Kerbal Space Program: Pretty Fly (for a UI)

User interface, automation, and aesthetics

Posted by Wisq on December 27, 2014

Previously, I introduced Kerbal Space Program, and started my modding series off with some realism mods.

Today, I’ll be looking at mods that improve the Kerbal interface and help with or automate repetitive tasks. These mods tend not to actually add any parts, and they don’t directly alter what happens in-game — but they can still be powerful tools with the potential to completely change how you play.

After that, I’ll introduce some mods that just make things look nicer. Because every game deserves to look nice.

To start this off with a bang, let’s go straight to the elephant in the room of KSP modding:


“Do you MechJeb?” is probably the single touchiest subject in the KSP community. Chances are, if someone’s heard of MechJeb, they have a strong opinion on MechJeb.

The MechJeb mod does two things. The first is the relatively inoffensive part: It puts a ton of information at your fingertips. Available delta-v, current and max acceleration, thrust-to-weight ratio, surface horizontal and vertical speed, time to impact, etc., all updating live as you fly. Basically, if you can think of it, MechJeb can probably display it.


Where things get a bit more controversial is when we get to the other half of MechJeb: the automation. With MechJeb, you can

  • create a manoeuvre node to circularise an orbit, change inclination, change an apsis, match inclination with a target, match velocity with a target at closest approach, etc.
  • view a porkchop plot showing the most fuel-efficient journeys between planets, pick one, and plot a node
  • (optionally) time warp until a manoeuvre node and then execute it
  • automatically take off to orbit
  • automatically rendezvous (or even dock!) with a target ship
  • pick a point on a planet and accurately land there
  • and probably a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten.

If you’re at all familiar with how internet gaming communities work, you can probably guess the problem: The existing players had been doing all these things the hard way, and many of them will argue to this day that using MechJeb is “cheating” and that the only “true” way to play is to continue doing all these things by hand.

Meanwhile, the MechJeb proponents respond that NASA must be “cheating”, too, since it’s not like NASA engineers plot manoeuvres by hand and execute burns without computer aid.

Honestly, there’s really no right answer here, and it’s all a matter of personal preference. I use MechJeb to automate the things I know I can do just as well as it, but don’t feel like doing over and over. My rule of thumb is, if I’ve done it a dozen times with no problems, it’s probably time to MechJeb it. But I won’t use e.g. the landing autopilot because I know that I can’t land with that kind of accuracy, so I’m not going to let a computer do it for me. I want MechJeb to be my assistant, not my crutch.

If you really want to do things by hand and don’t want the “automation temptation”, but you still want all the useful real-time information, consider installing Kerbal Engineer Redux instead. I haven’t used it myself, but I understand it’s exactly that — all the info, none of the automation.

Otherwise, just grab MechJeb and use it however you see fit. You won’t be in the minority — I’m pretty sure MechJeb is the first mod most players install, and it’s well worth it.

And if anyone tells you that you’re cheating, well, screw ‘em. Haters gonna hate.

Interface mods

The rest of these mods don’t really try to automate things, they just help the player do those things, or otherwise make your experience more pleasant. As such, I can unreservedly recommend all of them, especially since they don’t slow things down or clutter up the parts list.

Kerbal Alarm Clock

Kerbal Alarm Clock, or “KAC”, lets you keep track of upcoming events. You can quickly add alarms for manoeuvres, or for other events like changing SOIs or reaching an orbital apsis. When approaching an alarm, it will halt any time compression and pop up a reminder.

Kerbal Alarm Clock

KAC is pretty much essential to running several missions at once. If you’re running time-critical mods like TAC Life Support or Kerbal Construction Time, or if you just like the challenge of juggling multiple missions at once, grab this mod.

Note that several mods now integrate with KAC, meaning they can automatically create and update alarm events. For example, if you’re using Kerbal Construction Time (KCT), you’ll typically have a “KCT” entry in KAC for the next upcoming KCT event (if there is one).

Precise Node

Precise Node

The default manoeuvre node editor isn’t terrible, but it also makes precise adjustments a huge chore. Precise Node does exactly what it suggests, giving you the ability to adjust manoeuvres as precisely as you want, including entering numbers directly.

Be sure to mess around with the settings (the “O” button) to see what mode you prefer. I enable both “show additional UT controls” and “use x10 UT increment”. Aside from the extra useful row of buttons, enabling both together gets me “-Orb” and “+Orb” buttons so I can move nodes forward/backwards by whole orbits at a time.

Grab this mod — there’s no reason not to.

