Space is big lately, and there’s no place it’s bigger than education. An entire generation of scientists, engineers, doctors, and other world-changers are growing up around us. We, as adults, have a responsibility to not only teach the next generation, but to make the things they learn interesting.
Space offers an interesting opportunity to showcase the kind of collaborative learning our product is known for, but it’s also just a fun thing to think about. Here, we’ll use the popular spaceflight simulator, Kerbal Space Program, along with a couple of mods and, of course, the wePresent. Our objective is to create a realistic simulation of what a mission to space would be like.
Now, there’s a lot meat to this subject. Rocket science isn’t something that can be taught in a day. Luckily, spaceflight in Kerbal Space Program isn’t incredibly difficult. There’s a lot of room for error, so when mistakes are made, the worst case scenario is a spectacular crash.
Things You'll Need:
- One copy of Kerbal Space Program*, as well as one Wi-Fi enabled computer capable of playing it. (Available on the KSP website, Steam, and GOG.com)
- A copy of the free Telemachus mod for KSP, by nebakenezer*.
- Enough tablets, laptops, phones, and other Wi-Fi devices capable of navigating a simple web browser for your different stations of mission control.
Setting Up the Mission
First of all, you’ll need to establish an objective. KSP is a very comprehensive game, and includes an entire solar system full of planets, planetoids, and asteroids to explore. It might be better to start small. The first major milestone for most Kerbal players is sub-orbital flight, which is fairly similar to how history shows we made the first steps into space. After sub-orbital flight is stable orbit, then you might try satellites or complex orbital maneuvers. Or, you’ll probably see the moon floating not too far off in the distance and think “yeah, I could do that.” Keep in mind, the further you go, the more difficult the game becomes on an almost exponential level.
Next, design your launch vehicle and payload. While there is a lot to be said on the topic of vehicle design in KSP, there is also an alternative: pre-made ships. I’ll include some links at the end to detail exactly how to get these installed. Here is a calculator that might make vehicle design a bit easier, which gives you a list of suggested parts for a launch vehicle. Of course, it's still up to you to assemble the thing, so there's always pre-made ships. Whether you’re using a premade ship, or you’re using a ship you’re designing for a specific mission, make sure you include one of the two Telemachus antennae the mod offers you, otherwise it won't send your KSP data out.
Another thing you want to consider when setting up a mission is your mission control, AKA your audience. If you're speaking to an AP calculus class, eager to put what they're learning into action, delving into the math of the KSP universe is absolutely possible. There's a great guide available on the KSP Wiki, and another available for download here. There's also a handy page full of calculators for KSP here. (The Delta-V map is especially helpful).If you're talking to a less math-savvy classroom, you might need to scale the difficulty down a bit. We'll talk about that just a bit later.
After deciding on the mission, put together your flight crew.
- Pilot - The Pilot mans the only actual controls to the spaceship. He can either be in the same room as mission control, or, for additional fun, in a separate room communicating via webcam.
- Launch Control - Launch Control is responsible for getting the rocket off the ground and into orbit. While they are traditionally a separate team, it may be better to have a small “sub-committee” from Mission Control to design and carry out launches.
- Mission Control - While in orbit, Mission Control is responsible for initiating and keeping track of flight maneuvers. They do all the necessary calculations for the pilot to carry out the mission.
- Science Team (Optional) - The Science Team is responsible for monitoring and interpreting telemetry data, as well as making sure experiments are carried out in a safe, timely manner.
- Vehicle Assembly Team (Optional) - The Vehicle Assembly team works with all other operational centers to design the payload and delivery vehicle. They may also merge into Mission Control or Science Control after launch, or they may oversee robotic missions (oh, but hold your horses on that).
The Flight Crew.
After you've assembled your flight crew, it's time to carry out your mission. With the resources provided here, you should be able to carry our a variety of different tasks in space. For example, without installing any further mods, you can:
- Achieve sub-orbital and orbital flight, and then lunar orbit.
- Design and deploy a lunar lander.
- Launch a probe intended for interplanetary travel.
- Deploy science satellites.
- Replicate historic space missions.
- Create and solve problems, such as equipment malfunctions and lost astronauts.
The Nuts and Bolts
Okay, so we've gone over what kinds of collaboration in the classroom are possible with KSP and the Telemachus mod, but how do you actually pull it off? If you're an educator, we recommend talking to your campus IT office. While using KSP with the wePresent is as easy as mirroring your screen, setting up Telemachus can be a little tricker. Basically, Telemachus is going to set up a small server that runs the webpage where the telemetry data is set. You may need to forward port 8056 at the router, in order to route any requests to the machine, or you may see about setting up a small internal redirect page.
That said, Telemachus can be tricky to get working, but follow this list and you can at least rule out the common causes.
- Windows Firewall setup to allow Kerbal Space Program through port 8056.
- External firewall setup to allow KSP through port 8056 on the internal network.
- Port 8056 forwarded from access point to computer running Telemachus.
Please note that in order to get a signal from Telemachus, you have to open the antenna that is attached to your ship in KSP and select "Open Link". You'll substitute the "127.0.0.1" with whatever your IP is on the internal network when giving the link to others, though. If you don't know your IP on the internal network. Telemachus may work across subnets, depending on how they're configured, but it sounds like the better way to go, in that event, is to set up a simple redirect page and forward Telemachus data to it.
