Kerbal Space Program game director and ULA CEO talk STEM collaboration and companies' futures (exclusive)

cgi render of a red-striped rocket inside a simulated assembly building
The winning Vulcan recreatoin from the KSP/ULA social media challenge. (Image credit: @Space_Peacock)

The makers of the popular spaceflight simulation video game Kerbal Space Program (KSP) paired up with real-life rocket company United Launch Alliance (ULA) and their CEO Tory Bruno to challenge the internet to recreate ULA's new Vulcan Centaur rocket in the Kerbal universe.

Both companies recently completed their own significant launches. An early-access version of Kerbal Space Program 2 was released in 2023, and in December, the company sent out a major update called "For Science," which honed-in the game's physics and added the goals-oriented ability to collect different types of science throughout the countless environments that exist in the Kerbal solar system. 

Meanwhile, ULA's own recent launch took place just after the new year, when the company’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket lifted off for the first time on Jan. 8, 2024. In anticipation of the milestone event, KSP game director Nate Simpson visited ULA headquarters in Colorado to build the Vulcan rocket inside KSP with the help of some of ULA's actual rocket scientists. Following his visit, a KSP social media post on X, formerly known as Twitter, invited users to submit versions of their own Vulcan KSP recreations, enticing the possibility to "win some goodies." In a follow-up post, KSP wrote, "recreate the #VulcanRocket in KSP 2 and see what kinds of missions you can accomplish. The more ambitious the better," adding at the end of the post that Tory Bruno would announce his favorite at the end of the contest. Now, the results are in!

Related: ULA's Vulcan rocket launches on debut flight 

See more

The winner of the KSP/ULA Vulcan rocket recreation challenge goes to X user The Space Peacock, (@Space_Peacock) with a near-perfect recreation of Vulcan, seen inside the KSP vehicle assembly building (VAB) in their first of a thread of posts. The Space Peacock recreated Vulcan's Cert-1 mission from January, then went on to simulate a flight of Sierra Space's Dream Chaser space plane, and even included a version of Vulcan's future SMART engine reuse capability, returning the first-stage booster's engine's back for an ocean splashdown and recovery. 

See more

Two runners-up were also chosen, which included X user Albert Hajek (@albert_hajek) and YouTube channel PicoSpace Industries (@picospace). Hajek also posted at thread outlining the launch and staging of their own version of Vulcan, which sent a lander to the "Mun," KSP’s version of the moon. PicoSpace posted a Vulcan rescue mission video to YouTube, launching the rocket with a crew capsule into Kerbin orbit to save a stranded Kerbal astronaut.

See more

"I thought all three of them were awesome," Tory Bruno said in an interview. The ULA CEO, along with KSP’s Nate Simpson sat down with Space.com to discuss the contest and the unique harmony Kerbal has created at the intersection of education and entertainment in STEM fields.

"I don't like to play favorites," Simpson said. "It's like you're asking me to choose among my children. We're always really impressed and we'd like to see a variety of solutions to the same problem."

KSP2 is the long-anticipated sequel to the popular KSP1, in which players are free to explore an entire solar system of planets and moons by designing, building and launching their own rockets and payloads. The game gives players the ability to construct everything from simple satellite communication relays to endlessly complex planetary exploration vehicles, but it comes with a bit of a learning curve.

Beginning players to KSP1, especially those without some familiarity in physics or orbital mechanics, often find it hard to literally get off the ground – let alone land a craft on the Mun. Simpson says they've tried to eliminate that roadblock, making KSP2 accessible and engaging for players at any skill level. Crashing your rocket or spacecraft over and over and over again is not uncommon, but it's also part of the point. 

How do you find that balance?

Simpson: "We poured a lot of energy into re-tutorializing the game, making it funny, making it flavorful, giving people information in bite sized chunks so they could progress in a way that didn't feel like it's wasting their time. The most important thing was teaching a lesson that all rocket scientists already know, which is that the only way you learn is through failure. 

Most video games penalize failure, and make the player feel bad. They make them feel like they've done a bad job when they fail. A big part of changing that for us is learning to celebrate failure; to have it be a funny thing, have it be a visually impressive and sonically impressive thing. I think that at this point now, people show off their failures more than their successes. It's the thing that they love to show one another online. So teaching that is really, really important. They need to understand that the experts – the people who do this for real, like Tory – it's not about being perfect on the first try. It's about learning as much as you can from what takes place."

A kerbal astronaut stands confused, a jet cashed behind them in a desert landscape. (Image credit: Kerbal Space Program 2)

Bruno, who admits to being an avid Kerbal player himself, says there is a "purity" to playing the game, and "if it explodes – all the better."

