Cape Canaveral, Florida
Waiting was the hardest part of the job, a necessary inconvenience that sustained a time-worn pilot’s adage: flying was hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror.
The frenzy would come soon enough. For now, there was just not much for Dan Wyatt to do except look out the window and try to ignore the burning sensation around his neck.
His heavy beard made that especially irritating, as his suit tugged at the freshly shaved follicles beneath his chin. Unable to loosen the collar, he stretched instead, circling his arms and running a thick gloved finger inside the neck ring beneath that maddening pressure seal.
The sacrifices we make for government work, he thought. If this went on long enough, he’d get to enjoy struggling to not wet his suit. At least I finally learned to lay off the coffee before launch.
He was reclined in the commander’s seat of Orion 1, poised on pad 39-A, the site from where giant Saturn V rockets had departed for the moon decades earlier. Not that many years ago, it had launched the last space shuttle. And today, for the first time in decades, it would launch the first flight of a new class of space vehicle. Riding a booster crafted from old shuttle components, Orion’s shakedown flight would take his crew around the moon on a looping elliptical orbit. Someday, the purse-holders in Washington might be persuaded to let them go even farther. DC’s perpetual funding tug-of-war guaranteed nothing but uncertainty. Orion’s first mission would be Wyatt’s last, and in this moment he tried to absorb the sensations instead of allowing the checklists to consume him. It was often far too easy to miss out on what they were actually doing. He pulled up against a handrail by his window for a quick peek at the Florida coast far below. As seagulls drifted past along the breeze, he smiled and settled back into the chair. Not a good idea for you guys to hang around here much longer.
The sky beyond was a deep, clear blue. The stubborn milky haze of another boiling Florida summer had been swept away by a cold front the night before. It would return soon enough–autumn’s relief was sure to arrive late here as always.
Twisting about, he surveyed the crowded cabin: a clutter of gleaming instrument displays set among gray panels and white bulkheads, liberally strewn with equipment packages strapped to the sidewalls and flooring. This monochrome milieu was sharply contrasted by two figures cocooned in similar blaze-orange pressure suits. On his right, the command module pilot was absorbed with the countdown checklist as they waited through the final hold. Behind them, the flight engineer quietly thumbed through a system diagram on her overhead display. The drone of technician’s cross-talk buzzed in their headsets; otherwise it was quiet as a tomb.
Wyatt broke their silence. “How’re you guys doing? My tailbone went numb a half-hour ago.”
The pilot spoke up first. “Lost all the feeling in my butt, too. So that makes it about like the simulator,” he said while scrolling through the pre-launch checklist. “Just don’t want to stumble over anything once they restart the clock. Waited long enough, haven’t we?”
“Right. Capsule systems look good,” chimed in their flight engineer from the European Space Agency. “Booster interface is nominal. And my arse is just fine, thank you,” she added curtly.
“I’ll trust your judgment there,” Wyatt laughed. “Get ready to start the T-minus Nine card while I holler at Launch Control.”
* * *
Three hundred feet below and five miles away, in a firing room attached to the towering black-and-white hulk of the Vehicle Assembly Building, launch controllers were making a final sweep of their own data. Beyond the room’s expansive windows, they could see the big rocket venting gas; exhaling as some mythic creature about to be unleashed.
As Wyatt was about to call, the Launch Test Conductor radioed in a distinctive Florida cracker twang.
“Orion, LTC. Ya’ll bored enough up there yet?”
Wyatt gave his pilot a sideways glance and thumbed the microphone: “Just catching up on my reading. You slackers about ready to get this show on the road?” he taunted.
“Thought you’d forgotten,” he replied casually. “Launch Director’s lifting the hold on schedule. We’ll get back to business soon enough.”
Wyatt’s speech became noticeably more clipped and direct as he switched gears back to the businesslike commander. “LTC, Orion copies,” he said crisply. “Standing by to resume count at T-minus-niner minutes, on your mark.”
Having just received the “go” signal, the test coordinator did likewise. “Roger Orion, count has resumed at T-minus nine,” he answered with a remarkably subdued twang. For the intense final minutes, his game face would be on too.
* * *
With thirty seconds to go, the ship cast away its ground connections and finally came to life under its own power. Fifteen seconds later, water began spilling down the launch umbilical tower to deaden the cascade of noise that would soon follow. Soon after that, the giant main engines lit with a thundering rush. As they swung about their gimbaled mounts, the rocket pitched forward slightly.
