Let’s step back for a while, allowing our intrepid explorers to catch their breath while we do the same. As promised, we’ll take a moment to learn about the denizens of Kerbal-Shine.
Any story of the progression of the Kerbal Space Program is dependent on a trio of heroes: Jebediah Kerman, Bill Kerman, and Bob Kerman (no relation).
[Bob, Jeb, and Bill in their last group photo-shoot – Mission Year 2)
As anyone can tell at first glance, these three Kerbalnauts are the cream of the crop, the pinnacle of the KSP training program: fit, charming, handsome, and truly possessing the ‘right stuff’ – or at least, close enough. Bob and Bill will play a larger role in our story in a little while, but for now, as it was in the early days of the program, all the focus is on Jebediah.
Jeb was the principal test pilot during the KSP’s first generation of flights. At that time, the goals of the program were modest: perform science in as many varied conditions as possible to allow the development of new hardware which would be tested on subsequent flights. Kerbals, by nature, are distrustful of flight recorders and automated systems, preferring to have a live observer on hand whenever possible.
While Bill and Bob were prepped as back-up pilots on all the early missions, the lion’s share of the flights – and the glory – went to Jeb.
These flights, later known as the Numbered Missions, preceded the naming conventions that would come later. Instead, each development of new technology was incorporated into a new iteration of the tested ships. Some wonderful adventures were had in those days, missions, and the ships involved going down in history: KSS 1.3, KSS 5.4b, and of course the fateful KSS 7.2…
The history books record that Bill Kerman petitioned to fly KSS 7.2 in Jebediah’s place, citing a prophetic dream warning of grave danger. This is hearsay, and Bill has subsequently denied these rumors. That Bob Kerman claimed to have seen the Grimm Kerbal reflected in Jeb’s flight helmet prior to launch is well known.
The mission profile for KSS 7.2 was to perform an orbital flight around the Mun, performing all appropriate science, and finally getting a look at the ‘darkside’ of the Mun, determining once and for all whether the apparently spherical Mun was or was not a hollow shell obscuring some dark and sinister secret.
While modern KSP Missions involve gloriously over-engineered behemoths capable of lifting (generally) far more than required, the Numbered Missions were more frugal affairs. It was in the escape burn from the Mun’s orbit that disaster struck in the form of an empty tank.
Theoretical astrophysics predicted that the gravitational influence of celestial bodies would extend indefinitely, according to the poorly-understood inverse-square law. Similarly, the theorists predicted that the atmosphere of Kerbin would extend out into space, it’s density dropping with distance, but otherwise extending far away from the planet. Both ideas turned out to be inaccurate, much to the surprise of the theorists, and the detriment of Jebediah Kerman.
Thrusting away from the Mun (having performed valuable scientific experiments such as: exposing ‘materials’ to the vacuum of space, observing the interaction of the Mun to the mysterious Goo, and looking out the window, noticing that he was in space), Jebediah left the Mun’s orbit attempting to return home to Kerbin. The mission plan was to perform an aerobrake maneuver in Kerbin’s upper atmosphere, dropping the ship’s orbital speed, and ensuring an eventual landing. Sadly, historically, Jebediah failed to enter the atmosphere, expending the last of his fuel to get as close as he could. Modern scientists now know that a ship needs to drop below 69 kilometers (69,077 meters) above Kerbin to be affected by the atmosphere – theories of diminishing air-density having merit except that there’s an upper limit. KSS 7.2 was integral to learning this fact.
At first, KSP Control was optimistic. Though Jeb had failed to enter Kerbin’s atmosphere, his orbital path was clear: he would swing around Kerbin, looping far out to just beyond the orbit of the Mun before swinging back, indefinitely. In time, the experts claimed, they would determine how to intersect Jeb’s eccentric orbit with a rescue craft, giving him the chance to perform an EVA to a waiting empty chair. Jebediah is a professional, the experts assured Control. We’ll get him.
The universe can’t abide assurances like that.
On Jeb’s very first return to the Mun after failing to go home, he very nearly intersected the Mun (i.e.; crashed). Rather than an abrupt end to his adventure, Jeb’s close second call with the Mun was only the beginning. KSS 7.2 entered the Mun’s sphere of influence at an oblique angle. The ship’s path was dramatically altered, and Jeb was thrown outward, into the Kerbol System, destined to orbit the sun forever.
KSP Control was able to confirm the new orbital path of KSS 7.2 and knew there was nothing they could do. Jebediah Kerman had entered an orbit wider than that of Kerbin itself, and was lost to his colleagues and friends.
An enterprising astronomy student, performing lab hours at the Polar Observatory, captured the final image of Jeb, and the fateful KSS 7.2:
True to his legend, Jebediah continued transmitting scientific data. The instruments aboard KSS 7.2 were set to record and transmit automatically. The signal finally cut out nine years later.
In the next installment of A History of Kerbin, the Kerbal Space Program staff will have to deal with the loss of their golden boy, the grounding of both Bill and Bob, and a complete change in focus as they are inspired to learn from the mistakes of the past – contrary to expectation.