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Docking: From Navball to First Station, and Beyond


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Docking is a key component in station building, orbital construction, ship refueling, and many other activities in Kerbal Space Program. This multi-part guide will explain the basics of docking in a very simple manner. Although there are many other tutorials, I find they ask things of new users that they might not understand. We will start with the most essential component: the Navball.


Here's a link to the tutorial in PDF format. Still a work in progress itself, the tutorial will soon include the Asteroid Redirect Mission!

Tutorial #1: Learning the Navball:

This incredibly useful little instrument, located on the center of the bottom of your screen, gives you nearly all of the information you need to know about nearly everything you could ever do in KSP. G-force of ship, throttle setting, speed in orbit, compared to a target or surface, Delta-V needed for any maneuver, time until said maneuver, time to complete and direction to face for the maneuver, direction of ship compared to planet, prograde and retrograde, toward and away from target. Basically, everything you ever need to know about docking is right there, in the little 1" by 1" display.


This is a display of all the symbols on the navball as they are seen in game. What follows is a key to these symbols.


The level indicator displays the orientation of your ship. The "front" of it is represented by the dot in the middle of the symbol, and either of the two "sticks" to the sides display your port and starboard sides, not particularly useful for a rocket, but vital for a spaceplane. The next symbol, prograde, shows you the direction you are going. If you need to accelerate, say, to take off from the Mun, that is what you want the level indicator to face. The retrograde symbol is the opposite, it shows you the direction you are not going. If you want to land or de-orbit, that is the symbol to face, and you will slow down. The maneuver symbol, if you have created a maneuver node, shows you where to point to complete the maneuver. The "target prograde" node shows you where to point to go toward whatever your target is. and the "target retrograde" is away from your target.

The part of the display labeled "1" is your current selection of speed. In "Orbit" mode, it shows you how fast you are actually going in relation to absolute zero. In "Surface" mode, it shows you how fast you are going in relation to your current body of influence, a planet, usually. And "Target" mode is in relation to your current target. Notice when you switch between these settings the prograde and retrograde nodes move.

"2" shows your current speed in relation to your selection. It is in meters per second.

"3" and "4" are the toggles for RCS and SAS controls. RCS stands for "Reaction Control System", turned on with "R" , is a system of thrusters to orient yourself in orbit or to give little thrusts in a designated direction. Note that docking in nearly impossible without this, and you need to build your ship with RCS thrusters and fuel for them to work. SAS is for "Stability Augmentation System", and helps to keep your rocket pointed in the right direction. As of 0.23, it is included on all capsules. When engaged with "T", it does everything in its power to keep the ship oriented in the same direction.

"5" is the throttle setting. Each of the larger lines indicates a third of the full thrust.

"6" is the G-Force indicator. It is best, when getting to orbit, to keep this in the green zone, and the top of the green zone is even better. If it is too high, throttle down, if it is too low, throttle up.

"7" is the Maneuver Delta-V indicator. It shows you how much Delta-V is needed to do a maneuver, and how much of it is completed by the yellow arc.

"8" is more Delta-V stuff. It tells you how much time is approximated for the burn of a maneuver, and how long until the maneuver. A good rule of thumb is to start burning when the time until the maneuver is half that of the maneuver burn itself.

"9" is the main display of the navball. More on that below.

"10" is your heading. You do not ever need to pay attention to that for any purpose, really.

Finally, "11" is the minimize button. If you can't find the navball, there is a small arrow near the spot where it should be. Click it and the display will reappear.

Now that you know the basics, I will show you how to orient your ship with the navball.

If you hold the "A" key, the navball will turn to the right. An easier way to think of it is that the level indicator goes to the left, same as the "A" key is the leftmost key on the controls. The "D" key causes the level indicator to travel right. However, the "W" and "S" keys are reversed. Think of "W" as "Push nose down, and "S" as "Pull nose up". So, the level indicator sinks when the "W" key is pressed, and rises when "D" is pressed. Practice in orbit for a few minutes until you get the hang of these. There are also the "Q" and "E" controls. "Q" rotates the level indicator counterclockwise, and "E" clockwise.


