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The Trouble with Telstar

4th November 2017
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My earphone spoke.

“Mike!”

“Roger, Sid. What’s up.”

“Take it easy on your steering fuel. You’re getting low.”

“Roger.”

I had to wait for the sun before I could start work. When it came up, heating seemed quick. First a test with a thermocouple showed that Telstar’s surface was warming nicely and would soon support the pressure-sensitive mat I was going to stick to some of her solar generators. When the ‘couple said Telstar had reached zero centigrade, I pulled the mat loose from where it was stuck to my left leg and plastered it above the gate I was going to open. I say above, because it was closer to one pole—the “North” pole of the satellite—than the gate.

It was time to go to work on my first screw. And there I got my next lesson. It was a real big screw, as they go, a 4-40 flat head machine screw with a length of about three-quarters of an inch. I would have to give it thirty turns to back it out. I never gave it the first turn. The head snapped off as soon as I applied a few inch-pounds of torque.

Yes, the surface had heated up nicely, but the shank of the screw was about two hundred below zero centigrade, and far brittler than glass.

I cussed some and reported to Sid what had happened.

“Have to drill it out,” I said.

My drill was a cutie. It was a modified dentists’ drill, the kind that’s run by a little air turbine at about two hundred thousand r.p.m.’s. I really mean that. They turn like mad.

I’d been taught to use it with care. When a dentist drills your teeth, he blows olive oil and water through the turbine, and the mixture cools the tooth—and the drill—while the cutting is going on. We couldn’t afford any cloud of vapor—or the shorting out that ice would cause—so I had only the pressurized mixture of oxygen and helium in the tanks on my back to run the drill. And that meant light and intermittent pressures on the number 43 wire gauge drill—the one that’s the right size to drill out a 4-40. It took me about fifteen minutes and I was down to my last number 43 drill bit when she broke free.

From then on I had to heat each screw before I went to work on it. I had something like a soldering iron that I could press against the screw-head. Heat would flow through the highly conductive alloy and make it less brittle. I flicked each screw I removed out into space and at last carefully hinged the gate wide open.

The gate was the length of the sector—about two feet. It was four inches wide and about an inch thick and had parts strung along it like kernels on an ear of corn.

At this stage I readjusted the position of my webbing girdle until I could clamp my head in position and begin the testing. It was slow work. The first sad thing was to learn that the solenoid M1537 was as good as new. When I put enough voltage across its terminals, the actuator clicked down through the core.

I swore a blue streak.

“What is it Mike?” Sid’s voice came in my ear.

“Trouble,” I said. “What did we expect?”

“Roger,” he said in that toneless unexcited astronauts’ voice. “Return to ship, Mike.”

“Not now,” I said. “I’ve just got the oyster opened.”

His voice cut like my drill-bit. “I ordered you to return to ship. Your air supply is about shot.”

“I haven’t been out that long,” I protested, not feeling too sure about the lapse of time.

“Your drill chewed it up pretty fast. Quit talking and start moving.”

I was thankful for the experience of moving in close to the bird. The same tricks worked much more smoothly as I used my deflection plate in front of my belly blast to turn me to face the floodlight, and then followed up with a light shove or two in the spine to start me drifting toward Nelly Bly. There didn’t seem any rush, and I drifted slowly over, using only a couple triggered bursts of deceleration to slow me down as I approached the open hatch.

Inside we went through the drill. My ears popped a little as Sid unchucked my spent tanks, and popped again as the new ones came on with a hiss.

“Take it easy on that steering fuel, Mike,” he said again. “You’re getting awfully low.”

“Sure,” I said and let myself drift out the hatch. I had enough sense to twist so that my back jet wouldn’t hit the ship. Then I took a zig-zag course through the darkness to my bird, got oriented at the open gate and went back to work. Before I could get started, my earphones spoke.

“Mike, Cleary here.”

“Roger, Paul. What is it?”

“Have you gotten to that solenoid yet?”

“Yes.”

“What can you tell me?”

“That you’re a fathead. Now shut up. I’m busy.”

“Roger, Mike,” Paul Cleary acknowledged quite meekly.

