That is technically true. In KSP the official concept of a quest is really called a "contract" in keeping with the whole space program theme. However, missions do exist as a concept even if not supported by mechanics. There are various definitions for what a mission can be, however, for now, let us assume that a mission is any operation involving a flight, atmospheric or through space, that has some purpose in advancing the goals of our space program. Missions include completing contracts, but there are other reasons to embark upon missions. Lets just talk about a few and why performing a variety of mission types other than just completing contracts is important to the success of our space program. In doing so, we may be able to get our arms around the realm of possibility when faced with the question, "now what?"
Contracts are the life blood of our space program, because the advancement of our program depends almost entirely on our ability to pay for parts, fuel, recruits and buildings. Contracts also augment our scientific knowledge by awarding a small number of points upon completion. The amount of points can add up rapidly over time. Contracts also provide an increase (or decrease) in reputation for our program upon completion (or failure). Reputation is a slushy currency. It can be converted into science points of funds. It can also be accumulated to unlock better quality missions. As such, reputation points, if accumulated, act as a kind of investment into future missions. This can enhance the growth rate of the program as it matures.
Infrastructure includes hardware and kerbals that are strategically deployed to enable the success of future missions. Often when designing a mission, it helps to fly a few mission beforehand to forward deploy resources that are needed for the actual mission to succeed. Reasons why infrastructure might be needed are many and varied, but they include:
- Staging fuel in orbit to extend the range of a deep space mission
- Staging parts in orbit to incrementally build a deep space vehicle rather than attempting to launch an impractically large structure from the KSC pad
- Mining and refining resources into fuel to be used for space operations rather than launching fuel from Kerbin at greater expense
- Enabling communications (when using the RemoteTech mod)
- Establishing a permanently manned space presence that can serve as an abort location for busted missions among other uses
Spaceflight and atmospheric flight is risky business. Risk is such an important factor in managing any flight operations program that it is a central aspect of all program management activities. A risk can be defined as any undesired incident that can occur during a flight resulting in the loss of capability, crew or equipment. Prototypes are built and tested to minimize certain kinds of risks, especially those risks caused by design flaws.
The purpose of a prototype mission is to test a prototype design. A prototype design is usually created when the program manager (us) is not sure whether or not a design will work as intended. For example, we may want to launch a crew of two kerbals into orbit around the mun. Replacing each Kerbal will cost us at least 125,000 (can be much higher if we already have other kerbals active in our program). The total cost of the launch vehicle and payload that can put two kerbals into orbit around the mun is probably somewhere around 20,000. Lets say for argument's sake that we have designed a solid fuel booster stage for the launch vehicle that relies on a radial attachment to attach itself to the main engine stack, and let us say that we have never tried to use radial attachments and are unsure if they will fail during the flight do to the high sheering forces produced by the booster engines. It could be said then that there is a risk that the attachment will fail resulting in a complete loss of all stages including the payload and the loss of both crew members. The total cost of this loss can be calculated as 20,000 (vehicle) + 125,000 (crew replacement) = 145,000.
Rather than launching and hoping for the best, we act wisely as managers of our program and we decide to build a prototype vehicle to test out the attachment parts under realistic conditions. First, we build the launch vehicle exactly as we intend to launch it. Then we build a payload by replacing the manned command pod with an unmanned probe core. Not only does this lower the cost of the vehicle to 18,500, but it also allows us to perform the testing without risking our crew. If the prototype fails, we lose only 18,500. If it succeeds, we may even get some of that 18,500 back as recovered parts. Once we complete the prototype mission, we are out the cost of the prototype vehicle, and now we can adjust the attachments to make them sturdier, or perhaps do nothing at all if the testing went fine. Now we can run the actual manned mission using this launch system at a much reduced risk of failure. And rather than accidentally losing 145,000 on a failed manned mission, we intentionally spent 18,500 to ensure that the chances of the greater loss are minimized.
