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The Trouble with Telstar

4th November 2017
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Of course, I had to visualize what it would be like doing all this out in space. I’d be in a spacesuit, wearing thick gloves, and when I removed a screw that would have looked good in a Swiss watch, there’d be no work bench on which to place it while I took out the next one. Worse yet, I would have to put it back in.

The longer I worked with the parts, the harder it looked. There wouldn’t be a prayer of just turning the parts loose in space. In theory they’d follow along in orbit. In practice you can’t bring your hand to a halt and release a tiny part without imparting a small proper motion to it. And even worse, you couldn’t handle the little wretches when you tried to put them back in. With a solid floor to lie on, with gravity to give things a position orientation, I kept losing tiny screws. Magnets didn’t help, because the screws were nonmagnetic for what seemed pretty good reasons. Some were made of dural for lightness. Some were silicon bronze. None of them was steel.

That put us back in the lab to find out what would happen if we used steel screws. The answer was, surprisingly, nothing important. So there was one solid achievement. I had a few thousand of each of the thirty-four different sizes of fasteners machined from steel, and magnetized a fly-tier’s tweezers. The result was that I could get screws back into their holes without dropping them, especially when I put little pads of Alnico on the point of each tweezer to give me a really potent magnet. Then we had to cook up an offset screwdriver with a ratchet that would let me reach in about a yard and still run a number 0-80 machine screw up tight. That called for a kind of torque-limit clutch and other snivies.

It was the fanciest and most expensive screwdriver you ever saw. The handle was a good two feet long. The problem then became that of seeing what you were doing, and one of the boys faked up a kind of binocular jeweler’s loupe with long focus, so that I could lie back a yard from the screw and focus on it with about ten diameters magnification. The trouble was that the long focal length gave a field of vision about six times the diameter of the screw-head, which meant that every time my heart beat my head moved enough to throw the field of vision off the work.

By that time I was working in a simulated spacesuit—the actual number was still being made to fit an accurate plaster cast of my body. So the boys figured out a clamp that would hold my helmet firmly to the gate, and a chin rack inside the helmet against which I could press and hold my head steady enough to keep my binoculars focused where they had to be focused. At a certain point I went back to Paul Cleary and said I thought I could make the necessary tests, dismount what I had to dismount, and replace any affected part.

“All worked out, eh?” he said, reaching for his pipe.

“Not by a county mile, Mr. Cleary. But I know what the problems are, and the shop can figure out sensible answers. Some of the hardest parts turned out to be the easiest.”

“Name any three,” he suggested.

“Well, the screws. As I take them out, I’ll discard them into space. I have to use magnetic screws on reassembly, so there is no point saving what I take out. Doug Folley has doped out something like a motorman’s change-dispenser that will dispense one screw at a time into my tweezers, and I’ll carry a supply of all thirty-four kinds at my waist.”

“That’s one,” he counted on a hairy forefinger.

“We can use something like a double-faced pressure-sensitive tape to hold other parts,” I said. “We’ll draw a diagram on it, stick it to some unopened part of the satellite near where I’m working, and as I pull pieces out, I’ll just press them against the other sticky face, in the correct place in the diagram, and they’ll be there to pull loose when I want them.”

“At absolute zero?” he scoffed. “That sticky face will be hard as glass.”

“We’ll face the bird around to the sun,” I said. “And warm it up. If we have to, we’ll put wiring in the tape, connect it to Telstar’s battery supply, and keep it warm.”

“Might work,” he grumped. “That’s two. How about the spacesuit part?”

That had been tougher. Some forty or fifty men had made the ride into space and back from Cape Canaveral by this time, and there had been rendezvous in space in preparation for flights to the moon. But so far no one had done any free maneuvering in space in a suit.

They had put me in a swimming pool in a concentrated salt solution that gave me just zero buoyancy, and I had practiced a kind of skin-diving in a spacesuit. The problem was one of mobility, and the one thing we could not reproduce, of course, was frictionless motion. No matter how I moved, the viscosity of the solution quickly slowed me down. Out in space I’d have to learn on the first try how to get around where every force imparted a motion that would continue indefinitely until an equal and opposite force had been applied.

The force part had been worked out in theory long before. To my spacesuit they had fixed two tiny rockets. One aimed out from the small of my back, the other straight out from my belly. Two pressurized containers contained hydrazine and nitric acid, which could be released in tiny streams into peanut rocket chambers by a single valve-release. They were self-igniting, and spurted out a needle-fine jet of fire that imparted a few dynes of force as long as the valve was held open. It only had two positions—full open, or closed, so that navigation would consist of triggering the valve briefly open until a little push had been imparted, and drifting until you triggered the opposite rocket for braking.