So I started again, reaching with my leads from point to point. After a certain number of tests, I had the area isolated, but not the part. From here on it would have to be disassembly. Every tiny screw had to be heated, then teased out with a jeweler’s screwdriver. Some took my patented ratchet extension. The big miracle was that I didn’t break anything.

When I got to it, it was ridiculous. A small length of wire connected one component to another. Space was lacking, and the wire was tight against the metal of the gate. Its insulation was one of these space-age wonders, a form of clear plastic that would remain ductile under zero temperature and pressure. Only it didn’t. It had shrunk and cracked, and there was a simple short against the metal of the gate. There were so many forms of circuit-breakers and self-protectors in the machine that the whole gate had been switched off as long as the short was in existence. No wonder telemetry hadn’t told us anything.

As I prepared to fix the trouble, I switched on my radio and had Sid connect me with the ground. “Canaveral Control,” one of those emotionless voices said. He could afford to be. He was on the ground.

“Get me Cleary,” I ordered.

“Cleary here, Mike. What have you found, boy?” He sure was anxious about that solenoid.

“Not much, Paul. Just that Fred Stone is a fathead, too. Over and out, like they say.” I switched off and went back to my work.

The one thing I had nothing of was any kind of insulating material. With my screwdriver I hacked a piece loose from the double-faced sticky-tape I had used to keep loose parts from flying around, and teased it under the wire with my tweezers. Perhaps I could have done as well by heating the wire and bending it straight, but there was little room, and I was afraid of melting a solder joint. So I took my time teasing the tape through and finally got it to act as an insulator without breaking the wire. How long it would stay there was anybody’s guess. It was held mechanically as well as by its sticky action, but when the bird cooled off enough, the sticky effect would lessen. I hoped the pressure between the wire and the gate could be enough to keep it in place. Certainly no forces would be acting to move it.

Just as I had figured, the reassembly was the tedious part. I had to move around into about sixteen screwy positions to do all the fixing. Finally it was back in one piece and I swung the gate closed.

When the final 4-40’s were run up as tight as they were supposed to be run, I reported to Paul Cleary. “Try her,” I suggested. “I think I found the trouble. No point my coming back down if it doesn’t work.”

They made me sweat it out for about ten minutes before Paul said, “Runs like a watch, Mike. Put the spin back on her, boy.” At least he was quiet about his solenoid.

This called for the second rocket canister, which I hooked on to the girdle and, after thinking it out carefully, got headed in the right direction. I eased away with finger pressure, and let the delayed fuse do the firing. Telstar started her slow spin again.

Getting the girdle off was a lot harder than getting it on, something we hadn’t figured on, and in the final stages of the job I found that my steering motors no longer fired.

“Sid!”

“Roger, Mike.”

“How much fuel do you read in my steering jets?”

“You’ve been out of fuel for about five minutes, by my gauge. But don’t worry about it,” Sid said. “I’ll nurse Nelly over there with my steering jets and pick you up.”

“O.K.,” I said doubtfully. “But watch it. Bump this bird and we’ll have it all to do over again.”

Sid had more trouble than he had figured. He had steering jets to run him in every direction except fore and aft. For that motion the retro-rockets were considered enough. But one belch out of them was enough to get me screaming into the mike: “Cut those retros!” I yelled, the volume making my earphones crack, as it undoubtedly did his.

“Roger. What’s wrong?”

“You’ll burn the solar generators right off the bird, you fool! Steering jets, do you hear, steering jets!”

“Roger.”

But it was not that easy. Finally Sid got Nelly within about twenty feet, and pretty near at zero relative velocity.

“All right, Sid,” I said. “Hold it there. I’ll push over.”

A gentle shove against the side of Telstar was all it took. I got it straight, which was all that counted. My drift was slow, and I was a good five minutes making the twenty-foot crossing. But a handhold came within reach, and I worked my way back into the cabin and climbed in without shutting the hatch.

“Don’t try that again,” I cautioned him. “This thing weighs ten thousand pounds, and that bird half as much. Even at a couple feet a second, you can crush me to jelly between them, even if you don’t burn one or the other of us to a crisp.”

“Roger,” Sid said, not quite so emotionlessly. “Are we ready to move?”

