5 Project Management pointers I learnt from Kerbal Space Program

Kerbal Space Program is a light-hearted game where the player can, as the name suggests, run a space program. Here, the player learns to build rockets and launch them, together with various useful payloads, into space. The main program objective, so far as one exists in this free-form game, is to explore the various planets and moons in the Kerbol star system for Science. The game is a bit of a cult hit among space enthusiasts and has been used by both NASA and ESA as an science outreach tool.

Apart from the rocket science bit, KSP does a good job of illustrating the paraphrased notion of “no plan survives first contact with reality intact”. Here are 5 project management pointers I picked up (or were reinforced with) along the way.

I. Know and focus on the most important metric

To date, my gameplay’s key metric is zero dead Kerbals. Hence, every landing that the crew can walk away from is a success. Every successful rescue mission, or the successful rescue mission to the earlier rescue mission, is a success. (Even if it takes 34 in-game years* and three rescue missions to rescue poor Herbie, who became stranded on faraway Laythe due to bad planning. See #II)

II. Use check lists

Checklists can prevent much hysterical laughter when, upon executing a perfect orbit injection around Duna, Herbie finds that he can’t transmit the hard-earned observation Science of Dunian space to Mission Control back home because the construction crew (ahem) forgot to add a communications antenna to Herbie’s spaceship during construction. Craft parts checklist: Solar panels? Batteries? Ladders? Landing legs? Heatshields? Enough fuel on the craft so that it doesn’t run out of fumes mid-flight?

III. Keep track of time

The in-game Mission Control (i.e. you the player) can manage only one mission at any given time. If you’re like me, you’d have 10 odd active ships whizzing around the Kerbol star system at any given time. Calendaring then becomes critical. Did you schedule your Minnus mining depot’s regular fuel resupply run to take place at the same time you need to be burning the jets on the Moho science probe for your one-shot-only injection into Moho orbit? Reschedule the resupply run! And while celebrating the successful receipt of Moho Science, did you miss piloting Herbie’s aero-capture into Kerbin orbit?

IV. Use productivity tools & hacks

Tools like Kerbal Alarm Clock and MechJeb’s indispensable autopilot function make life a lot easier, and a lot less tedious for the 50th+ fuel resupply run. Best practices, for example Scott Manley’s excellent video tutorial series on YouTube, help to cut down the steep learning curve.

V. Keep practicing

More practice means more experience means more landings that the Kerbals can walk away from. Nothing provides better visceral and immediate feedback than piloting a carefully crafted Mun-lander into a too-hard (and therefore explosive) landing against the Munar surface due to a misjudged Thrust-to-Weight ratio at design stage. Yes. Things will blow up on your program/project. How you react to things failing around you is what matters, and there’s no better teacher for resilience than experience.

Happy KSPing!

*Stock KSP does not implement life-support constraints, thankfully, making the game much easier to manage for newbies. Sometimes it feels like this game’s difficulty scales in a power law with the number of constraints imposed!