|Image credit: NASA|
Of course, his desk for today was much more interesting than usual. Instead of wood grain and a pen set, he had a wide window above a complex console. A web-work and metal ejection seat replaced his leather desk chair, and an orange and white flight suit and helmet replaced his customary gray suit and light blue tie.
At the moment, a little more than seven million pounds of thrust pushed him back into his chair at the regulation 3.3 gravities of acceleration. The view out the window was a blue band and, above that, looking frankly enormous, the forward third of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Adventure.
"Bob, we are reading excess temperature on engine nine. Can you confirm?" That was Danny in Mission Control.
"Affirmative, Houston, we see that. Over."
"Flight Director says take no action," Danny said. "Modeling shows temp will stay within excess limits until shutdown. Over."
"We'll keep an eye on number nine. Thanks for the heads up." Bob said, looking over at Ellen, his Commander on this flight.
She reached over, toggled Houston out of the mike loop. "That one always runs hot," she explained. Then she toggled Houston back in and spoke.
"Houston, we are 20 seconds until engine shutdown at my mark. Mark."
"Roger, Booster 004," Danny said.
"Hey, Ellen," came another voice. It was Jim, Adventure's Commander for this Space Station mission. "Thanks for the lift. We're standing by for separation here. Over."
"Roger that, Adventure. We wish you smooth sailing. Over."
As Bob listened to the routine, relaxed conversation, he also listened to the noises from Booster 004. As liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen ran past anti-slosh baffles and down drains that led to turbopumps, engine bell cooling channels, and thrust chambers, the Booster's big tanks emptied and gradually became echo chambers. They picked up and magnified the rumble of its 10 J2-B engines. The sound rapidly grew much louder, as though a roaring dragon were struggling to climb against the acceleration through the tanks toward the forward-facing cockpit.
"Booster and Orbiter," Danny said. "Booster shutdown in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - "
The roar turned into a rapidly diminishing whine, and Bob felt himself tipping forward against his shoulder straps. "Houston," said Ellen, sounding loud in the sudden quiet, "we confirm shutdown. Over."
"Confirmed here, too," said Danny. "Adventure, separation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -"
A clunk shook the cockpit, then suddenly the Sun poured in. Bob looked down for a second, taking in the computer screens, then looked back up and exclaimed, "Holy sh-, I mean, cow." He heard someone laugh, realized it was Cal in the observer's seat.
Adventure had looked huge in the window before, when it was attached to Booster 004 and he could only see part of its underside. Now it reminded him of the opening scene of that new science-fiction film he'd seen with the grandkids last month. Adventure moved slowly forward and away from Booster 004, seemingly without end. He'd seen Orbiter sep a thousand times on video, but that hadn't captured the graceful enormity of it. Then he saw the Orbiter's four rear-mounted engine bells and the tip of its swept-back vertical stabilizer.
Ellen was all business. "Clean separation. I'm looking at Adventure. Attachment fixture doors are closed. Over."
"Adventure confirms, over."
Danny spoke. "We see a good separation. Time to come back to Earth, Bob. Over."
Back to Earth. He was aware of Ellen's momentary glance, then she returned to scanning the computer screens.
It was the fifth time he'd come back to Earth, and it was almost certainly the last time. The unofficial retirement age for Commanders and Pilots was 50, and he would be 57 next month. Hell, he wore bifocals. His knees creaked. His top-level management job had let him finagle a Booster run at his advanced old age - after all, he'd never done one, and he was Booster boss. He'd told the Administrator - that damned old political hack - that he didn't plan to retire from NASA for another decade, so the training and flight experience would not be wasted.
The first time he returned to Earth, it was in an Apollo Command Module with Jerry and Paul and nearly a hundred kilos of moon rocks. He'd been Command Module Pilot on Apollo 22, which included the first week-long lunar surface mission. Jerry and Paul had landed at Tycho and he'd kept busy as a one-armed paper hanger operating a suite of instruments in lunar orbit. He didn't expect he'd fly again beyond low-Earth orbit, and he was thinking of seeking a job in industry. Then President Rockefeller had pushed to extend Apollo again, and he'd opted to stay in.
