June 28, 2020 “Launch minus five minutes . . .”
The space shuttle Renaissance
faced the early-morning sky at Cape Canaveral. Its enormous fuel tanks and boosters dwarfed the vessel as it towered over the launch pad. The launch tower pulled away, leaving the shuttle and its booster rockets clear for flight. It was a beautiful morning, the last Colonel Shaun Christopher would see for more than six months. It would be winter the next time he set foot on Earth. Assuming all goes well,
Inside the cockpit, Shaun was strapped into his seat, staring up at the nose of the ship. A flight suit and helmet provided meager protection from the titanic forces about to be unleashed. The Atlantic Ocean could be glimpsed out the starboard window. A pair of old-fashioned military dog tags dangled above the lighted instrument panel in front of him. A good-luck charm, the tags had accompanied him into space before.
“Ready to go, Colonel?” the pilot sitting next to him said. Commander Shirin Ludden was among the first of a new breed of shuttle pilots. She seemed shockingly young to Shaun, who was in his early fifties.
“You tell me,” he answered. “I’m just a passenger on this flight.”
Despite their banter, the launch procedure continued on schedule. The sound-and-heat-suppression system fired up far below the cockpit, but Shaun could feel the vibration from all that water where he was sitting. He and Ludden closed the visors on their flight helmets. He took a deep breath of piped-in oxygen. The entire shuttle trembled as the launch engines gradually came online. Shaun felt a familiar excitement growing inside him.
had been intended to be the first in a new fleet of second-generation shuttles, but then the aerospace bubble had gone bust, cratering the economy again and creating entire districts of homeless people in many of the world’s cities. The latest round of budget cuts had left the Renaissance
as a one-of-a-kind prototype, kept alive primarily by private investors and international partners who couldn’t afford to build ships on their own. She was an impressive vessel, state-of-the-art. A shame she had to fly alone.
Still, at least she would get him where he was going. “Launch minus ten seconds . . .”
The engines ignited, and the shuttle strained to escape the eight-inch metal bolts holding it down. The spaceplane swayed violently before turning its nose back up toward the sky. Computerized systems went through their paces. Even though Ludden was nominally the pilot, the launch was out of her hands now. Rattling inside the cockpit, Shaun braced himself for what came next. A grin spread across his rugged face.
This never got old. “Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one . . .” Liftoff!
Explosive charges blew away the hold-down bolts. The Renaissance
blasted into the sky atop an inverted geyser of fire and smoke. Shaun was slammed back into his seat, then shaken back and forth like a rat in a dog’s jaws. The shuttle rocketed up from the Cape, leaving Mother Earth far behind. The booster rockets fell away, having done the heavy lifting. Shaun felt a twinge of relief; like most astronauts, he felt safer rid of those enormous Roman candles. The bumpy ride quickly leveled off as the bright blue sky before him gave way to the blackness of the upper atmosphere.
The g-forces pressing down on him felt like an elephant standing on his chest. Shaun gritted his teeth; this part did get old after the first few minutes. He craned his neck to try to read the gauges on the instrument panel. So far, everything looked okay, although the elephant seemed to have gained weight since the last time he took this ride. Or maybe that’s just me.
Just when he thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the elephant disappeared as though conjured away by a Las Vegas magician. One last jerk shook the ship as the empty fuel tank fell away. The pressure on Shaun abruptly went from three g’s to zero. His body lifted away from the seat cushions, held in place only by his safety straps. Glancing at the instrument panel, he saw the lucky dog tags floating weightlessly. We did it, Dad,
he thought. We’re in space. Again.
The tags had been worn by his father, Captain John Christopher, during his Air Force jet-pilot days. The senior Christopher had applied to the astronaut program back in the 1960s but hadn’t quite made the cut. Shaun had taken his dad’s tags up with him on every mission, so that even though the real John Christopher had only watched the liftoff from the bleachers eight miles away, he was also flying beside his son.
