The Bridge to Space
by Mike Combs
To my precious wife Sandra. Thanks for the encouragement.
Table of Contents
Prologue - 1981: A hopeful view of the future
Chapter 1 - Evacuation
Chapter 2 - A general disatisfaction
with the current state of affairs
Chapter 3 - Selling the crazy idea
Chapter 4 - Potshots
Chapter 5 - The christening
Chapter 6 - Try not to slouch in front of the
Chapter 7 - Building the mammoth
Chapter 8 - Launcher Control
Chapter 9 - Spiderman
Chapter 10 - A plea for 10 G's
Chapter 11 - Man-rating: First attempt
Chapter 12 - Highway encounter
Chapter 13 - Caught in the act
Chapter 14 - Highdive
Chapter 15 - Man-rating: Second
Chapter 16 - A bullet with their
names on it
Chapter 17 - Wouldn't you like to die
in your beautiful balloon?
Chapter 18 - Plummet
Chapter 19 - Third try's a charm?
Epilogue - 2031: A hopeful present
1981: A hopeful view of the future
Bruce Franklin was an extremely
bright, brown-haired seventeen year old who had just been seized by an optimistic
vision of tomorrow. He had finished reading Gerard O'Neill's "The High Frontier"
and now his young mind was ablaze with visions of giant space habitats housing
thousands of humans, solar power satellites beaming cheap, clean, plentiful,
eternal energy to the Earth, and mines on the Moon and the asteroids, relieving
the Earth of humanity's voracious need for resources.
Bruce, like the author,
had been getting bugged lately by all the persistent talk about "limits to
growth", and how over-population would inevitably result in shortages of
energy and material resources. A teenager living in the '80's does
not want to hear about how the standard of living is doomed to sink lower
and lower beginning in the next century. The proposals in the book not only
seemed to provide an alternative to this miserable future, but also fitted
in neatly with Bruce's own personal philosophy that to every problem there
lies a solution, and that it was no heresy at all to look for that solution
in the world of technology.
He was particularly fascinated
by a piece of technology called a mass-driver which the book described. It
was a kind of stretched out electric motor, a linear electric catapult. The
book had outlined two uses for this device. One was as a reaction engine
which could literally use anything for fuel (it was even proposed
that ground-up pieces of Space Shuttle external tanks could be used). The
other was as a catapult to launch ore off of the moon. Since the moon had
no atmosphere and low gravity, it was suggested that ore mined from the moon
be simply launched from the surface into space through the mass-driver instead
of burning up rocket fuel to lift it.
Bruce was intrigued by the
design. The ore was loaded into a "bucket" which was ringed with super-conducting
magnetic coils. The mass-driver itself consisted of a series of electromagnetic
coils. Electric-eye devices sensed the position of the bucket and controlled
the pulsing of current through each driver coil so as to continuously accelerate
the bucket down the mass-driver. Accelerations of well over 1000 gravities
were possible. Toward the end of the mass-driver, the coils begin to decelerate
the bucket, allowing the ore to fly out. The bucket re-circulates back to
the beginning of the mass-driver and the process begins again.
Bruce was not only very
bright, but inventive as well. He was always taking things apart, tinkering,
and building things from construction kits. He was invariably referred to
as a "gifted student", and his future career direction toward some kind of
engineering profession was already well established. It occurred to him to
actually attempt building some sort of model illustrating the principle of
Mass-driver Model Mark 1
consisted of a glass tube with small coils of wire wrapped around it at regular
intervals. The wires led off to a nine-volt battery and a disk with short
lengths of bare wire exposed around the circumference, like the numbers on
a clock face. By running another wire around the edge of the disk, he could
sequentially energize each coil. A penny nail placed in one end of the glass
tube could be accelerated down its length, flying out the far end. He learned
how to most efficiently sweep the wire around the contacts with an accelerating
movement until he could make nails hit the wall with a most impressive whack.
Sometimes they would even stick. His father teased him that he had invented
the world's most complicated hammer.
Mass-driver Model Mark 2
was a much larger, sturdier affair built in the backyard. The framework was
made out of three old plumbing pipes Bruce had scrounged from behind the
tool shed. He wound each electromagnetic coil by hand from varnished wire
unwound from almost a dozen transformers. There was no way he could recreate
the electric-eye bucket position sensing mechanism, nor could he equip his
bucket with superconducting coils. However, he had an idea that would make
use of two electric starter brushes he had pulled from a car in the junkyard.
He arranged two dotted lines of electrical contact strips down the inside
of his mass-driver. When the bucket was placed in one end, the starter brushes
would connect a circuit, creating current flow not only in the bucket coil,
but in the mass-driver coil ahead of it. The one magnetic field would attract
the other and the bucket would move. As soon as the bucket came abreast of
that coil, that circuit was interrupted and it was the next coil pulling.
There would be no deceleration and re-circulation of the bucket, so it was
more like an electric cannon. Bruce was interested to see how far he could
shoot the bucket through the air.
Bruce hooked up his connectors
to three fully-charged car batteries and, with a pause for drama's sake,
placed the bucket into his model. The model promptly spit the bucket back
out at him. To his chagrin, he realized he had wound the bucket coils the
wrong way such that the two magnetic fields being produced were repelling
each other, not attracting. Wanting desperately to avoid laboriously re-winding
the bucket coils, he hit on the idea of remounting the starter brushes angled
the other way, so he could essentially turn the bucket around and use it
backwards. With high anticipation, he once again placed the bucket in.
There was a THUMP as the
contraption recoiled. The bucket made an audible WHOOSH as it sailed away.
He had inclined his mass-driver less than ten degrees from the horizontal,
but was astonished to see the bucket disappear from view.
After taking a few seconds
to get a fix on landmarks near the horizon, Bruce turned and hopped onto
his rusting bicycle to scour the cattle fields and highway birms where his
electrically launched payload must have come down. He looked until the daylight
began to fail his eyes, but to no avail. He supposed that the bucket may
have simply crashed into some dense weeds out of sight, or may have rolled
beneath something which it hadn't occurred to him to look under. Perhaps
he had badly misjudged the direction his projectile had taken. But he couldn't
shake the rather awe-inspiring feeling that the bucket had gone much, much
farther than he had ever thought possible.
"Man," he thought to himself
as he pedaled homeward to a cold supper, "A guy could do things with this."
November of 2000 found Jacob
Tanner nearing the fulfillment of a childhood dream. For as long as he could
remember, he had fantisized about flying into space. He had taken NASA's
advice to all aspiring astronauts: stay in school, study math, study science.
He threw himself into his class work, resolving to excel at everything he
did, so that he might be worthy. After two unsuccessful tries, Jacob finally
made it into the Space Shuttle Astronaut Corp. Seven years of intensive training
later, and here he was at last: lying on his back in the orbiter mid-deck,
waiting to thunder off into the heavens.
This was the most exciting
moment in his life. But in a way, his present location was a bit on the dull
side. There were no windows to see out of from the shuttle's mid-deck. Nothing
much to look at but storage lockers. He had to admit that Ruby' presence
sure improved the scenery down here, though. The thirty-five-year-old mission
specialist sat to his right, a bit above his position. She had delicate,
pixieish features and the most adorable dimples. When they were all suiting
up, Jacob was amused to note she had not tied up her long, scarlet hair into
a ponytail. Soon they would all be in zero gravity, which meant Ruby's lovely,
flowing red tresses had that "Brillo-pad" look in store. It would be just
the thing for some good-natured ribbing later on.
Jacob then realized he shouldn't
be too hard on his fellow astronaut. During the months this shuttle crew
had trained together, Ruby and he seemed to connect in a very special way.
They were both the "space rookies" of the crew, and this had started the
close bond between them. For some time now he had been planning to wait until
the mission was completed, and then see if the relationship could be advanced
to a new, more intimate level.
They were about fifteen
minutes from launch when Jacob began hearing disturbing things through the
earphones in the flight cap he wore under his helmet. CapCom was advising
the flight crew of a sudden drop in hydrogen fuel pressure. That certainly
didn't sound good. Their pilot, Commander Chapman, was convinced thermal
stresses from the fuel loading had caused the External Tank to split a seam.
Jacob got a sinking feeling none of them were going anywhere today.
Then there was a sudden
cry from the Commander. "Evacuate! C'mon! We've got to get out of here!!"
Almost immediately, Chapman
and his co-pilot were dashing in from the flight deck, and over to the hatch.
It was dawning on Jacob that the fuel leak must be serious enough for there
to be a danger of fire. A feeling of unreality gripped him as he unfastened
his restraint and joined the rest of the crew at the hatch. Ruby glanced
at him, concern on her face. Jacob tried to give her a reassuring look.
The hatch was open, but
the "white room" was not yet back to the orbiter. It swung toward them on
its long arm, ponderously, agonizingly slow. As they looked downward, they
could plainly tell where the split seam in the External Tank was located,
as it billowed out heavy, white vapors. The rupture was below them, fairly
close to the orbiter.
The white room still had
not reached them. Ruby began to dance up and down with impatience.
She trailed off, and placed
a hand over her mouth, eyes wide. Her voice had a ridiculous elfin quality
to it. Ruby sounded like a chipmunk. Jacob tried to think when he had heard
a human voice with that peculiar resonance before. Then he knew: the last
time he had been around a prankster who had put a helium balloon to his lips,
inhaled, and then spoke with the light gas passing over his vocal cords.
What could be causing it?
At the same time, each member of the crew realized the air around them was
filled with odorless hydrogen gas. It was the one gas lighter than helium,
even less of it would produce the same munchkin voice. Lighter than air,
it was rising upward to where they stood. A chill went through Jacob which
was unrelated to the spill of super-cold fuel. If the surrounding air was
that saturated with hydrogen, the slightest spark would touch off an inferno
of Hindenberg proportions.
The white room arrived at
last, and the crew leapt into it. They scrambled through the walkway and
into the gantry tower. Soon they were at a cage hanging from a pulley on
a cable which lead down to the distant ground below. This sliding cage had
been conceived by NASA as the quickest way for a shuttle crew to get away
from the launch pad in an emergency. If they could only slide away down the
cable, they would be deposited near a sturdily-armored vehicle which could
take them even further away. The crew piled into the cage.
Jacob had trained on this
procedure, but it had seemed like a silly amusement ride at the time. Now,
hopefully, it was going to save everyone's butts. Chapman threw the brake
lever up, and they began to soar down away from the gantry.
The cage descended on the
cable with increasing speed, but the Commander was not about to apply brake
just yet. Suddenly, the space shuttle behind them transformed itself into
a blazing fireball. They all looked back in shocked astonishment as the
concussion dashed the gigantic brown fuel tank open. Tons of liquefied hydrogen
and oxygen mingled, vaporized, and then ignited. Pent up energy sufficient
to hurl a multi-ton vehicle into space was released all at once.
The shock wave struck their
bodies. The sensation was akin to the peculiar feeling one gets in the middle
of one's chest when standing near a parade when the big bass drums come by,
only a hundred times more severe. Jacob felt his heart was going to burst.
The astronaut's bodies jerked with the motion of the passing concussion like
marionettes being yanked by some spiteful puppeteer.
Now a vast, pale wall of
nearly-invisible blue flame was bearing down on them. When it touched them,
everything and everyone instantly burst into blazes. Their orange flight
suits only prolonged the torment. Man and woman alike erupted with high-pitched
shrieks of agony. Then the flame silenced them all forever.
By the time the cage crashed
into a barrier on the ground, there were no survivors in it. Only gruesome
remains for a miserable pathologist to study in an attempt to make sense
of it all for a nation seeking answers to yet another Space Shuttle disaster.
A general dissatisfaction
with the current state of affairs
Now it was January of 2001,
and the "end of the millennium" hysteria was beginning to die down somewhat.
It was so unfair; the world had had to go through it twice. Despite no shortage
of experts lecturing on television talk shows and in Sunday supplement articles,
there were still many who believed 1999 was the last year of the Twentieth
century. December of 1999 had been even more tumultuous than last month,
as every "end of the world" fanatic crawled out from whatever place such
kooks resided. When 2000 dawned on the world and Judgment day was clearly
not yet at hand, the devotees of Armageddon explained that there had merely
been a slight error, and December 31st, 2000, the truly last day of
the millennium, was the day of dread. This date came and passed free of global
doom also, and the Earth, except for the much more minor social tremors which
occur at the end of each century, could be relatively peaceful until the
year 3000 AD. Not that even the most skeptical thought humanity could possibly
go on that much longer.