The second time, he was Commander on Apollo 31. He would never forget the feeling of stepping out onto the moon the first time. No Earth in the sky - his was the first Farside landing.
The third time he commanded Apollo 40. That launch was unique - an S-IVB, LM, and CSM launched on the back of a Space Shuttle Booster. NASA needed its S-IC and S-II stages to launch Space Station cores to build up the Space Base, and the old studies had suggested that it would be possible to substitute a Shuttle Booster for the first two stages of the Apollo Saturn V.
He'd landed with Ed next to the sprawling Hawking Array in the Sea of Ingenuity. The multi-billion-dollar teleoperated science complex had gone silent, so NASA, under a lot of pressure from Congress, flew a rapid-response repair mission. By then he was the only Farside explorer left in the Astronaut Corps, so they'd tapped him for the job.
At 47 years of age, he was as old as Al Shepard had been when he'd stepped out onto the moon during Apollo 14 in 1971. They'd untangled a couple of robots from some poorly placed cables, tightened the connectors, cycled the breakers - they'd had to pull the "hand" off a robot to use it as a tool to manipulate the them since they weren't designed for fat, gloved human fingers - and heard cheers in Mission Control as the Array came back to life.
Then that old Russian cosmonaut, desk-bound for nearly 30 years and so overweight that they had to build a custom couch so he could ride Buran, flew an "inspection tour" mission to the Zarya Station. That planted the seed in his imagination, and now here he was again, returning to Earth for the last time.
"Booster, this is Houston, verify completion of your avoidance turn," said Danny, making him jump a little and bringing him back to the here and now. "Booster, here," said Ellen. "Turn completed. Over."
"Adventure, second stage ignition in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -," Danny said.
"Roger, Houston, Adventure here, we have ignition. Four good engines."
Bob had nearly lost sight of the Orbiter as he mused about his space career. However, as the four engines came on, pulling propellants from Adventure's internal tanks, he saw it right away even though it wasn't dramatic. Just four round white lights. "Houston, this is Booster 004," he said. "We confirm good four-engine start on Adventure. Over." The Orbiter disappeared behind the upper edge of the window.
"Roger that, Bob," Danny said. "Woo-hoo!" said Jim. "We are headed uphill."
"Booster, this is Houston. We have you at the top of your parabola at 231,121 feet. Please run through pre-reentry checklist. Over." Ellen acknowledged.
The checklist included checking the switch settings for the ABES - the Air-Breathing Engine System. Everything was in its place, ready for jet engine activation at 23,000 feet.
"Ellen, now descending past 220,000 feet. Please check attitude for reentry," Danny said.
"Roger, Houston. We're seeing some glow outside," Ellen reported. A few moments later, a series of distant pops sounded. "Thrusters firing to auto-trim attitude," she added.
The glow outside grew in intensity, and Bob could feel himself growing heavy. Then he felt the Booster bank and turn, shedding energy. A minute later, with the glow fading, it banked again, then its nose slowly dropped. The blue sea and the hazy east coast of Florida spread out before them. He saw Ellen grin. She toggled Houston out of the loop. "I never get tired of that view."
"When are you going to go to orbit, Ellen?" Bob asked. He knew Ellen had flown a dozen Booster flights; by now she should be an Orbiter pilot.
"Oh, not all of us want to do that," she said. She laughed. "I want to be the very best Booster pilot NASA has. Besides, I like having you for a boss." Before Bob could reply, she toggled in Houston again.
"Houston, this is Booster 004, we are in gliding descent, awaiting ABES deploy. Rudder and ailerons active. Minor buffeting. Can you give me a weather report? Over."
"Booster, we have you right on course. Weather at Strip 01 is fine. Mild crosswinds - five to eight knots. Light rain," said Danny.
"Roger that," she said.
A couple of minutes later, as Bob scanned the computer screens, Cal spoke. Bob kept forgetting he was sitting back there. "I'd like to do three or four Booster flights and then do Orbiter flights after that. Not that I mind having you as a boss, Bob."
"I have reports on your sim runs. I think you'll be out of my hair pretty quick," said Bob. Cal laughed.
