Monday, 30 June 2014

Astronyms, part K: The Kerbal Kondoms

This is part of this series of posts on the history of spacecraft naming. Sort of...

Kerbal Space Program is one of the best incomplete things, up there with the Mona Lisa and Wales. Apart from being both very fun and very educational, offering a chance to safely mess around with spacecraft of your own, it also offers a chance to mess around with spacecraft names of your own. Astronyms are not just for the superpowers any more!

The main thing I've learned about this from playing Kerbal is that it's not as easy as it might seem. Creativity is one challenge, and logic and order are another. Trying to find a naming scheme that combines both is a little bit of a tall order; not impossible, but tricky. It's especially tricky when you're naming rockets before testing them out, with little sense of which ones will deserve the coolest names. The throw-away sandbox nature of the game also inhibits a lot of good naming. What's the point of giving a design your best possible name if you're going to replace it with something else in a day or two. (This was especially true after they introduced the Science mechanic, with its unlockable tech tree to entice you away from older designs.)

On the other hand, I can get through as many new designs in a month of playing Kerbal as the real spacecraft builders have managed in 50 years, and I'm one of thousands of players, who've all only been playing for a few years, at best. Between us, we're bound to have a lot of lame, rushed, spur-of-the-moment ideas. The real spacecraft builders haven't really got that excuse.

I can't say I've looked too deeply into other players' naming habits. A lot seem to go for purely descriptive designations (like Orbiter or Moon Lander), rather than flowery monikers. A lot of others like joke names, especially ones that cram the letter K in places it doesn't belong (e.g. Kerpollo 13). There are just so many players out there that I can't summarise all their naming styles here. If you are a Kerbal player and you feel you either have a clever naming system to share, or just one especially amazing spacecraft name, then feel free to explain it in the comments. [EDIT: I totally get the logic of the naming system mentioned in here, for example.]

My personal system has evolved a little over time, but I'd say it's probably most similar to the Soviet/Russian style. This is because the game doesn't easily lend itself to naming subcomponents separately, so it's default to treat the whole thing, from crew capsule to main engines to side boosters, as a single entity. This is essentially the same as the Soviets putting the Vostoks on Vostok rockets, the Voskhods on Voskhod rockets and the Soyuzes on Soyuz rockets. There is a facade of simplicity to it. I'm also inclined to give missions with the same (or pretty similar) designs sequential Roman numerals after their names (I don't know why Roman numerals, I just do things), and sometimes letters after that to show sub-missions or relaunches of failed missions, especially those that never even got off the pad. This helps with both save-file admin and gives a nice clear sense of which designs I've invested more time in. It's kind of fun looking at the gradual evolution of vessels sharing the same name; much like the Soyuz family, an awful lot can change from the maiden flight to the latest incarnation.
Zirconium I and Zirconium II illustrate how a few smallish changes (mainly just going for more symmetry and more solar panels) can hugely change the look of a design.

I have lost most of my records of old names, as I didn't bother to write it down, only took a few screenshots and frequently deleted the whole program and started from scratch. Below is a rough overview of what I can say with high certainty.

The First Ones
I'm not 100% certain when I first started playing KSP, but the oldest install file I seem to have in my archives, from August 2011, is for version 0.8.5. My initial naming scheme was completely messy, as I was very much still figuring everything out and focusing more on getting rockets that firstly wouldn't immediately explode (things were really rough before the invention of support struts), and then if they survived could possibly just barely creep up over the top of the atmosphere. It was as hard as fucking rocket science back in the early days! I have no records of any names, but it's fair to assume they were mostly nonsense, joke names, a reflection of my toddler-like approach to the whole game. Eventually I could hit escape velocity going straight up, but had nowhere to go, and they hadn't added timewarp yet, so testing to see if I'd really escaped was a matter of leaving it to run in real time until either the ship or the program crashed.

From the Empire to the Mün
Things got serious with 0.12 and the sudden appearance in the sky of the moon, Mün, a teasing destination just out of my reach so far. If I'd been Goddard up to this point, fucking about with little direction and slowly learning things among the playful explosions, then 0.12 was the start of the serious Space Race, a time when explosions were no longer amusing. And my captured German scientist, ready to hand me a fantastic starting design on a silver platter, was trydyingtolive, who just happened to have made the first youtube tutorial on Münlandings I opened. His recommended build was probably the only time I seriously tried to distinguish between the vessel and its launcher, as the lander design I stole borrowed from him became my default one for ages, even though the launch system under it kept changing well beyond recognition.
The final stage of Sigmar slows Ranald's descent, giving way to my first ever successful Mün landing!