Bruce Franklin had just
completed what many considered to be the crowning achievement of his career:
a magnetic levitation mass transit system connecting New York with Chicago.
This engineering feat was possible thanks to Bruce's development of the first
practical nuclear drilling machine. Looking like a giant sharpened pencil
with tank treads jutting out at five different angles, the device did not
so much drill as melt its way through the earth. The conical nose of the
machine was the world's hottest operating nuclear reactor, and glowed yellow-hot
when activated. Soil and rock were liquefied, pushed aside, and left to cool,
forming a very strong tunnel wall of solidified magma.
Once a tunnel was created
from New York to Chicago, the acceleration and deceleration portions were
mounted with magnetic coils nearly as big around as the tunnel itself. This
was really no different from the mass-driver technology which was Bruce's
engineering forte. For the entire distance, the floor of the tunnel was covered
with an electrically conducting aluminum trough. Then all of the air in the
entire tunnel was pumped out, leaving a vacuum.
The maglev vehicles, equipped
with the latest superconducting coils which operated at liquid nitrogen
temperatures, were accelerated well above the speed of sound by the acceleration
coils. A principle called dynamic magnetic levitation caused a repulsion
between the vehicle magnets and the curved aluminum trough, generating lift.
Since there was no airdrag
and no friction due to wheels or sliding surfaces of any kind, it had proved
to be the most energy-efficient method of transportation ever devised. The
energy cost of a maglev trip was less than one-fifth of the cost for any
other form of transportation. To top it all off, most of the energy put into
accelerating the vehicles was recovered at the end during the deceleration
phase. Acceleration Inc., the new multinational corporation which had funded
the venture, was able to undersell planes, trains, and automobiles by a
substantial amount. There was simply no other means of moving people so quickly,
quietly, comfortably, and energy efficiently on Earth.
Bruce had worked long and
hard on the project, and now considered his part of it to be over. There
were already ambitious plans to make another tunnel from Chicago to Los Angeles,
along with a vast, arcing bypass south of Chicago, so both coasts could be
linked non-stop by maglevs. But the construction principles were already
well established, and Bruce would leave them to it.
He needed to unwind, and
decided taking in a movie would be just the thing. Inevitably, "2001: A Space
Odyssey" was in re-release this year. Bruce had fond childhood memories of
this movie, and promptly went.
He sat in the theater, and
once again became immersed in Kubrick and Clarke's vision of the dawn of
the 21st Century. The giant, rotating, Space Station 5. The Aries shuttle,
making a trip to the moon seem no more incredible than an international air
flight. The sprawling Clavius moonbase. The expedition to Jupiter. And of
course HAL, the conversant Artificial Intelligence.
Prior to coming to this
film, Bruce had watched a number of news stories comparing the 2001 of the
movie with the real 2001. The reality was far from being so grand. There
were only a couple of spindly space stations, and they were nothing like
the colossal spinning wheel of this venerable cinema classic. If anything,
the world seemed even further away from a future in space than it did in
the late sixties when 2001 premiered. With last month's destruction of a
shuttle orbiter and the launch pad, and the loss of all crew, it was now
obvious that the American space effort was stuck in yet another hiatus which
could easily prove as lengthy as the one which followed the Challenger disaster
The questions were asked
and re-asked; Why no moonbases, Why no Jupiter expeditions, Why no PCs which
could speak like a human, and not just parrot programmed phrases. There were
theories put forth: Lack of funding, Lack of quality education, Lack of will.
Bruce walked out of the
theater surrounded by a dozen conversations on the meaning of the film's
ending, and stepped into the night air. He glanced upward at a nearly full
moon which had not been touched by humans in thirty years, and asked "Why?"
Then, he resolved to do
something about it.
Selling the crazy idea
Bruce was sitting with his
co-worker and best friend Reggie Deitrich in the foyer to the office of Elisabeth
Anderson, president of Acceleration Inc. Reggie had jet black hair and eyes,
was of medium height and build, and had a cleft in his chin so deep it made
everyone wonder if he had to Q-tip it out every morning.
Bruce knew he would
only key himself up by mentally rehearsing a presentation which he already
knew by heart, so he instead tried to relax himself by studying the Acceleration
logo on the wall. It was one of those three-inch-thick backlit affairs with
a halo of light surrounding each heavily back-slanted letter. The slant of
the corporate logo was, he supposed, intended to convey a feeling of rapid
acceleration. People get paid to come up with stuff like this, he mused to
Bruce was mildly nervous,
but otherwise quite chipper despite the early hour. Reggie hated that about
him. Bruce was, as they say, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed even before the
crack of dawn. It always took time and massive doses of caffeine for Reggie
to get started in the morning. Bruce wouldn't even touch a cup of coffee,
simply bouncing out of bed fully alert and ready for his day. Bruce attributed
the difference between them to their differing lifestyles.
It was interesting to compare
these two men: Reggie the reveler who never missed a party, Bruce the type-A
personality who accumulated vacation time until his employer would kick him
out the front door. Not that Reggie wasn't a crack engineer in his own right.
Merely that he saw it as a means to an end. For Bruce, building new things
was his reason for living. The contrast between the pair, between the cut-up
and the straight-lace, was remarkable. More remarkable still was that not
only did the two work together effectively, they genuinely liked each other
In addition to still being
groggy at this time of morning, Reggie was also pessimistic about the
presentation ahead of them. Although he had worked with Bruce on every detail,
the scale of their proposal still staggered him. He was afraid it would stagger
Elisabeth too, to no good affect. Still, Bruce was the darling boy of
Acceleration right now. His innovations had made the Chicago to New York
maglev route possible. Acceleration Inc. would not exist in its present form
if not for that. If there was anyone who could successfully get this through,
it might be Bruce.
male-model-perfect secretary, ushered them into the office. The decor was
chrome and glass. Elisabeth greeted them both warmly. She had a wide face
surrounded by dense blonde curls. It was obvious from her hairstyle and outfit
that she rejected the notion a female had to be man-like to succeed in corporate
"Well, Bruce, word is you
have a proposal even bigger, and doubtless more expensive too, than the New
York to Chicago run. OK. Make your pitch, and make it a good one."
While Bruce moved to the
wall-sized monitor at the side of the office, Reggie settled down on a couch.
The couch was one of those ghastly creations of white vinyl which did not
so much support you as surround you. Sinking into its shapeless mass, Reggie
felt like a foreign body being engulfed by a white blood cell.
The monitor came to life
with an illustration of a slightly curved horizon with a long, straight line
hovering over it. Two short vertical lines connected the ends with the land
beneath. Bruce began his presentation.
"Acceleration Inc. has
successfully used magnetic flight to reduce the cost of traveling across
America to a small percentage of its former value. Our proposal is to now
apply the same technology to space travel.
"We are still waiting for
a space transportation system capable of sending people and cargo into low
Earth orbit for a price per kilogram which would make space development
economically feasible. We have taken rocket technology about as far as it
can go and it's simply not the answer. If rockets can't do it, then what?
"If we relate the cost in
energy of lifting a kilogram into orbit to the cost of the electricity required
for an electric motor to do the job, the requirement would only be about
9 kilowatt hours. Even subtracting for efficiency losses, the price for a
ticket into space would still be less than a dollar per kilogram. For comparison,
there has not been a rocket built yet which has achieved less than five thousand
dollars per kilogram."
Bruce paused at this point
and became somber. "Issues of efficiency and cost aside, I think the events
of last November drive home the point that rockets are not only a very expensive
way of getting into space, they're a very dangerous way, too. It's asking
a lot to expect someone sit on top of several hundred tons of high-energy
explosives while you light it up.
"The most perfect space
transportation system would be an elevator which could lift you into space.
This theoretical structure has been called an orbital skyhook. A satellite
in geosynchronous orbit would play out cable in two directions: one towards
the Earth, and the other away from it."
A small window at the upper
right of the monitor began to illustrate the principle with a graphic. "As
long as the masses being reeled out from both ends were equivalent, the entire
structure would continue to move with the Earth. You keep unwinding cable
until one end reaches the ground. Secure it, and now you can ride an elevator
car to geosynchronous orbit. In addition to that, you can launch yourself
to other planets by going beyond the orbit level to where centrifugal force
would sling you off when you let go. Now this may sound suspiciously like
getting something for nothing, but what you are really doing is tapping into
the angular momentum of the Earth. But we could launch payloads for hundreds
of thousands of years before detecting even the slightest slow-down in the
Earth's rotation rate. Or perhaps forever. Returning ships could save themselves
from having to burn up fuel by rendezvousing with a point on the cable matching
their velocity, and then riding down, giving up their momentum to the Earth.
"This would be the most
ideal means of accessing space. There's just one minor flaw: It can't be
built with any engineering material known or theorized. There is nothing
we have from which we can make a cable capable of supporting its own weight,
let alone anything else, for the many thousands of kilometers necessary.
However, there is a way to build a system that can be made with existing
materials and which would launch payloads with electricity, not rocket fuels.
"Our proposal is to build
a high-altitude hot-air balloon borne space launcher on the coast of Brazil
near the equator. It may seem beyond belief that we can build such a massive
structure in the upper atmosphere, but I assure you our computer simulations
indicate it is possible."
Bruce put his finger on
the wall-sized monitor and dragged it downward diagonally. His moving finger-tip
drew a "rubber band" box in red. When he pulled his finger back, the box
and its contents expanded to fill the screen. The thin, dimensionless line
paralleling the Earth could now be seen to have close, evenly spaced dots
at the top. He repeated the process and the dots were resolved into spheres,
each of which was one-half transparent, the other half white. The globes
were all tilted at the same angle, and one could look through the transparent
hemisphere to see that the interior of the other half was dark. A V-shaped
support, almost edge-on in this view, was mounted on the horizontal axis
of each sphere to suspend a thin line at the bottom. Bruce chose one of the
half-opaque bubbles, and enlarged it further.
"The key to the enterprise
is these supporting balloons. They are basically solar-powered hot-air balloons
about a mile in diameter." Elisabeth raised her brows at this, but Bruce
"One side is transparent,
allowing sunlight into the interior. The other is black on the inside so
as to absorb the light and convert it into heat with the greatest efficiency.
This light-absorbing hemisphere is white on the exterior. This minimizes
infra-red radiation, again to maximize the heat in the interior. Each balloon
rotates once every 24 hours, tracking the sun." The balloon began to rotate
like a wheel on the V-shaped support. "Thus the transparent side faces towards
the Earth at night. This reduces the loss of heat due to infra-red as there
is a certain amount of IR flux coming up from the Earth. Don't get me wrong:
thermally, the system will still lose ground at night, but not as bad as
if the clear portion was pointing at the cold of space. There is also a thin
disk of aluminized mylar less than a kilometer in diameter suspended underneath
each balloon. This reflects a certain portion of the infra-red back into
the balloon when it is pointed downward. At night, there will be a certain
amount of slack in the anchoring tethers at both ends, but the system will
definitely stay aloft."
Bruce now drew a small red
box on the thin line beneath the balloon. The view inside the window exploded
to fill the screen. The mass-driver could now be seen as an open framework
supported by suspension cables coming down from the balloon pivot points.
Magnetic coils, about the same proportions as a man's wedding band, were
spaced at regular intervals.
"The mass-driver is about
three meters in diameter and boosts small vehicles to orbital velocity with
an acceleration of ten G's. I know that sounds like a lot, but any reasonably
healthy individual can easily tolerate ten G's for the minute and a half
it would take for a launch. I would eventually like to double the length
of the launcher, reducing the acceleration to five G's in order to open up
the service to the elderly, and those with heart conditions. But that's a
long term projection."
Reggie squirmed uncomfortably
in the embrace of the couch. Bruce seemed to have side-stepped any specific
mention of the linear dimensions. It might be better to just hit the subject
head on than to save it for last.
"Launcher altitude is twenty
four kilometers. In terms of air density, that puts it above 15/16ths of
the atmosphere. Air pressure is down to less than one pound per square inch.
Air drag is going to be extremely low. At this altitude the sonic booms produced
by accelerating vehicles will be very mild, even for cities directly beneath
the launcher. Cities near military bases carrying out artillery training
have had to contend with far worse.