"OK, boys," Ellen said, "we are passing 27,000 feet. Prepare for ABES deploy at 23,000, brake-flaps at 22,500." Eight ABES were folded up in compartments in the thickest parts of the Booster's delta wings and two in its belly, between its main landing gear doors. As a fail-safe, the jet engines were designed to drop and lock with gravity doing the work.
"Booster, this is Houston. Good news - Adventure is in orbit," Danny said. A long pause. "We have you at 23,500 feet, good descent angle and speed. ABES deploy on my mark - 3, 2, 1 - mark."
There was a series of clunks, and for a moment Ellen looked alarmed - a look Bob hadn't seen on her face before. He didn't like it.
"Houston, please confirm ABES deploy. Also brake-flaps. Over," she said, keeping her voice level.
There was a pause. "Uh, Booster, we're looking at the data. Stand by," Danny said.
There was a long pause. Ellen turned to Bob, opened her mouth - then Danny interrupted.
"Ellen, we read eight engines deployed. Number 5 and 6 are not deployed, as best we can tell. You're coming in fast, which supports that hypothesis. Less drag with just eight engines hanging. We have no data on the brake-flaps. Seems we have some dead sensors. Do you want to have a second try at 5 and 6? Over."
Ellen was checking computer screens. "Standby on that, Houston. Request permission to advance ABES count to start at my mark - mark."
"You know best, Booster. Over."
"OK, Bob, Cal, we have a situation," Ellen said, pressing buttons and flipping switches. "We are now two ABES out. Booster is certified for safe descent and landing with one ABES out. Five and six - the belly ABES - are not deployed, so we don't have their drag, and we're coming in hot, putting too much pressure on the wings and the connections for the deployed engines as we get deeper into the atmosphere. Plus, maybe no brake-flaps. This could get messy."
As she spoke, the deployed ABES whined. The Booster shook. "Good, we have all eight deployed ABES running normally. I can control our descent so we don't melt our wings. Bob, watch the ABES temps for me. Cal, stay sharp. Tell me if you see or hear anything peculiar. Got that?"
"Affirmative," Cal and Bob said simultaneously.
Bob looked at the computer screens. He didn't like what he saw. "Ellen, we have over-temps on 1, 10, 9, and 2."
"All the outboard engines, as you'd expect. Tell me when they exceed safe limits."
"They exceed safe limits."
Ellen grimaced. "OK, Houston, we've slowed some, but we're still too fast, and the outboard ABES are overheating. I want to try to deploy 5 and 6 now to get some more drag. Over."
"Roger that, Booster. Uh, Ellen, Flight Director has activated emergency teams. Over," Danny said, his voice shaking a little.
Ellen swore under her breath. "Thank you, Danny." As she spoke she flipped the switches to deploy ABES 5 and 6.
"Computer 1 is down," Bob said. Long pause. "But so are ABES 5 and 6."
"Hot-damn," said Ellen. She thumbed the activation button. A new whine began.
"Booster, your descent is off-nominal for KSC Strip 01. We need you to reset for contingency landing in Orlando," Danny said. "Teams there are activating."
Bob said, "We have 10 good ABES. I think. One and 10 still exceed temp limits. Five is running slow." He looked again. "Or maybe not at all. Make that nine good ABES."
"Houston, acknowledge Orlando landing. I have one ABES out and two at risk. Brake flaps indicate open, but it doesn't feel like it. You might want to activate Tampa and the Coast Guard," Ellen said.
A pause. "And Coast Guard. Roger, Ellen."
Ellen toggled out Houston. "So, boss, Cal, I just said we might ditch in the Gulf."
Bob grinned. "I got that. I've done some splashdowns."
Ellen grinned back, glad for his attempt at humor. "You're the last guy still in the Astronaut Corps who can say that. But you splashed in Apollo gumdrops. I don't have to tell you that a Booster ditch is officially unsurvivable. I believe the manual. With all our big tankage, we're too fragile to hold together if we belly flop. Dammit. Right now our landing point is drifting past Orlando." She cycled a switch. "Where are those damned brake flaps? It's like they fell off."
The cabin shook. Ellen shook her head. "We're finally subsonic, Houston. Over."
Danny spoke. "Ellen, we've told Tampa to expect you. Coast Guard and Air Force assets are moving into position for sea recovery, but we advise against water landing. Over." Ellen rolled her eyes.