One of the things that brought the team at KSP and ULA together is a shared passion for promoting STEM education and initiatives. Many throughout the aerospace industry came to playing KSP because of their existing interest in the field, but nearly as many found their interest in the field because of KSP.

"It's hard for me to find one of my engineers who doesn't play KSP. They just love it. It is really well done for a game. It's just really amazing," Bruno said. ULA employs approximately 2,700 people, according to their website. On the other side of the Kerbal inspiration Bruno said, "we have a pretty robust internship program where we bring college students in and new hires, and when I do a … meeting with a group like that, I often hear how excited they are, how much they love KSP and how surprised they are that we, we the professionals here [at ULA] already play it. A lot of them will say, 'you know, KSP really hooked me in, and I hadn't thought about space until then.'" 

Simpson loves being a part of a team creating such an impactful game, but is weary of some of the assumptions newcomers may have when hearing about KSP’s tendency to be "educational." 

"We sometimes get nervous when people call us educational software, because that makes it sound like eating vegetables," he said. "What we've learned is that if you simulate a universe at a high enough level of fidelity and then give people interesting goals to pursue within that universe ... that just in trying to win the game, trying to get to a new place – and you're contending with what are real physical forces, gravitation, aerodynamic drag, all that stuff – that you accidentally learn rocket science in a meaningful way."

Of ULA's and KSP's recent launches of the Vulcan rocket and For Science update, respectively, both Bruno and Simpson spoke with resounding positivity and flowering outlooks for the coming year. 

With KSP 2 still in early-access, Simpson and his team are relying on players to help them iron out the game's sometimes glitchy rough edges. "This is definitely the biggest year for KSP 2, because we're sort of moving into future technology. That was a big part of the promise of the game. So it'll be fun to watch what people do with the nuclear pulse engine, inertial confinement fusion, and all the fancy toys that are to come," he said. 

"Our players right now are helping us kind of zero-in on areas of potential improvement. Going into this year, we've got the first exciting new features that were not seen in KSP1. First, we're going to do [settlements]. And [settlements] are going to enable on-orbit construction, and that's sort of a necessary precursor to us moving into the future of space technology, where we're going to start doing interstellar travel, and introducing a new star system," Simpson said.

United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur launches on its debut flight from Launch Complex-40 on Jan 8, 2024. (Image credit: Space.com / Josh Diner)

On Vulcan, Bruno says the rocket's first flight went "perfectly."

"Usually your first new rocket launch does one of two things: Either you explode it, or you have some multiple major anomalies during flight – even if the flight completes – that were not as planned. Then you always have this year-long sort of design cycle where you go iron all that out. That's pretty typical. I've probably done three dozen first vehicle flights. So you know, I speak from experience. This one was different … We had just a perfect mission."

"I'm sitting there on console a few hours out from the launch, and at one point, I was just convinced that my headset was busted. Because there's always chatter, there's stuff going on, there's an ice fall on an umbilical, or there's a thermocouple that died and people are working through all that. And there's nothing. It's dead silent for like 25 minutes and I'm like, 'oh, hey, I think my headset is busted. I need some support in here,' and they're like, 'no, no, there's just literally nothing happening, Tory. It's fine.’ And so we roll down through the count and we literally went on the first second of the window, dead nominal throughout… I've never done one quite that clean before."

Tory Bruno

Rather than a year to parse through the data from Vulcan's January flight, Bruno says ULA teams will likely complete their evaluation within another week. On launch day, Bruno described things going so smoothly, he attributed silence on the mission control communications channel during pre-launch preparations to a systems glitch. 

Vulcan is manifested for a total of six flights in 2024, which Bruno says ULA is on track to launch, but emphasized that the launch vehicle is only the last stop in the process of getting a spacecraft into orbit. 

"The rocket is at the end of that long journey of designing, building and delivering the spacecraft and all you know, and all but one of [the spacecraft launching on that manifest] is still either being built or tested, so if they have a delay, then we wait for them, or we rearrange the manifest. But so far, so good. It's still early in the year," Bruno said.

The early access version of Kerbal Space Program 2 is available now on the company's website. 

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Josh Dinner
Writer, Content Manager

Josh Dinner is Space.com's Content Manager. He is a writer and photographer with a passion for science and space exploration, and has been working the space beat since 2016. Josh has covered the evolution of NASA's commercial spaceflight partnerships, from early Dragon and Cygnus cargo missions to the ongoing development and launches of crewed missions from the Space Coast, as well as NASA science missions and more. He also enjoys building 1:144 scale models of rockets and human-flown spacecraft. Find some of Josh's launch photography on Instagram and his website, and follow him on Twitter, where he mostly posts in haiku.