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Designing Spacecraft (in KSP and Elsewhere)


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This is a post I originally started a couple years ago in a thread for My History of Spaceflight, but it got a little buried (...I couldn't find it...) so I thought I'd make a new post and include my thoughts on spacecraft design et. al. I would like to keep updating it with comments of various craft that I've created as well as the through process behind them.

Philosophy and Approach

This actually encompasses more than just KSP as I've been "designing" spaceships since I was a little kid, "swooshing" a few little Lego parts that I wholeheartedly believed was a spaceship. I have a vivid memory of playing with these handful of Legos and intuitively thinking: Spaceship.

That passion for Lego eventually evolved into much larger SHIPs (Ex: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5). But at that same time, I would pore over the many versions of Star Trek technical manuals, marvel at blueprints of the Millenium Falcon, and stand in fascinated awe at the Space Shuttle in the early 80s. Add to that, basically 30+ years of pop-culture spacecraft awareness, a dash of actual space history, a whole of of imagination, channelled into a digital medium that allows me to build & fly these things. Watching Star Wars movies literally more times than I can count, continuously consuming Star Trek for over 30 years, loving late-70s Buck Rogers (unaware of the monumental cheesiness), hyperactive over Battlestar Galactica (the 70s original, but then much more importantly, the 2004 reboot); really just about anything in the Sci-fi genre that might include a vehicle maneuvering through the vacuum of space, or on alien planets, or heck even our own planet.

With Kerbal Space Program, I've found one of the best tools to express the combination of creative and analytical thinking that is spacecraft design. It's a pseudo-practical approach that, for me, makes this game endlessly playable and allows that expression. So even though it's a game, the fact that you engineer things in this game to actually fly adds an entire level of realism (or not... depending on your KSP playstyle) to the process. And while KSP & Lego are aspects of the same thing, i.e. working with a specific set of parts, creating something unique but not overbuilt; KSP allows me to take this newly created vessel for a spin around the solar system.

So, you ask, what do I mean by "pseudo-practical"? A personal philosophy, I guess, that imposes a set of realistic parameters on an inherently unrealistic creation. Designing in a way that balances in-game mechanics with a broader use case for a spacecraft. Working with symmetry and aesthetics, while balancing the inherent asymmetricality of space technologies melding together into a ship. Maintaining the internal logic of specific part choices used in specific ways within an overall visual context, that hopefully comes across as both "realistic" and creatively interesting at the same time.

I find myself constantly evaluating the aesthetic choice of a set of parts in trying to meet a certain need, then reviewing whether those parts meet the game's technical needs, then going back to adjust how they mesh visually, then back to the parts specs... until many iterations later, an actual spacecraft evolves. Then I keep looking at it, noodling with it; taking away anything that strikes me as "off" and in some cases completely re-working the craft. When I do orbital test runs, if anything jumps out at me visually, I usually re-work it. If the ship isn't meeting the technical needs of the mission, I re-work it.

This goes on until I think I can't possibly make any more changes (then I usually find 1 or 2 more...) until FINALLY, I can't stop looking at it. There's nothing that my brain says, "Wait. Change that." It's odd to use the word 'perfect', but in a sense that's what it is. My brain has gone through just about every iteration until it just seems 'right' on all facets.

There's a creative pride that comes from this iteration process. There's a sense of childlike whimsy when the thing can actually make orbit, or I can actually dock it, or the antennas extend, or the light and shadow catches it just the right way. The same feeling as when I was 6 years old making Lego ships.

"I made a ship that flies through space." 

Edited by scottadges
More comments with pics to come (once the forum stops merging my comments....)
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