"These are the chief advantages
of this system against any ground-based mass-driver launcher. With a ground-based
system, you have the problems of sea-level sonic booms and punching your
way through the densest part of the atmosphere. Energy loss would be very
high, and the payloads would even require an ablative heat shield. The launch
capsules would be like a meteor in reverse. By placing our launcher near
the top of the atmosphere, we avoid all these difficulties."
He pointed at the display,
and now the point of view soared back and upward. The display became a map.
"Ideally, any space launcher
should be built as close to the equator as possible. This is in order to
take maximum advantage of the Earth's rotation. We believe the best location
would be here in southern Brazil. Brazil has the best industrial infrastructure
in South America, and a good resource base. We would anchor the far end of
the launcher on the peak of Pico da Bandeira, one of the mountains of the
Great Escarpment on Brazil's south-east coast. Pico da Bandeira is almost
three kilometers high, so it would save us that much length in anchoring
tether. Placing the exit of the launcher over a mountain which slopes down
to the seashore is also ideal for sonic boom dissipation. The starting end
would be less than four hundred kilometers north of Rio de Janeiro, a little
over 400 kilometers north east of São Paulo (that's the tenth largest
city in the world by the way) and around 700 Km from Brasília, the
national capital. All of these cities have excellent international airports.
"Launcher operations could
be carried out from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais state capital and the nearest
major city. In 1999, Belo Horizonte overtook Rio as the nation's second-most
powerful economy (after São Paulo). Other favorable factors include
a large bauxite mine located midway between Rio and São Paulo. That's
a critical factor, as aluminum is a major component of the mass-driver coils,
structural members, and also the anchoring tethers. Hydro-electric dams at
the Furnas Reservoir and other nearby water works provide abundant electricity
to the region."
Now the monitor displayed
a rotating graphic of a bullet-shaped vehicle. It had short, stubby fins
which projected back from the flat rear of the craft.
"We have designed three
vehicle models. One is a fuel tanker. The other is for cargo which would
include satellites, and consumables for space station Alpha. The third is
a passenger vehicle capable of life-support for the less-than-an-hour trip
to Alpha. Our current design is a two-seater, but we have long range plans
for four and six seaters which are simply stretches of the original design.
Now, let's step through the process of sending passengers into orbit."
The monitor continued to
illustrate Bruce's concepts. "Passengers would ride an elevator car up the
tether cable at the launch end to the boarding station." The boarding station
was a pressurized globe about four stories tall. At the base was a receiving
station with large grapplers for transferring launch vehicles from the tether
to a storage garage on the lowest level of the globe. The elevator linked
up to a docking ring not unlike that of a space station. There was a lobby,
an airlock leading out to the mass-driver, a depot for the "buckets" that
the launch vehicles fit into, and on the top level, an observation lounge
"There they would board
a launch vehicle. The launch vehicle would back up into a bucket, latch in,
and then cycle out through the airlock." The lip of the bucket which now
surrounded the bullet-shaped craft slanted, extending the curve of the nose
backward. It was a flush, aerodynamic fit. "The bucket and vehicle are
accelerated at 10 G's to orbital velocity. Once the proper speed is attained,
the last few coils of the launcher apply a decelerating force, and the bucket
is yanked back and away from the vehicle. By the way, when we do this, we
retrieve most of the energy put into accelerating the bucket in the first
place. The vehicle exits the launcher. The bucket travels back up the mass-driver
to the station, is serviced, recharged with more liquid nitrogen, and stored
for a future launch. By now, the launch vehicle is most of the way into low
Earth orbit. Forty five minutes later, 180° around the Earth, four small
hydrogen/oxygen rocket motors fire, and circularize the orbit. The ship then
rendezvous with a low orbit space station.
"On the return leg, the
same vehicle is lowered from the station on a tether. The lower it goes,
the greater the gravity on it vs. the station, and the tether comes to be
under tension. At a well-timed point, the cable attachment releases the capsule,
and it heads into a new, lower orbit which grazes the upper atmosphere. The
station, on the other hand, gains the orbital energy the capsule has lost.
This will help the space station save on orbital maintenance fuel. The vehicle
re-enters the upper atmosphere, decelerating like the space shuttle.
Incidentally, the belly of the craft is composed of titanium: a very high
temperature alloy. No messy silica heat tiles. At a certain altitude, a steerable
parachute deploys. Under computer control, the craft is guided to the landing
field, and the landing gears drop. The landing field is circular. Runways
run radially in all directions, so approaching craft can always land into
the wind. Passengers or cargo are offloaded. The vehicle is towed to the
tether at the beginning of the launcher. It's then re-fueled, sent back up
the tether, and the whole process begins again."
Bruce turned around from
the monitor to face Elisabeth. "I'm convinced this new century will see a
mass migration off of the Earth into free space. This is the transportation
system which will make it possible."
Elisabeth was obviously
very impressed. "This is a pretty staggering concept. Let me play Devil's
advocate, and try to shoot it down. Lord knows I would sooner have it all
come tumbling down in theory than in actuality. I don't much like the idea
of this gigantic space launcher crashing down on the heads of several hundred
Brazilians." Bruce smiled encouragingly.
"OK, what about weather?"
she began. "If the balloons are solar heated, then what about cloudy days?"
"The mass-driver and its
support balloons will be above the Troposphere, above the cloud layer, and
above storms," Bruce replied. "The only part of the system down in the weather
is the support tethers at both ends, and they have a very low cross-sectional
area. Winds will push them around some, but not a lot. Remember we are building
fairly close to the equator, an area known as the "doldrums", so there are
"How about lightning strikes,
then?" Elisabeth held a hand up in front of her. "I know, I know, it's above
the weather. Actually, I was thinking more about strikes on the tether cables."
"It's interesting: no lightning
will be possible in the presence of an electrical conductor linking the cloud
layer with the land. The cloud layer will literally be grounded. So the areas
immediately around the tethers will be the only places on Earth where you
can stand and be one hundred percent safe from lightning."
"Well, there're not much
more odds of the launcher being struck than a shopping mall, and you certainly
wouldn't hesitate to build a mall over the possibility. I know it's in the
upper atmosphere, but most meteors begin to disintegrate at even higher
altitudes. It's not as big a target as one might think."
"How will the launcher stay
straight?" Elisabeth wanted to know.
"There will be lasers running
down its length for data communication. Those lasers will also be used for
guidance," Bruce answered. "Sensors will detect deviations from straight
and correct them by signaling the yardarms to apply the appropriate forces.
It's not a major problem. There is some wind at this altitude, but remember
air pressure is one sixteenth sea-level. So a sixteen kilometer per hour
wind would apply no more force than a one kilometer per hour wind here at
"What if an airplane crashes
"Private aircraft don't
fly this high, and we can certainly control local commercial jet traffic.
A jet would be more likely to hit a balloon than any other part. Balloon
repair is viewed as ongoing maintenance. Some will fail anyway due to age
"Earlier I showed you the
schematics for three launch vehicles. We have designed a fourth vehicle for
repairs. A repairman would ride the vehicle out on the launcher to the area
of the deflated balloon, and repair it on-site. Oh, that assumes the balloon
has folded itself evenly over the mass-driver. Our simulations indicated
that as a balloon deflates, it could either fall pretty much evenly over
both sides of the mass-driver, or slip over to one side and hang straight
down from the bottom. If it does the former, then the weight is distributed
rather uniformly along a substantial length of the mass-driver, and the stress
loads are tolerable. If the balloon hangs straight down from its supports,
on the other hand, then the load stress is too concentrated in one area.
Explosive bolts will fire, and the balloon is jettisoned rather than risking
structural damage to the mass-driver.
"But let's assume for the
sake of argument," Bruce continued, "that against all odds, an aircraft plowed
right into the mass-driver itself. The launcher would not crash into the
ground. The entire structure is at neutral buoyancy. Even if the launcher
were severed, the two ends would merely drift around close by. Jet engines
would be used to maneuver the ends back together so repairs could be implemented.
A plane severing a tether would be the worst-case scenario, but extremely
unlikely. The tethers have lots of "give", and present a very narrow target.
A wing strike would certainly bring down the plane, but not the launcher.
I'm not sure even a direct strike would sever the cable, and I doubt if a
pilot could manage that even if he were deliberately trying."
"Let's talk about that,
then. What about terrorism?"
"There's a lot of redundancy
built into this design. A terrorist would have to destroy major portions
of the launcher in order to bring it down. Any one bomb (or half a dozen
bombs for that matter) wouldn't do any damage which couldn't be fixed. We
can certainly institute the same kinds of precautions with regard to luggage
as is common in any air terminal. Besides, bombs are not very effective at
high altitudes. Still, assuming he could somehow smuggle a bomb aboard, an
insane individual could certainly blow up a vehicle, himself, and anyone
else riding with him. But operations would only be halted temporarily for
repairs, and then resumed, probably within a week. The very worst terrorist
scenario my staff was able to come up with involved a group with access to
a cruise missile. They off-load the explosives and send it straight down
the line, puncturing most or all of the balloons simultaneously. I suppose
we could always put an installation of Patriot missiles at either end of
the launcher. In the long run, maybe even particle or laser beams. Personally,
I don't give the cruise missile scenario much credence. I don't see the missile
staying on course for very long after slamming into the first five or six
"What you said about lasers
got me thinking. What about fanatics armed with a high-powered laser?"
Bruce paused for thought.
"Even a really high-wattage laser would only punch small holes in the balloons.
To really do any real damage, terrorists would have to sweep the laser down
the row. It would have to be a very slow sweep, a fast one would not put
enough heat into any one spot to burn through. Yeah, a sweep slow enough
to deflate any balloons would take many hours. A daylight attack would be
rather fruitless. The white sides of the balloons would face towards the
Earth, and the white color would reflect away much of the energy. A nighttime
attack would be highly visible.
"It's a safe investment,"
Bruce insisted, "and a very profitable one as well. Our projections are,
in the short term, to under-sell Ariane by a factor of two and the Space
Shuttle by a factor of three. The space-launching world will beat a path
to Acceleration's door. Once we have launched an amount of people and payload
equal to around ninety Space Shuttle launches (and we can do that surprisingly
fast), we will have reached the break-even point. Everything from that point
on is pure profit."
Elisabeth was leaning forward
in her chair. "What you are proposing is pretty incredible. You say each
of these balloons is a mile in diameter. There seem to be an awful lot of
them. Just how long is this thing supposed to be?"
Reggie could hear a stock
sound-effect in his head. It was the one of the dropping bomb whistling down
lower and lower. Next would come the stock explosion sound-effect.
Bruce hesitated only briefly.
"A little over three hundred and ten kilometers," he answered. Elisabeth's
eyebrows shot up. "I know, it's a lot, but the elements are just the same
components endlessly repeated. This makes it well suited to automation. I
foresee factories with no human workers whatsoever. In one end goes bauxite
ore and energy, and out the other comes mass-driver components and tether
cable day in and out."
"And how much is this little
enterprise going to set me back?"
Thin-lipped, Bruce gave
her the answer. "Forty-five billion."
Elisabeth sagged back into
her chair and blanched noticeably. "There's no way. There's simply no way."
"Oh come on, Elisabeth,"
Bruce implored, "This is the biggest, highest stake venture there can be
in the world. You can't expect it to come cheap."
"No way. I mean there is
physically no way to get that kind of venture capital together." Elisabeth
was shaking her head solemnly.
Reggie was ready to leave
the office to start work on something a little bit more doable. Bruce, however,
was standing there, thinking furiously. Suddenly, he strode over to the giant
monitor and stabbed his finger at the end of the launcher. A small, red,
two-sided arrow appeared above his fingertip. He pushed in on the end of
the launcher graphic, and it telescoped. He pushed it down to two thirds
of its former length.
"OK. The length is now a
little over two hundred kilometers. Call it about thirty billion. In order
to still achieve orbital velocity, acceleration will now have to be twenty
G's. You can still launch supplies, fuel, and satellites. And I suppose you
could still launch people if they were young, in good health, and specially
trained and conditioned."
"Still can't do it."
Bruce whirled back to the
screen, and savagely crushed the launcher down further still. "There. Length
is one hundred kilometers with a price tag just a hair over fifteen billion.
Acceleration is now thirty G's. You can still launch raw materials and fuel.
I guess you could also launch specially-made satellites with circuitry and
components hardened to withstand the G forces."
