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A rocket launching into space, just above the launchpad with a large cloud of smoke below it, in the rocketry simulator Kerbal Space Program 2.

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Kerbal Space Program 2 delivers a hell of a rush

NASA, let me know if you’re hiring

Image: Intercept Games/Private Division
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Oh, to be an astronaut, flying away from Kerbin and into the great frontier of space.

In Kerbal Space Program 2, you meticulously build rocket ships to launch into orbit around the planet Kerbin, and eventually explore other celestial bodies across the cosmos. The game launches (pun intended) into early access on Friday, with a sandbox mode available. I’m trying the game as a newcomer, having only spent a small handful of hours with Kerbal Space Program, during which I developed an intense appreciation for, and terror about, its complex and fairly realistic physics model.

In early access, KSP 2 doesn’t yet have a career mode, so there aren’t contracts or objectives to guide my time. Instead I set a basic goal: Make a ship and successfully guide it into orbit. I, a fool convinced of my own intelligence, thought this would be pretty easy. I was wrong. Earning sweet KSP 2 success required a lot of trial and error and back-of-napkin math. But I enjoyed every minute of the ride. The early game made me feel like an amateur physicist, even if it’s the closest I’ll ever get to an actual rocket.

It all started in Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB), where I designed my rocket ships. The sleek, charming building tutorial did a great job of guiding me through what a ship needs to be able to launch into the sky and safely land — command module, fuel tank, engine, and parachute — which I dutifully wrote down in my gamer notebook. But these components would not be enough to send the rocket into orbit. I hopped out of that tutorial and decided to take on the mantle of head engineer. This would be a mistake for the Kerbals, many of whom perished in my cruel attempts at reaching the majesty of the stars. (I save-scummed a lot because I couldn’t bear the thought of Bob Kerman dying.)

Two Kerbals, green aliens from Kerbal Space Program 2, sitting in a spacecraft. They both have enthusiastic, slightly unhinged, expressions. Image: Intercept Games/Private Division

Sandbox mode gives me an overwhelming array of options for ship parts, spread over several tabs by piece type. Do I want a command module that seats one Kerbal or multiple? And could I find the right type of engine to launch it into space? The game’s fluid loop between building and launching, along with its intuitive and easy-to-use tools, make it a series of satisfying experiments, even as you crash back to Kerbin again and again. While you can place parts on a ship with some aesthetic intent, they ultimately snap into perfect alignment. There’s also the symmetry tool, which I used to place four wings at equidistant points around the circumference of my ship — as it turns out, placing them manually was the reason my ships kept flavor-blasting into the air at weird angles.

My spacecraft-building attempts ranged from near successes to pure abominations. In one launch I simply put as many parachutes as I could onto the ship, creating something that barely made it off the ground before tumbling down. In another attempt, I just tried to make the rocket as long as possible. Every launch brought me back to goofy high school science fair projects where I would fling projectiles from a little catapult — terrorizing classmates in the hallway and earning myself the label of nerd, which I won’t fight — and chart their landings.

And then there’s the matter of actually flying the rocket into space. I never quite figured out how to get into orbit without eating all of my fuel, much less land the spacecraft on any foreign celestial bodies — even when I used the prebuilt rocket that definitely had those capabilities. I sent so many Kerbals into the sea at a velocity no human should ever experience. This is science, I told myself sagely. There’s no backing down. Luckily, expert YouTubers helped me figure out some solutions and strategies. A colleague recommended two beginner YouTube series that were immensely helpful. (They’re both based on the first Kerbal Space Program, but the principles translate well.)

A space station over a red planet in Kerbal Space Program 2 Image: Intercept Games/Private Division

My experience as a first-timer was also hampered by a few frustrating bugs, though given the game’s early access status, they’ll likely be ironed out in the future. The game crashed several times while I played it on PC via Steam. I also struggled with a tutorial module dedicated to launching a rocket ship: The time window for releasing the spacecraft’s empty fuel tank was incredibly small, forcing me to restart the module repeatedly. A colleague of mine, who has played the first Kerbal Space Program, had the same problem.

Even if I ate up all my fuel, actually launching a handmade ship into orbit felt like acing a high school physics exam, where the science finally clicked, made real by demonstration. Public high school classes had always felt like some extended ruse; U.S. history and biology were both particularly overstuffed with rote memorization. In physics, there was something I could actually see, and later, calculate. Kerbal Space Program 2, even in just a few early hours of play, managed to bottle that lightbulb-above-the-head feeling, translating theoretical principles into reality.

Next stop: the Mün.

Kerbal Space Program 2 is available on Windows PC. These impressions were written using a Steam download code provided by Private Division. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.