The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 278: Sol 544

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“Sorry I’m late,” Teddy said, setting his briefcase down next to his desk. Taking his seat, he looked around the others in the room and said, “Launch day is in one week. Walk me through it.”

Phoenix will launch just after dawn local time on Sol 551,” Venkat said. “That will be just after Hermes’s closest approach to Mars.”

“After?” Annie asked. “Shouldn’t the rendezvous take place when Hermes is as close to Mars as it can get?”

Venkat shook his head. “Hermes is passing inside and in front of Mars in relation to its orbit. Mars’s gravity will slow Hermes down a bit- not enough to capture it, but enough to put Hermes on a trajectory for the soonest possible Earth intercept. That part of the maneuver is vital. Hermes has enough remaining propellant for its VASIMR engines to adjust trajectory to meet Phoenix and then get back on course for Earth, but only after closest approach. If they deviate from flight plan prior to that point, they don’t get home.”

“Unless they can use the Sparkle Drive,” Mitch grumbled. “And we don’t want to depend on that.”

“No indeed,” Venkat agreed. “Dawn local time at Schiaparelli will be 6:44 PM Houston time. The MAV will launch on a generally westward track on liftoff to counter Mars rotation. We expect to lose about four hundred meters per second of delta-V to that. Our calculations are that, if seven of the fifteen magic boosters fail on liftoff, Phoenix can still make rendezvous. Eight is one too many.

“The magic boosters and the first stage engines will burn for approximately six minutes. The boosters will provide three G’s of acceleration at launch, plus another two G’s once the first stage engines throttle up. The main engines will throttle down during launch to keep maximum G levels at a maximum of eight G. We expect Mark, Dragonfly, and possibly Starlight to black out, but Cherry Berry assures us that she, Spitfire, and probably Fireball can remain conscious and functional under that strain. It costs us a bit more delta-V, but with as many uncertainties about this launch as we have, we’d rather have a conscious crew able to respond to emergencies.”

“Is that delta-V loss factored into your calculations about the magic boosters?” Teddy asked, making a note.

“It is. We can’t be certain about when the magic boosters will cut out. The ponies say they adjusted the booster spell to have the batteries run them for six minutes, but that’s not exact. Once they burn out, they won’t ignite the second stage straight away. Instead the Hermes crew will double-check the trajectory of Phoenix and verify the Phoenix computer’s projection for the second stage burn required to establish an intercept with Hermes. Only after confirmation do they burn. If all goes perfectly, the two ships should be in a position to begin docking maneuvers roughly fifty minutes after Phoenix launches. Any difficulties will, of course, mean a later rendezvous.”

“Or none at all,” Bruce Ng said over the speakerphone. “In the case of a launch failure too significant for any chance of a Hermes rendezvous, the Phoenix crew will engage the Sparkle Drive for a direct Earth abort. If the velocities are good but the trajectory too compromised for a normal intercept, then the Sparkle Drive will be used to move Phoenix so that its carried momentum is shifted to make a Hermes intercept possible.”

“The Earth abort is the last ditch scenario,” Venkat agreed. “We don’t know if the Sparkle Drive is reliable long-term, and we have only a rough estimate of travel time, and putting Phoenix into any useful Earth orbit will be a nightmare. Landing is out of the question. Also, Phoenix will only carry seven days of food for a trip which, under the best conditions, takes us four months normally. Hermes has food for all of them for months and months. So we want them there if at all possible.”

Annie was making her own notes on her phone, fingers flying across the touch-screen. “Tough shit for all the reporters who want to hear a horse say, ‘Warp speed,’” she said. “What happens after docking?”

Phoenix will dock with the vehicle docking bay on the nose of Hermes,” Venkat said. “Normally a MAV would be dumped after crew transfer, but this time we’ll leave it in place. Hermes can still rotate with a vehicle docked, so we don’t need to transfer the Sparkle Drive. The software for the Drive is adjustable to account for power available and for the mass of the combined ships. We’ll attempt to use the Drive to get Hermes home sooner, taking a trajectory that will always leave Hermes in a viable limp-home trajectory.

“Arrival time depends entirely on the Sparkle Drive. If it fails completely, Hermes continues on the Rich Purnell trajectory and gets home seven months from now. If it’s completely successful, that time gets cut down to about one month or a little longer.”

“Wait a minute,” Annie protested. “Explain again why Phoenix would only need a week to get to Earth, but Hermes needs a month on Sparkle Drive.”

“Mass,” Venkat said. “Apparently, just because the Drive is magic doesn’t make it exempt from all physical laws. Hermes is bigger, so every micro-jump it makes costs more energy. To compensate, the Drive has to reduce its cycles per second way down, which means a slower trip.”

