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Authors: Stephen Baxter


BOOK: Voyage
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For my nephew William Baxter

This is Ares Launch Control, Jacqueline B. Kennedy Space Center

We have passed the six-minute mark in our countdown. Now at T minus five minutes, fifty-one seconds and counting

Ares waits ready for launch on Launch Complex 39A

We are on schedule at the present time for the planned lift-off at thirty-seven minutes past the hour

Spacecraft test conductor has now completed the status check of his personnel in the control room. All report that they are go for the mission and this has been reported to the test supervisor

The test supervisor is now going through some more status checks

Launch operations manager reports go for launch

Mission Control at Houston reports that all systems on the Ares orbital booster cluster are also nominal and ready to support the mission. The need to be in plane with the cluster, to enable the docking, is imposing a tight window on today’s launch

Launch director now gives the go. We are at T minus four minutes, fifty seconds and counting

At launch time, you may wish to look out for flights of pelicans, egrets and herons, from the marshy land here on Merritt Island. Forty years ago Merritt pretty much belonged to the birds, and they’re still here, although nowadays they’re disturbed every few months by a new launching

It has taken nine Saturn VB launches so far to put the Ares complex into orbit. Today’s will be the tenth. So nesting isn’t so good any more

T minus four minutes and counting. As a preparation for main engine ignition, the fuel valve heaters have been turned on. T minus three minutes fifty-four seconds and counting. The final fuel purge on the main engines has been started. That’s the vapor you can see there, billowing across the launch pad, away from the Saturn booster

The liquid oxygen replenish system has been turned off, so we can pressurize the tanks for the launch

The wind is below ten knots, and we have a thin cloud layer. That’s pretty nearly perfect launch weather, well within mission rules

It is typically hot, humid Florida weather here, on this historic day, Thursday March 21, 1985

T minus three minutes forty seconds and counting

I am told that there are an estimated one million here with us today, the largest turnout for a launch since Apollo 11. Welcome to all of you. You might like to know that among the celebrities watching the launch today in the VIP enclosure are Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Joe Muldoon and Michael Collins, cosmonaut Vladimir Viktorenko, along with Liza Minnelli, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, William Shatner, sci fi authors Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and singer John Denver. We’re sure you aren’t going to be disappointed

T minus three minutes twenty seconds and counting. Ares is now on internal power

Coming up on T minus three minutes

T minus three minutes and counting

The engine gimbal check is underway, to ensure that the engines are moving freely, ready for flight control

T minus two minutes fifty-two seconds. The liquid oxygen valves on both stages have been closed and pressurization of fuel and oxidizer tanks has begun

T minus two minutes twenty-five seconds and counting. The liquid oxygen tanks are now at flight pressure

Coming up on two minutes away from launch

T minus two minutes mark, and counting. Two minutes from launch

The liquid hydrogen vent valves have been closed and the hydrogen tanks’ flight pressurization is underway

T minus one minute fifty seconds and counting. No holds so far

Capcom John Young has just said, ‘Smooth ride, baby,’ to astronauts Phil Stone, Ralph Gershon and Natalie York. Mission Commander Stone has replied, ‘Thank you very much, we know it will be a good flight.’

T minus one minute thirty-five seconds and counting

T minus one minute ten seconds and counting. All liquid hydrogen tanks are at flight pressure

T minus one minute, mark, and counting

The firing system for the sound suppression water system will be armed just a couple of seconds from now

The firing system has now been armed

T minus forty-five seconds and counting

T minus forty seconds and counting. The development flight
instrumentation recorders are on. We are still go with Ares

Astronaut Stone reports: ‘It feels good.’

T minus thirty seconds

We are just a few seconds away from switching on the redundant sequence. This is the automatic system for engine cut-off

T minus twenty-seven seconds and counting

We have gone for redundant sequence start

T minus twenty seconds and counting. Sound suppression system fired. Solid Rocket Boosters armed

T minus fifteen, fourteen, thirteen

T minus ten, nine, eight

Main engine start

Book 1




Thursday, February 13, 1969


The Vice President

The Secretary of Defense

The Acting Administrator; National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Science Adviser

It is necessary for me to have in the near future a definitive recommendation on the direction which the US space program should take in the post-Apollo period. I, therefore, ask the Secretary of Defense, the Acting Administrator of NASA, and the Science Adviser each to develop proposed plans and to meet together as a Space Task Group, with the Vice President in the chair, to prepare for me a coordinated program and budget proposal. In developing your proposed plans, you may wish to seek advice from the scientific, engineering and industrial communities, from the Congress and the public.

I would like to receive the coordinated proposal by September 1, 1969.

Richard M. Nixon

Handwritten addendum: Spiro, do we have to go to Mars? What options have we got? RMN.

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1969 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1969)

Mission Elapsed Time [Day/Hr:Min:Sec] Minus 000/00:00:08

In their orange pressure suits, York, Gershon and Stone were jammed together so close they were rubbing elbows. They were enclosed from daylight; small fluorescent floods lit up the Command Module’s cramped cabin.

There was a powerful thump. York, startled, glanced at her crewmates.

‘Fuel pumps,’ Stone said.

