Vision, Part III
On July 25, 1976, the Viking I spacecraft snapped a picture of the surface of Mars that has spawned years of speculation, an untold number of conspiracy theories of cover-ups and countless discussions of who and how and what. This is the second installment of a longer piece that discusses some of those possibilities. You can find the beginning to this story in Part I.
Compared with the launch from Earth, this one was uneventful. Paul felt a slight bump as the ship undocked from its berth on the station, and another slight bump a few minutes later when the space tug that would push them on their way ponied up. The space tug's main job, was to accelerate them from their current speed of 18,000 miles an hour to just slightly over 20,000. The tug would undock and rendezvouz with LEO II, while the engines on Vision would take over and continue acceleration of the spacecraft until their optimum cruising speed had been reached. As the spacecraft neared Mars, it would be rotated back to front so those same engines, in direct application of the laws of physics would be utilized to begin braking maneuvers for entering Mars orbit.
The outbound Mars journey was two plus months of unending monotonous routine. Other than the Earth receding at more than a half million miles every twenty-four hour period, the only other noticeable difference was whether Brookings or Myers initiated the almost daily argument concerning the possibility of life on the red planet.
While Earth was falling away to the rear of the spacecraft, the russet brown orb of Mars was seemingly hovering in the right top corner of the front viewport. Because of the distance and the complex celestial mechanics involved, farther from Earth did not simply mean closer to Mars. The crucial aspect was that Mars and the spacecraft both arrive at the same point in space, forty-million miles from their departure point, at the same time. This made it appear that they were on a course roughly parallel with the Red Planet for the first several weeks of their journey. But, as the historic flight continued, closer to Mars became the reality as well as the objective.
Two months after departing LEO II and still two weeks out from beginning their orbital sequence, the thin atmosphere surrounding the planet began to be visible through Vision's viewports as it diffused a portion of the sunlight reaching this distance. At two weeks removed, Mars looked to be about the size of the Moon when viewed from Earth with a distinctive hue ranging somewhere between dark tan and the color of red clay, depending on which portion of the planet was rotated in their direction. The boredom and antipathy resultant of the long journey gave way to anticipation of arrival, to exhilaration for successful accomplishments thus far.
Also at two weeks out, according to mission parameters, it was time to begin the complex braking maneuvers to facilitate the gravitic capture of the spacecraft as it neared its destination. Despite the relative calm onboard the ship, this was one of the most critical moments of the flight, second only to entry and landing on the surface in terms of timing, flight path and danger. A burn comprising too much elapsed time would consume excessive amounts of precious fuel, possibly stranding the spacecraft short of its intended target, or forcing an early abort of the mission due to a lack of fuel for station keeping after they arrived. Alternatively, terminating the braking sequence prior to scheduled requirements could cause the rocket to encounter the planet at a velocity or trajectory exceeding the gravitational pull and they would simply continue on into interplanetary space, with no hope of recovery or return. Mission Control was forty minutes away by radio; at least twice that for any response. Too far to be of any assistance. They were at the mercy of the skill and accuracy of the computer programmers and the technical capabilities of Commander Brookings and his flight crew.
Paul found himself holding his breath and had to remind himself to keep breathing. Any of a number of possibilities could doom the mission prematurely at this juncture. The maneuver was a radical exercise in three dimensional space with the additional elements of specific time constraints, effectively making it a four dimensional course change. The craft would be rotated along its long axis nearly one-hundred-eighty degrees. Pitch and yaw would require constant monitoring and small, accurate adjustments. The engines would have to be monitored for fuel consumption and for malfunction. The shipboard computers would have to perform without a glitch. The calculations, done nearly a year ago would have to be flawless, or nearly so. They had only this single attempt. The rigorously choreographed dance steps of spacecraft, thrust and inviolate laws of motion were about to commence.
"Prepare to come about," Brookings said from his command chair.