Contract Window +

Simply put, Contract Window + is the contracts interface that KSP should have by default.

Precise Node

It lists all your contracts and their rewards in a collapsible tree view, lets you pin contracts you’re working on or hide contracts you’re not interested in right now, and isn’t locked up in the corner of the screen.

If you’re in Career mode, grab this.


Sometimes the biggest hurdle to collecting science in KSP isn’t having the right instruments or being in the right place — it’s knowing that you’ve got those right instruments in that right place.

That’s where ScienceAlert comes in. The moment you enter a new situation where you can collect science and have the right tools to do so, it can (optionally and configurably) play an alert noise, stop any time warp, and provide buttons to easily collect it.


These reports includes both on-board science instruments and also crew/EVA reports, and they recognise each individual biome on the planet or moon as well. So now you can easily orbit a planet and collect readings and reports for every single biome, without missing any or having to keep your own checklist.

Docking assistance mods

If you’re planning on doing any amount of docking, you’ll want some help getting lined up properly, as the camera angles can be quite deceptive. Thankfully, this is a well-recognised problem, and there are several mods to help you.

Docking Port Alignment Indicator is the most obviously-named version. I’ve just started using this one, but it seems top notch — it activates automatically and provides all the info you need.

Docking Port Alignment Indicator

Another one I used previously was the Lazor Docking Cam, which actually provides a window with a camera view straight out from your own docking port. However, this one requires manual activation, and the UI is less visually readable and can get in the way somewhat.

Regardless of which mod you choose, the key pieces of information are your rotation and your horizontal and vertical alignment relative to the docking port. Once you’ve got the alignment and rotation indicators lined up in the centre, you’re ready to just thrust forward and dock.

Try docking once without these if you must, but once you install one of these, you won’t look back.

Ship Manifest

If you’ve ever tried to move a lot of resources around, such as fuel or life support, you’ve probably noticed it’s a bit of a pain. You have to right-click on one tank, alt-right-click on the other … oops you missed it and clicked something else, start over … okay, now start the transfer … oh, you clicked away before it finished, start over …

Ship Manifest just gives you an alternative, less finicky interface for moving crew and resources around. Pick a resource from the menu, pick a source from the list of parts with that resource, pick a target, and start the transfer.

Ship Manifest

There’s not really much more to say about this mod. Definitely worth the install.

Action group editing

Action groups are a handy and often-overlooked feature of KSP. You can bind buttons to do various things, such as activating or shutting down engines, triggering decouplers, extending solar panels, opening hatches, toggling lights or landing gear, etc. In general, these actions can include most of the things you can do via right-clicking on a part.

One annoying deficiency in the stock game is that you can’t edit action groups outside of the editor, i.e. post-launch. This is bad enough when you forget to set something up in the editor for a normal ship, but for long-lived high-investment vessels like space stations, it can be incredibly frustrating.

Fortunately, there are mods to fix this. In KSP 0.25, I used ActionGroupManager (AGM) and was quite happy with it, but it seems like the preferred mod for KSP 0.90 is Action Groups Extended, which also increases the action groups to 250.

Action Groups Extended

I’ve only used it very briefly, and it’s not the most intuitive interface, but it seems to work fine, so I’ll be using this.

There are also some right-click options that can’t normally be assigned to action groups, such as toggling fuel crossfeeds or locking resources on tanks or batteries. An extra addon by the same author, Actions Everywhere, allows you to put these in action groups as well.

I definitely suggest keeping these mods installed. Never know when you might need them.

Eye candy mods

KSP’s default visuals aren’t terrible, but they aren’t that great either. They’re functional and polished, but most screenshots of stock KSP are going to be more impressive for what they show than for how they show it.

These mods address that with fancy visuals. They have even less impact on the game than the user interface mods, but they might just help bump your overall enjoyment up a bit.

Active Texture Management

This isn’t technically an eye candy mod (great start to this list, eh?) but it’s strongly related to them. The Active Texture Management mod performs a lot of optimisations to try to reduce memory usage — and a lot of these eye candy mods add a lot of very memory-intensive textures.

Why is memory a problem? Even if you’ve got plenty of RAM in your computer, KSP is still (usually) a 32-bit game. That means it only has access to 4 gigabytes of RAM, and if it tries to exceed that, it’ll crash to desktop. If you’re getting frequent crashes, or especially if it just crashes right on startup, you’ve probably hit the memory limit.