Tutorials in this series:

Learning the Navball

Basic Rendezvous


Building Lifters

First Module

RCS Tugs - Function and Design

Finishing Spirion Station Mark II

In Progress:

SLS Introduction

Basic Theory of Asteroid Rendezvous

The Asteroid Redirect Mission

Design of the K.S.S. New Horizons

Asteroid Rendezvous


Edited by Starwhip
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Tutorial #2: Basic Rendezvous

Rendezvous, although it may seem impossible, is not really all that hard. It is the meeting of two ships in orbit, at a distance close enough to dock, generally 0 Kilometers to around 8 Kilometers. Although docking is possible at distances of around 25 Kilometers, it is a waste of fuel to dock this way. Getting this close to another body in space is difficult or impossible to do by eye, and you need to know how to use Maneuver Nodes.

Maneuver Nodes:


These are essentially planners for burns you want to do in the future. You can click and drag the little symbols to use them. The "prograde" and "retrograde" symbols (note that they are the same as on the Navball) are used to indicate a prograde or retrograde burn. The "normal" and "antinormal" ones are used to indicate a north or south burn. And finally, the "radial in" and "radial out" are used to "shift" your orbit to one side or the other. So, launch a ship into orbit. Click anywhere along your orbit. Choose "Add Maneuver Node". One will pop up at the spot you clicked. Play around with the different choices until you understand the basics of how they work.


Step 1: Build a ship capable of making it to Low Kerbin orbit. This is from 70,000 Km to around 200,000 Km. The ship needs RCS thrusters, as well. Make sure you put the thrusters on the COM (Center of Mass) of the bit which is going to be docking. In the VAB there are three little buttons. The one that looks like a weight toggles the center of mass display. Place the RCS thrusters on the same level as this.


Center of Mass in the editor.


This is my Crew Transfer Vehicle. It is probably capable of a Munshot, but it will do for docking.


And this is the station I am going to dock to. Note that you could just launch an identical transfer vehicle and dock to that.


Here is the orbit of the station. It is in LKO at around 136 Kilometers, an easy orbit to achieve.

Setting up Launch:

Don't just go ahead and launch the second your ship loads. You need to check some things first. Set your target ship to whatever thing in orbit you want.


Time warp (not too fast!) until you have an arrangement depicted in the image below.


The Launch

Launch your ship.


Pitch over at 9,000 meters to 45 degrees East, or the "90-degree" mark on the Navball.


Continue going up. Wait until your apoapsis is nearing the orbit of your target. Then, pitch over all the way to 0 degrees, the line between the blue and brown sections of the Navball, but make sure you are still on the line from 0-90 degrees! Otherwise, you will go too far north or south. Once your apoapsis reaches the orbit of the target vessel, hit "X" to cut your engines.




Maneuver Time!

Once you have the correct suborbital arc as depicted above, mouse over your apoapsis. Right-click and create a Maneuver Node there.


Then, pull on the "prograde" setting until your orbit matches the ship's orbit. Continue to pull the different settings to minimize the distance between the two craft as shown by the Intercept markers (the orange and purple triangles).


Turn your ship so that the Level Indicator matches the Maneuver Node Marker on the Navball. Wait until the Time Until Node is half the time of the Time Required for Burn and begin your burn. As you near the end of the burn (the last 10 m/s or so,) throttle down and just caress the ship into exactly the orbit you want by chasing the blue node around until the Delta-V indicator reads around .1 to .3.




Delete the node by clicking on it, then right-clicking once the editor pops up and clicking on the red "X". Check your intercept. If it is within a few Km, you're good to go! But, if it's significantly larger than the maneuver was set to be, turn on your RCS and fiddle with it (The IKJLHN keys are for RCS. Mainly, use H and N to thrust forwards and backwards.)

