This is basically me pouring out a 40 for the Space Transportation System: You were flawed, sometimes catastrophically so, but the fact remains that you were the aerospace icon of my childhood. So long, Shuttle. --G.
Tuesday, October 12, 1999
02:12 Eastern Standard Time
NASA Parkway East (The Causeway)
John F. Kennedy Space Center
Merritt Island, Florida, Earth
Floodlit against the Florida night, the STS spacecraft stack on Pad 39B didn't look unusual. There were no outward signs that the mission it had been painstakingly, and in great secrecy, prepared to fly was in any way out of the ordinary, insofar as any space flight in the late 20th century could be described as "ordinary".
Well... there was one, but at this distance - a little more than six and a half miles from the pad - no one could make it out. Certainly there was nothing in the gross configuration of the stack to cause anyone, even the hardcore space nerds who turned out for night launches, to suspect there was anything different about this flight. Here in 1999, the journeys of the Space Transportation System had become routine, at least to the general public. Only NASA's own publicity materials (and they had been copious, but only in the last few weeks) gave any strong indication of how special this one was to be.
The first hint was in the mission's designation. It was the 96th launch of an STS orbiter, but it wasn't STS-96; thanks to the strange vagaries of the STS mission assignment system, that number had been used on the 94th mission, an International Space Station supply flight back in May. (Even more confusingly, the next mission, number 95, in July, had been STS-93.) In fact, it didn't have a proper sequence number at all, because it wasn't technically an STS mission - it was just borrowing the system's hardware. The NASA publicity documents called it "Project Concordia", and the flight was simply Concordia 1.
And as for what it was supposed to do, well...
Standing at the edge of one of the causeway crowds, a man in a loud shirt turned to the man next to him and said, "Do you believe what they say about this thing? That it's supposed to go to another solar system or somethin'?"
The one addressed, a stocky, shortish guy in an old Army field jacket, shook his head. "That's not what it's for," he said.
"What? Sure it is. It said so in that magazine," the guy in the loud shirt protested.
The man in the Army jacket eyed his interlocutor warily, sensing that the loud-shirted man had probably had too many anticipatory Schlitzes to follow any explanation he might attempt to give, but the very tall man on the other side of him seemed game.
"No, this is just a test of the technology," the tall one said. "They'll only get about as far as Jupiter. If it works, they could build a ship that could get to another solar system, but the Concordia hardware's not intended to go anywhere near that far."
The man in the loud shirt squinted at the tall guy - something he didn't like about his attitude, kind of smug, like he Knew Something and it made him happy - but before he could finish deciding whether to get belligerent about it, night turned to day several hours ahead of schedule and the whole crowd on the causeway went ooooohhhh.
The tall guy, the short guy, and the man in the loud shirt stood and watched with everyone else as the spacecraft stack rose from the pad atop an ever-expanding cone of fire and noise, slowly at first and then gathering speed until it was gone into the night, leaving behind nothing but a knotted column of white vapor dissipating slowly in the glare of the empty launch pad's floodlights. The man in the loud shirt found this so astonishing that he passed out entirely, stretching out full-length on the ground.
The tall guy turned to his shorter companion and said, "That was deeply satisfying."
The shorter guy grinned. "I'll say. I only hope the rest of it works as well."
The original plan, on which NASA engineers had wasted nearly 18 months, was to develop a brand new system, spacecraft, booster, and all. That, everyone now agreed, would never have worked in the time available. Unfortunately, the time wasted just in figuring out that it wasn't going to work might have doomed any attempt to do what it was now obvious they should've been doing all along: develop "the package" as a payload that would slot into an STS orbiter, like Spacelab or [REDACTED]. Handed this new mandate after blowing a year and a half out of the seven available chasing a dead end, the engineers realized instantly that the new approach could, would work... then put their heads in their hands and moaned as their initial calculations showed that they'd have needed the full seven years to pull it off with any margin for comfort at all.
More than once, people - some of them in fairly high places - seriously considered cheating. Anybody with Top Secret/PERIHELION clearance knew that somebody had already done most of this engineering right there on Earth. It seemed like pure folly, just a pointless PR exercise, to reinvent the wheel in this arduous fashion. Back in '94, even the President had toyed with the idea.