The airtanks on my back were right off a scuba outfit.

Really, they spent more time on the gloves than anything else. At first we thought of the problem as a heat problem, but it was tougher than that. Heat loss was not much, out there in a vacuum, and they made arrangements to warm the handles of my tools so that I wouldn’t bleed heat through my gloves to them and thus freeze my fingers. No, the problem was to get a glove that stood up to a pressure difference of three or four pounds per square inch and could still be flexed with any accuracy by my fingers. We could make a glove that was pretty thin, but it stiffened out under pressure and made delicate work really tough. It was a lot like trying to do brain surgery in mittens.

They eventually gave me a porous glove that leaked air when you flexed your fingers. Air, they said, could always be gotten from the Dyna-Soar rocket that would be hanging close at hand in space. Well, we hoped it would work. I could do pretty fair work with the leaky gloves, and all we could hope was that the vapor would be dry enough as it seeped out through the gloves to prevent formation of a foggy cloud all around me, or the formation of frost on the gloves. That we could not test under any conditions easy to simulate.

Each team spent ninety days. They tell me that’s right quick work for pointing up a launch. But at the end of three months I had assembled enough stuff to do the job, and still well within the weight limit they had to set. I wasn’t a walking machine shop, but there was a lot I could do if I had to.

Ninety days had been enough for several dates with Sylvia. Out of the office she wasn’t quite the protective harpy about Paul Cleary that she had been in the office, although the thought was never far from her mind.

We spent my final night in New York before leaving for the Cape at Sweets, a real old fashioned seafood house down on Fulton street. After the obligatory oysters, we had broiled bluefish, and otherwise lived it up. They serve a good piece of apple pie, and we had that with our coffee.

“Are you scared?” Sylvia asked me.

“Of what?” I lied innocently.

“Of being out in space—just floating around?”

“Yes,” I told her honestly. “I’m scared to death. What if I have a queasy stomach? They say a good half of the men who have been in orbit have chucked up or gotten dizzy or something. What if they go to all this trouble and I get spacesick?”

“What if you drift away and can’t get back?” she said. “It isn’t like swimming back to shore.”

“There’s always a way,” I said, my stomach tightening as I thought of what she said.

That was the night she kissed me good night. It wasn’t much of a kiss, because we were standing in the lobby of her apartment house, and she wasn’t going to invite me up, because she never did. But she said: “Hurry back.”

“Just you know it, Shouff,” I said, bitter inside.

I’d have been a lot more bitter if I had known what was in store for me at the Cape. COMCORP flew me down in one of our private prop-jets, with only Paul Cleary for company. He introduced me to the brass, and we sat through a couple conferences while the idea was spelled out to a group of sure-enough spacemen. Then they turned that mob loose on me.

I was emotionally unprepared. First off, Cleary and Fred had been building me up all through the three months, and I had actually gotten to the point where I thought I knew what I was doing. These space-jockeys spent most of their time deflating my ego.

My tormentor-in-chief was a wise punk from Brooklyn named Sid Stein. “How have you made out in your centrifuge tests?” he asked me at breakfast the first morning after I had reached the Cape.

“I have never done any of that stuff, Mr. Stein,” I said.

“Well, how many gees can you pull?”

I shrugged. “Same as you, I suppose. How many is that?”

“Brother!”

The space medic wasn’t any better. The mission chief insisted that it wasn’t safe to put anybody in a satellite who couldn’t pass the physical. I guess you know that about one man in a thousand can qualify. This was supposed to wash me out.

“Remarkable shape.” The space medic kept saying. “You must take considerable exercise, doctor.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Just jog a mile or so before breakfast. Nothing spectacular.”

“No other formal activity?”

“Well,” I snarled, “just swimming, fencing and weight lifting. I’ve given up the boxing and handball.”

“Kept in excellent shape, nevertheless,” he said. “You’ll be a disappointment to them.”

“Look,” Stein said to me after a week of tests and countertests. “Don’t be deceived by these tests. All they show is that your heart is still beating. The big thing is emotional. Doc, I think you should reconsider this idea of flopping around out there in the void. We’ve got experienced men here, and none of them is ready to try it.”

“Fools rush in, eh, Mr. Stein.”

“Precisely.”

In the meantime I got a daily phone call from Paul Cleary. That I could have snarled off, but Sylvia always came on the line first, and there was a minute or so of chit-chat before she cut her boss in on the line. I’m sure she listened to all the calls. But her first words were deadly. For example:

“Mike! Hi, Mike. Mr. Cleary wants to see how you’re doing.”