“What for?” I asked him. “Until we get me some steering fuel, I’m useless.”

“I thought we’d abort this mission before we were through,” he sneered.

“Not so fast. You’ve got the same rig on your suit. All we have to do is put your fuel tanks on my suit.”

“Are you nuts?” he demanded.

“What’s the matter with it? Those tanks aren’t welded to you, and I’ve got tools.”

I could see him shake his head in the dim light from the instrument panel. “You know those fuels ignite on contact with each other,” he pointed out. “If we spill a couple drops of each in here, and they vaporize, we’ll blow this kite to pieces!”

“Then we’ll get outside to make the switch,” I insisted. “It won’t hurt anything if a few grams burn up out there, will it, with nothing to confine the expansion.”

“But then I won’t be able to come after you if anything goes wrong,” he pointed out. “No dice.”

“You’re grasping, Stein,” I growled. “At this stage I’m in charge around here. I’ll take my chances on getting back.”

With the cabin light on I went as far as possible in dismounting both our tanks. After a couple rehearsals to make sure that at least one of us would always have a glove on a handhold, we both climbed out the hatch and I made the switch. Just as Sid suspected, we spilled a few drops. They vaporized, and again as we had feared, combined in what would have been an explosion in a confined space. The soundless flash, dim but real, said we had released quite a little energy uniformly all around us. I never felt a thing except a faint warmth from infrared through my helmet.

Best of all, my jets worked. We both climbed back aboard Nelly, dogged the hatch, and started after Telstar Two.

The second bird was about fifteen thousand miles ahead of us. I slept most of the time, for after Sid gave us a jolt of added velocity, we had to settle down to about six hours of drifting. I woke up as the belt cut me when he fired the retros. We went through the radar and searchlight bit, and had the devil’s own time finding our bird. But at last I got the flash of reflection and went to work.

I won’t say the second job was any easier, except for the fact that I removed only one part to make room to do my bit with the insulation, and thus had very few screws to replace. My navigating in space was a lot better, and I didn’t use steering fuel as wastefully as the first time. Still, when we dogged down to chase after the final bird, the cabin gauge said that I had less than half my load of steering fuel left. Equally glum, Nelly herself was even lower on steering fuel. Neither Sid nor I had been as expert as we were supposed to be.

Nevertheless, we took off after the third bird, and found it glistening in bright sunlight without the help of the searchlight. I thought that was a good omen. But from there on nothing seemed to work right.

We had been aloft about thirty-six hours, and fatigue was setting in. I was clumsy on the steering and had quite a time making contact.

The repair went according to Hoyle, but after I had put the spin back on the bird I found that I had no more steering fuel. I hung about ten or fifteen feet from Telstar Three and maybe eighty feet from Nelly, drifting slowly from both.

“Sid!”

“Roger, Mike.”

“This one will have to make it with the girdle on.”

“Can’t you get it off?”

“I can’t get back to it. Steering fuel gone.”

“Oh, no!”

“No sweat, Sid. It occludes a small share of the solar generators, but not enough to hurt anything.”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said quietly into my ear. “Nelly’s out of steering fuel, too. I can’t pick you up!”

I gulped on that one.

“Canaveral Control!” I heard him call.

“Cut that out,” I said. “They can’t help. Shut up and let me think.”

But he didn’t, and I couldn’t. I had no fuel with which to move. Sid had only the retros and stern rockets, no good for swinging or turning. I was out of touching range of the bird, and couldn’t shove against it to build up a little drift. Just as Sylvia said, it’s not like swimming back to shore.

There was a lot of excited chatter in my earphones, in which I did not participate. Nobody made any sense, and Sid shut the thing down.

“Mike!”

“Yeah.” Disgusted.

“Whatever you dope out, make it quick. You don’t have all the air in the world.” Sid warned me.

“How much?”

“Ten minutes or so.”

“All right,” I said. “It ought to be enough. Keep your eye on me. You may have to reach out an arm or leg for me to grab as I go by.”

“How are you going to move?”

“I’ve got a lifesaver,” I said.