"Why bother doing this at all?" he asked. "Can't you just play it like The Day the Earth Stood Still? Show up, land on the South Lawn, we come in peace, I come out and shake hands, and boom, we're done. You and I are on the cover of Time and humanity enters the Galactic Age."
His visitor shook her head. "No, Mr. President, I'm sorry, but as much as that image appeals to me for sheer theater, it won't do. Not only don't I think it'll fly with the American people, let alone the rest of humanity, I know it won't fly with the galactic community. Your people need to be seen to take the first step yourselves. Now, once you have, I like your suggestion, and we can certainly do it that way... but the opening move is up to you."
The President sighed glumly, leaning back against his desk, hands in his pants pockets. "We're behind schedule and we've already had to scrap one idea entirely. Without at least getting a hint or two from your guys at Incom... " He shook his head and made a wordless pchoooo noise. "I just don't know, Your Highness."
Princess Asrial of Salusia smiled and patted him on the shoulder. "My father has faith in human ingenuity, Bill," she said. "If he didn't, he'd never have allowed Subpro to make backchannel contact with Incom years ago."
A year after that meeting, NASA's engineers would have suspected that Asrial's confidence was misplaced, had they known about her at all - because Project Concordia had gotten precisely nowhere. No clear leader had emerged, and without one, the project's engineers zigzagged wildly from one unworkable notion to the next, not knowing how the Special Equipment would even be shoehorned into an operational orbiter, much less do the rest of its job. The engine itself was ready, thanks to the genius of one man and the hard work of his dozen or so handpicked companions, but an engine alone was not going to get the mission accomplished.
At one point, in despair, the Concordia project managers even considered building a new orbiter just to avoid the problem of dealing with all the existing plumbing, and the run-in idiosyncrasies any incumbent member of the fleet would inevitably possess. That idea lasted precisely twelve hours, which was how long it took someone to dig through the files and get a rough idea of how long it would take to construct a brand new STS orbiter spaceframe from scratch.
The answer, when it came, was one of those blinding flashes of realization that make people jump out of bed in the middle of the night and grab a pen to write it down before it evanesces. The Gizmo (as its makers usually called it) had to go into an STS orbiter, but they didn't necessarily have to try and shove it into an operational one or build a brand new spaceframe. There was already a perfectly good one around, fully realized but barely used and never fitted with most of the really troublesome parts that the Concordia flight article wouldn't need anyway.
It would still be a monumental pain in the ass - but it had to be easier than starting with a blank Sheet One of 250 Zillion, didn't it?
In the end, it nearly wasn't, but what NASA, its international peers, and its web of carefully vetted contractors needed wasn't an easy design - it was a vision. And a helluva lot of money, but for once in the grim post-Apollo era, there was no problem getting hold of that. Once they had those, it was just a matter of putting in the hours. By Christmastime in '96, they had the shape of the thing defined well enough to start selecting and training the crew. By the spring of 1997, they were able to start building the infrastructure; summer 1998, to start testing the hardware - and telling the public what they were trying to do.
Not the part about paving the way for peaceful contact with an alien species, of course; most of them didn't even know themselves that that's what they were working toward. But the part about preparing the testbed for Earth's first faster-than-light engine? That part they were all about publicizing... once they were reasonably sure it was going to work.
Getting to orbit was little different than it had been on any previous successful shuttle mission. The Concordia Flight Article lacked the complicated rocket engines of her sister ships in the STS fleet, contributing her share of the takeoff thrust with advanced fusion rockets, but from the commander's seat the difference was largely academic. Many in the project office thought it said something about the occasion that that these amazing engines - which would themselves have represented a monumental advance in human aerospace technology on any other day - were given a sort of by-the-way mention some way down in the Project Concordia publicity bumf. Some speculated that they were being downplayed so because they were the principle Russian contribution to the hardware; an unworthy notion, but not an impossible one.
In any case, the ride up was as routine as such things ever got; but it was still with a real sense of satisfaction that mission commander Bob April keyed his press-to-talk and said,
"Houston, Enterprise. Ready for HMDS power-up."
"Roger, Enterprise," the voice of CAPCOM Eddie Tagorsky replied, then added a moment later, "Enterprise, you are GO for HMDS power-up."