Now you have set up the rendezvous! Congratulations!

Edited by Starwhip
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Tutorial #3: Docking

So, you've finally managed to set up a rendezvous between two ships. You're halfway there! Just a little longer until the ships are stuck together by the magical magnetic forces of docking.

Correcting your Orbit


Time warp until the intercept is in 45 seconds. Rotate to face retrograde, and burn until the display reads "0 m/s"




The Approach






Thankfully, the orbit came into the view of the sun just as I was completing the final burn. Docking in the dark is a pain...

The Docking




As you come in, orient your ship so that it matches the orientation of the docking port. This doesn't mean face the docking port, it means literally aligning the ship in 3 dimensions in the same way as the docking port. There is no real way to learn this, it just takes some fiddling. Screw around with the RCS rotation controls (WASD) to orient.

If you are coming in sideways, use the IJKL keys to thrust laterally. This is where having your thrusters on your Center of Mass is vital, because you can thrust sideways without rotating.

Use H and N to thrust forward (Toward the nose of the craft) and backward (toward the engine) respectively.


Once you are about this close, make sure you are properly aligned with the docking port, and slow to about 0.3 m/s.


Almost there! Slow to 0.1 m/s, the standard docking speed. The magnetic forces should soon kick in, hit "T" to disable your SAS. Aaaaaaaand....


BOOM! (Hopefully not literally! That would be very unfortunate! :)) Docking Complete!

If I should continue on with the tutorials for station building, let me know! But even so, I hope these tutorials cleared up some of the troubles of learning to dock effectively and quickly. Good luck out there!

Edited by Starwhip
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Well, I'm ready to do the station-building tutorials, if anyone is interested. I'll give a step-by-step guide on how to build Spirion Station Mark II (The station in the tutorial!). Please respond if anyone wants that series.

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Tutorial #4: Building Lifters

Lifters are rockets that can launch payloads into orbit. I enjoy making them plausible at least, nice and aerodynamic at best. This tutorial will cover the 2 launchers I created to launch all of the parts that created Spirion Station II.

Basic Theory of Lifters

Lifters should usually carry between 5 and 18 tons to orbit. They are created from the top down in the VAB so that they may be made into subassemblies for easy rocket creation. And they should be relatively easy to fly and have a low-ish part count.

However, some of the parts of this station are more than 18 tons, at around 25 tons. So, a new type of lifter, a heavy lifter, is needed.

Heavy Lifters

Heavy lifters can lift 36 tons or more. I tested the Kitan VII Launcher, the heavy lifter included in this tutorial, with 1 Rockomax Jumbo-64, which weighs 36 tons. It made orbit with fuel to spare.

Tutorial 4-1: Creating the Kitan I Launcher

The Kitan I was the workhorse of the station, lifting the majority of the parts. Although the 2 fuel depot parts (located on the inner arms of the solar arrays) were lifted by the Kitan VII, the rest were all less than 18 tons.

Step 1:

Add a Rockomax Brand Decoupler in the VAB.


Step 2:

In this order, add these parts:

1x RC-L01 Remote Guidance Unit

1x FL-R1 RCS Fuel Tank

1x Rockomax X200-16 Fuel Tank

1x Rockomax "Poodle" Liquid Fuel Engine

4x RV-105 RCS Thruster Block (Level with the CoM)


Step 3:

1x Rockomax Brand Decoupler

2x Rockomax Jumbo-64 Fuel Tank

1x Rockomax "Mainsail" Fuel Tank

4x Standard Canard (Bottom edge of canard level with bottom of fuel tank.)


Step 4:

2x Hydraulic Detachment Manifold

2x Rockomax Jumbo-64 Fuel Tank

Step 5: (Going up from top of radial fuel tank)

2x Rockomax X200-32 Fuel Tank

2x Protective Rocket Nose Mk7

Step 6: (Going down)

2x Rockomax "Mainsail" Liquid Fuel Engine


Step 7:

4x EAS-4 Strut Connector (Zoom in and rotate to go inside the fuel tanks for easy inline strutting) on the X200-32 and the bottom of the Jumbo-64.


