Video: Astronaut Scott Kelly teaches orbital mechanics with Kerbal Space Program

We’re re-surfacing a few videos from days past over the Christmas 2018 break to give folks a chance to see them anew. A year ago in December 2017, former astronaut Scott Kelly stopped by the Ars studio and spent the morning launching rockets with us in . Lee Hutchinson proved—explosively so—that traveling in orbit ain’t like dusting crops.

If you’re a frequent Ars reader, you’ve likely heard of the space flight/space crashing/space explosion simulator that lets you create your own vehicles, then fly them into orbit and perhaps even to other planets. Though silly and fun, also works as a reasonably solid and wonderfully interactive demonstration of the vagaries of orbital mechanics—and that, dear readers, gave us an idea.

Astronaut Scott Kelly is most famous for spending an uncomfortably long time on the International Space Station, and he’s currently touring to promote his book about the experience. We got to talk to him briefly when he was at the office back in October, but I wanted to take things a little further. What if we could sit down with Scott—a real astronaut who has flown the space shuttle and everything—and get him to talk us through a (somewhat realistic, somewhat silly) launch in

Scott was game to game, and a couple of weeks ago we met once again at the Condé Nast offices in New York and embarked on our mission. We tried to make it educational, because orbital mechanics is a weirdly counterintuitive science wherein things tend to work backward from how your gut says they should work. We tried to make it fun, because launching into space and coming home safely is serious business. And I tried not to blow up our spaceship before we got the video in the can—and we succeeded. Mostly.

This video is actually something I’ve been wanting to do for almost four years, ever since I spent a few days with the propulsion engineers tearing down vintage F-1 rocket engines at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. That we finally were able to make it happen with a famous astronaut is awesome, but it’s not the end goal, either—the next thing I want to do is sit down with an actual engineer and ourselves a rocket. I hope you folks have as much fun watching it as I did making it.

Ars extends special thanks to developer SQUAD for helping us out with logistics and also to the members of the community who provided special assistance with models and save states, particularly Simone Riboldi and Million Lights. Also thanks to modder SpaceTrashCan, who built the space shuttle model we ended up using. Finally, if anyone is interested in picking the game up, it’s on sale at GOG right now for $23.99 (Steam has it for $39.99).

(Finally, to any propulsion engineers or aerodynamicists reading this who live in the Houston area—wanna build some rockets and go fly for a future Ars piece? Send me an email!)

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