It’s not rocket science! (Except it is.)

Kerbal Space Program has become increasingly popular since its original alpha release in June 2011. Still under development, the game currently occupies a “sandbox”-type status, allowing players to create their own, unique space program. The basic goal is to successfully launch and fly spacecraft and therefore, explore the reaches of the heavens.

The game is populated by a race of short, green, large-eyed and large-headed humanoids referred to as Kerbals. They function primarily as the flight crew for your various spacecraft and during flight emote as can be expected; with fear, excitement and occasionally overwhelming terror if your spacecraft is less than sky-worthy.

The flight and fall of each ship is based on the properties of the parts used, or not used, to complete it. Typically, construction begins with choosing a manned or unmanned command module for your spaceship. There are seven categories of components: Pods (command modules), Propulsion (engines and fuel containers), Control (parts that increase stabilization or maneuverable thrusters), Structural (infrastructure), Aerodynamic (parts useful for spacecraft capable of behaving as an aircraft), Utility (power sources, landing gear, smaller fuel sources for landers/rovers and other non-scientific gadgets), and Science (different data-gathering tools such as thermometers, barometers and sample-gathering equipment).

Kerbal Space Program’s largest success is the realism with which the physics engine works. It properly simulates complex gravitational conditions in space and abides by the laws of orbit, enough that even an astrophysicist can be satisfied with the game.

Successful space exploration furthers the scientific knowledge of the Kerbals and often the gamer himself. Kerbaledu is still in early development, but aims to bring (and mildly modify) Kerbal Space Program to middle school and high school classrooms to teach about physics. It is a specific mod to the game that allows it to integrate with lessons by providing a sort of amusing experimental interface.

Each ship requires thought and planning — involving fuel, staging sequence and crew considerations from the player. This makes the game difficult, though rarely frustrating, as crashing can be just as fun and exciting as landing on the moon (or other planets). I’m afraid to say, however, that the number of Kerbals killed in your attempts to reach the stars is fairly astronomical itself and the soft-hearted may not enjoy this sacrifice for science.

Upcoming additions include a Career Mode, which will enforce real world constraints on your space program (including funding, record of successes via a reputation stat and contracts that require goal-meeting). Other additions are on the way as well; another notable one is the ability to hire and train astronauts and eventually elevate them to the status of national Kerbal heroes.

To make the game less daunting, there is a training mode that walks the player through the basics (which I absolutely suggest). YouTube tutorials can also be helpful if you are running into recurring problems with your flights. Since it is an intelligent and strategic simulation, some players may be frustrated with failure until they learn the ins and outs of the game.

Kerbal Space Program can be modified and is compatible with any Windows, Mac or Linux with enough CPU. The demo can be downloaded for free or full game can be bought for $27 at kerbalspaceprogram.com or on Steam.