Both Teddy and Annie made notes at this. “All right,” Teddy said. “I want to backtrack for a moment. All the uses of their booster system, as I understand it, involved improvised switches that were operated by someone on the surface pulling a rope. There’s not going to be anyone outside to pull a rope this time. Have we worked out a way around this?”

“We didn’t have to,” Venkat said. “They did it for themselves three sols ago.”

“How does it work?”

“It was Dragonfly’s idea. Sojourner is staying behind at Schiaparelli. One of the MAV backup radios has been installed in the rover so that Sojourner can take photos of the Schiaparelli site and send them to Earth after Phoenix leaves.”

“So Sojourner pulls the rope?”

“No. Dragonfly didn’t think Sojourner would have the torque, and anyway she didn’t want to permanently tether the robot to the booster system. No, instead they rigged up a teeter-totter using panels from consoles stripped out of Phoenix. Sojourner will crawl up the panel until it tips.” Venkat mimed a see-saw pivoting down. “When the end of the panel hits the ground, it will hit two metal studs connected to wires. That will complete the circuits linking the battery portion of the boosters to the booster parts, all at once. Sojourner has been positioned so it will take the rover precisely two minutes to drive just past the tipping point. That means the first stage will be ignited and ready to throttle up the instant the boost hits.”

“That sounds like a Rube Goldberg machine,” Teddy commented.

“It’s what they have parts to spare for,” Venkat shrugged. “They don’t have a radio-operable switch they could use. They barely have enough wires and cables to make this work.”

“Will this harm Sojourner in any way?”

“Only if it falls off the teeter-totter. Dragonfly covered Sojourner’s wheels in non-conductive goo. That will keep it insulated long enough. And Starlight doesn’t think magic current would harm Sojourner in any case.”

“We’ll leave it at that, then,” Teddy said. “Let’s go down the list. How’s the fuel situation?”

“Fuel tanks are at 98% capacity,” Bruce reported. “Tomorrow’s the last day we’ll have them electrolyze water. The only way we could get more fuel on this ship now would be if we strapped tanks on the outside of the ship.”

“Good. What about the remaining ship systems?”

“We’ll have Mark run full diagnostics on Sol 547,” Bruce said. “If something shows up, that gives us two days to fix it- probably by replacing the bad component with the backup we had them rip out. For now, the ship looks perfectly healthy.”

“Healthy like a man missing a lung and a kidney,” Venkat muttered.

Teddy ignored the comment. “What about the crew? What’s their flight status?”

“According to Martinez, good to fly,” Mitch said. “The last day of flight sims will be Sol 548. After that launch prep takes priority. If I’m reading between the lines of Martinez’s reports correctly, he thinks Cherry Berry is a little sloppier than he is, but a lot more willing to push the envelope- and vastly more experienced. I’m quoting here: ‘It’s like teaching Alan Shepard to fly… and John Glenn… and Neil Armstrong… and Jim Lovell… and John Young… all in the same body.’”

“That’s pretty accurate,” Venkat said. “I read Starlight's reports. Imagine if all the Mercury and half the Gemini flights were flown by one person.”

“That’s it exactly,” Mitch said. “Martinez’s only concerns are that she might be too willing to take an unnecessary risk-“

“- and when was the last time you heard an astronaut say that about another astronaut?” Venkat said.

Mitch nodded. “That, and that she might not trust the flight computer enough. And, also, he says she uses too much fuel. But I think he’s saying that last because he wants to make it clear he’s still the better pilot. It doesn’t sound like a serious critique.”

“But the bottom line,” Teddy said, “is that she’s good to fly? What about her sysop?”

“Spitfire’s English is still spotty,” Mitch said. “But she’s familiar with the controls and has a basic working knowledge of the main computer interface. As a copilot she’s good to go. For anything major we’ll have Johanssen handle the computer side of things remotely.”

“And the Sparkle Drive?” Teddy asked. “How big of a question mark is it?”

“Enormous,” Venkat admitted. “Starlight says they corrected the problems that caused them to come here in the first place. We have to take their word for that. We’re using a Hab laptop with special software prepared by JPL to operate the Drive using an interface we had them make from electrical repair kit parts. But that software was written based on their specifications, which again we have to take their word for.”

He smiled and added, “We did catch one issue, though. The original interface was mouse-only, using a slider bar to control the frequency of jumps. But it turned out that the slider bar in simulation mode was precisely the opposite orientation as the slider bar in normal operations mode. Apparently the programmer changed the interface partway through writing and forgot to make the changes to both modes. A low setting in sims would produce a dangerously high setting on launch day. That got fixed two weeks ago, and to make it safer the slider is now only a backup. The jump rate is now set by keyboard instruction- type in the number and hit enter. They've been using it that way in at least two sims per sol for three weeks now.”

“Good. But I gather your bottom line is that we don’t want to have to touch it until docking with Hermes is complete.”

“Right,” Venkat said. “We’re treating it as almost completely untested, and we don’t want to operate it outside of fail-safe conditions.”