Elisabeth looked at the
display thoughtfully. She appreciated that the one single biggest cost of
any major space activity was the fuel. If Acceleration Inc. could provide
fuel to low Earth orbit at a lower cost, it could be quite a coup. The
communications satellite launch industry was quite lucrative also.
"It would be tempting if
the money could be raised, but it can't," she explained. "Not even a
multinational corporation like Acceleration could raise that kind of capital.
A combination of multinationals might, but that would get us in trouble with
the anti-trust laws. We could try to seek some kind of special exemption
from the government, but...I just don't know."
"OK, Liz, I'm going to try
to scare you with the standard boogie man: The Japanese. After beating our
pants off in steel, automobiles and electronics, they are now merrily trashing
our aerospace industry. It is so typical that we make plans, abandon them,
then they pick them up and follow through. Then, when we belatedly decide
we did want the technology after all, we buy it from them. And we wonder
why we have a trade imbalance. One of the best things Acceleration has done
is to wrest leadership in magnetic flight back from the Japanese and the
Germans. The Japanese still have much expertise in magnetic flight, though.
They also have absorbed every American study ever published on moon bases,
Solar Power Satellites, and space habitats. They sit poised and ready to
spring into action as soon as the price for a pound of cargo to orbit declines
to a certain critical level. The Japanese may chose to try pushing it to
that level with some scheme very similar to the one I have just outlined."
Elisabeth stared thoughtfully
at the image of the launcher, hovering at the edge of the atmosphere. "I'm
sitting here feeling like Queen Isabella listening to Columbus explain why
she should part with her jewels. But then I remember what came after, what
she was remembered for financing." She paused, turning to look at Bruce who
was looking back hopefully. "I've always thought of myself as a CEO with
vision. Maybe I've got just enough vision to say YES.
"It also occurs to me that
now I have to buy that vacation home in Rio which I keep trying to talk myself
into, just so I can watch the first launch for myself," she added with a
Later, as Bruce and Reggie
were making their way out of Elisabeth's office, Reggie was clapping Bruce
on the back jubilantly. Reggie was stoked for the first time that morning,
but Bruce by contrast appeared sullen.
"Man, I can't believe you
pulled that one off. We're going to South America! And I sure can't fault
you for the location you picked. Have you looked at that map? Every weekend,"
Reggie fell into a sign-song rhythm, "we can goooo to Riooo de Janeiroooo...."
"You can if
you want to," Bruce replied morosely. "I'm the one who wants to live
long enough to retire in high Earth orbit, remember?"
"You seem pretty glum for
a guy who just sweet-talked a pretty lady out of fifteen billion dollars!"
Bruce turned to look at
his friend. "I wanted to build something which would launch humankind
out into space, not just machines."
"They can ride the space
shuttle, or maybe that aerospace plane they keep talking about," Reggie said
encouragingly. "A whole lot is going to be done in space that wouldn't have
been done without the cheap fuel and re-supply we're going to provide."
"True. But I still want
this launcher to be for the people. So anyone who wants to go can
go. I can only hope that once we've started this project it's something which
I can fight for later on and win."
Bruce was sitting at his
CAD/CAM station working out the final details of the balloon structure. They
had a press conference set for the next day and Bruce didn't want even the
tiniest detail to be undeveloped.
Specifically, he was finalizing
the design of a critical link in the system: the rotating anchoring structures
at the axis of each balloon which the mass-driver was supported by. The balloons
were composed of hexagonal panels of a highly durable fabric, each one a
little over a football field in size. At each "pole", the center hexagon
was made of aluminum, not the fabric the rest of the balloon was composed
of. The stress loads on the pivot points amounted to the weight of over a
mile of mass-driver, too much for even the tough balloon fabric to withstand.
But Bruce was still concerned. He feared the stress would cause tears in
the seams between the aluminum hexagonal panel and the surrounding fabric
panels. Now he was expanding the aluminum portion of the "poles" with a dozen
additional hexagonal panels in an outward branching "snowflake" pattern.
This had the effect of increasing the length of the aluminum-to-fabric seam
many times over, distributing the load evenly over a much wider area.
Satisfied with the new stress
projections, Bruce began to move his finger up to the "save" button when
he felt a small, hard object hit him in the back of the neck.
Bruce spun around, and saw
Reggie. He was standing a short distance down the hallway leading into the
lab, holding an elaborate, home-made model of the launcher which was poking
all the way into the room. It was an eight meter long assemblage of plastic
soda straws, tape, and toy balloons. It was obvious the balloons had at least
a certain amount of helium in them. Reggie did not so much support the model
as push it around. The entire length hung suspended more or less straight
in the air.
The balloons were the kind
which were white, but became almost transparent when inflated. Reggie had
even gone to the bother of dipping each inflated balloon into some kind of
ink, so that one half was jet black. All in all, it was a very impressive
simulation of the real thing.
"That is absolutely incredible!
How many hours did you spend on this?"
"Oh, less than a hundred,"
Reggie casually replied, and then carefully guided his model the rest of
the way into the CAD/CAM lab. "You like it? I built it mostly for fun, but
partly for the press conference tomorrow. Computer simulations are fine,
but this will get the concept across in a very concrete way that something
on a monitor just can't. The hardest part was achieving neutral buoyancy.
I used the electronic scales in the Calibration Lab to weigh lengths of straw,
bits of Scotch tape and an empty balloon before I came up with a formula
of three quarters helium to one quarter air. Still wasn't very even at first,
though. You'll find a dime or penny taped here and there along its length.
Oh, but here's the best part."
Reggie produced a small
length of red crayon minus the surrounding paper. It was just under a centimeter
long, and well sharpened. It also looked like a bit of the diameter had been
shaved off by carefully honing. Reggie slowly swung the ponderous length
of his model around until it pointed at the far wall. He inserted the crayon
segment into the first soda straw, placed the end to his lips, and blew.
With a whoosh and a thwack, the projectile shot out and hit a poster on the
wall which said "K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid". The wax bullet fragmented,
and left an ugly scarlet smear. Bruce started to comment that he hoped this
demonstration was not a premonition of things to come, but then thought better
"A definite crowd pleaser,"
Bruce enthused. "You'll surely steal the show at the press conference tomorrow."
"Hey, speaking of which,
have you come up with a name for this contraption yet?" Reggie asked.
"Name?" Bruce blinked. "I
hadn't really stopped to think about giving it a name. I've just been calling
it the space launcher."
"That's the problem with
you die-hard engineering types: no imagination, no show-business sense. That's
why you have to surround yourselves with creative types like myself to bail
you out any situation requiring poetic inspiration. Let's see," Reggie perched
on the edge of a desk and rolled his eyes upward, "a name......Space gun?"
"A gun is a weapon."
"Still has gun-type
"You know, this all illustrates
perfectly that sex fixation I've been warning you about."
Reggie paused briefly enough
to shoot him a quick dirty look, and then resumed his musings. "Well, what
is this thing really going to wind up looking like once it's up there?"
Bruce stopped to visualize.
"A gigantic pearl necklace, strung across the sky."
"Well 'sky pearls' is not
going to cut it. Think."
"It will span the very heavens
itself," Bruce supplied grandly.
Bridge? No, I think there's a resort called that."
"I don't care, I like it!"
Bruce said eagerly. "I like the associations with the word 'bridge'. A bridge
is what gets you from here to...there," he intoned reverently.
"The Sky Bridge it is, then.
You're welcome," Reggie added.
"So tell me," Bruce asked
with a smile, "which one of those prima-donna network anchors are you going
to shoot with one of your little red crayons tomorrow?"
"Well, that all depends."
"On whether or not you can
put me in touch with a curare supplier."
* * *
Then next morning saw Bruce
and Reggie heading down the hallway towards the conference room where the
reporters lay in wait. Bruce carried his speech notes. Reggie had his lengthy
Sky Bridge model in tow. As Bruce rounded a corner, he saw into the room
and could hear the buzz of conversation from the crowd of journalists and
photographers packed within. He felt his stomach begin to clench. Then he
heard a sharp exclamation from behind him.
"Ghuy' cha' !"
Bruce had heard this phrase
out of Reggie before, and recognized it as a Klingon curse. However, it was
usually spat out venomously at errant electrons in a circuit, rebellious
code in a program, or feuding metals which would not alloy properly. This
was more like a wail of despair.
Bruce turned around to see
Reggie standing there holding his eight meter long model, and looking with
dismay at a right angle turn in the hallway with less than two meters clearance.
Try not to slouch in front of the cameras,
Reggie's model was still
a big hit with the reporters, even though they had to crowd out into the
hallway to see it. First, however, came the multimedia presentation.
Unlike Elisabeth Anderson,
Bruce was now dealing with an audience not intimately familiar with the
technology of magnetic acceleration. So it was necessary to start at the
very beginning. He lectured briefly on mass-driver theory, and then started
an old movie showing Gerard O'Neill's first attempt to demonstrate his
mass-driver model. The model was about two yards long. The grad students
assisting O'Neill dipped the bucket into the liquid helium which they used
to achieve superconductivity in those days. The bucket was then pulled out
and, still trailing heavy mists, placed into the mass-driver model. After
a brief delay, the switch was thrown to energize the mass-driver coils. The
There was a small explosion
of laughter from the gathering in the movie. It was a laughter induced by
high expectations followed by an anti-climax. The audience watching the movie
chuckled along with them.
"Oh, that's Freeman Dyson
laughing the hardest, by the way," Bruce interjected. This provoked additional
chuckles from the more scientifically literate members of the gathered press.
Indeed, the image of the tall, homely father of the Dyson Sphere could be
seen laughing good-naturedly at his friend and colleague.
"As soon as the bucket was
taken out of the liquid helium, it immediately began freezing ice crystals
out of the moisture in the air due to its extreme cold. That process continued
after it was placed in the mass-driver, essentially freezing the bucket in
Reggie shifted self-consciously
in his seat on the stage. Why the hell was Bruce showing footage of the
mass-driver model failing? Was he trying to jinx the public acceptance of
this project which was so desperately needed?
By now the assistants in
the movie were setting up for the next try. The bucket was in place. The
model was energized and the bucket...
Was at the other end of
the mass-driver. There had been no motion detectable to anyone in the audience.
The workers and attendees in the movie broke into applause.
"Now this is interesting,
watch this." Bruce used his hand control, and the movie backed up to a point
before the firing and froze. A small indicator at the lower left of the screen
flashed the word 'bookmark'. "This is the frame immediately prior to the
firing. Now I'm going to advance to the very next frame." In the next still
image, the bucket was at the end of the model. There was no intervening blur
showing the bucket actually moving from the one point to the other. "As you
can see, the acceleration and deceleration of the bucket took place between
the taking of one frame of film and the other, a process which takes only
one twenty-forth of a second." There was an impressed murmur from the audience.
Bruce then outlined the
Sky Bridge concept, using the same multi-media show as he used in Elisabeth
Anderson's office. He then took questions from the press. They posed all
of the same questions that Elisabeth did, plus a few more she had been too
intelligent to ask:
"Dr. Franklin, what about
collisions between vehicles flying out of this launcher and flocks of birds?"
asked a young video journalist.
"Birds don't fly this high.
Remember, this is the upper atmosphere we're talking about."
"Won't all these launches
in the upper atmosphere contribute to the destruction of the ozone layer?"
an Asian female wanted to know.
"No. In fact, this will
be the only space transportation system in the world that won't. There are
no rockets involved in the escape from the Earth's atmosphere. It's all done
with magnetic fields."
"What about earthquakes?"
came from a portly newspaperman.
Bruce couldn't help but
chuckle a little at this one. "Well, it's hard to see how vibrations on the
ground can effect a structure residing in the upper atmosphere. The only
connection with the ground is the anchoring tethers. I suppose an earthquake
would induce some wave motion in the cables, but those waves would dampen
out well before traveling twenty four kilometers straight up."
"Dr. Franklin, will the
balloons completely eclipse the sun?" asked a silver haired woman.
"Hmmm. With a diameter of
one mile, and at a distance of twenty four kilometers, each balloon will
subtend...," Bruce pecked at his notebook-sized PC on the podium, and began
to mutter of arctangents, "Ummm...call it a degree. The sun is like, what,
one half a degree? So I guess it will. Now keep in mind that's only for certain
areas directly below the launcher. There are no major cities to speak of
lying directly beneath. And that would only be for certain times of day,
and certain seasons. I think the effect would be much like a partly cloudy
day. Remember," Bruce added with a smile, "this is equatorial South America.
