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I've built the following ship, which is capable of taking me to the Mun. However, with some careful piloting, I can make it into a stable Mun orbit with a bunch of fuel still left in the second-to-last stage. So if I want to land on the Mun, I have to decouple my lander module from the rest of the ship, and abandon any spare fuel I might have left in the tank.

So, I came up with the idea of using a docking clamp to attach the capsule to the main ship instead, so that I can leave my fuel in orbit when I want to land, and return to it later after returning to orbit from the surface.

Only problem is, I have no idea how docking clamps work. I'll learn how to approach docking maneuvers later, what I'd like to know NOW is how I should build the connection between the two sections to make this possible. I've circled the current decoupler in the image below.

Appalling Lander Mk1

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Parachutes on the SRB's are a nice touch. –  Steven Lu May 19 '13 at 17:27
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2 Answers

Docking clamps have very little shear strength, so I suspect if we just changed the decoupler into two docking clamps, your cockpit would fall off during the ascent.

It's a bit more complicated to replace decouplers with docking ports; decouplers just fire off of your current stage, and stick to the stage you might want to return to. That doesn't work so well when you want the decoupler to detach from BOTH stages, leaving the docking port free for later use.

So what you want is:

  • A docking port on top of your fuel tanks.
  • A decoupler on it, upside-down, so your lander detaches from your extra fuel.
  • A decoupler on top of the other one, right side up, under your engine, that will fire both decouplers off of your lander, and into space somewhere.
  • A docking port somewhere on your lander. On the nose, if possible. Anywhere else will require you to dock on your side, which will make controlling it more difficult.

Pictures of this will be forthcoming shortly.

This setup will allow you to take it back to Kerbin (if you have enough fuel remaining), and leave it in orbit for future use.

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I've had (at least some) success with attaching ship parts using docking clamps for the ascent. As long as the forces perpendicular to the axis of the clamps are minimal, it should survive launch. However, your idea of using 2 decouplers won't work. I've tried that too. You want the other kind of decoupler (can't remember what it's called ATM). Instead of staying attached to the discarded stage, it simply disappears. –  MBraedley Dec 7 '12 at 15:29
Hmm. It doesn't work? Good to know. I'll have to test the various decouplers and see which ones do what is needed. –  Frank Dec 7 '12 at 15:31
You're close though. I can't view the images at work, so I don't know what Gnome has set up already, making it a bit harder to make recommendations. –  MBraedley Dec 7 '12 at 15:35
@MBraedley: The "other kind of decoupler" is called a separator. But I've also had success doing this without any separators or decouplers. The one on the bottom of your lander should go right side up, the one on the top of your launch vehicle goes upside down (turn it over by pressing W twice). If they snap together and the result looks symmetrical, you got it right. –  Thomas Nov 16 '13 at 0:37
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So you're actually really close. That Stack Separator is exactly the part you want. Below it, place your docking port. (Alternatively, you can place them on the outside, doesn't really matter, although doing that won't allow you to take it back to Kerbin.) You'll also need a docking port on your capsule. I would suggest using the shielded docking port, just because it looks nicer. Place it on the nose of the capsule instead of the aero nose cone. However, none of this is strictly necessary. Assuming you achieve Munar orbit with the second stage (it's possible), there's enough fuel in the lander stage to land, take off, and return to Kerbin without topping up the tank.

As a side note, you should probably invest in some parachutes for the capsule. Kerbals don't react well to hitting the surface of Kebin at 360km/h :P

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Wait, if I reattach via the nose cone, won't my capsule be on backwards? That means the engine in the second to last stage and the engines on my capsule will be facing opposite directions. That might not... work. –  GnomeSlice Dec 8 '12 at 15:00
Technically, yes, but you can disable your lander engine, set the control point to the fuel docking port, and then thrust away. Personally, I would just top up the lander fuel and leave the big tank in orbit of the Mun. –  MBraedley Dec 8 '12 at 15:34
Oh, you can do that? Neat! –  GnomeSlice Dec 8 '12 at 15:58
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