The long-term solution is to switch to 64 bits. The KSP devs are working on a 64-bit version, and I hear the Linux version is rock-solid. However, the rest of us aren’t so lucky. There’s no 64-bit Mac version at all, and the Windows version is incredibly unstable and there is no way you should try running it yet! (The situation is so bad that most mod authors disable their mods if they detect it, to avoid a flood of “my game crashed while using your mod” reports.)

For now, grab this mod if you want to fit a bunch of eye candy in without breaking the memory bank. And if you’re really pressed for space, use the “Aggressive” version that tightens memory usage even further. Also, consider running the game in OpenGL mode via the “-force-opengl” command-line parameter, since that can save you over a gig of memory versus the default Direct3D mode.

Better Atmospheres

If you’re looking for the prettiest vistas and screenshots, Better Atmospheres can deliver. It’s really just a collection of four other aesthetics mods, with custom configurations to tie them all together into one cohesive package.

I could sit here explaining the visual differences for ages, but it’s quicker if I just share a couple videos. First, the Better Atmospheres official trailer:

And if you want to see how it compares to stock (or just prefer smooth jazz over Aerosmith), here’s a comparison video:

(Don’t mind the lack of starry background on the left hand side — that’s probably just due to the mod I’ll describe next.)

Aside from the lovely atmospheres, I also appreciate the city lights on the night side of Kerbin — they help to give it a bit more texture when you’re orbiting around the dark side, and not feel like the Space Centre is the only Kerbal settlement on the entire planet.

There’s only two reasons I might not install this mod: One, its status is in flux — it hasn’t been updated to 0.90 yet, and the main author’s on hiatus and is handing over development to the co-author, so it’s not entirely clear what its future will be. And two, it can be a bit hard on memory usage, and threaten to crash the game if you’re using the 32-bit version.

Despite this, I’ve managed to optimise memory enough to run it in the past, and I’ll be doing my best to do so again once they release the 0.90 version, because the visuals are worth it.


TextureReplacer is one of the dependencies of Better Atmospheres, above, but you might want this mod even if you don’t install the full set.

With this mod, you can set custom head and suit textures for your Kerbals, as well as custom textures for planets and other objects. There are a bunch of head and planet packs to choose from, so grab the ones you like most and enjoy the shiny new visuals.

Even without the custom textures, it also adds some flashy reflections on the helmet visor, and lets you do EVAs without a helmet on planets with a breathable atmosphere. Plus, it optimises various things to reduce memory usage and improve performance. So there’s plenty of reasons to install this one, even if you never intend to mess with textures.

Distant Object Enhancement

As you might expect based on its name, the Distant Object Enhancement mod lets you see faraway things. (The Better Atmospheres mod recommends also installing this, but it also works fine on its own.)

In stock KSP, after an object is about 2.5km away, the game unloads it to save memory and processing power. With this mod, you can now see your ships up to a whopping 750km away! However, they’re still just “on rails” with no physics processing needed, so you won’t kill your CPU, either.

You can also see most of the planets in the solar system, and they’re much brighter than regular stars. If you want to know what you’re looking at, you can enable mouse-over labels, or just guess from the colour.

Distant Object Enhancement

Finally, and probably most noticeably, it offers (and enables by default) an HDR feature that will dim the starry background whenever a bright object comes into view, such as the sun or a close-up planet. While it’s quite realistic that way (just look at NASA photos of the Earth/Moon), I do tend to turn this feature down somewhat, because I quite enjoy the stars and don’t like having them banished most of the time.

Ambient Light Adjustment

Another mod that does exactly what you’d think it does, the Ambient Light Adjustment mod can be incredibly useful. I use it frequently to get good screenshots, but it can also be useful if you’re in a bright room and can’t see what’s going on, or if you forgot to install lights on your space station and are basically EVAing blind.

Ambient Light Adjustment

Also another mod where there’s not much more to say. If things are ever too dark, this is the mod to add.


Okay, so this is “ear candy” and not “eye candy”, but Chatterer is a mod that adds atmospheric radio chatter to your gameplay. While piloting ships, you’ll get to hear various babbling in the background, albeit always in the sort of gibberish that the author imagined Kerbals might sound like. Sounds range from radio chatter with Apollo-esque beeps, to various modem-like sounds when piloting unmanned probes.

It’s all very well done and rarely intrusive, and adds a lot to the game atmosphere. If you like that sort of thing at all, grab this mod and enjoy.

And even more

So we’ve made the game realistic, and we’ve made it look good and play even better. What’s left? Mods that actually do stuff!

In the fourth and last part of this series, we’ll look at mods that extend the things you can do in-game, including mining for fuel, setting up colonies, scanning planets, and even building ships off-world!

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