“Good. Put him on.”

“In a minute. I think it’s so wonderful you passed the final physical, Mike. You’re really so deceptive. I never had imagined you had such a steely physique.”

“Clean living,” I said. “No girls.”

“There’d better not be!”

“Don’t worry. How could I get to see any girls down here? Every time I look away from my work all I can see is Bikini swim suits.”

“Cut that out!” she snickered, and put Cleary on the line.

There came a final day when the mission chief called me in to his office.

“Come in, Mike. Come in,” he said shortly. “Sit down.” He leaned back against his desk and started talking to me, like they say, straight from the shoulder:

“I’ll give it to you straight, Mike. We’ve tried every legal way to wash you out of this mission. There isn’t a one of us here at the Cape that wants any part of taking an armchair theorist and slapping him into space—into the kind of a mission you’ve cooked up. Somebody’s going to get hurt out there, because you aren’t fit for the job. Now, physically, yes, you have the capacity. But emotionally and environmentally, you simply don’t add up. You’re looking at this thing as an extension of your laboratory, and instead it is an enormous physical and mental hazard that you are undertaking. This country has never lost a man in space—and you’ll be the cause of our first casualty, as well as being one yourself. I’m asking you man to man to disqualify yourself.”

“And put an end to this mission?”

“We’ll train one of our men,” he said.

“In two or three years your best man might be barely capable,” I said. “I don’t think COMCORP is prepared to waste that much time. After all,” I said ingratiatingly, “all you have to do is refuse the mission. Say I’m a built-in hazard and let it go at that.” I grinned at him. I was learning from Paul Cleary. I figured how space-jockeys would react to that.

He told me: “Do you think any of these men would admit they are not up to a mission a mere technician is ready to try? No! I can’t get them to beg off, either!”

“When do we go?” I asked.

Sid Stein was assigned as my pilot. He had made the trip into orbit and back four times with the Dyna-Soar rocket, and was considered the best risk to get me there and get me back. He was also the least convinced I had any right to sit beside him in the cabin.

His final briefing was a beaut: “This is a spaceship, doctor,” he said frigidly. “And I want you to remember the ‘ship’ part of it. I’m in command, and my every word, my every belch, has got to be law. Do you understand that? This is my mission, and I’ll tell you where to put your feet.”

“Sure,” I said. “Who wants it?”

“Can’t figure out why you do!”

“I’m just paying somebody back,” I said. “Is it tomorrow?”

The start was a drag. Eighteen hours before blast-off Sid and I went into a tank so that we would get rid of our nitrogen. We breathed the standard helium-oxygen mix at normal pressure until about four hours before H-hour. They wouldn’t even let me smoke. Then we suited up and were lifted by a crane and stuck in the control room of Nelly Bly, as I had named our Dyna-Soar rocket-glider. The hatch stayed open, but we were buttoned up tight in our suits. They had a couple of mods that were supposed to fit them better for the mission. Instead of the usual metal helmet with face plate, we had full-vision bubble helmets of clear plastic. The necks were large enough so that we could, in theory, drag our arms out of our suits and clean the inside of the bubbles. That was in case I sicked up out in space, which all experience said was a real enough hazard. They figured that filling me full of motion sickness pills was partial prevention.

These space-jockeys have their own vocabulary, and their own oh, so cool way of playing it during the countdown. I’m pretty familiar with complex components, but they were checking off equipment I never heard of. We had gyros—hell, our gyros had gyros. And we had tanks, and pressures and temperatures and voltages and who-stuck-John. It was all very impressive.

There were suited men up on the gantry unplugging our air feed and closing our hatch. Sid was straining up from where he lay on his back to dog it down tight.

“Roger,” Sid was saying to somebody, as he had been all morning.

The white vapor from our umbilical stopped, which let me know our tanks had been topped off and sealed, and that we were about to blast off.

“This is it, Seaman,” Sid Stein said. “Now for Pete’s sake don’t move, don’t speak, just lie there. I’ve got the con.”

That was a bunch of baloney. He really had nothing to do until we were in orbit. The delicate accelerometers and inertial guidance components did all the piloting until the second stage kicked us loose. But I kept my mouth shut. He’d have some work to do before the ride was over, and I might need him.

When the lift-off came, it was gentle as a dove’s wing. But as we burned off fuel, the twenty-million pound thrust of our Apollo booster began to tell, and my vision started to go black. The gee-meter said we were pulling about ten gees when I could no longer read it, and I learned later we peaked out at eleven gees in the final seconds before first-stage burn-out. I didn’t like it a little bit.