Step 8:

8x Sepatron 1 (Put 2 on each of the X200-32's and 2 on each of the Jumbo-64's)


Step 9:

2x Sepatron 1 (On the top of the center Jumbo-64)


Step 10:

4x TT18-A Launch Stability Enhancer


Now, it's time to fix the staging. If you run your mouse along the staging column on the right-hand side of the screen, different parts become highlighted. Stage the rocket as so:

Stage 0: Top decoupler.

Stage 1: "Poodle" engine

Stage 3: Decoupler under "Poodle" engine and the 2 Sepatrons under that decoupler

Stage 4: Hydraulic Detachment Manifolds and the 8 Sepatrons attached to the two side boosters

Stage 5: Launch Stability Enhancers

Stage 6: "Mainsail" engines

Now scroll up to the top. Open the "subassemblies" tab. Click and drag the entire rocket (by clicking on the top decoupler or SHIFT-clicking anywhere on the rocket) into the "Subassembly Drop Zone". Name it something, and hit "Save".


Tutorial 4-2: Creating the Kitan VII Heavy Lifter

Step 1:

Again, start with a Rockomax Brand Decoupler.

Step 2:

1x RC-L01 Remote Guidance Unit

1x Rockomax X200-32 Fuel Tank

1x Rockomax "Skipper" Liquid Fuel Engine

4x Stratus-V Cylindrified Monopropellant Tank (Near the top of the X200-32)

4x RV-105 RCS Thruster Block (Once again, on the CoM)


Step 3:

1x Rockomax Brand Decoupler

2x Rockomax Jumbo-64 Fuel Tank (Stacked going down from the decoupler)

Step 4:

6x Rockomax Jumbo-64 Fuel Tank (Attached radially to the topmost Jumbo-64)


6x Rockomax Jumbo-64 Fuel Tank (Stacked on the bottom of the 6 radial Jumbo-64's)


Step 5:

6x Protective Rocket Nose Mk7 (Top of the radial stacks)

7x Rockomax "Mainsail" Liquid Fuel Engine (One in the middle of the stack and 6 on the outer ones.)


Step 6:

18x EAS-4 Strut Connector (6 connecting the topmost fuel tanks to each other, and 12 connecting the bottommost ones to the central one, 2 per column/stack)


Step 7:

12x Standard Canard

12x TT18-A Launch Stability Enhancer


Step 8:

6x Sepatron I (Facing up, remember that!)


Staging as follows:

Stage 0: Top decoupler

Stage 1: "Skipper" engine

Stage 2: Decoupler under said engine and the 6 Sepatron I's

Stage 3: The 12 Launch Stability Enhancers

Stage 4: The 7 "Mainsails"

Once again, drag the whole thing into the "Subassambly Drop Zone" and call it something. (Different from the previous one!)

Edited by Starwhip
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Thanks! I hoped it would help some people. With some practice it becomes nearly automatic. I had some trouble remembering to hit 'f1' for screenshots because I was practically in autopilot. :)

Going to be a little bit of a pain to do that station again, but I'll pull through.

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Tutorial #5: First Module

Okay, so, this is the first module of the Spirion Station Mark II.


Directions for build: (From top down)

1x Clamp-O-Tron Shielded Docking Port

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

1x FL-R1 RCS Fuel Tank

4x Gigantor XL Solar Array (Vertical, attached to the center of the RCS tank)

1x Mobile Processing Lab MPL-LG-2 (FOR SCIENCE!)

1x Hitchhiker Storage Container

4x Z-400 Rechargeable Battery (Bottom of Hitchhiker container)

1x Communotron 88-88 (Bottom of Hitchhiker container)

1x RC-L01 Remote Guidance Unit

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

Now, go to the Subassemblies tab. Click on the Kitan I or whatever you named it, and attach it to the bottom of the module. Name the entire thing, "Spirion Station II-I", corresponding to Module I.