April turned in his seat and regarded the three other members of his crew. This project was being run under the ægis of NASA, because only NASA had the resources to assemble all the hardware, and the infrastructure to support the mission; but the effort it represented, unlike Apollo, was an international one. The peoples of the planet Earth were in accord, not competition, this time. That was why it was called Project Concordia, after the Roman goddess of understanding.
As such, April was the only American astronaut in the spacecraft's crew of four. That his copilot (officially the mission's Navigation Pilot, since he himself was the Commander) was a Russian cosmonaut was not, perhaps, surprising, even given the grumbling about the fusion engines. The United States and what had been the Soviet Union had been the two chief contenders in the 20th-century space race, and it seemed only natural that they should go the last furlong of that race, in the waning days of the century, together.
Tatiana Korbolkova's presence on the mission was not merely a matter of politics, though, and the man was a fool who believed otherwise, much less mentioned that belief within earshot. She was one of Roskosmos's most experienced cosmonauts, arguably possessed the agency's best mathematical mind, and was in every respect the ideal choice for humanity's first faster-than-light navigator.
That the crew's third member, the Computer System Specialist, was English was a bit more of a surprise. Only a handful of Britons had ever flown in space, most of them under some other citizenship, and Her Majesty's Government had long had a space policy that specifically excluded manned spaceflight. As it happened, however, the world's foremost expert on the experimental technologies that lurked within the forward half of the Concordia payload was English, and so monumentally bullheaded that parliamentary reluctance was no match for her furious determination to be part of this mission... and so she was here, and April was glad of that. The back half of the payload might be where the magic happened, but it would be happening uncontrollably without the super-advanced computer systems in the front, and no one on Earth could command those systems better than their creator.
Melinda Daystrom unbuckled her harness and cocked an indulgent smile at the man seated next to her. Though no astronaut, she had taken to the preparations for this mission with the same sort of natural, instinctive grace she showed in dealing with information systems. This meant she was first in line to deal out ribbing to the fourth member of the Enterprise crew, who most assuredly hadn't.
Even now, five minutes after MECO with the cabin quiet and serene, Propulsion System Specialist Zefram Cochrane had a deathgrip on the side rails of his seat and his pasty face was stippled with sweat as he stared glassy-eyed in no particular direction. It wasn't until Melinda touched his shoulder and said, "Oi. Zed. We're there," that he started and seemed to return from the startled fugue into which the launch had placed him.
"Wha!" he said, then shook his head, took a deep breath, and said wryly, "OK! That's the least dangerous part of the mission over with, then... "
"That is what I enjoy most about you, Dr. Cochrane," said Korbolkova as she unstrapped and came back to help him out of his harness and Advanced Crew Escape Suit. "You are always so positive."
"I'm positive I wish I'd never thought of this thing," Cochrane replied, "but what're you gonna do? God and country, right?"
"You're Canadian, Doc," April reminded him.
Cochrane blinked as if he'd just remembered that. "Oh yeah!" he said. "In that case, is it too late to get outta this chickenshit outfit?"
April's eyes flicked to the settings on the comm panel, reassuring himself that they weren't on VOX. He had decided very early on in his association with Cochrane that at no time would there be a hot mic to Houston in any spacecraft under April's command that he was aboard. Particularly on this mission, with the entire world listening. Then he grinned, reminding himself for the thousandth time to lighten up - When am I ever gonna make the first human FTL flight again? - and said, "I'm afraid so, unless you want to walk home."
Cochrane gave a put-upon sigh, interrupted by a sputtering noise as Korbolkova dragged his ACES neck seal over his head. "Oh well. I guess I better make the best of it, then." He zipped himself into a flight coverall, dug his ratty old lucky Jays cap out of his locker, rammed it down backward on his head, gave it a couple of extra tugs to make sure it wasn't going to float away, and then said, "Well, whaddaya say, Mel? Let's go see if the VAB guys broke the Gizmo."
Ten minutes later the two scientists were on the orbiter's lower deck, strapped loosely into a couple of rear-facing jump seats erected forward of the control consoles for the payload. Vast and complicated arrangements that made the flight controls upstairs look like the controls on a VCR by comparison, these had been painstakingly and professionally installed, but their design retained a distinctly homebrew flavor. This was a legacy of the fact that Cochrane and Daystrom had built the original, nonflying, proof-of-concept version by themselves in a warehouse in Calgary. NASA, Roskosmos, and ESA technicians had built this "production" version, but there were still quite a number of parts inside the machinery abaft the bulkhead that the two had made and assembled with their own four hands.