In the crew cabin high atop the stack, the motion felt far more pronounced. It was unnerving – the great beast actually swayed while still bolted down, bellowing and shuddering as steam billowed up from the flame trench below.
Two seconds to go.
Only after the ship’s computers were satisfied its engines were at full pressure would it command the side-mounted solid boosters to ignite. Once lit, there was no way to turn them off and therefore no going back. They fired with a crackling roar, belching white smoke and bright yellow flame. The same computers immediately severed a dozen restraining bolts around the skirt of each rocket, as if knowing it was hopeless to restrain the thundering brutes.
As the countdown clock reached zero, Orion 1 leapt from the pad and into the bright autumn sky, trailing a thick column of white smoke. Wyatt strained against the sudden acceleration to focus on the task ahead. He had always been startled by the out-of-control feeling on the shuttle, comparing it to being strapped naked to the front end of a freight train. It looked like this ride wouldn’t be much different.
“Houston, Orion has cleared the tower,” his voice rattled into the helmet microphone, above the din.
* * *
Johnson Space Center
“They’re all ours, gang,” the flight director announced. “We’re back in the saddle.” Of course, Mission Control didn’t really need reminding that the flight was finally under their watchful eyes. Being the first mission they had run in years, his team had anxiously waited for this moment through the countdown’s final hours.
“Roll program complete,” they heard Wyatt call as Orion turned onto its back for the climb to orbit, which agreed with their own displays. An unemotional “nominal” from the guidance officer was the most enthusiasm anyone voiced.
Inside the control room, hundreds of spacecraft systems would be continually monitored until the craft parachuted into the Pacific a week hence. Each was scrutinized by its own dedicated control engineer and supported by back-room teams of more technicians. Their collective goal was to anticipate problems before any became “events”; failing that, to quickly solve the ones that eluded them.
One controller searched her displays more earnestly than most. Audrey Wilkes had worked at the Magrath center in Alabama since college, and had finally made it here to the “big room”. Running the Booster console, she was responsible for the main engines and fuel systems during launch. She would be headed back to Huntsville after Orion was safely in orbit, and was acutely aware her duties in Houston were temporary. If Audrey performed well enough today, she hoped to be invited to come back permanently.
Keen attention to detail and the ability to stay cool under pressure were non-negotiable qualities of a good Flight Controller. The slightest hiccup in her data stream could signal a disaster waiting to happen – or nothing at all. Her job was to let the flight director seated behind them know which was which, and fast.
She followed her training, purposefully scanning the streams of numbers and undulating graphs in sequence, the way a pilot monitored cockpit gauges. As she did, a brief anomaly caught her attention: what looked like a sharp pressure jump inside of an engine turbopump shot across her screen.
Did Number One just spike?
And just like that, it disappeared.
Calm down girl, she thought, soothing herself.
Of all the systems under her fingers, she was most fascinated by the immensely powerful turbopumps. Capable of draining an Olympic-size swimming pool in seconds, each operated on a ragged edge between absolute efficiency and ruinous failure as they fed propellant to the ravenous engines.
It had only been a split-second, but a voice from the backroom yelped into her headset at the same moment: “Audrey, you see that?”
She hesitated another split-second, and worried it was too long.
“Affirmative,” she answered tensely, and called up the director. “Flight, Booster; we had a temp and pressure spike on pump one but it’s within limits,” she reported in the coolest voice she could muster.
“Copy that, Booster,” she heard the measured voice reply, just as the numbers on her screen jumped again.
What? What the hell was that?
There it was. Chamber pressure jumped erratically, appearing then vanishing almost instantaneously. One blink and she’d have missed it, but it was definitely out of limits. There was precious little time to decide if some innocuous, unrelated system might be causing this. On an adjacent monitor, she quickly studied the turbine’s schematics. Maybe it was isolated, not really a pump about to fail? The answer was buried somewhere in that stream of numbers…
She looked at the mission clock, knowing what this could mean if it shut down too soon. Mission abort–the one call nobody wanted to make, yet the ultimate reason they were here. Audrey looked up at the big screen as a long-lens camera tracked Orion’s climb, then chided herself as if staring at it would help discern the trouble looming inside.
No no no…that has to be bad data, she thought, calling up the backroom as another spike rolled across her screen. “How’s your feed, guys–any buggy sensors?” Please, she hoped.
