 

The ship would be built in four parts and launched in 3 segments, each aboard an Echo-1 Rocket. 

  1. Command module - Cabin, crew quarters, and lateral docking couplings. 
  2. Engineering module - Fuel and power storage for the ship system and engines. This unit would also use the atomic engine (based on the NERVA research engine
  3. Lunar Exploration Landers. These are two identical units that will be docked radially on the ships. midsection during the transit to and from the target planet.

The front half of the ship was built and launched into orbit on another Echo-1 launch vehicle. Below you can see it making the final steps to docking with the station. One of my "Apollo" type crew vehicles is right next to it for scale, and you can see the similarities and differences there. 

Center (and illumination) you can see the forward half of the ship. Next to it is a crew delivery unit for size comparison, and in the background you can see the last stage of the Echo -1 rocket holding position after getting this far. I am very studious in de-orbiting all units after I am done with them. 

The latter half of the ship is just as I described above, fuel, batteries and superstructure. I launched, orbited and docked it the same way I docked the first part.

The landers were a little more of a pain to build and dock, but not impossible if I took my time. 

Once the ship was assembled, I took time making sure I had topped off all of the RCS and hypergolic fuel tanks, as well as making sure all batteries were fully charged. the last thing I did was pick a team of one pilot, one engineer and two scientists. 

I have to give it to the programmers on this, they really put enough energy into the graphics on this to make the the launch a beautiful and dramatic moment for me. All that was missing was a John Williams composition in the background. 

First steps under her own power. 

The Ship certainly isn't a sports car, in fact on the burn to move out to 500 Km orbit, it took almost five minutes at full throttle to get out there. Any future designs will need more power to them if they are to be at all timely. That being said, as a research ship, the Kerbal Space Ship - "Explorer" is still a dream to behind for me. 

Middle of my orbital burn to move out to 500 KM altitude. You can also see the solar array fully deployed here 

Next stop... Mun... and beyond!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Relationships... "Korra"... and beyond

So, last night my wife, my son, and I sat down to watch "The Legend of Korra", specifically the last three episodes. These would mark the end of a Television masterpiece that started with "Avatar, the Last Air Bender" (2005), and between the two series, has been one of the most groundbreaking and powerful animated story arcs in the 21st century. There aren't too many critical topics that haven't been touched on, and the show deftly speaks to audiences ranging from six, to thirty six. To say that they they have character development even more of an understatement than to say Star Wars has blasters. The show is built on changing people, and the amazing ability of the human spirit to adapt to situations, no mater how challenging.

The show was amazing, as I expected it would be. LOK very aptly takes the medieval far-east settings of LAB and takes the show into the Steam Punk genera without sacrificing any of its core strengths. The final fight of the first series, a prepubescent Avatar Aang squaring off against a war hardened, lifelong combatant Firelord, not only set a high bar for "boss-fight" scenes, but kept the human element in the fight better than most other shows.

Korra very deliberately took a very different tone with each battle in her show, being as much about the character's internal struggles as about the final fight in each season. I think part of what made the show work was how well it keeps character relationships central to the story, even in the midst of the hardest fights.

And here we come to the actual reason I am sitting down to write this. In LAB, each of the characters bonds differently with those around them, and most of the fan favorites finding "someone special". I don't think anyone was overly surprised to find out that Aang and Katara's young romance lasted through the rest of his life, and produced three children. At the same time, decades later, I don't think anyone was even bothered to watch Korra's on-again/off-again relationship/flirting with Mako as the two young adults (the former a world leader, the later a tough street cop) found their way in a very different world from that of the generation before them.

Early in the show we meet Asami Sato, an educated, thrill seeking engineer/business woman who makes up for her lack of magical powers with technical savvy and daring on a par with most comic book central characters. She's the perfect addition to the "team avatar" quartet, and a good balance of perspective against the team's two dominate (and drastically different) male personalities.

And that is why the final moment of the series is so important.

Asami (left) & Korra (right) Final scene before end-credits
This is even more powerful when you consider the final scene of the first series.

Aang and Katara share a kiss before
the final credits of T.L.A.B

This (left) is the kiss that sealed a relationship that would help shape the whole path of its successor series. It doens't take too long to think about it and connect the dots.

Yes, I think its safe to say that the writers, animators, and voice actors of this series  just put a shot over the bow of the bow of the last vestiges of the old-school social conservatives. Maybe it wasn't intended that way, there has been a strong Korra/Asami fan club going since season 2 of the show, maybe the writers wanted to give them something. Though they have always been regarded as the minority opinion.  Now, it would seem, the underdogs have come out on top. Or, who knows... maybe this was in paper before the first frame of the show was ever painted. I honestly have no idea

As a bit of social commentary and statement, I have to admit, the moment was played with chess-master precision, and I think I can relate to middle age'd audiences of the 50s when kisses between "adulterous" couples started showing up on theater screens, or white audiences when the first interracial kisses showed up on TV in the 60s. There was a strong sense of "how dare they show me that", and I won't deny I was a little put off myself. Not for my own sensibilities, mind you, I have a number of friends in same-sex relationships. But, the show did stop just short of hitting me upside the head and saying "now explain that!" with regards to the fact my nine year old son was sitting next to me at the time. My wife and I just haven't talked about that part of society with him, but as smart and insightful as he is, he's probably not as naive as I think he is at the moment.

So yes, we have come to the point where a cartoon isn't talking about a major, current social issue with metaphor or analogy. While there is "some" room to wiggle out of this, within the world of the Avatars, the dramatic overtures of the show are a fair indication that these two women will explore the relationship beyond friendship.

And to that I say, best of luck to them.

Outside of that world, I think the show does two things for us in those final seconds.

First, it makes it very hard to call the character "gay" or "bi". Korra is the avatar, part of "team avatar", friend to Mako and Bolin, student of Tenzin, defender of the Republic City.., and so much more.  For once, I think we might actually have a point in american history where the story and society aren't going to put a relationship preferences at the top of the resume.  Korra is no more defined by the look she and Asami shared than I am by my relationship with my wife. I am not "that strait guy" and more than she is "that bisexual avatar".

Second, and I think more importantly, the show was a wake-up call for many of us that this conversation is being had too late in life. Unfortunately, romantic relationships are no longer under the american decency laws of the 20s, 30s, and 40s, Even in small town Oklahoma (arguably the most conservative, and in many ways socially repressive state in the US), Romantic couples will hold hands in public, share personal jokes and gestures that only couples do, and be glad to be seen as being "together". And yes, some of those couples will be same-sex.

If we don't explain at least the groundwork of that scene to our children fist, others will. Sure, you may, or may not agree with same sex relationships, but what is your reaction going to be when you do go to talk to your ten-year-old about it, and they say "Oh, you mean those fags"?

Yeah, doesn't matter that the kid sitting next to them at school doesn't know jack squat about the word he just taught your kid. He got his foot in the door ahead of you, and now you're playing catch-up to a fifth grader.

As a society, we have so criminalized, regulated, restricted and legislated sex and sexuality that many of us are actually scared to talk about honest relationships with our children because "relationships can lead to sex, and that is taboo until they are 'old enough'."

I don't know how I am going to address the overall topic of relationships (same sex or otherwise) with my son. He's 9, but well ahead of that in comprehension. I know it will be a process, one that will probably start sooner rather than later, and once that he will shape as much as I and my wife will.

But if he asks me, some day, "Are Korra and Asami in love?", I don't know what I specifically will say, but one thing is for sure; I'm not going to take the coward's way out, and say "no".

...and then again, he might very well just just spend the next five years raving about the 25-story mecha that mostly destroyed the city in the final battle. :-)