The advantage of this was that, however crocky the layout might look to anyone else, the two who were destined to operate it knew it like the backs of their hands. During the training process for this flight, April - who was not just mission commander but in fact Commander Robert April, USN - had remarked darkly that Daystrom and Cochrane required adult supervision. He had only half-jokingly recommended that a fifth crew member be added, in the form of a third military-trained astronaut to ride on the lower deck with them and make sure there wasn't any horseplay. Now, though, it was with a cool and brisk efficiency that would have startled pretty much anyone who knew them that the two eccentric geniuses worked their controls, bringing systems online and reporting their status to each other, the stream of impenetrable jargon flowing in quiet, businesslike tones.
Listening to them with half an ear on the intercom, April found himself smiling slightly. For all his exasperation at their tendency toward civilian grabassery - "the payload specialists from hell," one of his colleagues had called them - he'd grown fond of the scientists during the run-up to the mission. It was impossible not to like Daystrom, who was the calmest, most laid-back owner of three doctorates April had ever encountered; and most of Cochrane's character faults were (April had to admit) held in common with many astronauts, chief among them lechery, a congenital inability to take things entirely seriously, and an outstanding capacity for strong drink.
None of those three traits was in evidence now as he came on the intercom and reported briskly, "OK, Bob, everything looks good down here. The reactor's online and in the green, output at idle. All the motivator's self-tests show normal. Linkages and flow capacitors are good. I'm ready when you are."
"Dr. Daystrom?" April asked.
"Monotronic systems online and stable," Daystrom replied. "Backup circuits on standby. Ready for program entry."
April thumbed his press-to-talk. "Houston, Enterprise. We're ready for navigational prestage."
"Roger, Enterprise," Tagorsky's voice responded. Then, a second later, "Enterprise, you are GO for prestage."
April turned to Korbokova. "Looks like you're up, Tania," he said with a grin.
Korbolkova nodded and switched on the panel to her right. "Navigation system online," she said. Pressing her own PTT, she announced, "Houston, Enterprise. I am ready for uplink."
"Roger, Enterprise, uplink commencing." There was a pause as a ground station fed the navigation computer the very most up-to-date available information on local conditions that might affect FTL navigation: the orbital dynamics of nearby bodies, plotted locations of potential obstacles, all the complicated variables involved in jumping to hyperspace this close to a planet that had not, it had to be admitted, been as tidy as it could've been during its first fumbling half-century of space exploration.
One day, Korbolkova knew, all this information would have to be updated aboard ship, kept constantly current as position and conditions changed, but right now the sensor and computer technology simply didn't exist. Even Dr. Daystrom's stupendously powerful monotronic stacks back in the payload bay had all they could do, at this size, to store and utilize the summarized information now being beamed up from Houston. The computers down there that had actually prepared this summary took up a building nearly half the size of the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy.
"Enterprise, Houston, uplink complete. How show you?" Tagorsky asked.
"... Roger, Houston, uplink confirmed," Korbolkova replied. "Loading course plot for test range alpha." Her fingers flying over the keys of her station, the cosmonaut worked steadily through a huge mass of information flowing across three screens at once, making sure it was all flowing downstairs into the right buffers and registers of the Gizmo's control computers. Not until she had received nineteen separate positive status reports did she nod with satisfaction, press one last key to commit everything to semipermanent storage, and then turn to April and report with a faint smile, "Course computed and locked, Captain."
April gave her a self-deprecating nod. "Thank you, Number One," he said, then thumbed his PTT again and reported simply, "Houston, Enterprise. We're ready."
There was a brief pause. April pictured the flight controllers in the Mission Operations Control Room having one last round-the-horn, checking that all their telemetry agreed with what the crew were telling them, before giving the word:
"Enterprise, Houston. You are GO for FTL."
"Roger, Houston, GO for FTL." April released the button - the intercom had hot mics, even if communications to the ground did not - and declared, "All right, Doctors. It's your show. Let's make history."
Then, with only a moment's hesitation, he reached to his panel and threw the switch that transferred control of the ship downstairs to Daystrom's computers.