Bob looked closely at the computer screens. "Computer 2 is down," he said quietly.
"Oh, this is not fair," said Cal.
"So now we can't rely on on-board data for our landing point. Houston, do you see we are minus two computers? Over." Ellen sounded exasperated, but otherwise in control.
"Affirmative, Booster 004, we see that. Still have you targeted for Tampa. Over."
"But Tampa has no alignment circle," Bob muttered, too softly for anyone else to hear.
"But Tampa has no alignment circle," Danny said a moment later. "Flight Director recommends you eject over water. Over."
Cal coughed and smiled weakly. "I cannot eject. It's the risk the observer runs."
"Oh, hell," said Ellen. "Houston, we are trying for Tampa. It's that or lose Cal."
Bob cleared his throat. "Excuse me - Ellen, Danny, Cal, anyone else who's listening - I am pulling rank here. We cannot land in Tampa without putting the local population at risk. Ellen and Cal will eject over water. No - no time for debate," he said, louder, overriding their objections. He began to unbuckle the straps holding him in his seat. "Cal, get your ass up here. I'm observer now."
Bob stood, turned, and began to unbuckle Cal, who, after a few stunned moments, helped him. Then Cal took Bob's seat. Bob waited to see if Cal could get himself buckled in, saw that despite his shaking hands he could, then sat in the observer seat. He buckled in, then looked up. "You know, for an observer seat, this is a crap view."
Ellen took charge. "OK, let's get ready. Like in the drills we never thought we'd actually need." She checked her suit and helmet and armed her seat, calling out each action as she performed it. Cal followed along. Then she confirmed that Cal was ready.
When that was finished, she said, "you can help me, guys. Just tell me if you hear or see anything unusual. I trust you more than the one computer we have left."
Bob knew there was really nothing left to do. He admired Ellen for trying to distract them, though.
"There's a grinding noise from aft," Cal said. "I can feel the vibration of it when I put my hand on the console."
"Yes, that's ABES 5 - saw it before the second computer went down," said Bob. "We might've had a fire in there."
Ellen looked puzzled. "If we had a fire, why no alarm?"
"Houston here." It was a new voice. "This is Gene Kranz. We confirm no Tampa landing. As I understand it, Cal and Ellen are in ejection seats. You will eject at 4000 feet in" - a long pause - "about 90 seconds. Bob?"
"Thank you, Flight Director. Over."
Ellen and Cal looked ashen, as they might at his funeral. It was his turn to give them something new to think about.
"Kids, listen. Be sure you keep your heads down when your seats light off. We're low enough to breathe, so disconnect your breather, mask, and hoses so they don't catch on something or hit you in the face. Crappy design - I kept trying to get that changed. You don't need them, so leave them here. On the floor. Got it?"
"Yessir," said Ellen. Cal nodded as he began to dismantle his breathing gear.
As they took off their breathing apparatus, Bob continued. "When they do the post-mortem on this flight, tell them I said to look into the electrical system. That's the only common factor linking all our anomalies. Tell them I fixed the damned Hawking Array, so I know all about electricity stuff." Cal, an electrical engineer as well as a pilot, couldn't help smiling.
"I'm going to use this seat cushion to protect myself from the blast when you guys go. I plan to live through this. If I don't, though, please tell the Administrator that I said he's a useless hack."
Cal's eyes went wide. Ellen nodded in solemn agreement, and it was Bob's turn to grin.
Kranz spoke. "This is Houston. Please confirm your ejection seats are armed. Over."
Ellen checked Cal's seat again. "This is Booster 004 - seats armed."
"Eject on my mark. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - mark!"
Booster 004's cabin became the inside of a tornado, and despite his headphones and helmet Bob was deafened. The seat pad he held was torn from his hands - he saw it spin away out the now-open roof of the cabin. He felt heat. Glass broke somewhere in the cabin, and the Booster lurched as the open roof panel increased drag.
Then there was relative calm. Bob looked out the window. The view was better with the ejection seats gone, he mused, even if the window was now cracked. He saw the glint of Sun off water. After a moment, he turned off his mike and headphones.
"I'm returning to Earth for the last time," he said. "And this time I mean it."