I don't think any of the residents will complain about a spot of shade every
"Still, some would view
this structure as an eye-sore," she persisted.
"I don't think so, not
personally. I've described the outside of the absorbing hemisphere of each
balloon as being bright white, but please bear in mind that this is the side
which will always be turned away from the sun. So visualize it more like
the gray underbelly of a cumulus cloud. Even from relatively nearby Belo
Horizonte, Sky Bridge will be close to the horizon, and fairly well hidden
by haze even on a clear day. I just don't see most people having a problem
The "eye-sore" issue did
raise its head several times once the project was set in motion. Some inhabitants
of the few minor towns and villages which did lay directly beneath the future
site of the launcher took exception to Bruce's "no major cities to speak
of" remark. It was an unfortunate coincidence that Belo Horizonte was Portuguese
for "Beautiful Horizon". Demonstrators with placards saying "Don't spoil
our Beautiful Horizon" lay ahead.
* * *
After the conference, Reggie
button-holed Bruce. "Why did you show them that part of that movie footage
where the mass-driver didn't work right at first?"
"Because I don't want the
public to have unreasonable expectations. The simple fact of the matter is
that anything which is new never works right the first time!"
Building the mammoth thing
There were some minor
demonstrations against the Sky Bridge project. But the nation of Brazil in
general, and the city of Belo Horizonte in particular, realized this project
would make their home a hub of travel. Just the money being spent on the
way into and out of the country could amount to billions in the long run.
The government was only too happy to smooth the way, financially, legally,
and socially. The land grants were generous and inexpensive.
As on any construction project,
it started with the laying of the foundation. In this case, however, the
foundation was balloon number one, sent aloft with the first tether trailing
under it late in the year of 2001. The first and last balloons, the ones
supporting the anchoring tethers, would both be filled with helium. It would
not have been economically feasible to have filled all of the balloons with
helium. But for the first and last ones, the helium provided the extra buoyancy
needed to support the weight of the tethering cables. The first balloon also
had to support the additional weight of the boarding station.
Sky Bridge was built in
sections ten balloons long. That made each segment over ten miles in length.
On a clear sunny day, the balloons on a completed section would be half-filled
with air from enormous banks of ducted fans. As the solar heating began,
each balloon would expand somewhat further, and begin to haul the segment
aloft. As it ascended, and the surrounding air pressure dropped, each balloon
expanded completely. In fact, each had to bleed off large volumes of air
in order to avoid over-expansion. Small vehicles mounted with eight jet engines
pointing in various directions guided each section into place. Metal arms
controlled via telepresence made the necessary connections, and Sky Bridge
The sight of a section lifting
off of its skinny, ten mile long concrete pad, and climbing into the heavens
was awe inspiring. The scale of the spectacle was simply beyond human grasp.
Bruce never tired of going up to the roof of the many-storied automated balloon
manufacturing plant to witness the event.
Even before Sky Bridge was
completed, Acceleration Inc. began to see additional business opportunities
come out of the project. Astronomers were interested in using the boarding
platform for making observations. Those who studied the infra-red spectrum
were especially keen on the idea. IR was absorbed by water vapor in the
atmosphere. The astronomers were already building their observatories on
mountain peaks to get above as much of the wetter parts of the atmosphere
as possible, but had taken that about as far as they could.
Local providers of data
via microwave links asked if they could mount microwave reflectors on the
bottom of the mass-driver. It was a cheaper location than on a satellite,
and much higher than any mountain.
A variety of meteorologists
wanted to do studies of the upper atmosphere from the boarding station.
One entrepreneur proposed
the building of an entire pleasure resort in the upper atmosphere using the
solar balloon technology. He would enthuse grandly about how spectacular
the view would be from the window in each room. He did have to admit no one
would be able to step outside to enjoy this view, however. He was largely
regarded as a crackpot, and pretty much ignored by Acceleration Inc.
Bruce's creation continued
to grow. The sight of Sky Bridge overhead was impressive from any nearby
location, but none more so than near the middle of the structure where it
seemed to bisect the vault of heaven. If one was directly underneath, each
balloon was almost twice the apparent diameter of the sun or moon. It was
easily visible in the daytime, though it looked washed-out with blue mist,
much like the daytime moon or very distant mountains. But Bruce most enjoyed
looking at it shortly after dusk or before dawn. Then, when the land was
darkened, and the sky was a deep blue-black, Sky Bridge would glow in the
rays coming from the sun beyond the horizon. At various times, the atmospheric
filtering of the sunlight would color the launcher gold or rose. At night,
as the tension in the anchoring tethers eased and they would start to bow
slightly, the crew would run the aircraft warning lights up each cable. It
was interesting to watch the red flashes of light arcing upward, seemingly
It was also interesting
to climb up onto one of the two enormous concrete anchoring slabs, lean over
the guardrail surrounding the pit leading down to the massive take-up reel,
and place one's ear to the anchoring tether. The sounds that unceasingly
echoed up and down the twenty four kilometer length of cable could soon create
a most eerie mood.
By the winter of 2003, Sky
Bridge was complete.
It was the day of the first
launch of cargo from Sky Bridge. They had performed numerous tests which
involved accelerating an empty bucket, decelerating it, and bringing it back
to the boarding station, but this would be their first acceleration of cargo
into low Earth orbit, and they had a paying customer. NASA was purchasing
their launching services for the lofting of a load of carbon granules to
space station Alpha. The carbon would supply their air filters for over a
year. The next launch the following week would be fuel. But the fuel would
be a very high-mass launch. It had been decided that this first test launch
should be the much lower-mass raw carbon. After careful data analysis of
both launches, the schedule called for daily launches, and ultimately, hourly
launches. But they had to prove the mammoth thing worked first.
Reggie and Bruce walked
out of the fierce South American sun, and into the air conditioned coolness
of Acceleration's Launcher Control in Belo Horizonte. Many people were
erroneously calling it Launch Control. It was impossible to keep some of
the old space program vocabulary from slipping into their lexicon. The popular
press seemed to enjoy the resonances between this enterprise and the space
program as it was in its earlier days. This "Mission Control room" was quite
a bit smaller than NASA's in Houston, and required only a tiny fraction of
the controllers. But it was built along the same lines, and seemed no less
They were introduced to
Casandra Morris, Director of Operations for Launcher Control. She was a small
woman with large, round glasses, and long, dark-brown hair which she kept
wound in a pony tail down her back.
"The Cargo Bullet has been
backed into the Bucket and latched in. The combined vehicle is now cycling
through the air lock," announced one of the technicians seated at a nearby
Bruce frowned with annoyance.
After arguing with Reggie on the subject of avoiding gun-derived terminology,
he was now dismayed to see the term "bullet" come into universal use among
press and staff alike when referring to the launch vehicles. It was, he supposed,
inevitable. The launch capsules resembled nothing so much as a rifle bullet.
Similar function leads to similar form. He realized he just had to accept
The countdown began. The
press, kept in a room behind large picture windows which overlooked the control
room, began to stir. Bruce was tempted to step outside and look up at the
launcher, then realized this was a silly impulse. The bucket and bullet would
be quite invisible from this distance. All the facts were here in front of
him on the giant computerized displays, and the remote camera feeds.
Before he hardly realized
it, they had reached the end of the countdown. The mass-driver coils were
firing sequentially, and the bucket with its carbon laden bullet inside was
accelerating down the length of the launcher. The velocity indicator showed
it approaching and then exceeding mach one with astonishing swiftness...
* * *
Juscelino was on his knees
working in his backyard garden when he heard a distance-muffled, but very
distinct <whump> from above. He had heard a sound like it before, the
sound made when a military jet breaks the sound barrier. But it was a sound
he had never heard here, so far from any military air base. Then he remembered
today was the day of the first launch. He glanced upward at the offending
object, almost straight overhead here. The realization sank in that it was
a sound he would eventually have to hear day in and out, and which he would
have to get used to if he wanted to remain in this house which he loved so.
"Oh well," he wearily thought
to himself, "I suppose one can get used to almost anything with time". It
was better than living next to the airport like his idiot brother Alvares.
* * *
In Launcher Control there
was much shouting and back-clapping. The bucket had been snapped back, and
the bullet had continued on its path out of the launcher and into space.
The technology had performed flawlessly.
Reggie grabbed Bruce by
the back of his collar and pulled him close to shout in his ear so as to
be heard over the jubilant cries. "Hey, buddy! What was that you were saying
about nothing new working right the first time?"
Bruce could only grin, and
then duck away from a nearby champagne bottle which had just launched a
projectile of its own.
* * *
The next day's launch payload
was fuel. Although to be exact, it was nothing more than a tanker bullet
loaded down with plain water. A company called Orbital Fuels Inc. had created
an ingenious fuel depot in low Earth orbit. There, they had a Space Shuttle
External Tank which had been donated to them by NASA. To this, OFI had added
a large solar cell array. The array always faced the sun, and was arranged
so as to permanently shadow the tank. The ET was outfitted with two compressors
and many square meters of heat radiators which were also eternally shaded
from the sun's warming rays.
The plan was for the tanker
bullet to dock with the depot, and disgorge its contents into a small holding
tank. The water was then electrolisized into hydrogen and oxygen. These gases
were run through separate compressors and heat radiators until they liquefied.
The resulting cryogenic fuel was then routed to the two separate tanks inside
the ET for storage.
As things progressed, more
and more space shuttles would stop at this depot, and drop off space craft
attached to boosters with empty fuel tanks. The boosters would gas up, and
then lift their payloads to their destinations. It was considered much safer
than having large amounts of volatile liquid rocket fuel in the cargo bay
of the shuttle, or inside the tanker bullet. Water did not require elaborate
cryonic systems in order to keep it from vaporizing while in transit. It
was also cheaper in the sense that the water was much denser than the resulting
hydrogen/oxygen fuel. A ton of H2O molecules could be delivered to orbit
with less tankage than if they were separated from the start, and every pound
saved was money earned. But what made the entire project most appealing to
Bruce was that it tapped the energy of the sun in space in order to make
the fuel. He saw it as the first step towards using the resources of space
in order to further space development.
The first tanker-bullet
launch was also without flaw. The stresses on the mass-driver had been as
high as predicted, but well within spec. OFI enjoyed a thriving business,
and eventually expanded, building a second depot in geosynchronous orbit.
There, the twenty-four-hour-a-day sunlight permitted fuel manufacture around
the clock. Ships at GEO could fuel up for the return leg back down to lower
orbits, while other ships would re-fuel and head upwards for points beyond.
Consumables and raw material
supply to Alpha and a host of other new stations now being built continued
to provide big business. A renaissance of space activities began as projects
too expensive to mount before suddenly became affordable.
Bruce waited until after
a particularly favorable consortium stock report meeting to press Elisabeth
on the subject of expanding Skybridge. There was some launching of satellites
taking place, but only those which had been specifically designed from the
start for high G-loads. Bruce successfully seduced her with the market for
a much broader range of satellite designs.
Sky Bridge began to grow
Mark Fairbanks sat in the
repair bullet and waited for the airlock to finish its cycle. His hand came
up and bumped against the clear faceplate of his pressure-suit helmet. Mark
had a long beard and a bad habit of stroking it when distracted. The helmet
always frustrated this mannerism. Not that he disliked his pressure suit,
mind you. It was visually indistinguishable from the space suits the astronauts
wore, a fact he took great pleasure in.
It was only slightly less
complicated than the NASA suits. Temperature control was required. Although
there was one small pressurized oxygen tank for emergency use, the back pack
was primarily an air compressor. Its function was to pull in the thin air
at Sky Bridge altitude, and bring it up closer to sea-level pressure so it
was much more breathable. Although some CO2 scrubbing did take place, stale
air was, for the most part, simply pushed out of the suit. The pressure suit
was not quite hermetic, but in appearance was no different looking than an
actual space suit.
When alone in the suiting-up
room, Mark would sometimes admire how he looked in the mirror, encased in
the white purity of his suit. He would pose with helmet thrown jauntily under
one arm, and his long, curly hair framed by the enormous collar seal. Mark
had always wanted to be an astronaut, and this was as close as he was going
to get. Closer than most dare devils without a physics degree, anyway.