Now, I assume you know how to launch something. Go ahead and stick the thing in an orbit of approximately 140 Km (140,000 meters). Make it as circular as possible. Transfer whatever RCS is in the stage with the engine to the tank on the module by ALT-Right clicking on both fuel tanks and selecting "In" on the module's fuel tank. Decouple the module and deorbit the extra stage (the one with the engine on it.)

Presto, your first module is now in orbit!

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Tutorial #6: RCS Tugs - Function and Design


RCS tugs are essentially the replacements for robotic arms on stations to move modules around. I had never incorporated one before, but my Kod they are really great to have around. I didn't install one myself until later in the process, but now would be a great time to do so in the tutorial.

Basic Function

Let's say you accidentally put that fuel tank on backwards, or some part is rotated awkwardly. (BOTH happened to me when I was building the darn thing). RCS tugs let you reposition a piece in orbit with minimal effort. They can move pieces much heavier than themselves because they are equipped with many RCS thrusters and reaction wheels, enabling them to keep themselves straight whilst thrusting laterally and carrying a load.


The Spirion's RCS tug has a Senior port and a normal (1.25 meter) one, connected by an adapter. It comes equipped with 2 large ASAS modules for torque, and 4 RCS thruster blocks, combined with 8 of the lateral thrusters. It can easily move modules around for reconfiguration or docking.


Here's the tug in the VAB. It consists of these parts.

1x Clamp-O-Tron Docking Port

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter 02

1x FL-R1 RCS Fuel Tank

4x PB-NUK Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (Rotate them with the WASD keys to fit them as shown)

1x Advanced SAS Module, Large

1x RC-L01 Remote Guidance Unit

4x RV-105 RCS Thruster Block

1x FL-R1 RCS Fuel Tank

4x PB-NUK Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator

1x Advanced SAS Module, Large

8x Place-Anywhere 7 Linear RCS Port (Center of the two SAS modules)

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

Stick another Kitan I lifter on it. Rendezvous with the station. However, you do not need to dock yet. Decouple the tug. Right-click on the Senior docking port on the tug, and select "Control from Here". Now, dock with the station using the tug's RCS. Deorbit the leftover stage.

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LOL, for the next tutorial I had to literally disassemble my station. I decided to reverse-engineer it rather than build it because it's easier. And faster.

There is something rather disconcerting about solar panels spinning away into space. Kudos goes to that RCS tug. Disassembled the whole thing in around 10 mins.

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Tutorial #7: Finishing Spirion Station Mark II

The moment(s) you've all been waiting for! This last (Maybe the last one. Unless people ask for more) tutorial will give you the building instructions for the final modules. Hope you've learned quite a bit about station building by the end of this!

Custom Hub

Ok, as you may have noticed, there is a large central "hub" of Senior-sized ports in the middle of the station.


1x Protective Rocket Nose Mk7

4x Sepatron I

1x Sepatron I (directly above one of the other Sepatrons)

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port (The docking side faces the bottom of the nose cone)

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

1x Rockomax HubMax Multi-Port Connector

4x Rockomax Brand Adapter

4x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

16x EAS-4 Strut Connector (look at the pic for reference)

Now, go into the Action Group editor. To to Custom01, and click on the topmost docking port. Select "Decouple Node". Then, select the four Sepatrons, and set them to "Activate Engine". Do the same for the other Sepatron.

Stick a Kitan I on it. Once you are at about 60,000 meters, hit the "1" key to eject the nose cone.

Rendezvous with the station and decouple the payload. Dock with the payload with the RCS tug, and connect it to the station.

Deorbit the leftover stage.


Station so far. Please disregard the thingy docked up top, I forgot to disconnect it when I was screenshotting.

Fuel Depot Section 1

This is the X200-32 you see on either of the solar array arms.


1x Protective Rocket Nose Mk7

4x Sepatron I

1x Sepatron I (Directly above one of the other ones.)