The liquid hydrogen second stage kicked in like a hopped up mule, and we pulled ten gees, right at the limit of my vision, for its whole four minutes of burning. My earphones were talking now as Sid gave it the A-OK and Roger bit all the way. This was the stuff, kid!

Our Dyna-Soar had been modified to some degree for this mission. It’s essentially a big delta-winged glider with a squarish fuselage in the center. The mods had consisted of tying a third rocket stage out behind, so that Sid could move us around the orbit from one Telstar to the next if my work on the first one proved out. The retro-rockets had several times their normal complement of fuel, so that he could stop after he got started. The same was true of our steering jets.

The ship was not pressurized on the lift off. Cabin pressure fell rather quickly, as we could feel from the inflation of our suits, to their three and a half-pound pressure. No bends for either of us, because of the helium substitution for nitrogen. Because there were two of us, we could chuck and unchuck airtanks for each other as we needed fresh supplies. We had enough air and water for forty-eight hours. Together with our low-residue diet for the final week, they figured we could sweat it out in our suits for two days. We had suit radios, of course, and could talk with each other for a distance of a mile or so.

Burnout of the second stage came suddenly, and we heaved slightly against our belts as the springs in our seats pushed back out. And then I got my first taste of free fall. Each veteran astronaut I had talked to at the Cape had a different way of trying to scare me with the idea of falling endlessly, and each had different ideas about how to lick it. In spite of all the talk, I grabbed the arms of my seat to keep from falling. I turned my head and in the glow from our instruments could see Sid sneering across at me through his transparent bubble helmet.

“How you like them apples?” his voice came from my earphone.

“That first step is a killer, Sid,” I said, trying to sound chipper. I felt horrible.

“Let me know when you’ve had enough,” he suggested. “I’ve got things to do.”

I knew he did. We had dry-run it a hundred times. If we had been inserted correctly in orbit, the Nelly Bly was right in the path that three of the Telstars were now following, and catching up with Number One at several hundred miles an hour. On the ground, radars all around the world were taking fixes on us, and Sid was talking shop over his long-range radio with the radar crews.

By the time my stomach had made up its mind that it would stick with me, he had a report.

“It could be worse,” he said. “We’ve got a lot more velocity than I’d like, but we’re on course. Our orbit would differ quite some, Seaman. Because of this speed we’d be somewhat more eccentric—maybe swing out a hundred miles beyond the birds we’re chasing. Are you making it?”

“Easy, Sid. Do we slow down yet?”

“I’ll fire the retros and retard us to the speed of what we’re chasing,” he said. “That will equalize our orbits very nearly. Get busy on that scope if you’re up to it. I’ll compute my retro.”

They had made an amateur radar operator out of me, because it was easy to do, and gave Sid more time for actual rocket valving. My belt cut me hard as he braked for several seconds.

“There,” Sid’s voice said in my ear. “We should still be catching up about fifty miles an hour. Let’s not ram that thing. See any blip?”

“Not yet. How close are we supposed to be?”

He lit the cabin light and tapped at the calculator that he swung out from its rack. “Still got a hundred miles to go, I’d judge.” He moved awkwardly in his suit to finger a switch on his neck and I heard him speaking to the ground again, and heard in my earphones the answer that came up from Woomera. We had eighty miles to go, and were now a little below the orbit of the bird we were chasing.

“Can’t have both ends of the stick, Mike,” Sid explained, calling me by name for the first time. “As soon as we slowed down we had to drop lower.” He fooled around with the steering jets, which were hydrazine-nitric acid rockets much like the tiny motors on my suit, and re-oriented Nelly Bly. A little burst from the nose, and I got my first blip.

“There!” I said, putting a finger on the PPI. “Turn out the light, Sid, so I can see the ‘scope’.”

He switched off the cabin light and followed my directions with tiny shoves, sometimes from the rockets, sometimes from the steering jets, while I conned us closer.

Our radar would only read within about half a mile. When we got that close I got the searchlight going and took my first real look through the forward port out into space.

It’s black. Nothing—nothing you have ever seen will persuade you how dark it is out there. That was my first big shock. Oh, I had practiced in the dark, with only my helmet light to guide my tests and assemblies, but this was a different kind of dark. Our light had no visible beam—you couldn’t even tell it was working. At first I had the idea we’d see the satellite occulting some stars, but a little mental arithmetic told me that an object six or eight feet in section would not subtend much of an angle of vision at half a mile.

We had chosen, I decided, much too narrow a beam of light for the searchlight, but just at that moment I got a flash from out in space, and worked the light back on to our objective.