His legs were beginning
to ache. He was tall, gangly in fact, and the camped cockpit of the repair
vehicle he sat in did not seem to have enough room for his long, slender
legs. His single seat was crowded on both sides by equipment lockers and
massive tool boxes.
Finally the outer door swung
open, and the repair bullet plus its surrounding bucket began to roll out
of the airlock. An endless expanse of three silvery levitation strips and
dull-gray driver coils now lay before him. For a short moment his craft sat
there, poised at the beginning of the mass-driver. Then the magnetic fields
from the first driver coil gripped the bucket's fields, and the capsule began
Mark's vehicle repeatedly
interrupted light beams aimed at photo sensitive cells, causing the coils
ahead to continuously urge the craft forward. It was a modest acceleration:
scarcely more than half a G. But he didn't have far to go. The hoops of the
driver coils ahead expanded and whipped past him at an increasing rate. He
moved in and out of shadows as the tiny vessel passed beneath the giant balloons.
As he gradually picked up speed, the eddy-current-induced magnetic fields
in the three aluminum levitation strips near the bottom of the mass-driver
began to repel, lifting the vehicle. Soon after, the deceleration cut in.
The bullet landing gear had no sooner retracted through the slots in the
bottom of the bucket than they had to drop back downward again to touch down
on the curved levitation strips. Now the repair bullet was gliding into the
darkness under a deflated balloon which was draped limply over the mass-driver.
This balloon was his destination. The vehicle slowly came to a stop.
Mark watched the canopy
rise about two and a half feet. Then the nose of the craft swung out and
downward on a hinge. Repair bullets were the only Sky Bridge vehicles with
this design feature. Constrained by the surrounding mass-driver, the canopy
was not able to rise fully, and the lowering of the nose facilitated the
repairman exiting the vehicle. Mark lifted his toolbox, and clambered out.
He casually stood upon a
narrow strip of aluminum not much more than half a meter wide, twenty four
kilometers above the ground. After a brief stretch, he began to shine his
wrist light around to illuminate the dark, flaccid fabric surrounding him.
The only other light came up from the thin strip of the Earth which could
barely be glimpsed between the shifting folds of material hanging for hundreds
of meters below. He spoke the computer commands which would instruct a compressor
to pump air into the balloon. He did this not in a vain attempt to inflate
it, but merely to locate the tear.
He snapped the infra red
goggles onto his helmet and peered downward, hoping that the leak would be
on the inside. Those on the outside of a draped balloon were a real bitch
to fix. It could almost never be done on-site.
His scans were rewarded.
There, in IR, was the unmistakable plume of solar-heated air gushing out
from a gash in the fabric. The tear didn't look to be more than five hundred
meters down, and was probably no more than a meter long. A cinch to fix.
He issued the verbal command to the repair bullet's computer which instructed
it to back up a bit. He followed his vehicle, walking along the curved trough
of the levitation strip, and then stopped it directly above the tear. Mark
then fastened his safety line to the cable attachment just below the nose
of his craft.
Next came the part that
always made him feel like a spider. He leaned back on his line while touching
a control. An enormous spool inside the repair bullet reeled out line, lowering
him from the mass-driver. He went down, down, between the slowly undulating
walls of fabric. This was where his rappelling experience came in handy.
As he approached the wound in the balloon he slowed his descent and stopped
level with it.
In no time at all the tear
was patched, and he was being reeled back up on the line. Once on the
mass-driver, he sat on a coil and waited for the balloon to re-inflate. It
always took a long time.
Eventually, the balloon
became an enormous deformed spheroid, but this was enough for solar heating
to begin to create buoyancy. The mile-wide clear-and-white mass began to
lift up and off of the driver. The thin aluminized-mylar disk beneath the
balloon was in tatters. Repairing it was generally not deemed worth the risk
to the repairman. Even in a torn state, it still helped to reflect some heat
back into the balloon at night.
With the raising of the
balloon, surrounding vistas were revealed for the first time since Mark had
exited the vehicle. The mass-driver was a fairly open framework composed
of only a few slender girders, so there was little to obstruct the surrounding
view. The repair had gone by quickly. So, as he often did, Mark took some
time out to enjoy the scenery.
It was like the view from
a high-flying passenger jet, only instead of being constrained by a tiny
porthole it was panoramic. A bluish cast covered the distant Earth, not just
on the horizon, but directly underneath as well. Mark could see sinuous rivers
which sometimes caught the sun's light and shone dazzlingly. Cities revealed
themselves as geometrically perfect crystals. Farmlands also had a kind of
patchwork perfection. The clouds welling up beneath him were those puffy
kind which looked as solid as sculpted marble. It was interesting to think
that as the inhabitants of the remote land below looked upward at the
underbellies of these clouds, he was looking downward upon their tops.
He began to daydream of
flying among those brilliantly white clouds. In addition to rappelling, base
jumping, and skydiving, he also enjoyed hang gliding. He had brought his
hang glider (here called an asa delta) with him to Brazil, and occasionally
took it to Rio De Janeiro over the weekends in order to leap off of the giant
granite slab mountains which overlooked that sprawling metropolis. How Mark
would have loved to leap from here with his trusty hang glider overhead!
It seemed like it would surely take him days to glide back down to the distant
land. Alas, it could never be. There was no way his glider could fit into
the repair bullet, even when disassembled.
Then he was suddenly struck
with a vision of himself skydiving off of Sky Bridge. Or would it be base
jumping? Whatever, it might come close to the world record. He would have
to look up the facts on the skydive of Captain Joseph Kittinger who had jumped
from a high-altitude helium balloon in a pressure suit of his own. Even if
it was no good for getting into Guinness, it would still be a unique experience.
His pressure suit was, after all, equipped with a parachute behind the backpack.
It was a contingency for any misstep sans safety line.
How would he do it? His
first visualization was a swan dive. Then he re-thought that. It would be
better to jump off backwards. It would be interesting to see Sky Bridge soar
away above him. There would be plenty of time to turn around and look at
the ground, for sure.
He was halfway tempted to
do it now, and just say he had slipped, that's all. But in a short while
he stood up and began to make his way back to the repair bullet.
Perhaps another time.
A plea for ten G's
By the middle of 2005 the
Earth was ringed with uncountable communication satellites in a variety of
orbits. Most all of them had been built from components and materials delivered
into space cheaply and reliably by Sky Bridge. Now everyone had those wrist
communicators which they had been promised for so many years. The wristcoms
were made possible by satellites which were giants compared to those launched
back in the days of crackling rockets roaring off of launch pads. The
long-prophesied picture phones were also in every home, and would soon be
on the wristcoms as well.
The consortium's profits
were growing almost embarrassingly huge, and Acceleration Inc.'s share of
it was not small. Now Bruce was pressing Elisabeth to extend Sky Bridge to
the originally designed length of three hundred and twenty kilometers. This
would permit orbital speeds to be obtained with no more than ten G's of
acceleration. Most humans would find this gravity level tolerable for the
eighty seconds required. Then Acceleration could bring the passenger bullets
on-line, and begin launching people, not just fuel and cargo.
"We're doing just fine with
the current market," Elisabeth insisted. "I know our cash flow is rather
enormous at the moment. But the only way you could convince me to sink more
money into expansion is if you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that
the passenger market is going to be bigger than all the markets we have now
"It will, Liz," Bruce said
"I'm sorry, Dr. Franklin.
Your thousands of emigrants heading out for the new frontier are not terribly
real for me. I'm sorry. It's a beautiful dream. It may even come true some
day in the far future. But I cannot convince the consortium to sink yet another
fifteen billion into Sky Bridge over anything not in the very near future."
This remark stung Bruce,
even though Elisabeth had delivered it as tactfully as she knew how. Bruce
could respect her position. He realized that not everyone was consumed by
the same dream he was, nor felt the urgency about it which he did.
It was, strangely enough,
Bruce's 'standard boogie man' who came to his rescue. The Japanese were keenly
interested in building resort hotels in Earth orbit. Their market projections
indicated it as a potential multi-billion dollar industry. The venture could
get off to a limited start with nothing more than one, small, zero-G station
dedicated to lodging. This was by virtue of the fact that there was a market
of extremely wealthy people willing to spend millions in order to be among
the first to vacation in space. For the venture to succeed, however, they
had to follow on a few years later with a more mass market; say anyone who
could presently afford a trip to Australia, or an African safari.
The attractions of a holiday
in space were easy to see. Zero gravity afforded an amusement which could
not be bought on Earth for any price. The view certainly couldn't be beat.
And none could deny that the prestige associated with having actually done
it would be a significant factor.
The Japanese had firm designs
for these space resorts. They even had a heavy lift launch vehicle in development
which would haul the station components up. But they hoped to send paying
customers up on Sky Bridge, saving themselves from the additional expense
of developing some kind of aerospace plane. They had the money, and the
guaranteed market to convince the consortium the expansion was worth doing.
Sky Bridge continued to
Man-rating: First attempt
It was the fall of 2006.
The day of the first test launching of a manned passenger bullet broke clear
and sunny. This suited Bruce just fine. He always seemed even more chipper
on a sunny day.
The first two humans up
would be Doctors Reggie Deitrich and Bruce Franklin, of course. They met
that morning in the suiting-up room. The suiting up room was an area of the
Launcher Control building normally used by the Sky Bridge repairmen for getting
into their pressure suits when called up for a repair job. This morning,
Bruce and Reggie used it to climb into their space suits.
Bruce leaned in close to
his friend so as not to be overheard by the surrounding reporters and whispered,
"You sure look like hell, I must say."
"Uughhh." Reggie blinked
bleary red eyes, and murmured, "Blame it on Rio."
True to his word, Reggie
had not missed a single weekend without hopping a jet to Rio De Janeiro.
Reggie had always lived to party, but at the rate he was now going, Bruce
didn't give him much odds on making it past fifty.
The space suits they were
squirming into were nearly identical to the ones used by NASA. The press
was eating this up. For the older members of the press corps, this whole
affair was like the glory days of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo all over again.
In no time, Reggie was whistling the theme to "The Right Stuff" for their
Bruce had argued vigorously
against wearing space suits. No paying passengers would be wearing space
suits, he insisted. Casandra had then made an attempt to appeal to his sense
of logic. She now described the suits as a contingency against a possible
malfunction on the mass-driver which Reggie and Bruce might possibly repair
without having to come back down again. Bruce was unsure about the logic
of this argument, but finally relented.
Bruce went along with Casandra
more often than not because over the past several months he had come to have
the greatest respect for her abilities. She had a quick mind which grasped
and retained all of the details, missing nothing.
Both men picked up the portable
PC's they would use to monitor launcher functions, and then walked from the
room. They were loaded into a van and driven to the elevator boarding platform.
The elevators which rode
up the first tether on Sky Bridge looked a great deal like the larger and
fancier cable cars found at ritzy ski resorts. There were some differences.
An air compressor mounted underneath maintained internal pressure while the
car ascended. The heaters were more elaborate. There were places to stand
and admire the view, but also places to sit down.
Bruce, Reggie, and four
cameramen boarded the elevator car. The door swung down on its rubber gaskets.
In short order the car began to climb the twenty four kilometer cable to
The engineers both appreciated
that the view afforded by this ascent would be part of the attractiveness
of launching from Sky Bridge. It had even been seriously proposed that
Acceleration offer bargain-rate tickets merely for the ride up to the boarding
station and back.
As the group was lofted
upwards, nearby features dropped away, and more distant vistas came into
view. In time, the surrounding hills and valleys took on the appearance of
some elaborately sculpted model covered with fine green velvet. Soon the
land below began to take on a bluish color, and still they climbed.
The colossal balloons of
Sky Bridge were now growing more rapidly in the tinted windows overhead.
In time, the mass-driver itself could be seen. The elevator car now began
to slow as it approached the spherical boarding station suspended at the
beginning of the launcher. A tiny communications dish jutted out from the
side of the globe, pointing downwards. The bottom of the station was a mass
of giant grapplers and pipes leading away from the massive air compressor.
With a muffled bump and
a clang, the car docked with the belly of the boarding station. The passengers
now ascended a corkscrew stair-case, and headed in.
There was a dome-shaped
observation lounge on the top level complete with binocular telescopes and
muzak. Someday soon, passengers waiting for their scheduled bullet would
sit there in comfort. But Reggie and Bruce had already enjoyed the view of
the impossibly-distant horizon from those panoramic windows, and headed without
detour to the passenger boarding level.