Once Telemachus is set up and KSP is running, simply connect the "Pilot" machine to the wePresent you want to stream to, press Connect, and enter the code...
...Select whether you'd like a quadrant or a full screen...
And then mirror your screen to the wePresent. The wePresent itself should stream at about 30 FPS, depending on what kind of traffic your internal network is seeing. Here's all our quadrants set up to monitor an orbital manuever to rendezvous with the moon.
Clockwise, starting from left: Windows 7 PC running KSP, iPad 2, iPhone 5s, and MacBook Pro.
With wePresent set up in conference mode, a moderator (such as the teacher or a mission commander) can set the main display up however they'd like, putting the main screen from relevant teams on the projector, as in the previous image, or using the built-in annotation and whiteboard functions.
This is always handy at the end of a mission, when you can put the pilot's view on the main screen, and the entire ground crew can revel in their moment of victory.
A Note on Sandbox Versus Career Versus Science Mode.
If you're a new Kerbal player, you probably see the options on the "New Game" screen. For our purposes, using Sandbox will work best. It does not require us to unlock the Telemachus antennae through gameplay, like we'd have to do in Science Mode, and also gives us use of the full array of parts without the constraints of Career Mode's budgeting mechanic. While it could be interesting to run an entire Career Mode "campaign" as Mission Control, without the Telemachus antenna, there are a lot of limitations to the kinds of data the ground crews have to work with. Also, such a massive undertaking is likely difficult to achieve successfully as an educator.
For quick reference, the difference between these is:
- Career mode - You are running the day-to-day affairs of a space agency in addition to running space flights. Missions must follow a budget and fit within technical constraints, parts are unlocked with science points, and money is gained via the fulfilling of contracts.
- Science mode - Parts unlock as you gain science points. No budget, no contracts.
- Sandbox mode - All the parts, no budgets, no contracts. Build whatever you want and send it where ever you want.
Scaling the Difficulty
It's likely that you aren't teaching a class that delves into the specifics of orbital mechanics in regard to rocketry, and that's okay. KSP is still a pretty simple game to play, and there's a lot you can do to scale things back and still get to use Telemachus and other fun stuff.
First of all, consider the objective of the lesson. If you're not trying to teach applied mathematics, it doesn't make much sense to make your KSP Mission Control experience very math-heavy. You can still scale back the math quite a bit and have a good time, and mods like Kerbal Engineer (listed at the end of this blog post) and the calculators we mentioned earlier both do a great job of eliminating most of the math down to simple numbers.
You don't want to do ANY math? Exploration and experimentation are what KSP are all about. Telemachus actually sends data related to the science instruments to your ground crew, so they can monitor things like gravity, temperature, or scanning for resources
Scanning for resources? Oh, yeah, there's that whole in-situ resource exploitation mechanic in the game. Finding planets with mineable resources, landing to collect those resources and to conduct experiments, and then taking off again to refuel could be the basis of a very successful lesson using Kerbal Space Program.
If you still think orbital mechanics are too much for your class to grasp (and I recommend you take a look at how to use the manuever nodes in the map screen in order to 'cheat' a little before you think that), there's always working together to build and test rockets. Data collected during testing can be used to improve the next design, which also gives your Vehicle Assembly Team a larger role in the classroom.
In the next section, you'll find a couple of YouTube channels devoted to KSP. I'd recommend going and looking through some of the tutorials before you dismiss KSP as a learning tool. Personally, I have seen a 7-year-old make it to orbit from a few views of YouTube videos, and what's more, that 7-year-old could then tell me exactly how and why they made it to orbit. In any case, you can have a lot of fun crashing rockets together, or you can have a very engaging simulation of applied mathematics. With the wePresent, you'll also be able to have a dynamic screen featuring mission information, and a way to annotate, comment, and collaborate in real time on that screen.
Pardon the pun, but we think that's pretty out of this world.
Kerbal Space Program Wiki - All the information about KSP you could ask for, including links to mods.
Curse - Home of a few mods that might make your education experience a little more fun, eye-pleasing, or, you know, educational. A few examples are
- MechJeb (Curse) - If your pilot is inexperienced, or you would rather more time be given to specific orbital manuevers, MechJeb is a programmable autopilot that can literally get you into orbit at the press of a button.
- Kerbal Engineer (Curse) - Displays relevant information such as specific impulse, thrust-weight ratio, and other numbers you didn't yet know you needed.
- Raster Prop Monitor (Curse) - This mod will give your pilot a lot more instrumentation, as well as external cameras. If you're playing with an isolated or remote pilot who is locked into IVA view, like these guys did, this mod will give your pilot a bit more to do.
- Interstellar Extended (Curse) - Adds interstellar travel, complete with a new tech tree for FTL travel.
YouTube - Two notable YouTubers who produce a lot of educational KSP content are DasValdez of Kerbal Space Academy and Scott Manley. While DasValdez approaches the subject as an educator, Scott Manley tends toward "what happens when you press this button?" Both make excellent companion viewing for a space-themed teaching with wireless presentation and Kerbal Space Program. I highly recommend watching DasValdez's bootcamp on KSP.