“I agree,” Teddy said. “Dr. Shields, Dr. Keller, your medical opinion?”

Dr. Shields and Dr. Keller, the Ares psychologist and chief flight surgeon, stood side by side near the office door. “Mentally, they’re as good as can be expected,” Shields said. “I was afraid the tight quarters in the Whinnybago would have them at each other’s throats, but they’re coming together in adversity.”

“Physically, it’s not so good,” Keller said. “Dragonfly has been deteriorating over the past month, in particular, likely due to magic deficiency. The others aren’t certain whether they show any symptoms themselves, but they all show noticeable muscle atrophy due to long-term exposure to low gravity. We don’t know about bone mass. Watney’s been taking supplements, and alfalfa hay helps build bones in animals on Earth, so that’s been mitigated as much as can be expected.”

“Would you qualify them to take an active role in the launch?” Teddy asked.

“Watney, no,” Keller said, shaking his head. “Not at eight G’s with only minimal training to resist blackout. And based on reports, not Dragonfly either. But remember, everyone except Watney is an alien. Even with the papers Starlight Glimmer translated, I just don’t know enough to make a confirmable diagnosis. All I can say is, I can’t find a reason to disqualify them.”

“And let me point out,” Venkat added quickly, “this is not a question of whether they launch or not. There’s no alternative.”

Teddy made notes, then said, “Launch weather. How much will the dust storm affect them?”

“Not greatly,” Randall Carter, the Mars meteorologist, said. “The current dust storm is building up absolutely normally. Its only real movement is in growth of area affected. The leading edge of the storm is predicted to reach the launch site on Sol 549, with a minimal reduction in solar panel efficiency on Sol 550. The only effect is to put enough particles in the air above the site that even emergency use of the Sparkle Drive becomes too unsafe to consider. Given the fine nature of the dust, some of it might get as high as sixty kilometers. We recommend a minimum safe altitude of two hundred kilometers before engaging the Sparkle Drive, with a minimum emergency altitude of one hundred.”

“Bruce, does that line up with your recommendations?” Teddy asked.

“I’ll accept it,” Bruce said. “I’d prefer the Drive be left alone completely.”

“Tracking.” Teddy looked at Mindy Park. “What will we see?”

“Everything we have orbiting Mars that can monitor the flight in any useful way will be,” Mindy said. “We’re adjusting orbits of three satellites to put them close enough for direct video observation of the launch, but we won’t see that video for hours after the fact. The satellite high-gain antennas can’t point at Earth while the sats are tracking Phoenix with their cameras. But everything else with the capacity will track trajectory by radio and relay that data through Hermes and Sleipnir 2 to Earth. We’ll know exactly where they went… twelve minutes ago.”

“Good work.” Teddy paused, tapping his notepad with his pen. “Venkat, what about the trajectory teams?”

“Astrodynamics has been running hundreds of thousands of flight variants through the supercomputers for the past month,” Venkat said. “And you know absolutely everyone who can get through the gate will be on-site on launch day. If we need a course correction, then so long as there’s fuel in the second ascent stage or power for the Sparkle Drive, we have a chance. Remember, Phoenix has unlimited air and water and seven days of food. We can take a little time to get it right. We won’t have to pull a seat-of-the-pants maneuver at the last minute.”

“Your lips to God’s ears,” Bruce Ng muttered over the speakerphone.

“Mission control?” Teddy asked.

“For what it’s worth, we’ll be ready,” Mitch said. “I’ve shuffled schedules so that the prime team will be at the consoles beginning at 4 PM our time. I’ll have my deputy controllers to use as runners or aides as needed, and I’m sure every controller will be on hand for this, on or off shift.” He shook his head. “But aside from tracking and trajectory, there’s dick-all they can do. We’re twenty-four minutes out of the action, and that’s all there is to it!”

“You never know,” Teddy said. “Your people are all highly trained engineers, Mitch. If a contingency arises that gives us those twenty-four minutes, I want anyone who might have a useful idea available to give it. If we can do something to help, I want us to be able to.” He closed his notebook and said, “Annie, I have to report to the president in person, but after I get back I’ll be at your disposal for any press events you think are beneficial.”

“I’ll see what I can line up,” Annie muttered. “But unless you get off the plane with four hooves and pastel fur, don’t count on much.”

A chuckle went round the room as the meeting broke up.

Author's Notes:

Setting the stage for the upcoming launch, so to speak. Tonight, after some prep work for San Angelo Comic Con next weekend, I'll work more on the Sol 551 entry.

I thought about making the bit where Dragonfly turns Sojourner into a rocket launch switch into its own chapter, but that's all it would be. I had no ideas for making it more interesting. Also, I'm feeling very eager to get to the launch now.

Next Chapter: Sol 548 Estimated time remaining: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes
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