Now York heard a dull rumbling – like faraway thunder – a shudder that transmitted itself through the padded couch to her body.

Hundreds of feet below York, liquid oxygen and hydrogen were rushing together, mingling in the big first stage engines’ combustion chambers.

She could feel her heartbeat rising, clattering within her chest.
Take it easy, damn it

A small metal model of a cosmonaut, squat and Asiatic, dangled from a chain fixed above her head. This was Boris, the gift from Vlad Viktorenko. The toy swung back and forth, its grotesque features leering at her out of a sketch of a helmet.
Good luck, Bah-reess

The noise began, cacophonous, a steady roar. It was like being inside the mouth of some huge, bellowing giant.

Phil Stone shouted, ‘All five at nominal. Stand by for the stretch.’

The five liquid rocket engines of the Saturn VB booster’s first stage, the MS-IC, had ignited a full eight seconds ahead of the enhanced Saturn’s four Solid Rocket Boosters. And now came the ‘stretch,’ as the stack reached up under the pressure of that immense thrust. She could
the ship pushing upwards, hear the groan of strained metal as the joints of the segmented solid boosters flexed.

It was all supposed to happen this way. But still …
Jesus. What a design

Stone said, ‘Three, two. SRB ignition.’

Now they were committed. The solid boosters were big firecrackers; once the SRBs were ignited, nothing could stop them until they burned out.

‘Clock is running –’


There was a jolt: mild, easy. The explosive pins holding down the boosters had snapped.

Nothing as heavy as a Saturn VB was going to leap into the air.

The cabin started to shake, the couch restraints and fittings rattling.

‘Climbout,’ Stone said evenly. ‘Here we go.’

Ralph Gershon whooped. ‘Rager! Going full bore!’

Liftoff. Good God. I’m off the ground

She felt excitement surge in her; the grainy reality of the motion pressed in on her. ‘
’ she shouted.
Let’s go!
– the spontaneous cry of an excited Yuri Gagarin.

The lurching continued.

York was thrown against her harness, to the right; and then to the left, so that she jammed up against Gershon.

The Saturn VB was inching its way upwards past the launch tower, almost skittishly, its automated controls swiveling its five first stage engines to correct for wind shear. Right, left, forward, back, in a series of spasmodic jerks hard enough to bruise her.

No simulation had even hinted at this violence. It was like riding out of an explosion.

‘Access arm,’ Stone called. ‘Clear of the tower.’

John Young, Houston capcom for the launch, came on line.

‘Ares, Houston. Copy. You are clear of the tower.’

York felt a lurch forwards. The whole stack had pitched over; she was sitting up in her couch now, the huge rattling thrust of the first stage pushing at her back.

‘Houston, we have a good roll program,’ Stone said.

‘Roger the roll.’

The Saturn was arcing over the Florida coast, toward the Atlantic.

Down there on the beaches, she knew, children had written huge good luck messages into the Florida sand. GODSPEED ARES. York looked up and to her right, toward the tiny square window there. But there was nothing to see. They were cocooned; the boost protective cover, a solid cone, lay over the Command Module.

The Command Module’s interior was the size of a small car. It was small, dingy, mechanical, metallic. Very 1960s, York thought. The walls, painted gray and yellow, were studded with gauges, dials, control switches and circuit breakers. There were scraps of notes, from the crew to themselves, and emergency checklists, and hundreds of tiny round-cornered squares of blue Velcro stuck to the walls.

The three crew couches were just metal frames with canvas supports. York lay on her back, in the Command Module’s right hand seat. Stone, as commander, was in the left hand seat; Ralph Gershon
was in the center couch. The main hatch, behind Gershon’s head, had big chunky levers on its inside, like a submarine’s hatch.

‘Ares, Houston. You’re right smack dab on the trajectory.’

‘Roger, John,’ Stone said. ‘This baby is really going.’

‘Roger that.’

‘Go, you mother,’ Gershon shouted. ‘Shit hot!’ York could hear his voice shaking with the oscillation.

‘Ten thousand and Mach point five,’ Young said.

Mach point five. Less than thirty seconds into the mission, and I’m already hitting half the speed of sound

John Young didn’t sound scared, or nervous. Just another day at the office, for him.

John had ridden around the Moon in Apollo 10, back in 1969; and if the later Apollos hadn’t been canned, he probably would have commanded a mission to the lunar surface.

In fact, if he hadn’t been so critical of NASA following Apollo-N, Young might have been sitting in here himself.

The vibration worsened. Her head rattled in her helmet, like a seed in a gourd. The whole cabin was shaking, and she couldn’t focus on the oscillating banks of instruments in front of her.

‘Mach point nine,’ Stone said. ‘Forty seconds. Mach one. Going through nineteen thousand.’

‘Ares, you are go at forty.’

Abruptly the ride smoothed out; it was like passing onto a smoother road surface. Even the engine noise was gone; they were moving so fast they were leaving their own sound behind.

‘Ares, you’re looking good.’

‘Rog,’ Stone said. ‘Okay, we’re throttling down.’

The engines cut down to ease the stack through max-q, the point when air density and the boosters’ velocity combined to exert maximum stress on the airframe.

