Pore Jeb Is Daid D: in The Amalgamated Aggromulator

  • Dec. 30, 2021, 11:26 a.m.
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  • Public

I lost an astronaut.

This morning. First time. I’m still chilled with the darkness of it.

Of course, in the game Kerbal Space Program you lose astronauts all the time, in miscalculations and blowups, and you just Revert to Launch or Revert to Vehicle Assembly Building (whichever the problem may require) - so you don’t really lose the astronaut, you make-it-never-happened. (Life is better that way.) But this time I was trying something extravagant - at least extravagant for me - so I was saving the game in increments as I went. But when you load a saved game and you’re already deep in space you can no longer Revert to Launch or to VAB. So…

Gads, I lost Jeb.

(When I get over it I’ll get clever and load one of the earlier Saves and abort the mission, have Jeb pilot the spacecraft straight back home to Kerbin before the problem sets in, so I can remedy the issue in the workshop. But for now, it has happened.)

Here’s what happened. (People who are bored by game talk, this is your honorable exit opportunity.)

You see, I’ve only ever paddled around in KSP. Simply put, Gwen isn’t with me, so there’s no reason to achieve anything, and it has seemed empty to do so.
So I’ve only popped the game open for short-term fun, like popping open Minesweeper, and I haven’t put together a real Mun mission or anything; I’ve just done things like trying to land on the roof of the Vehicle Assembly Building (which used to be a grand quixotic challenge before I figured out how to go about trying) and mostly going about the business of gathering scientific data (which lets you build more aerospace parts) by sampling the various regions of the home planet’s surface, exploring basically by manned ICBM and parachute because I’m rubbish at building and controlling airplanes. Most often I just start a fresh game so I can fiddle through the basic stuff.

But I have occasionally gone out and put myself in lunar (Munar?) orbit… and a few days ago I took it into my head to try doing that with Minmus. Minmus is a tiny second moon of Kerbin, further out, that looks like a blob of lime sherbet and is almost certainly a captured cometary nucleus.

So I tried it… and I managed it! Close orbit around little Minmus, way out there.
And then I made it back to Kerbin! With plenty of fuel to spare!

So, well… actually… why not?

So I first built a ridiculous super-solid super-stable lander, that bore some resemblance to the Steel Bridge here in Portland, and that couldn’t even be successfully launched out of the atmosphere without uncontrollable chaos and doom, and then I settled down and just put some extensible legs on the smallest upper stage of the original design.

And then, yesterday, I launched…

It’s dicey getting out to Minmus. The problem is aim. See, I don’t use (haven’t been using) any special add-on tools like Mechanical Jeb or the Engineer; I don’t even program maneuver nodes; I just do everything freehand. I’m not sure if those tools would help me.
You get out to a Minmus intercept the same way that you do a Mun intercept; you orbit Kerbin until you see your target five or ten degrees above the horizon, and then you boost. Then, although you don’t go straight at what you see, your orbit will stretch out sideways and put you near where your target will be at that time. This is simple with the Mun; it’s as plain as Earth’s Moon. But Minmus is just a couple of pixels wide as seen from Kerbin… which I gather doesn’t translate well into a high-resolution screen like I have, because I can’t see it at all.
So I have to flip to my virtual navigation screen that shows Kerbin and my spacecraft and (if I zoom out) Minmus as little Lego-like usefully-sized icons, and then I have to orbit looking at that until the display appears as if Minmus would be just coming into view if I could see it. This is imprecise. And if I’m off, either I won’t have an intercept at all or I’ll have to use way more fuel than I want once I’m out there. Which is a worry. I need to get home.

This time my aim was a little worse but not fuel-critically so; I got my intercept (though it was a little slippery to find) and then I worked my way in to a close Minmus orbit. Lumpy lime sherbet, knuckled and mountainous against the stars.

Fatefully, I saved for the night…

This morning, saving several times, I narrowed my orbit down to a few thousand feet. Along the way I detached from my nearly empty second stage, so that I was just the lander. Gut check. I extended the legs.
And then I feathered my way down on the little Hibachi-sized rocket engine, keeping my rate of fall minimal because I don’t have a calculator to tell me when to do a suicide burn… and somehow I was down, in the Minmus lowlands, and I didn’t tip over.

The data I collected (temperature, [trace] atmospheric pressure, seeing what the “mystery goo” thought of the place, crew report) showed as having fantastic scientific value. I’d be able to build a radically new generation of spacecraft based on this one flight.

I almost certainly had enough fuel to hop around minimal-gravity Minmus a time or two, to sample different regions for similar bonanzas, but, skin-prickling, I didn’t want to push my luck. Future missions.
I took off…

And then I began to have trouble. I’ve never, at least that I can remember, had this sort of trouble before. Probably due to my circumscribed efforts and the kinds of things I wasn’t doing in the process.