"I have control," Daystrom reported calmly, like it was just another day in the simulator. "Positioning spacecraft for FTL jump." Enterprise's RCS jets started to pulse in a very precisely orchestrated sequence, swinging the spacecraft's nose away from the Earth. "We're in position. Inertial dampers to full power. Stand by, motivator unit."
"Bringing motivator unit to full power," Cochrane concurred. He flipped a couple of switches, got one green light while the other stayed red, and thumped the panel with the heel of his hand. The other light turned green. "Everything looks good." A low hum filled the cabin as the ship's spaceframe picked up increased vibrations from the fusion reactor - still another revolution that had gone all but unnoticed in the shadow of the giant advance it was enabling. Gauges on both panels and up in the cockpit responded, running up to the first of two prepainted green marks, then hovered there.
Cochrane tightened his straps and turned to his colleague. "Ready, Dr. Daystrom?" he asked.
"Always, Dr. Cochrane," she replied. "Hit it."
Cochrane turned back to his panel, muttered, "I hope to Christ this works!" and then pressed two buttons. Much to the surprise of April, Korbolkova, and indeed pretty much all of humanity, one of them filled the cabin, the intercom, and the air-to-ground comm channel - for no man could keep Zefram Cochrane from getting on the radio if he so desired! - with a harsh vocodered voice and a thumping beat.
The other cut out the final interlocks and engaged the full reality-bending power of the Concordia Systems Payload, AKA the Gizmo, AKA the Hyperspace Motivator Drive System. For a few seconds nothing seemed to happen; then the reactor's low hum kicked into a higher register as the motivator unit began to draw its full operational power, the relevant gauges ticked up to the second mark, and there was a sensation peculiarly like all the cosmos holding its breath.
In Houston and around the world, MCA declared to the entire human race that if it battled him he would revile... and then there was silence as the transmitter conveying his challenge left the universe.
A blue light winked on at the top of Cochrane's panel.
"Lightspeed!" he cried, throwing up his hands as if he'd scored a touchdown. He and Daystrom leaned against their straps and shared a high-five.
"Confirmed," said Korbolkova, her eyes huge as she wrenched them away from the view out the windows and consulted her instruments. "We are in hyperspace, on course at factor two point five."
Daystrom flipped a few switches, observed some readouts, and said, "Monotronic systems stable. All readings normal."
Cochrane looked at his own gauges. "Reactor's nominal, motivator's... " He smirked. "Purring like a kitten." He pressed a key. "My board is locked, I'm hands-off 'til MOCO."
Korbolkova's eyes flicked to the corner of her navigation display. "Motivator cutoff in 360 seconds... mark."
April gazed out the window in front of him for a moment longer, then said, "Dr. Cochrane... Dr. Daystrom... would you come up here for a moment, please?"
A pause. "Why?" Cochrane answered. "We need to be here for the jump back to realspace."
"I know," April said. "So make it quick."
Cochrane emerged from the ladder tunnel to the lower deck a moment later, looking puzzled. As he used the empty crew seats to pull himself up between the pilots, with Daystrom right behind him, he asked, "What do you need - ... oh wow."
"Would you look at that," Daystrom murmured.
"Zowie," Cochrane agreed.
They stared at it in rapt attention for a minute or so; then Cochrane seemed to remember himself. Tagging the commander's shoulder, he said sincerely, "Thanks for not letting us miss that, Bob," and then turned to head back downstairs.
"Thanks for making it possible for us to see it, Dr. Cochrane," April replied.
Most of the crowd which had observed the launch was still there, on the Causeway, when the PA speakers along the roadside crackled and the Voice of NASA announced,
A cheer eclipsing even that which had met the launch rose up at this news. Down in front, the man in the army jacket turned to his very tall colleague and offered a hand, which the tall man shook.
"And we didn't even have to cheat," said Gryphon. "That ought to do it."
MegaZone nodded. "Even if the Gizmo broke down now, which it won't, they've got provisions enough to make it back the long way." Surveying the crowd and the jam of parked cars on the Causeway, he added mock-ruefully, "As it is, they'll probably be home before we are."
As many had feared, Earthborn humanity's transition from solipsistic single-planet species to galactic citizen was not altogether smooth. Less than two years later, a shocking act of resistance to that leap into the future would take place within sight of the fort. The ultimate outcome, though, was never in doubt, and within five years Earth's United Nations were collectively a member of the United Galactica. The planet has never looked back.