Their reply was not comforting: “Negative, Aud. Telemetry’s solid. Number one’s chamber pressure is all over the place.”
And just like that, it jumped again, now into redline and staying there.
That settled it. Her next call came as quickly as she could form the words: “Flight, Booster; shut down number one!” Audrey cried, unable to disguise the alarm in her voice as she fought the cold lump forming in her stomach.
“Your call, FIDO,” Flight barked. They were barely outside the zone where a dead engine would demand an immediate launch abort, automatically firing the escape tower and pulling the crew capsule safely away.
“We’re go on that shutdown,” the flight dynamics officer answered without missing a beat. “Keep going on the other two…stand by…another forty-eight seconds.” He gave Audrey a reassuring wink and slipped a hand over his microphone. “No sweat,” he whispered. “Won’t be their last glitch, not by a long shot.”
“Doesn’t make me feel any better,” she grumbled. “Spaz-tastic.”
* * *
Deep inside Orion’s first stage, fuel and oxidizer surged through the other pumps as the remaining engines thundered away. This wasn’t the first time they had run. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time they had flown, being recycled Shuttle equipment. But instead of pushing an orbiter skyward, bolted to the side of a fuel tank, they were now at the bottom of the stack and flanked by those big solid boosters.
And the boosters rang like tuning forks.
As their vibrations coursed through the giant rocket, they reached the turbine’s own resonant frequency. Sub-microscopic cracks inside the pumps began to grow. Undetected during preflight inspections, it had been the expansion of similar cracks which caused the first pump’s troubles. Had quality-control inspectors been able to check them after this flight, there would have been no mistake. The strain had simply gotten the better of them.
The rest happened within a fraction of a second. Audrey saw the new pressure spike and nearly leapt from her seat, grabbing the console to steady herself. Just as she began to call in this new problem, number three came apart.
* * *
The pilots could detect a change in the ship’s ride as the master alarm blared in their headsets. There was a new sensation – a high-frequency vibration they could barely feel. Dan reached for the abort handle and could have sworn he heard a whistling sound just before their world ended.
The pump’s tremendous power gave it equal destructive potential, as the energy contained within was suddenly unleashed. The turbine exploded like a bomb, destroying the engine and casting shrapnel across a wide arc.
The fragments shredded propellant lines as they sliced through everything in their path. Tons of fuel ignited on contact and disintegrated what was left of the engine module. That, in turn, punctured the tank, adding its remaining fuel and oxidizer to the fiery mix just as Orion’s escape tower fired. As it raced to pull them away, the detonation struck the crew capsule with such force that its outer hull shattered.
There was barely enough time for the crew to realize something had gone horrendously wrong. As the craft tumbled away, severe g-forces from the sudden change in momentum rendered them all unconscious just before they were consumed by the expanding fireball.
Dan Wyatt had a brief awareness of being free of the spacecraft as it disintegrated around them. He could sense their protective cocoon had fallen apart, wrenched open to the deep black sky and glimmering sea far below. Alone inside his pressure suit, he was for a fleeting moment aware of the enveloping conflagration. Just as the blackness became all-consuming, it gave way to a brilliant warm light.
* * *
The environmental controller felt a chill as his screen went blank. “Flight, EECOM has lost telemetry,” he announced quietly.
The room became deathly silent.
“Roger EECOM,” Flight responded with practiced calm as he turned to his assistant: “Close the doors.”
With that, the assistant motioned for security guards to close and lock the double doors, the traditional signal that something terrible had just happened. No one would be allowed in or out until they had secured every disc, flash drive, tape reel and notepad related to the mission.
At her console, Audrey fought back the urge to cry, fearing any display of weakness that her male competitors would surely be on the lookout for. She chastised herself for that passing selfishness, yet couldn’t know how unnecessary it was. In the back room, some of her support engineers wept openly. Their system had failed everyone. They had killed the crew and maybe the entire program along with them. Audrey bit down hard on her lip as she pushed back those same feelings. Calmly gathering her notes and securing her console, she tasted a salty trickle of blood.
She heard the astronaut serving as capsule communicator begin calling them in a maddeningly stoic voice. “Orion One, Houston. Orion, Houston; comm check,” he beckoned, to no avail.
In the back row, the man they answered to as “Flight” stared at the big screen which now showed a falling cloud of debris where their ship, their crew, had once been. He swallowed deeply, not uttering a word as CapCom’s futile calls echoed throughout the room.
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