“So much for the fireworks,” Ludden said, sounding almost disappointed that the thrill-ride component of the launch was over. “Smooth sailing from now on.”
“Knock on wood,” Shaun said.
She used the shuttle’s smaller space engines to guide the Renaissance
into orbit approximately four hundred kilometers above Earth. Circling the planet at some twenty-nine thousand kilometers per hour, she rotated the shuttle so that its belly faced outward away from Earth. The engines cut off, and the cockpit was suddenly so quiet that Shaun could hear the fans and air filters whirring, along with his own breathing inside the helmet. The payload bay doors opened, exposing their cargo to the vacuum. This was standard procedure in space and essential to the next stage of their mission.
“Tell you the truth,” Ludden said, “I wish I was going all the way with you.”
“Now, Commander, you know NASA frowns on that kind of fraternization.”
She punched him in the shoulder. “You know what I mean. This is just a taxi ride to the airport. You’re making the real trip.”
“Maybe next time,” Shaun said to console her.
“Well, let’s make sure you don’t miss your flight.”
The shuttle’s launch was just the first leg of a much longer journey. Shaun waited impatiently, occupying himself with routine flight operations, while the shuttle caught up with his destination. Hours passed before Ludden nudged him.
“Heads up,” she said. “There’s your ride up ahead.”
Peering through the cockpit window, he glimpsed a bright reflective object cruising above them. At first, it was only a shiny lure in the distance, but as they closed on the other vessel, a truly awe-inspiring spacecraft came into view. More than forty-five meters long, the ship was many times larger than the Renaissance
and resembled several large tour buses linked together. Its modular components had been assembled in orbit over the course of the last five years. Shaun could count them off one by one: engine assembly, communications array, cargo bay, crew habitat, and command module. The impulse thrusters fanned out from the tail of the ship, while a docking ring was attached to the nose of the command module. Antennae, EVA rails, and signal dishes sprouted from the ship’s silvery titanium-polymer hull, although its delicate solar panels had been retracted in anticipation of breaking orbit. Additional insulation and padding protected the habitat. Lights shone in the windows. A NASA logo was emblazoned on the side of the cargo bay, along with the name of the vessel: U.S.S. Lewis & Clark.
Ludden whistled in appreciation. “Quite a ship.”
Shaun had to agree. Even though he had trained on simulators, had familiarized himself with the individual modules on Earth, and already knew pretty much every inch of the ship by heart, he took a moment to admire it in its natural environment. Savor the moment,
he thought. There had been times, during the economic roller coaster of the last few years, when he had wondered if the Lewis & Clark
would ever get finished at all.
But here it was, waiting for him.
to Lewis & Clark.
” Ludden hailed the other vessel. Like Shaun, she had shed her helmet and flight gear in favor of a comfy blue NASA jumpsuit. “Initiating docking procedure.”
Renaissance,” a husky female voice answered via ship-to-ship radio. “We’re ready on our end.”
The shuttle approached the larger spaceship from below. Onboard computers and laser-guidance systems steered the shuttle toward the docking ring. The Renaissance
’s own docking mechanism was located in the forward payload bay, just aft of the crew compartment, so the shuttle presented its open back to the nose of the other ship. Multiple redundant systems ensured that the shuttle remained exactly on track. Ludden eyeballed it through the window, while Shaun watched the docking ring grow larger on a small television monitor. Even with the guidance systems constantly checking the shuttle’s range, speed, and trajectory relative to the other ship, frequent small course corrections were required to stay on course. Ludden worked the brake and thruster control sticks like an expert, taking her time. By the time the ships were less than ten meters apart, the Renaissance
was approaching the other vessel at roughly one-tenth of a foot per second. Pale yellow vapor jetted from the forward thrusters with each momentary burn.
Ludden’s face was a portrait of concentration. “Almost there,” she muttered under her breath. “Just a few meters more . . .” Contact!
The ships came together with a gentle bump, less jolting than a 747 touching down on the tarmac. Automatic latches grabbed onto the shuttle and pulled the two spacecraft together, creating an air...