Rocket scientists are in love with a goofy rocket simulation game called Kerbal

Real-world space travel has its limits, even for Elon Musk.
Real-world space travel has its limits, even for Elon Musk.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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We learned a lot about Elon Musk during his recent Reddit AMA. He gets about six hours of sleep a day; he’s worried about computers taking over; he wants explore Jupiter’s moon Europa; and he recently got a great pair of hiking boots from the Sports Authority. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway was that he loves the videogame Kerbal Space Program. The CEO of SpaceX enjoys a game that lets you create your own space exploration program, from building mission control, to designing the rockets, to flying into space. When prompted on what SpaceX uses for testing software, Musk jokingly replied, “Kerbal Space Program!” He went on to call the game “awesome.”

Musk is not alone—workers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the non-profit rocket project Copenhagen Suborbitals have both extolled the virtues of the game. NASA has even worked on a mission with Squad, the Mexico City-based game designers behind the game.

Similar to the indie hit game Minecraft, Kerbal’s popularity seems to be growing as fast as the game develops. It only left alpha development a few weeks ago and has over 16,000 positive reviews on the videogame marketplace Steam, a sizable Reddit community, and an active fan forum with over 120,000 members. At the time of publication, the designers behind Squad were unavailable to comment on how many times the game has been downloaded.

Why is the game so appealing to people who actually build rocket ships? Douglas Ellison, a visualization producer at NASA, told the Penny Arcade that it offers the freedom to try things you wouldn’t in real life, that there’s “no real responsibility.” Ellison said he’s killed many Kerbals along the way to landing spaceships in the game on other planets—collateral damage that surely wouldn’t go down well at his day job. Thomas Pedersen, lead strategist with Copenhagen Suborbitals, told the Guardian that ”games have gone far beyond [real life] for decades,” allowing people to explore the realms of what’s possible, without consequences.

“It’s why racing drivers like racing games,” Ellison added. He might be right on that one. Professional soccer players have been known to spend too much time playing FIFA football games, and Microsoft used to promote its Flight Simulator game as a training aid for pilots. Perhaps the same rule applies to forklift operators and European bus drivers.