I was travelling outward from ghostly-green Minmus - unintentionally already in an escape trajectory, which is incredibly easy with Minmus’s low mass. But I was just going in whatever direction was “up” when I took off. What I needed was to escape in a direction that would give me an orbit around my home planet that I could nudge into a home intercept without using too much of my little lander’s fuel.
So I needed to slow back down and get into a plain orbit around Minmus, so that I could then align that orbit with marble-sized Kerbin and then choose a time to boost.
Duck soup.

But my attitude control was strangely unresponsive. I focused on it… and I could swear it was completely unresponsive. Puzzling; I’d installed one of the full-sized flywheels in this design, and it had been working fine. Now that my ship was down to this little stub I should be repositioning whip-smart. Maybe I’d overstrained the flywheel somehow.
Or maybe…

I figured out that attitude control returned a little (though it worked very slowly, like turning a supertanker) when I had the drive turned on. Which is not ideal, because then you’re pushing while you’re swinging around so that you’re pointed in the direction you want to be pushing in. But with the drive turned whisper-low nothing could go wrong really fast, I thought.

And so I turned… slowly… and then counterthrust until I wasn’t escaping Minmus anymore. Then I turned… slowly… and boosted myself into an orbit around Minmus. Then I turned… slowly… and tilted the orbit until Kerbin was almost lined up with its plane. (In this hobbled situation it really helped me that the gravity was so low that the speed of my orbit was almost glacial.) Then I waited until I was at the end of my orbit that was furthest from Kerbin, so that my acceleration would expand the other side, and turned my craft… slowly, slowly… and boosted…

Then I was free in Kerbin space.
With a huge near-circular orbit around Kerbin almost the size of Minmus’s. But from my experience last time I was pretty sure I had the fuel to counterboost and slowly contract and contract that vast loop until my periapsis would intercept Kerbin. Ideally I would cut off when my periapsis was at maybe 40,000 meters on the far side of the planet, for good aerobraking. (The exact altitude wouldn’t be crucial. I could aerobrake and go out for a second, much smaller orbit that would finish the braking - or if I muffed it the other way I could just fall at an angle straight to Kerbin. My heat shield ought to take it, although my experiments might be ruined by the heat, which is why I preferred a slower deceleration through the atmosphere.)

So. Slow (slow!) turn until I opposed the direction of my travel. I started my drive at a bare rumble.

The loop shrank. And shrank. Occasional flickers of new intercept projections, Minmus, the Mun. I ignored them.

Getting there, getting there, almost…

My periapsis dipped into Kerbin’s atmosphere! 70,000, 60, 50, somewhere in there I triumphantly hit the button to kill the drive.


I hit it again! And again! The drive stayed on! I hammered on it! Nothing! I couldn’t turn the drive down slowly either! Nothing! Controls dead!

Now the periapsis was gone. My course directly intercepted Kerbin, the intercept point creeping round from the far side to the near side. But if the drive did not go off, BUT IF THE DRIVE DID NOT GO OFF…

I hit the space bar to explosively separate the crew capsule from the rocket!

There was the “kchow” of the charge. But the drive was still on. So, even though separated, the rocket was still pressing hard against the capsule, pushing it; there could be no separation! And now, having severed the connections, I could not even see whether the fuel might run out in time!

The fuel did not run out in time. The trajectory crawled back to the other side of Kerbin; the periapsis reappeared… the periapsis rose out of Kerbin’s atmosphere…

… for eternity

Jeb, my Kerbal astronaut, was doomed to fall forever in space.

And then I reconfirmed that there was no Revert option.

It’s not hard to figure out what went wrong. Only one thing fits. I ran out of electrical power.

I had done nothing about electrical power.
It would have been easy, even at my relatively early technological stage, and it will be easy - tacking on solar panels and battery packs - but, you see, I haven’t needed to up to now. The astronaut capsule has some electrical storage, and the big rockets make a surfeit of power when they’re roaring full blast. And, as I said, I’ve been doing only brief short-range stuff in Kerbal Space Program. Electrical power supply hasn’t really been an issue.

This time, rather than relying on the capsule’s little internal flywheel for attitude control - which is completely inadequate if something goes seriously askew on a big spacecraft, especially at the huge early stages - I had added a big advanced flywheel, which has a power appetite. (I could have installed RCS attitude jets and propellant tanks instead. I didn’t.)

I had already installed the big flywheel unit on my previous Minmus intercept, and I remember no trouble. But I’m not sure I needed to work myself down to using the final, smallest rocket stage during that flyby trip. And you do a lot more attitude adjustments, continuously, when working yourself down to a planetary surface on your drive flame…

… and it occurs to me that it might have been the tiny expenditure of telling those lander legs to extend that marooned Jed at the very end.

Well, without it I might have been able to cut off the drive and then been unable to activate the parachute. Which would have been quicker at least.

I typed “I guess the chills have faded”, but, no, they are still there.

Last updated December 30, 2021

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