Hands hovered over switches and buttons with fingers poised to perform their assigned tasks at specific intervals and prescribed sequences. Anticipation was almost palpable in the cramped quarters. Though not required to be, the entire crew was present on the command deck to participate, even vicariously, in this excruciatingly crucial phase of the mission, each knowing their successful arrival on Mars, and their very lives hung delicately in balance at this moment.
Brookings was staring intently at the monitor displaying the countdown in decreasing second intervals.
"Go!" he said as the timer reached zero.
Paul felt a brief influx of gravity as the rocket initiated its spin and then weightlessness returned. The actual rotation of the spacecraft took only a few seconds while the burn continued, bleeding off excess speed, forcing the rocket's momentum in the opposite direction to which it had been traveling. Because of its velocity, and because of the comparatively short burn, the rocket would continue in its original direction, but at a reduced speed compatible with falling into Mars orbit when they arrived.
Brookings was still staring at the monitor, watching the seconds count upward this time.
"Engines off," he said at the thirty second mark. "Good job, people. Now, flight, get busy and figure out where we are. Let's make sure we're still heading towards Mars and not Ur-Anus.
"Log: initial braking burn completed. All systems functioning as expected. Heading appears to be within expected parameters. Confirmation to follow. End log."
Brookings had long ago decided that prefacing log entries and progress reports with the traditional "Houston, …" was exceedingly foolish because of the time delay involved in getting any communication to and returned from Mission Control. NASA had begrudgingly granted his request for the tweak to the software and had sent along confirmation of the reworking with a message that read: "Enterprise computer upgrade approved and implemented. Get to Mars. Save the galaxy." The message was addressed to Captain Kirk.
Over the next several days, Vision underwent several more braking maneuvers, none as long as the first, yet each siphoning off a portion of the remaining excess speed, each one performing slight adjustments to the trajectory of the spacecraft.
At two days out, Brookings was called to the bridge shortly after dinner.
"Commander, we've located the homing beacon from Beyond. Signal is faint at this point but increasing steadily."
The word spread quickly through the ship. Those that were not on duty found an excuse to wander to the command area, just to peek through the viewports where the sunward hemisphere of Mars predominated.After two months of travel with nothing more than the vast emptiness of space pricked through with uncountable glitterings of starlight to observe, the proximity to Mars was breath taking. Various hues of red and brown, interspersed sparingly with a white not quite gray dominated the surface. Missing were the soothing, opalescent blue hues of Earth when viewed from space. The Tharsis bulge, 23,000 feet above the surrounding plain and comprising twenty percent or more of the surface of the planet was easily discernible, giving Mars a slightly squashed appearance from their vantage point.
Although everyone knew they were still too far out to see their sister ship, the forty million mile journey nearing its conclusion was impetus enough to coax them to take a look. Leisure time was over. After two months of make work and loafing, it was now time to get busy in earnest.
There would be an initial flyby of the planet, coupled with several more small braking sequences until at around six-thousand miles beyond their target, the spacecraft would swing around to complete its first highly elliptical orbit of Mars. Each successive circumlocution would draw them in closer, forcing the orbit to be more circular until the final, sustained orbital height of just a shade under two-hundred kilometers could be established and stabilized. Vision would be just above the outer fringes of Mars' thin atmosphere, three-hundred kilometers lower than the same location on Earth because of the home planet's thicker atmosphere and greater gravitational field.
To get to that point required the combination of gravity, friction from the thin atmosphere and tremendous braking thrust applied from Vision's onboard engines; rocket science at its finest. Several more orbits would be required to properly orient the spacecraft for the balance of their mission, but anticipation was making it difficult to wait for the conjoined celestial mechanics and propulsion science to complete their scripted portions of the journey.
The main challenge at the moment was ensuring that Vision would miss all of the other observational spacecraft currently in orbit from multiple space agencies back home, while at the same time, drawing near enough to Beyond in both distance and velocity to tether the two craft together. Distance was limited to no more than seventy-five feet due to engineering designs. Velocity had zero leeway. Both ships had to be traveling a parallel course at the same speed to prevent tension on the tether line from altering the trajectory of either, or causing undue torque or terminal damage to one or both of the fragile spacecraft. The computers handled all of the flying at this point. The human presence during this phase was required only for possible emergency action, provided they could recognize the need and react in time to avoid catastrophe at several thousand miles an hour.