“Got it,” I said.

“Yoicks!” Sid said, and went back to the fine controls. After a long time, and lots of patience, we were hanging about fifty feet out from our bird. We were farther out in space so that the dark bulk of the satellite was silhouetted against the crescent light of Earth. I turned off the spot and switched on the floodlight.

“Here goes nothing, Sid,” I said, and undid the dogs that held the canopy above our heads.

My earphone spoke to me: “This is Cleary. Do you read me, Mike?”

I fumbled around to find the right jack and plugged myself into the radio. “Yes, Paul. Loud and clear.”

“Watch yourself. Think first. You’ve got all the time in the world.”

“Sure.”

“Sylvia would miss you,” he added.

I hoped he was right.

Clinging carefully to the handholds that had been specially provided on the outside of Nelly Bly, I clambered through the hatch and hung in the darkness, looking down at South America. The world was turning visibly under me, although I knew that in fact we were skimming rapidly about three thousand miles over its surface. I got myself lined up nice and straight with the bird and did my first bit of non-thinking. I pushed off good and proper with my feet, the way you’d dive into a swimming pool. It was a fool stunt for my first act. I was doing a good five or six feet a second. You may not think that is very fast, but before I could gulp twice I had zipped past that bird and was headed for Buenos Aires.

I know I screamed. That was the first time I realized I really was falling. Earth looked awfully close, and seemed to be rushing up to meet me.

My orientation was all wrong for stopping. By diving head first I had neither my back nor my belly rocket lined up to stop me.

My training failed completely. I tried to squirm straight, and by proper swinging of my arms out to full length, and kicking the same way with my feet, I got turned around to where my belly was facing the floodlight on Nelly Bly. That’s not how I was supposed to do it.

The glider had disappeared—all I could see was the floodlight. It was still by far the brightest thing in the sky, but if I drifted much longer, I would have to use radio direction-finding to get back. I triggered the motor on my back and felt its gentle push against my spine.

“Sid!” I called.

“Roger, Mike!”

“Light the tip lights. I’ve got to get a fix on my velocity. I went way past and I’m trying to get back.”

Two new stars winked into being, on either side of the floodlight. This had been some bright guy’s idea, and it was paying off. I kept watching the apparent distance between them shrink as I continued my trip toward Earth. Memory and a little calculating told me that my acceleration of three inches per second per second would take twenty seconds of blast to slow me to a stop. I counted them off, aloud: “Mississippi one, Mississippi two, Mississippi three,” as I had been taught to measure seconds. When I got to Mississippi twenty my visual measurement said I was about stationary with regard to Nelly Bly.

I used a little more blast and let a couple minutes go by while I drifted closer to the Telstar. I started squirming again, until I remembered to use the deflection plate they had given me to hold in my belly blast, and that got me lined up. But finally I was within touching distance of the bird, which was rotating with a certain slow majesty on its long axis.

The leisurely spin was there to make sure one side didn’t face the sun too long and heat up. My plan called for stopping the bird’s spin so that I could get reasonable solar heating of the part I was working on. The trouble was there was nothing to grab as the satellite turned. But we had worked on that part, too, and I went into my act of backing off the right distance, accelerating with my back rocket until I drifted close by the bird at its translational speed. I got one end of my sticky webbing stuck to it by pressure and decelerated so that the bird turned under me while I paid off the web. In a moment I had it girdled, and snapped the nifty sort of buckle they had made for me. Then drawing the webbing tight was no trouble, and I was spinning with the bird. My added weight slowed its spin down some.

Next came the trick of getting some special equipment loose from my right leg. This was a little rocket canister which had just enough poof, the slide-rule boys had said, to stop the rotation of the bird. I fastened the canister to the webbing, pushed softly with one finger to get me a few feet away, and drifted while waiting for the delayed fuse to fire the antispin rocket. It lanced out a flame for a few seconds, and sputtered dead. The bird hung virtually motionless beneath me—or above me—or beside me—or whatever you want to call it when there is no up or down.

Our light was dimming as we passed the terminator and pulled over Earth’s dark side. The sun was still visible, however, although soon to be eclipsed by Earth. I jetted softly back to the bird and lit my helmet light. I had to find the right face of the twelve-sided thing so that I could open the right gate. The markings were there. They were just hard to read from inside a helmet. Then the sun was eclipsed, and my headlamp gave me the kind of light I was used to working with. The sector I wanted was on the satellite’s dark side. I had to clamp on to the girdle and jet quite a while to turn it halfway round, and then decelerate just as long to bring it to a stop. I fooled around several minutes getting the sector to face where the sun would soon rise.

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