I writhed and squirmed and made every use of the law of conservation of angular momentum until I had my back to Nelly. Then I wound up and threw my fancy screwdriver as hard as I could heave it away from me. I didn’t get the zip on it I would have liked, but because it was sort of like a throwing stick, I got a little more on it than you might expect, maybe fifty or sixty feet a second. And the thing weighed about four pounds, with its fancy ratchet and torque clutch. Since in my suit I weighed just about a hundred times as much, I started toward Nelly at just one-one-hundredth of the velocity I had imparted to the screwdriver. In a couple minutes I was drifting pretty close, but tumbling. I had forgotten that part.

Throwing the screwdriver had given my body the correct vector and some velocity, but I had set up quite a tumbling moment, since I had thrown from the shoulder and not from my center of gravity.

I chucked a couple lighter tools away to correct my drift, and Sid snagged me as I drifted by the hatch.

“Come to Papa,” he said, and drew me inside. We didn’t horse around congratulating ourselves. My air tanks were no longer hissing, and we made a quick swap.

Sid let me dog down the hatch while he figured position. He used the iron compass method, just taking a close look at Earth, which was more or less dead ahead of us. That was a good place for it, because we had no steering fuel.

The re-entry was a mess, from Sid’s point of view. We came in at a weird angle and heated up to beat hell before there was enough atmosphere for our rudder to swing us around straight. He bounced us off twice after that as we slowed down, but the creak of heating metal was all about us each time we dropped in. He cussed me plenty all the way.

The trick, of course, was to slow down to the point where he could spiral us down to Muroc Dry Lake. Nelly was a sort of glider. Her performance at about Mach 10 and two hundred thousand feet was quite respectable, but the lower and slower we went, the more she flew like the proverbial kitchen sink. Sid only had one bright spot: Our big fuel supply gave him plenty of rocket and retro when he wanted it, and allowed him to get us back over Muroc.

I can’t say he made the landing look easy, because he didn’t. It looked like plain hell to me, for we scorched in at something over four hundred miles an hour.

When Nelly screeched to a stop, we just sat there. There was none of this romantic business about snapping open face plates and exchanging witty remarks. Bubble helmets don’t have face plates, and besides, I didn’t have anything I wanted to say to Sid. I was as tired of him as he was of me. I was just plain tired, if you want to know the truth.

They didn’t let us alone, of course. While the crash trucks were still kicking up a dust trail tearing out to get us, there were guys on the radio with those cool voices, and Sid was tiredly saying “Roger,” to all their questions. And we didn’t do any moving about. You’d be surprised how weighing four hundred pounds makes you willing to wait for the crane to lift you from your seat. All at once I almost wanted to be back in space again, where I didn’t weigh anything at all. Almost.

They flew us back to Canaveral for the de-briefing, both asleep. The whole mob was there to greet us, Paul Cleary, Fred Stone, and even Sylvia. They met us at the plane and Sylvia was the first to grab me as I came down the steps.

“Mike!” she squealed. “Are you all right?”

“Better now,” I said, kind of untangling from her. “How did you manage this?” I looked up. “Hi, Paul,” I said to his sleepy old grin, and knew how.

“Dinner tonight?” she insisted.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking over at Paul. “I think there’s a de-briefing or something before they turn me loose.”

“Don’t be silly,” Sylvia said. “It’s not as if you were an astronaut or something.”

I was back on the ground, all right.

Well, there was sort of a de-briefing. Cleary and Stone got me alone for a moment in somebody’s office.

“Well, Mike,” Paul said, “that was a great performance. What was the trouble up there?”

I laughed at both of them. “Go jump in the lake,” I said. “I’m out of the middle.”

“What do you mean, Mike?” Doc Stone asked, holding his young-man’s pipe at arm’s length.

“It wasn’t design—because the solenoid worked. And it wasn’t installation. It was materials.” I told them about the no-good insulation.

“Lucky it’s only used in a couple points,” Paul said, scowling. “I guess any other point where it broke up wasn’t as critical in dimension and no short resulted.”

“Not yet,” I grinned. “It may. And I couldn’t care less.”

“You’re a big winner, then, Mike,” Paul grinned. “Fred and I have kind of made up anyway, and you’re in solid with Sylvia.”

“Not with that noise,” I said. “No dame was worth that ride. Let Sid have her.”

 

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