After a short wait, their
passenger bullet slid out of the tunnel leading out from the storage garage.
The two-man craft was silver on the nose and belly. These surfaces on the
hull were where the highest temperatures would be experienced on re-entry
and were left bare, unpainted metal in order to aid in heat dissipation.
The rest of the capsule was painted glossy white except for a black, triangular
area leading from the base of the window to a point near the nose.
The vehicle glided to a
stop next to them as its transparent canopy hissed up. The cameramen shot
the two space-suited figures as they climbed into the needle-nosed craft.
The canopy swung back down and sealed. As the two passengers buckled in,
the bullet began to move off on its three small landing gear and left the
They entered the area where
the buckets were stored and prepped. Now moving backwards on a spur track,
the bullet climbed up into one. As they backed in, each landing gear folded
forward as it rolled up the short ramp leading to the lip of the bucket.
Then the wheels dropped back down again through openings in the bottom. Contact
points at the rear of the bullet mated together with those in the bucket.
The gear now extended fully once again, and the entire affair raised up into
the air a couple of centimeters. The combination of bullet and bucket then
moved forward towards the open inner-door of the airlock.
Once they were stopped inside
the lock, the inner-door dropped and latched. The sea-level-pressure air
inside was slowly spewed out into the surrounding thinness. Reggie opened
his laptop PC. When the small screen was raised, the PC always played the
opening bars of the original Star Trek theme. Reggie was also using an unusual
screen saver. It was not the extremely popular, full-motion-video, three
hundred and sixty degree pan through the forest with the babbling brook,
nor was it any one of an infinity of rotating three dimensional fractals.
It looked like nothing better than the old moving starfield of the last century
until one watched it long enough to catch the USS Enterprise whooshing by
at random intervals.
"We're nearly equalized
now," Reggie began a running commentary for the controllers down at Belo
Horizonte. "OK, now the outer door is opening."
The vehicle rolled out into
the launcher and stopped. The mass-driver formed a pattern of converging
straight lines and repeating hoops stretching out before them far beyond
the range of human vision. The accelerating coils were spaced fairly far
apart, but created the illusion of a solid tunnel beyond several hundred
meters. It was hard to see more than the first balloon which lie ahead.
Bruce tried to analyze his
feelings at this historic moment. He was a bit nervous certainly, but more
than anything else, he felt ready. Ready to prove that his creation could
indeed launch men into space. Safely, that is.
Casandra's voice came to
them over their helmet speakers. "Bullet One, this is Belo Horizonte. All
diagnostics read green for launch."
"Roger that," Reggie replied.
"All systems green for launch". Bruce had to smile. Reggie was in his glory.
Bruce recited the very short
Reggie glanced at his companion
quizzically, but returned his gaze forward almost immediately as they went
off. The men were pressed back into their seats by ten times the normal force
of gravity. The coils of the mass-driver soared past at a constantly increasing
tempo until they blurred into invisibility.
They heard a whir and a
thump which indicated that the landing gear had retracted. Now they were
riding solely on magnetic fields. It was for the good: any kind of wheel
would soon fly apart at the speeds they were approaching.
A faint roar began to build
as air, even as thin as at this altitude, protested at being rent through.
Now there was a distant whining sound, increasing in pitch. Bruce searched
for an explanation, and finally decided it might be the magnetic tugs of
each passing driver coil, now raised in frequency to where they produced
waves of audible sound.
The mass-driver was now
a ghostly, shimmering gray tunnel around them through which they could easily
see the supporting balloons flying by overhead. The balloons' passage also
had an ever-accelerating rhythm, like the coils before. The sunlight streaming
in through the clear canopy strobed madly as mile-long shadows passed by
too quickly to count.
"Acceleration profile nominal,"
Reggie struggled to get out. "All systems functioning normally."
Although they could not
yet see the end of the launcher, they knew bucket-vehicle separation was
near. Then a powerful decelerating force was on them with a shocking brutality.
As both men were thrown against their restraining harnesses with almost
unbearable pressure, they realized something was horribly wrong. Some sensation
of deceleration was expected at this point, as the bullet pushed its way
through the thin air and was slowed somewhat as a result. But nothing like
this. Their heads were bent forward at an extremely painful angle and their
arms stood grotesquely straight out in front of them. A dark tunnel of ebony
sparkles was flowing in front of their eyes when suddenly the crushing forces
Under normal circumstances,
an imaginary observer suspended in mid-air near the end of the launcher could
never hope to see a bullet come soaring out. The vehicle would pass and be
gone before the image could register on any retina. Such an observer today,
however, would have witnessed the craft exit the mouth of the launcher no
faster than a car on the freeway, and then almost immediately begin to plummet
towards the craggy slopes of Pico da Bandeira far below.
"Jesus, what happened?"
Reggie asked groggily. The bullet was in a slow tumble. Shafts of sunlight
and shadow swung sickeningly through the tiny cockpit.
Bruce tried to shake the
dark flashes from his eyes. Then a popping in his ears made him realize the
roaring sound which he heard was not blood rushing through his ears as he
had first thought, but an escape of air from somewhere in the craft. "Visors
down!" he barked, already sounding faint in the thinning air. Both men slapped
their helmet faceplates down.
The head engineer grabbed
his laptop PC from its new location wedged under the front of the canopy,
and scanned the system read-outs. None of the indicators were flashing red.
Then he noticed that the display which should have shown the bucket being
pulled back up the length of the launcher was static. The bucket should now
be getting recalled back towards the boarding station, but there was no indicator
showing its location on Sky Bridge. He looked up and saw, to his mortification,
that the bucket was still with them.
The view in the extreme
left and right parts of the window should by now have been unblocked. But
there instead was the lip of the bucket, still tightly gripping their vehicle.
Reggie was now looking at it too with dazed disbelief. Somehow, the contact
points must have jammed.
"Launcher Control, the bucket
is still with us," Reggie reported, "I say again: we have exited the launcher
with the bucket still attached".
In Belo Horizonte, Casandra
came out of her seat, and felt herself walking with dream-like slowness to
the station directly ahead of her position. There she stood, stiffly erect,
looking over the shoulder of the seated console operator at every reading.
The Head Controller finally decided there was nothing she could do but continue
to claw at the top of the chair in front of her, and await the outcome.
Bruce seized the manual
control stick which he had insisted be installed for the man-rating tests.
He carefully watched Earth and sky pass across the windshield, and then fired
control jets to stop the dizzying tumble they were in. That done, he then
pitched the nose of the craft straight up. He hit the engines full blast,
then almost immediately cut the thrust. He did this again and again, pounding
the throttle, snapping it back and then pounding again.
"What the hell are you trying
to do?" Reggie demanded loudly. "Afraid we haven't had about enough already?"
"You don't understand. With
this bucket all over us, we can't deploy the chute." He turned to look at
his friend. "If I can't shake this thing loose, we're going to hit the water
like a brick...and then sink like one too."
Bruce continued to hammer
at the throttle. They remained in the bucket's stubborn grip.
"Save us some fuel," Reggie
insisted. "Maybe we can fire the engines at the last second to cushion our
fall. Maybe we won't drown if we can just survive the impact."
"Wouldn't do any good,"
was the tight-lipped reply. "Minus the weight of the bucket, maybe. But this
thing weighs tons".
Reggie had helped his partner
to design the driver bucket, and knew he was right. It contained two massive
coil windings and dewars full of liquid nitrogen. Besides, the bullet's four
tiny rocket engines were designed only for adjusting the orbit once it was
out of the atmosphere, and didn't have that much thrust.
Bruce kept up the pogo-like
maneuver, and was finally rewarded with the bucket slipping off and tumbling
away. Now he righted the craft, and deployed the steerable parachute.
"Casandra, he did it!" Reggie
exclaimed. "We're shook loose, and flying free now." The two men could hear
the crew in Launcher Control rejoice briefly, but soon grow quiet again,
realizing a difficult part still lie ahead. Bruce had to land, and they were
too many kilometers from the runway to return and land there. They were precisely
over the coast. The seemingly limitless blue expanse of the South Atlantic
lay to their left, the gray mountain peaks and green hills of Brazil lay
"Go to splash-down procedures,"
"No," Bruce suddenly said.
"We've got a hull breach here somewhere. If I put us down in the soup, this
bullet will sink."
There was a pause on the
other end. Then the voice of Launcher Control came back to them. "Our people
inform me that you guys can float in those space-suits."
"Huh-uh," Bruce said
skeptically, "Virgil Grissom almost drowned because they told him he could
float in his space suit. No way. Try to find me a small airstrip. If you
can't, I can put this thing down on a road anywhere."
Casandra fumed at Bruce's
stubbornness, but remained silent.
* * *
Meanwhile, the bucket crashed
down onto the slopes of Pico da Bandeira kilometers below. It rolled and
bounced madly for almost half a minute, and finally came to rest in a shallow
depression near the sands of the shore. There it laid, a still, twisted wreck
which spewed vapors.
* * *
In the skies above, Bruce
was slowly turning their tiny craft towards the land.
"Bruce, what's the deal,
man?" Reggie asked.
"The technical reason for
this screw-up could be somewhere in this bullet," he explained. "I'll be
damned if I'm going to splash it somewhere, and then have it sink to where
it can't be recovered for months."
"So you gamble with both
"Reggie!" Bruce erupted,
turning to face his friend sharply. Then, softening somewhat, he continued.
"Trust me on this. I know what I'm doing."
"Like I have a choice. I
notice they put that stick on your side."
Cautiously, so they wouldn't
swing forward under the parachute and stall, Bruce began to fire the engines.
He did this partly to keep them level so they might clear the jagged peaks
of the Great Escarpment ahead, but also to burn off as much fuel as possible
Soon they were beyond the
slate-colored mountains, and proceeding into the lush, green interior of
the nation. Plagued by a nightmare vision of plunging headlong into the thick
Brazilian forest, Bruce was now scanning the verdant land ahead for some
kind of road. Soon he had one. It was broad but sinuous. Gear dropping, they
descended toward it.
The traffic was frighteningly
dense. Bruce tried to dip down low enough to be seen in windshields, and
then climbed slightly. He had the attention of the drivers now. While unsure
what the heck that they were looking at, they sensibly backed off, and Bruce
had the opening they needed to land.
Touchdown. Now he steered
the front landing gear, trying to keep up with the curves in the road. He
began to apply brake cautiously. The parachute angled back until it became
a drogue. The vehicle finally braked to a halt.
The canopy rose. Bruce and
Reggie emerged, and removed their helmets. They stood on the road taking
in their surroundings.
"Do I really have to kiss
the ground? I think there's motor oil here," Reggie quipped.
A helicopter from Launcher
Control approached. The pilot looked down to see many vehicles stopped in
the road. The lead vehicle stood out somewhat though, seeing as how it looked
like something from the twenty-second century. Indeed, the two space-suited
men standing beside it looked as though they had just pulled in from Mars.
As the chute billowed in
the breeze behind them, the engineers were surrounded; first by travelers
who shouted to them in Portuguese, then later by reporters who kept asking
them what it felt like to be alive.
They were alive.
Caught in the act
The next day, Bruce, Reggie
and Casandra were already delving into failure analysis. Reggie had his own
theories as to where things had started to go wrong.
"Where did you get off saying
'Energize' when the countdown reached zero?"
Bruce smiled warily, and
answered. "Well, it had occurred to me earlier that 'ignition' wasn't right
since we weren't setting fire to rocket fuel. The process starts with the
energization of the first coil in the driver..."
"Well, 'energize' is not
appropriate," Reggie lectured. "That's what you say when you want to beam
somewhere. What you say in a situation like this is 'engage'. C'mon, say
it with me." He thrust his pointing hand forward, and intoned with his best
Yorkshire accent, "Engage!"
"Sounds like another case
of the cultural schism between Classic Trek and Next Generation to me," Casandra
opined. "Now," she added good-naturedly, "if we could get back to the problem
It was obvious why they
had not made it into low Earth orbit. The bucket, instead of peeling away
from the passenger bullet as soon as the decelerating magnetic fields began
to act upon it, had instead clung on, slowing the bullet along with it. Those
decelerating forces had been calculated to bring the bucket to a complete
halt, but not with the weight of the vehicle inside. They emerged from the
launcher, but with only a tiny fraction of the velocity needed to climb beyond
The contact points between
bucket and bullet had mysteriously frozen together. In fact, they had stuck
with such strength that one of the points in the bullet had tore off, and
was later found in the mangled remains of the bucket. It was this structure
being torn loose from the hull which had caused the rupture, depressurizing
the vessel. Further analysis revealed that the contact points had been affected
by a phenomena known as vacuum welding.
