"Research Tree" and "Reasons for survival" rolled into one package
Survival mode right now is pretty much creative mode with extra steps. But before we get to the nitty-gritty, I want to share a few important pieces to making survival (and indirectly creative mode) work, cooked up with sweat and love in the head:
1. As of now (25/12/2018) each block and place-able component in the game serves a single purpose almost unanimously across player creations, with very few constraints that force the player to think outside the box, besides spacing.
2. The ability to modify world rules that may directly affect creations is a bigger problem than anyone might give it credit for. I don't know about most players, but I typically play with 10x inventory size, refinery speeds, and 5x welding speed. The lack of a common standard here makes it hard to account for what strain a ship might undergo, and in this way affects how players design ships and rovers.
3. Survival Mode's pacing and needs are entirely resource based, and all resources needed from start to endgame are acquirable within an hour of playtime. The rest is spent building, and making sure facilities can keep up with your building requirements. Only deep in space with few to no asteroids is there any "survival" really involved (not that it's entirely a bad thing)
My personal recommendations are simple. First. standardize settings that affect construction design to middle values. 2x OR 5x refinery/assembler speed, 2x welding/grinding speed should do the trick without keeping players waiting terribly long, relatively speaking. Without anything else to do while waiting for material production to finish, it's a real drag to play with "Realistic" settings.
Second, add variation to important blocks without making things overwhelming, and implement it into survival in a meaningful way. The way KSH handled weapons is a very good example of what varied thrusters and weapons should look like, i.e. , "Efficient Atmospheric Thrusters" could apply slightly less thrust than standards, but consume much less system power. "Aggressive Atmospheric Thrusters" could do the opposite, applying more thrust and increasing power draw. "Perfected [Elite] Atmospheric Thrusters" could have the power of Aggressives (with slightly less power draw) in a smaller form factor than other atmospheric thrusters, but a very high resource cost. This kind of "tiered" logic can be applied to most functional blocks, such as gatlings and missle launchers.
...However, how these make their way into the player's hands is important, as making things resource-based only leaves the player with an instant endgame, which defeats the point. I personally like the idea of blueprints for these advanced parts being discoverable from other ships scattered about the game. Wouldn't that make every run-through unique? Exploring the galaxy to upgrade your ships sounds like the perfect survival solution, especially since random encounters are already implemented.
With all this in place, the third thing comes into play: actual survival aspects. By "survival aspects" I don't mean the progression system I just explained (although that's critical to satisfying survival play) but the war on timers that say "you'll die if you don't _______". So eating. Here I'd like to say, make planets necessary. Since they're the only locations with "biological matter" make them the hub for food needs and ideal for survival, where space becomes a harsh and difficult mistress that tries its damndest to swat you back into a gravity well of some kind where the stars don't shine. Allow the conversion of biomatter to "nutrient paste" via refineries, but make it pale in comparison to new, farmable foods: carrots, potatoes, other veggies. Add a new farm block for them. You could even use the same model as good 'ol Oxygen Farms. Make them need oxygen and light to grow and "produce" food.
Done, easy peasy. As long as you're creatively inspired with how tier blocks are implemented and acquired, and make the universe hostile but conquerable with a reason to do so, the survival game will be immensely satisfying. All the best, KSH.