‘You are go at throttle up.’

‘Roger. Go at throttle up.’

The pressure on York’s chest seemed to be growing; it was becoming more difficult to breathe, as her lungs labored against the thrust of the stack.

Stone said, Thirty-five thousand feet. Going through one point nine Mach. SRB combustion chamber pressure down to fifty pounds per square inch.’

‘Copy,’ John Young said from the ground. ‘You are go for SRB separation.’


She heard a faint, muffled bang; the cabin shuddered, rattling her against her restraints. Separation squibs had fired, pushing the exhausted solid boosters away from the main stack. She felt a dip in the thrust; but then the acceleration of the MS-IC’s central liquid boosters picked up again, and she was pressed back into her seat.

‘Roger on the sep,’ Young said.

‘Smooth as glass, John.’

The solid boosters would be falling away like matchsticks, dribbling smoke and flames. The strap-on solid boosters were the most visible enhancement of the VB over the core Saturn V design; with their help the VB was capable of carrying twice the payload of the V to Earth orbit.

‘Five thousand one hundred feet per second,’ Stone said. ‘Thirty-three miles down range.’

She glanced at the G-meter. Three times the force of gravity. It wasn’t comfortable, but she had endured a lot worse in the centrifuge.

Cool air played inside her helmet, bringing with it the smell of metal and plastic.

With the SRBs gone, the ride was a lot easier. Liquid motors were fundamentally smoother burners than solids. She could hear the mounting, steady roar of the MS-IC’s engines, the continuing purring of the Command Module’s equipment.

Everything was smooth, ticking, regular. Right now, inside the cosy little cabin, it was like being inside a huge sewing machine. Whir, purr. Save for the press of the acceleration it was unreal: as if this was, after all, just another sim.

‘Three minutes,’ Stone said. ‘Altitude forty-three miles, downrange seventy miles.’

‘Coming up on staging,’ Gershon said. ‘Stand by for the train wreck.’

Right on schedule the first stage engines shut down.

The acceleration vanished.

It was as if they were sitting in a catapult. She was thrown forward, toward the instrument panel, and slammed up against her restraints. The canvas straps hauled her back into her seat, and then she was shoved forward again.

The first stage engines had compressed the whole stack like an accordion; when the engines cut, the accordion just stretched out and rebounded. It was incredibly violent.

Just like a train wreck, in fact.
Another thing they didn’t tell me about in the sims

She heard the clatter of explosive bolts, blowing away the dying MS-IC. And now there were more bangs, thumps in her back transmitted through her couch: small ullage rockets, firing to settle the liquid oxygen and hydrogen in the huge second stage tanks.

Vibration returned as the second stage engines ignited, and she was shoved back into her seat.

There was a loud bang over her head, startling her, as if someone was hammering on the skin of the Command Module. Flame and smoke flared beyond her window.

‘Tower,’ Stone reported.

‘Roger, tower.’

The emergency escape rocket had blown itself away, taking the conical cap over the Command Module with it. Daylight, startlingly brilliant, streamed into the cabin, lapping over their orange pressure suits, dimming the instruments.

York peered through her window. There was a darkening blue sky above, a vivid bright segment of clouds and wrinkled ocean below.

Stone said dryly, ‘Ah, Houston, we advise the visual is go today.’

There was a lot of debris coming past York’s exposed window now, from the jettisoned escape tower and the MS-IC. It looked like confetti, floating away from the vehicle, turning and sparkling in the sun.

Young said: ‘Press for engine cutoff.’

‘Rog,’ Stone said. ‘Press to ECO.’

Whatever else happened now, Ares was to continue on, up to cutoff of the MS-II’s main engines. On to orbit.

‘Ares, you are go at five plus thirty, with ECO eight plus thirty-four.’

Ares had reached Mach 15, at an altitude of eighty miles. And still the engines burned; still they climbed upwards. Earth’s gravity well was

‘Eight minutes. Ares, Houston, you are go at eight.’

‘Looking good,’ Stone said.

The residual engine noise and vibration died, suddenly. The recoil was powerful. York was thrown forward again, and bounced back in her canvas restraints.

‘ECO!’ Stone called.

Engine cutoff; the MS-II stage was spent.

… And this time, the weight didn’t come back. It was like taking a fast car over a bump in the road, and never coming back down again.

‘Standing by for MS-II sep.’

There was another muffled bang, a soft jolt.

John Young said, ‘Roger, we confirm the sep, Ares.’

‘Uh, we are one zero one point four by one zero three point six.’

‘Roger, we copy, one zero one point four by one zero three point six …’

The parameters of an almost perfect circular orbit about the Earth, a hundred miles high.

Phil Stone’s voice was as level as Young’s.
Just another day at the office
. But now, the stack he commanded was moving at five miles per second.

York gazed at the glistening curvature of Earth, the crumpled skin of ocean, the clouds layered on like whipped cream.

I’m in orbit. My God
. She felt a huge relief that she was still alive, that she had survived that immense expenditure of energy.

Above her head, the little cosmonaut was floating, his chain slack and coiling up.

BOOK: Voyage
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