Paul, faced with nothing to do but reflect on the precariousness of their position and observe, wondered, not for the first time, at the audacity of the human spirit. Presented with the possibility of instant death millions of miles from home, amid countless occasions for circumstances to go awry and potential mechanical failure with disastrous consequences, the people aboard this ship had volunteered for the opportunity to push the limit of human knowledge and exploration. He knew thousands, perhaps millions of others, would have done the same.
Brookings was intense and irritable, perhaps due to the fact that for the moment, the ship was not his to command. He snapped orders for readouts and growled at their presentation.
"Updates. I need updates, people. I want to know where every craft is in relation to our position. I want to know of any rocks within a hundred meters of any of our projected positions.
"Get me a visual plot on twenty minutes out. If any of you miss anything, I will personally strangle you before that missed object obliterates us. Get busy."
All of which was unnecessary to do manually because the computers had already done so. Paul was certain that Brookings would have known that and was not sure why he would be issuing orders such as he was. Either he was trying to keep his crew occupied, or the commander could not handle yielding control. Paul was uncomfortable with the nagging thought that it could be more the latter than the former.
Hours passed, as did the number of orbits. Beyond had been spotted a number of passes ago, resembling, at first, simply the glare from a bright spotlight as its hull reflected the distant sunlight. Each traverse of the course brought them closer, gradually allowing more distinction of details. Eventually, they were in close approximation of parallel with Beyond, though still exceeding its velocity. Paul had to force himself from the viewport. A couple more orbits to complete the breaking maneuver and then Vision would pull up alongside Beyond.
"Ship's log, tether line secure on my mark. Mark. Umbilical secure. Beginning Beyond warm-up sequence. Stop log.
"Okay, folks. Once that space bus over there warms up enough for us to key the airlock, we're going for a little walk," he said to the crew. "Let's get suited up."
Paul and the other "transfers" quickly moved to the staging area to begin the complicated process of donning and double checking their suits. Pressurization was tested, joints inspected, temperature control was assessed on all involved. Brookings moved among them, poking, prodding, twisting and pulling to make sure nothing was missed, no check left undone.
"I know we did this in the sims," he said. "But this time's for real. So, once more…
"You clamp this like this," he said, demonstrating the snap hook over a tether line. "You jump out the door, key this thruster on, then key it off. I'll catch you at the other end."
He took one last look around to make certain all were suited up and ready, then keyed the airlock. Before the doors were completely open, he had snapped himself to the tether line and propelled himself into the void separating the two ships. As he neared the sealed, nearly dormant craft, he swung his legs up, allowing his booted feet to contact the hull and absorbing most of his momentum with his legs. A moment later, the cargo area doors opened outward at a keyed command from the suit computer he wore on his wrist.
The rest of the crew followed until only Paul and Mick were left.
Paul clipped his safety hook to the traverse cable that strung out twenty meters to the hull of the other ship. He stepped to the doorway of the open airlock gazing at the surreal surroundings, distorted slightly through the visor of his helmet. Mars circling by under his feet was dizzying to watch because of the motions of both the planet and the two ships suspended above it. To either side and above was nothing but the vast emptiness of space, although the concept of nothingness was difficult for his mind to comprehend even presented as it was for his personal observation at the moment. Straight ahead, coasting along beside them at twenty-thousand miles an hour and hanging a hundred-sixty miles above the surface, was his destination.
He knew they were waiting for him, watching his reactions. A couple deep breaths to steady himself and he launched straight ahead into the blackness, keying the suit thruster as he jumped and immediately keying it off again. Fortunately, the few seconds it took to transit the distance were not enough to allow him to succumb to the sheer panic raging in the dark recesses of his mind. Brookings caught him at the other end as he approached the airlock, slowing his momentum. The commander, an iron grip on his arm even through the bulky environment suits, gazed at him long and hard, searching, Paul knew, for signs of panic and inability to perform his duties. Satisfied that Paul was not delirious, Brookings let him go.
