Day 33, 5am, Takeoff
In the background was the low rumble of the jets and the faint vibration as our shuttle left the landing area and climbed for altitude. Janie, sitting in the right-hand seat, was entering control sequences and initializing them one by one as set up and ordered on her timeline checksheet. I watched the progress on the real time side and double checked each entry and then Janie made and validated the go command.
We had worked out the flight plan together and run through it several times as an internal simulation using the former lifeboats comp as the host. The experienced wasn’t quite as true to life as the simulators we had used on the Mayflower, having no visual or auditory inputs, but still excellent practice. My side of the control system was now in command mode and Janie’s side set for entry and verification. In effect what we were doing was pre-running the canned routine 15 seconds before the real system ran the exact same inputs. As each validation segment completed it was compared to the pre-programmed inputs and the double green check lights winked in agreement.
What would we have done if we didn’t get a double green? In this case we would have trusted the comps and their triple redundancy but kept a very close track of the next sequence and be ready to terminate if necessary.
The weather looked like it was going to get nasty later in the day. That’s why we decided on such an early start. This was an easy ascent with plenty of time between control inputs so we had plenty of time to spend looking out the front view screen. Nothing much for us to see in that direction but up, though we could select the screen view from any direction. Mike Reye and Laura Seaworth, sitting in back, watched out the side view ports as everything below became toy-like in the distance and the sky changed to ever deepening shades of blue, and then to black, as we rose above the last vestiges of the atmosphere.
“Ok Janie, we’re high enough, do you want to take over and from the autopilot and do a manual burn to put us into our orbital path?” I asked when the radar altimeter had us up at 60 miles.
“It’s what I’ve been waiting for,” she replied taking over the controls and punching in numbers copied from her flight notes into the loading queue for our pre-programmed orbit. It would have gone in automatically but this was the last chance for a preplanned abort and so a good place to do manual entry. I verified her numbers as they were entered and said, “Looks good. Watch the time tick… and enter.”
We were pressed back into our seats as the thrust vector switched from near vertical to more horizontal but we were still gaining altitude as the burn approached completion. I watched Janie as she watched the readouts and it wasn’t long till we had gained another 20 miles and were almost set for the polar orbit we had decided upon. The path display and everything else was in the green. I sent a brief message to those below announcing the fact.
The shuttle, which we had named the Dora, was only about half the size of the pre-nuclear drive Space Shuttles used by the old United States space agency. But it had twice the payload and twenty times the delta V and of course no solid fuel boosters. If we stripped payload for fuel storage she would have had a hundred times the total velocity potential. There was enough life support to keep a crew of 4 in space for at least 2 months or carry 8 for shorter durations . We had planed for just two days in orbit before we set her down the first time.
The shuttle was heading towards an hour and a half orbit taking us over both of the poles. This would let us scan in greater detail the polar regions that the Mayflower’s observation sats hadn’t been able to map with any degree of accuracy. Our plan was to spend the next 30 hours or 20 orbits completing our world map and then choose the initial landing site. We were firm in one thing though. The first touchdown would be no further than 500 miles from Liberty City. The weather was bad right now to the north of Liberty city with spring thunderstorms and much lightning. But the forecast showed that by the time of our scheduled touchdown the front should have blown far to the east. If anything went awry we would be close enough for easy pickup by one of the other fliers. Our preparation had been so compete that the chance of anything going wrong was miniscule at best. About another minute left on the initial burn and we would be in our comfortable orbit.
Janie looked at me and I nodded thinking, weightlessness would be fine with me and Janie but a couple of minutes after orbit one of us would need to made a quick check of our two young passengers and see how they were handling it. I made a mental note to keep watching them for at least the first several orbits because in those 20 percent of cases where ‘0’ gee intolerance does show up the symptoms are often delayed.
Fifteen seconds till shutdown. Janie’s hand hovered over the manual cut off; ready just in case, and then.
Alarms lit up the board! A muted thump followed by a crashing explosion and we were tumbling wildly! There was a tornado sweeping through the cabin as we lost pressure and our air swept out a rent in the aft bulkhead. I had time to hear the start of a scream from in back as I yelled, hoping my voice would carry, “Seal the suits. Now!…” and to Janie “I have the Control!” and slapped my visor down. As I wrestled with the controls, it wasn’t physical but sure felt that way, I found half of the thrusters were off line. I caught sight of, as we tumbled, the diamond bright glint of light refracted by the Hydrogen spewing out behind faster than it could vaporize. Thank god we were high enough above the atmosphere that there was not enough oxygen to react and cause another explosion.
Janie was shutting down every system, but that of the emergency thrusters, that showed red on her panel. And that was almost all of them. The main engine controls showed no signals at all as even the sensors were dead. I almost had the tumble out but we were still doing a lazy spin when the cabin lights cut off and we lost all power. Reflexively I hit the breakers and kicked in the backup.
The lights flickered then steadied and the controls, or what was left of them, lit up also. But much dimmer then before. Janie spoke into her suit mike, “You ok in back?” There was no reply. I motioned for her to go back and check. I had tried to talk to her over the suits com system but she hadn’t heard a word. I could hear her, but nothing else seemed to be going in or out of the network. By the time Janie got back and gave me a thumbs up I had the spin off and my pulse rate had started to come back down again.