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port (Facing the nose cone)

1x Rockomax X200-32 Fuel Tank

1x Advanced SAS Module, Large

4x RV-105 RCS Thruster Block (Near the bottom of the fuel tank. See above pic)

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port (Facing down)

Do the same thing with the nose cone as the one above. (Action Group editor.)

Again, around 60,000 meters hit "1" to eject the nosecone.

Rendezvous and decouple. Dock the tug and stick the module on the hub, on one of the lateral ports. (See image below)


Solar Array


Consists of:

1x Protective Rocket Nose Mk7

4x Sepatron I

1x Sepatron I

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

1x Modular Girder Adapter

1x Modular Girder Segment XL

1x Modular Girder Adapter

4x Z-400 Rechargeable Battery

2x Clamp-O-Tron Jr. Docking Port

4x Gigantor XL Solar Array

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

2x EAS-4 Strut Connector

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

Launcher: Kitan I

Same setup with the Action Groups as before. You may find it easier to set up a separate Group for the solar panels, like Custom02: Extend Panels

Same as before: Rendezvous, decouple, grab, place, deorbit.

Extend the panels.


Put another fuel tank and solar array like this:


Spaceplane/Crew vessel Docking Port Adapter


1x Clamp-O-Tron Shielded Docking Port

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter

4x Illuminator Mk2

1x Mk2 Lander-can

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter 02

1x Modular Girder Segment

4x SP-L 1x6 Photovoltaic Panels

1x Rockomax Brand Adapter 02

1x Clamp-O-Tron Sr. Docking Port

Launcher: Kitan I

Rendezvous, decouple. This time, you will have to open the docking port BEFORE YOU DECOUPLE if the piece is not manned. Otherwise, you just complicate the process. Dock with the small end of the RCS tug to the standard docking port, and connect the module like so:


And there you have it!

Spirion Station Mark II is complete!

Hope you liked this series of tutorials. Let me know if I need to clarify any parts of it.

Edited by Starwhip
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  • 2 weeks later...

In Progress:

Tutorial #8: SLS Introduction

Tutorial #9: Basic Theory of Asteroid Rendezvous

Tutorial #10: The Asteroid Redirect Mission

Tutorial #11: Design of the K.S.S. New Horizons

Tutorial #12: Asteroid Rendezvous

Tutorial #13: Redirection

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I'm enjoying your tutorials and your sample craft. I especially like the RCS tug, I plan to use this design for my next station. I've also made a smaller version of it using the 1.25m parts, with a standard port on one end and a Jr. on the other. Much handier than previous tug designs I'd used.

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Great tutorial. I made my tug with snr docking ports on either end and two standard and two jnr on cardinal points in the middle. Enough RCS ports and torque and it doesn`t care which way it is pointing, it will just grab anything and move it where you want it with no compatibility issues. Some of them have a small fuel tank and some radial liquid engines. Gives about 300 Dv with a medium sized station part. You can deorbit things with those ones...

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Lurked around the forums for a long time, but made an account to post here.....just wanted to say that its an awesome thing you are doing for new folks here Starwhip. People that take time out of their day to write up a fantastic tutorial like this deserve a pat on the back! Keep them coming!

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Please excuse my lack of pictures so far. I'll add them in later. (When I have them; my saves are in another computer!)



Tutorial #2-1: SLS Introduction

Let me come out by saying that these new parts are insane. With over twice the thrust of a Mainsail, that new quad engine unit is great for all heavy lifting needs. Which you are going to have a lot of, if you plan to divert E-Class asteroids...

The new size-3 parts let you launch all those massive creations into orbit with less parts and more stability. Rockomax-size payloads are now commonplace in my instance of Kerbin's SOI, bringing NERVA's and "Klaws" to the asteroids like never before. Over the next few tutorials, I will guide you in your quest to save (or even destroy!) Kerbin with your will. Stay tuned!

Edited by Starwhip
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