Mick was next. Paul watched him perform the same ritual he had undergone moments before, heard the depth of his breathing over the commlink.
"Come on, Mick," he said. "Piece o' cake."
"Just enjoyin' the view, mate," Mick said as he jumped into the void. "Wanted one last look around in case this mule harness malfunctions."
The next several hours were spent unstrapping equipment from stowed locations and moving it onto the sleds for dropping to the landing site over the next couple of days. Each sled was fitted with a parachute harness, small braking thrusters along the edges and an array of inflatable bladders protected by a heatshield along the bottom. The idea was to deploy the parachute by electronic signal from the ship after the sled's entry burn. That would then, in turn, uncouple the heatshield, inflate the bladders, and ignite the retros. The parachutes would catch in the thin Martian atmosphere, slowing the contraptions descent enough that the bladders would cushion the surface impact, confining the initial bounce to the height of less than a ten-story building, and the thrusters would help keep the device as near right-side-up as possible while doubling as additional braking mechanisms. That was the idea. Tomorrow would determine whether or not the idea was viable.
The repacking and rearranging was accomplished with only a single hiccup. Ten minutes into the process, Mick had had to call Brookings to inspect his suit. He was complaining of being hot and dizzy, said he felt as if he was burning up from a fever. Brookings did a quick inspection of all the readouts, oxygen supply, pressurization, temperature control, sweat wicking… all appeared to be functioning normally.
"We only have pressurization and oxygen restored and functioning to the lifepods on this ship, no temperature control and shipwide life support until we move some people over here. I can't risk sending you back with a possible suit malfunction. You'll have to camp out in one of the pods until we can do a detailed inspection of your suit. You can zilch the pressure and O2 in there, but keep the suit on with temp running. Otherwise, you'll freeze to death."
Mick nodded and moved into one of the small lifepods that had been built into the cargo hull as an added emergency measure.
Brookings kept up a constant stream of chatter with him over the commlink.
"You okay in there, Myers?" he would ask.
Mick sounding better and stronger as the minutes passed always answered in the affirmative.
"I'm still here."
"How's it goin', Myers?"
"You guys ain't done yet? I'm gettin' bored just sittin' on my ass in here. Hurry it up, will ya?"
Finally, the gear placement and securing were done. Brookings ordered the main air lock closed and pressure restored in the cargo hull. He then sent everyone but Paul forward to get shipwide life support initiated and get the place ready for move in.
"Won't be long now, Myers. Temp's coming up. Other environment stable. While we're waiting, jack your suit into the diagnostic port in that pod."
Brookings moved over to stand in front of the monitoring screen. Paul thought he heard him mumbling something about pressure gauges but was not certain.
"Welker," Brookings voice sounded over the commlink. "Get back to Vision, have them strap a spare suit to your back and then haul it over here. Yank it off somebody wearing one if necessary and use duct tape to secure it if you have to, but we need a spare here.
"Idiot computer jockeys! Make no provision for spare suits on both ships. What'd they think? We were just going on a camping trip in our space age RV?
"Mission Log: Anytime in the future you boys back home decide to send two ships on a mission and you intend to have people instead of robots working on both, back and forth between the two, you better have spare suits all 'round in both locations. Stop log.
"Soon as you get in over there, I'm going in search of the portable suit repair kit if some of them damn rocket scientists remembered to figure the additional three and a half pounds of weight into their calculations and someone else remembered to lug it onboard.
"If I'm not standing here in this doorway when you get that suit, you stay put until I am."
He was, and by the time Paul had completed his second trip to Beyond, shipboard temperatures were just about warm enough to divest themselves of the restrictive space suits in parts other than the cargo bay.
Mick was already out of his. The excess heat from his suit had been venting to the interior of the pod he was in, and ambient temperature had risen to a balmy, comfortable, forty degrees Fahrenheit; an increase of more than two-hundred degrees from when he had entered it.
The preceding is an excerpt.
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