Captains Travis and Monroe had both said “If you can survive the first minute of a disaster in space you’re probably home free. Just take your time and don’t make things worse. If you can’t fix it yourself someone will be along to help.” That might have been true for space but we hadn’t quite reached there yet. Fifteen seconds short, it might just as well been a lifetime. I could already sense and almost hear a high pitched keening whine, vibrating through the ships structure and into our suits as we started to reenter. From a pocket in my suit I pulled out a section of wire with jacks on either end and plugged one into my suit and the other into Janie’s and we could talk again.
Altitude 80 miles. “Is it as bad as I think it is,” were the first words she said.
“I don’t know Babe, but I sure hope it’s not as bad as I think it is. I used up almost all of the thruster fuel just getting us stabilized. The shuttle’s a naturally orienting lifting body so if none of the ablative coating came loose and nothing else breaks off we can make it down in one piece, but I sure don’t know about our landing.”
“What about the aerodynamic controls?”
“They’re shut down now and we can only hope they function when we get low enough to where we can try and use them. If this doesn’t work Janie…” and then I couldn’t say anything more. Looking at her I saw dark eyes tear up through her visor and felt the pressure of her suited hand in mine as we continued the fiery descent.
Altitude 60 miles. The body of the shuttle should have been level across the wings and slightly nose up but it was all too easy to tell we were canted about five degrees to starboard, and that was a dead giveaway that structural damage was affecting our aerodynamics. We were coming out of the zone of highest heating. I had used up the last of the thruster fuel in order to keep us only five degrees from level.
Altitude 50 miles. Speed 5500 MPH. Our tilt was at 9 degrees. I tried the ailerons. They seemed to move but no change in attitude. Too early, not enough bite.
Altitude 35 miles. Speed 3200 MPH. Tilt at 14 degrees. We were dangerously fast for atmospheric control but there were no choices left. If this didn’t work we would roll over and over till we broke up. She seemed to grab as I pulled the stick back and left.
Altitude 20 miles. Speed 1650 MPH. Tilt holding at 14 degrees and I started the nose down. We could see a blanket of storm clouds and flashes of lightning below.
Altitude 50,000 feet. Speed 600 MPH. I cranked in some left rudder and some down on the port flap. We leveled off and were headed in straight. There was a loud cracking noise in the back and then a sudden jump and the overall volume seemed to double, something else must have torn loose. I tried to start the air burners. Nothing, probably no hydrogen left anyway.
“So far so good.“ I said for Janie’s benefit. “Now all we gotta do is pray she stays together long enough for us to find a big, flat, soft spot to land in,” I said with a hint of, “We just might, maybe, make it through this after all,” in my voice.
Altitude 25,000 feet. Still level and speed down to 325 MPH. We were flying blind in the cloud layer. Nothing but a dull grey mist, no rain yet but flashes of lightning on every side.
Janie had cycled through the shuttles systems again and had repeatedly tried the communications gear. No go. She said in a tone of voice much calmer than I think I would have managed, “Except for emergency systems we’ve got most of the flight controls Bart but that’s about it. And only enough backup power for another six or seven minutes until we lose everything.”
Flipping my visor back up, I said, “And the good news is… We’ll be down one way or another long before we run out of power, this thing glides like a brick refrigerator. Check on Laura, and Mike, make sure there belted in. Tell them the landing might be a bit rough but that everything’s under control. Oh and make sure the Jeep and EmyCee are tied down too.”
“On my way,” she replied, unplugging the voice cable. She was back seconds later and strapping herself in. “They’re fine, a little shook up but otherwise ok.”
By now we were in the heaviest part of the rain showers. Outside the clouds had turned from grey to almost black and the lightning kept flashing and hail began pelting the windscreen in a staccato tattoo. The thunder was loud enough to hear through all of the noise we were making as we whistled towards the ground around. Even with the noise coming from the tail we heard the nearer strikes. Then even more rain and the Dora’s windscreen was completely obscured by the torrent.
Altitude 8,000 feet. Speed 200 MPH. We briefly broke out of the cloud layer and with the rain easing up could just make out the ground, now some 5000 feet below then back into cloud again. At 4600 feet we came clean once more and saw a washboard pattern of forest covered ridges with snow on the higher elevations, and one small river fed lake ahead and to our right. Not a clearing in sight.
“I guess it’s time to see if she floats,” I said, making the only decision I could. The lake, really just a wide spot in the river, was almost too close for touch down, but with the nose up and bleeding speed for all I was worth I managed somehow to splash in a couple of hundred feet from where it narrowed back down to the river mouth. Then I saw the rocks. Then nothing.
Someone was swinging a lead filled cricket bat, striking me on the left side of my face, just above the cheekbone, again, and again, and again. As each new blow fell, and the pain ripped through, I could somehow tell the timing was exactly the same as the pounding of my pulse and beating of my heart. I tried to raise up–and mercifully– faded into black.
I don’t know how long I was out before I came to the next time. The pain must have receded a bit because I got my eyes almost opened and turned my head at least an inch or so before the waves washed back in and I passed out once more. The third time I awoke though I felt all warm and fuzzy, as if swaddled in a pile of blankets that was just too high and all encompassing to struggle against. Something was pressing on my shoulder, rocking me ever so slowly. I opened my eyes. Or at least one of them.
Janie? No that couldn’t be Janie, Janie had a face, with eyes, a nose and a smile, she wasn’t some kind of a faceless blur like blob. I slid away another time.
I would swear that it was on my fourth try I finally stayed conscious, but Janie says there were at least three more times that I don’t remember. Well… she was there and I wasn’t.