Flying a prototype mission lowers risk. It allows us to test complicated designs without risking the valuable lives of our crews or risking valuable payload equipment. Prototype vehicles do cost money. So what we are doing is effectively "buying down" risk by paying for the prototype mission. The actual activity we perform to buy down risk is known as a "mitigation". So prototyping missions exist so that we can mitigate risk by buying it down. This is an important concept in any program management strategy, and one well worth taking a closer look at!
Exploration is a mission that we perform to expand our scientific knowledge of the Kerbol solar system. Exploration may include mapping the surface of a planet from orbit, searching for mineral deposits that can be exploited, or searching for a suitable location to build infrastructure, such as a planet-side station.
Exploration can be manned or unmanned. Most initial exploration makes use of unmanned probes, because they have less mass as payloads than manned command pods and are also generally cheaper to build. Additionally, probes have much longer exploration ranges due to the fact that they need not ever return to Kerbin like manned vehicles. This mean that a probe's delivery system can use 100% of its fuel to go to far away destinations without ever needing to return.
Most of our scientific knowledge (science points) will be obtained from exploration missions. Probes will often be fitted with instruments to observe and measure the characteristics of planets, moons, asteroids and even Kerbol itself. This data might then be transmitted back, as is the case with most unmanned cores, or returned and recovered on Kerbin for more efficient analysis.
Exploration is a crucial element of any space program. It provides the primary means by which we obtain scientific knowledge, which is essential to unlocking advances in technology and enabling a broader range of missions, including longer range exploration.
We have all been there. Despite our careful planning, we launched Bill on a mission to explore the surface of the mun. Everything went to plan. Bill landed on the surface and took one small step for a kerbal and one giant leap for kerbal-kind. And when he got back into his lander, he checked the fuel gauge and realized, there is not enough for a return flight to Kerbin. Bill just became a permanent mun resident---unless....we can launch a rescue operation (with more fuel this time please) and get him off that rock before his air runs out. That's the "rescue" mission.
Mission: Learning the Mechanics
A new program manager may find piloting a rocket into orbit a rather daunting task. To close this experience gap, the program manager may build a simple rocket or airplane to just teach how to fly and establish a stable orbits. This comes at a cost--nominally the cost of the vehicle and possibly the loss of a kerbal if a manned mission is destroyed.
Mission: Just Because You Can!
At the end of the day, the kind of missions available and their potential is really an exercise in engineering creativity. Sometimes we may just launch a rocket to just show that a certain feat can be done. Maybe we just want to bump up the experience level of one of our pilots before he's assigned to a long range mission to Duna. Whatever the case may be, the possibilities for the kinds of missions that you execute are entirely up to you, the program manager. Just try something out and see where it goes!
Multipurpose MissionsFor cost reasons, it can be very advantageous to lump two or more missions into a single flight. For example, we may have a contract to take a tourist into orbit around Kerbin. At the same time, we may have a contract to test a solar panel while in orbit. Yet at the same time, we may want to gather some scientific data using an instrument to which we recently gained access. And YET at the same time, we also have to rescue poor Bill who ran out of fuel while landing on the mun and cannot get home. Can we do all of that on one flight? Probably or the entire crew will perish trying. Good odds, so get the engineers on this right away!
Managing a successful space program means knowing what kinds of missions are possible and being creative to invent new missions based on the situation at hand. Program managers think ahead and will design a sequence of missions to support an overarching space exploration program. These missions will be a variety of types. An example of a sequence supporting an initial program whose aim is to put a kerbal in stable orbit around Kerbin might be as follows:
- Execute a series of contract missions to build up funds and piggy back scientific instruments to complete exploration missions on the same flights as the contract missions. These exploration missions will unlock the parts needed to build a spacecraft to get to the mun.
- Once feasible, build a probe and launch an exploration mission to the mun to collect more scientific data.
- This flight also allows us to perform a prototype mission on heavy launch vehicle designs that will be used for the actual manned flight.
- As an added bonus, we can use the mission to learn the mechanics of performing transfer orbit skills that we will need to make the transfer orbits to the mun and back during the actual manned flight.
- Once a heavy launch vehicle is designed and is well tested during prototype missions, attach the payload to the launch vehicle and then perform the actual manned flight. This flight may have contract missions to perform and it will likely involve an exploration mission involving EVAs.