Kerbal Space Program (KSP) is an indie PC/MAC space sim that is part lego, part science project, and part physics class. There’s a free demo out. The game isn’t complete yet, and is in heavy development but the team is already accepting $18 donations for a chance at getting future updates (demo versions stay at v0.13 with the current build at 0.16)
The premise is simple. Build a rocket ship. The Alpha release comes with liquid and solid fuel stages, a command module, a stock parachute and de-couplers for those awesome views of rockets jettisoning unused parts.
Players can build rockets of any configuration, but basic laws of physics must be obeyed. Unstable rockets will fall apart or spin out of control and explode. Admittedly, killing the Rabbids look-alikes is part of the fun, but this ‘game’ has a serious side. Watching rockets soar gracefully into the sky aside, it is also great lesson on basic principles of Newtonian physics.
Orbiting a spacecraft is a small exercise in basic orbital mechanics. Who would have thought there was so much involved in something most people assume would be easy. I mean it always looked so easy in the movies! In actuality, putting a spacecraft into orbit is a tad bit more complicated than stringing a bunch of rockets together and letting it rip. Too much thrust and chances are your spacecraft will fly into space and never return, too little thrust and the rocket flies up through the atmosphere and back down in a giant parabolic U shape, not unlike what one might see from bottle rockets or homemade rockets. Orbiting requires reaching space with enough fuel left to level out the spacecraft, shutting off the engines and waiting for the craft to reach apogee before firing the rockets once more to turn the parabolic trajectory of a rocket into a circular orbit around the planet.
While I sit at home with a sore ankle, I have decided to launch my own space program. The goal is to reach the Mun (Moon). The first step is to successfully orbit Kerbal several times. I have already recorded one success so far, with my very own Tartarus II mk 3 rocket.
Next step is for a few more launches and successful orbits and to land safely back on Kerbal. After that, I need to design a new rocket for the Mun. The Tartarus III.
One small step for man, One giant leap for mankind.