This was not too long before I started writing this series on astronyms, and my mind had already been soaking in the real historical stuff for ages at this point, so it was inevitable that my naming would turn to something more sensible and ordered too. And following the early American tradition, I went with something mythological. But being geeky, I went with geeky mythology, naming vessels after the Warhammer pantheon. And so it was that my first successful flight to the Mün was made on the stolen borrowed trydyingtolive design, which I designated as the Sigmar rocket, carrying the Ranald lander. As I say, the Ranald was an excellent design for its time, and incredibly easy to plonk on top of virtually any launch rocket, making as good an orbiter as a lander. 0.12 was simpler times...
One of the few successful non-Ranalds I built in this period was the simple but high delta-v Rhya series, which could nearly hit the Sun (which wasn't actually hittable back then)

The Podcaster Months
With 0.13.3, I seem to have started from scratch, perhaps due to version compatibility issues nulling my previous collection of designs, possibly because I just ran out of Warhammer gods. Either way, something made me start naming my spacecraft after my favourite podcasters, starting with the SGU's skeptical rogues. Some designs weren't too successful...
Bob I eagerly launches itself in several wrong directions, before I even get to throttle up.

...while others were surprisingly awesome.
The Rebecca III rocket plane

It was in this period that I independently stumbled on what other Kerbal players now know as asparagus staging, with outer stages sharing their fuel inwards to inner stages. The advantage of this is that external tanks have their own engines underneath, and so aren't simply dead weight - but unlike conventional side boosters, the central engine doesn't have to drain its own tank until the side tanks have fallen away. The result is that whatever reaches orbit has the maximum fuel available to shift the minimum of mass; it's perfect for general purpose launchers. I had a series of horribly complicated rocket-piles, all named The Bugle, that helped me explore this kind of staging.
The Bugle IIb: When it didn't immediately blow up, it could be incredibly successful and efficient

Unfortunately, the game's assembly hangar was buggy as hell back then, and successfully putting all those bits together correctly was an exercise in keyboard-snapping frustration. It was also difficult to judge exactly what modifications would be worth the extra mass of more engines and more fuel. The launch tower also got in the way a lot, limiting the maximum horizontal diameter I could expand into. I frequently pancake-flipped into the ground when one little SRB clipped the edge of the tower on lift-off.
The Fuckyouchris lander was able to demonstrate the asparagus staging's usefulness to a modified Ranald design.

The Trekkies
I got stuck with 0.13.3 for a long time, and mostly reverted to just fucking about, trying to make ever more complex and powerful designs. But with no new parts to help me along (I never mod), things eventually stagnated. I tried naming my ships after the complete list of captains of the starships Enterprise, starting from Archer, and I believe I eventually got them all, but few were memorable.
Well, maybe memorable in some ways... (Kirk II)

Much like the US in the '70s, I lost interest in Moon landings, since there was nothing I could do once I got there. I mucked about with some weird experimental stuff, including this Trek-inspired twin-nacelled thing, named Icarus (jokingly named after the Daedalus class)
It barely made it to orbit and could do fuck all once there, being far too oddly weighted to control effectively.

And then, nothing again for a while, until my friend Scot started getting heavily into the game earlier this year and getting me interested again with his tales of success, as well as showing me the excellent edumacational videos of Scott Manley. I upgraded to a newer version with EVA and finally had a little more reason to go back to the Mün, though still not much more reason.
The lamely-named but robust Arrow series, got me to the Mün several times, using new pieces and a lot of old lessons learned in the Ranald-Sigmar days (Arrow Vb)

Buying Minimus
Finally, after years of using only the demos, I finally had both the income and the will earlier this year, and paid for the full beta version. I've since been going mad launching towards the many new celestial bodies, and sciencing the hell out their sciencable stuff. The Science mechanism was a genius addition, and as I said earlier, it sort of forces you to constantly upgrade and improve your vessels as new tech gets unlocked and old destinations get over-researched. To find enough names for this new flood of potential ships, I opted for a slightly lazy but fairly useful and still interesting-seeming scheme: I name each new design after a different element, in ascending order of atomic number. The little Hydrogen I was little more than a firecracker, worse than some of my initial 0.8.5-or-so designs. I'm currently in the middle of trying to assemble the modular Ruthenium I interplanetary explorer, up in low Kerbin orbit, while the now-aging Scandium Ib probe has flown out beyond Eeloo's orbit and is continuing out of the solar system.
Space traffic!

Having a pre-scripted list of names like that takes a lot of the thought away from the naming process, which is easier, but I've found it a bit uncreative and unsatisfying. My exceptions have been my Kerbin-orbitting space station, Mendeleev Station, a couple of unplanned moonbases converted from crashlanded landers (Panic Base on Mün, Thud Base on Minimus), and my non-space jets, now that I have the horizontal hangar to play with. Those get especially ridiculous names, like Thundermuffin, Swoopbugger, Resplosion and Bumblebug. I really enjoy coming up with those, and if my current save game corrupts (as I suspect it may already have), then I will certainly go back to an unscripted naming scheme. Loose themes are nice for guidance, but the freedom to make the name and the shape and/or purpose match up is worth the added 2.14 seconds of thought it'll take generate something a bit original.

And that, I think, is the main lesson of this entire series for real rocket manufacturers, operators and astronauts: Good names are important. Don't neglect naming, and don't lean too heavily on pure descriptive utility. Whatever else you can say about space, it is pretty; embrace the prettiness.