Most metals we come into
daily contact with reside at the bottom of a flowing ocean of oxygenated
air. Every metal surface we see is covered with at least a thin coating of
oxidized metal. This layer is the only thing keeping any one piece of metal
from instantly bonding to another which comes into contact with it. Any breaks
occurring in the coating are immediately renewed by the oxygen in the surrounding
air. In a vacuum, however, this renewal of the oxide layer does not occur.
Two metal surfaces coming into contact can instantly bond tighter than if
they had been deliberately spot-welded together.
The phenomena was normally
only associated with space engineering. But Sky Bridge was at an extremely
high altitude. The surrounding air was so thin that they were experiencing
only slightly less trouble in this regard than a designer of spacecraft.
A graphic of a bucket-to-bullet
contact point was rotating on the CAD/CAM monitor before the trio. The bucket
portion of the mechanism was shaped like a popsicle. The bullet portion looked
like the mold which had formed the popsicle.
"Gosh, no wonder we have
a vacuum welding problem here. Look at all that surface area!" Bruce rubbed
his chin thoughtfully. "You know, I don't remember designing the cargo bullet
contact points to look like that."
"That's because you didn't,"
Reggie replied, and split the screen in order to display both side-by-side.
The contact points for the cargo bullet had the same diameter as those for
the passenger version. But these, by contrast, were shallow hemispheres.
They were about the same proportions as the dome on the bottom of a Coke
"Dammit, now why are they
different?" Bruce was fuming. "Zoom in on the signature". Reggie complied.
"Hey, somebody get Don Jamison's sorry butt in here!" Bruce demanded.
"I think he's back to working
on the Chicago to Los Angeles maglev run," Casandra stated.
"Then let's get him on the
vid. I've got a bone to pick with that man."
Shortly later, Don Jamison
was on the videophone looking somewhat mystified. Bruce was piping through
a graphic of the longer contact points in addition to his own scowling face.
"Recognize your baby?"
"Well, yes," the man on
the screen responded, "I was involved somewhat in the design of the..."
"Your baby almost killed
us yesterday," Bruce stated flatly. "Now answer me one question: Why are
the contact points for the passenger bullet and bucket designed differently
than those for the cargo vehicle?"
"Well..," Don began to stammer,
"The vehicle is a different design..."
"So you had to re-invent
the wheel," the Head Engineer interrupted. "Have you ever heard of a little
saying that goes 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'? If there's anything I
can't stand, it's an engineer who approaches every new job as though nothing
like it has ever been done before. I don't like designs which
are different just to be different! STANDARDIZE STANDARDIZE STANDARDIZE!"
The designer looked out
at them from the screen sullenly. "I don't believe in torturing people,"
Bruce added, "so I'll tell you now that you do still have your job."
Now Don's eyes widened as he realized for the first time he possibly could
have lost his position over this.
"Now you can get back to
what you were doing," Bruce said dismissively. The screen darkened. Bruce
heaved a sigh, and then turned to the task of replacing the passenger bullet
contact points with the same design which had successfully pushed thousands
of tons of cargo into space.
* * *
Then next morning, when
Bruce approached the door to his office, he saw that a small cartoon had
been taped there. He was fairly sure it was from Reggie. Whenever Reggie
saw a cartoon which tickled his fancy, he would always save it to an optical
drive on his PC which was solely dedicated to the task.
This one depicted a man
who has grabbed some unfortunate individual by the back of the neck. He is
pushing the poor man's face down towards a benchtop on which lies some kind
of small plastic widget. The man-handler is shouting, "Oh, just look at what
you designed! Bad engineer! BAD, BAD engineer!!" A short distance away stands
a third man, hands on hips, who is looking on skeptically. His word balloon
reads, "What a moron! Hey Bob, you'll never break him that way! You've gotta
catch him in the act!"
Bruce smiled. It was the
first time in a couple of days.
Far above the Earth, Mark
Fairbanks spun around slowly as the take-up reel in his repair bullet pulled
him back up to the mass-driver. He had just established that the balloon
to which he had been dispatched was too badly damaged to be repaired on site.
He had merely placed temporary fasteners on the fabric so that the balloon
could not slip over and hang straight down. When a deflated balloon did that,
it always triggered the automatic jettison system, and no one enjoyed taking
responsibility for a mile of balloon fabric fluttering downward to land on
God knows what.
He had spent less than one
half of the time budgeted for this trip out onto Sky Bridge. If he was serious
about an illicit sky dive off the launcher, now was the time. Did he have
His repair bullet was stopped
only a short distance from the far edge of the limp balloon. He walked along
one of the levitation strips until he was well clear of the shifting fabric.
He stood and looked out at the impossibly distant horizon, and then downward
towards the twenty four kilometer drop at his feet. Summoning up his resolve,
Mark turned, composed himself, and then took a deliberate, skillful back-dive
off the launcher.
The air was so thin and
his pressure-suit so thick that there was no immediate sensation of rushing
air. The mass-driver above him seemed to be leaping straight upward to the
heavens. The linear structure contracted in width, although its length would
never cease to span his face plate. The driver soon became a one-dimensional
line with no discernible features. In a surprisingly short length of time,
it was no longer visible at all. Now even the balloons were getting smaller
with the rapidly increasing distance. As they receded, Mark could see more
of the blue-black color which dimmed the sky straight above. The almost
impossibly-dark hue impressed on one that Sky Bridge was a good part of the
way into space.
But Earth was where he was
heading. Mark swung his arms and legs so as to roll over on the upward rush
of air, now slowly becoming an invisible, supporting force beneath him. It
would have been a mistake for him to stay on his back until the balloons
shrank to nothingness. He would have reached the Earth before that could
happen. Mark was just starting to admire the downward view when he suddenly
remembered he had not yet radioed his situation to the controllers on the
ground. If the fall had been accidental, he surely would not have hesitated
to call them.
"Belo Horizonte, come in
please." He tried to sound like a man in control of himself, while at the
same time deliberately injecting a tiny amount of panic into his voice.
"Belo here, go ahead," came
the voice of Casandra back at him.
Casandra was back on shift
now! Mark suddenly felt the odds of him getting away with this stunt without
penalty had just dropped considerably. Nothing got away from that woman.
"Uhh, guys, I kind of tripped
and fell. I was between making safety line attachments. I'm coming down."
There was a considerable
pause at the other end. Were they buying it?
"Understood. There's nothing
either of us can do at this point. If you've been careful with your chute
folding and stowage, then there shouldn't be any kind of problem. Just don't
miss your deployment altitude."
"I promise you I won't.
Will signal when deployed, and then again after I've landed."
"Roger," Casandra replied.
"We're tracking you all the way down. Good luck."
That out of the way, Mark
could now observe the land below in silence. Some rather large cumulous clouds
were looming up below him. He had dropped quite a ways into the atmosphere
already. He was plowing into thicker and thicker regions of air, and so had
probably already slowed somewhat from his maximum velocity. He couldn't wait
to find out from the controllers what his top speed had been.
With the denser air he now
had even better control over his attitude. He angled his body so as to steer
himself towards a cleft in the billowing white cloud immediately below him.
He thought it might be good for a rush. The cloud layer was coming up at
him with increasing speed, and he was beginning to question if he was going
to make it. Then he was suddenly diving downward through a vertical valley
of puffy whiteness. Gray mists whipped past him on either side with breath-taking
speed. Then he broke though and out.
A short while later, Mark
noticed something by its absence. The soft, omnipresent hum of the air compressor
in his back pack had been getting steadily quieter, and could no longer be
heard at all now. He had descended to an altitude where the air was probably
quite breathable, but made no motion to remove his helmet. He certainly would
never have dreamed of sky-diving from a plane without his crash helmet.
The repairman began to divide
his attention between the enlarging landscape below and the altimeter on
the wrist of his suit. When he reached the proper height, he pulled the rip-cord,
realizing the next few seconds would probably determine whether or not he
would pay for this little stunt with his life.
There was a satisfactory
jerk, and Mark looked upwards. The parachute had deployed perfectly. He was
almost home free.
"Parachute is out and looking
good," he reported.
Free fall was pure exhilaration.
After chute deployment, however, came the slightly lazy, contemplative part
of the experience. Swinging gently beneath the canopy, his plummet now slowed,
Mark went back to observing the land below.
Green rolling hills abounded.
River snaked around from several directions. But there were also suburbs
and shopping centers. Highways flowed with tiny dots which methodically traced
their curves with seemingly perfect precision.
Soon Mark was beginning
to see enough detail below to worry him. There seemed to be an awful lot
of development where he was headed. He didn't much like the idea of coming
down on someone's roof, or worse, snagging his chute on a street light. He
began to tug on the control lines fitfully.
He was coming down into
a well-booked pleasure resort. Now a blue, sparkling rectangle was between
his feet. The pool! Mark quickly decided it would be better to go into the
pool than to come down on top of the crowd surrounding it. Oh well, at least
there was no way he could fracture two metatarsals this time.
He knifed down into the
clear water. He came to the top, threw off his helmet, and was treated to
the high pitched squeals of several women and girls plus the outraged shouts
of a few men. His parachute covered half the pool area, and there was now
a steady stream of people working their way out from under it. Mark's Portuguese
was still a bit thin, yet he recognized a few of the words being shouted
towards him as the kind seldom used in polite company.
Encumbered by his bulky
pressure suit, he laboriously kicked and stroked his way over to one edge
of the pool next to where a slender, dark-haired young woman sat in a lounge
chair. There was a tall drink beside her, a batidas by the look of it. The
spectacle of Mark's unconventional arrival seemed to have left the young
lady rooted to the spot. The dare devil heaved up from the water, and thrust
his elbows over the edge of the pool to cling there. His beard dripped water
onto the cement as his face broke into an enormous smile.
"Are you buying the next
round?" he asked her.
* * *
His next encounter with
a slender, dark-haired female was decidedly less pleasant. Casandra Morris
had her suspicions. The tiny woman stood before the gangly repairman and
mercilessly grilled him on every point of the incident. Mark sensibly stayed
as close to the truth as he could short of revealing that it had been a
She was aware of the
death-defying theme which ran throughout all of Mr. Fairbanks' recreational
activities. But when she stopped to consider it, what other personality type
could be paid to clamber all over a structure built twenty four kilometers
up in the atmosphere? Casandra knew what he had done, but had no proof. So
there the matter lay.
Man-rating: Second attempt
Bruce got out of his car,
and walked towards the Launcher Control building. He glanced upward at the
thin, patchy haze which hung above. The cloud layer looked like it had been
painted on glass. This was the day they would try another manned launching
from Sky Bridge.
He entered the building,
and found he had to push his way past a mass of reporters in the halls. Now
that the first man-rating attempt had ended in near tragedy, public interest
in the goings on here in Brazil had reached a fevered pitch. The engineer
plowed his way to the suiting-up room. Reggie was already there and halfway
into his suit. By contrast with the last time, he looked well-rested and
alert. Bruce was pleased Reggie was giving this attempt the seriousness it
Soon the men were on an
elevator car heading upwards. It was interesting to look out the windows
as they penetrated the thin haze above the Earth. A seemingly infinite plane
of slightly fuzzy gray slid down, around, and past them. Now that they were
above it, they could see slight undulations in the semi-transparent fog.
It was as though they were ascending above some vast, gray, sluggish sea.
The car climbed far beyond it towards the launcher waiting for them at the
top of the thin cable.
* * *
Meanwhile, inside the recesses
of the boarding station above them, a grappling arm swung a launcher bucket
out of its storage garage and over to a large electromagnet. The insulated
dewars surrounding each of the two large coils in the bucket had just been
refilled with liquefied nitrogen. Now the whipping fields of the electromagnet
induced electrical currents in those coils. The electrons would now circle
around the bucket unceasingly, generating a powerful magnetic field for as
long as the superconducting state remained in effect.
* * *
Shortly thereafter, the manned bullet was placed into the bucket, and now
it sat poised at the beginning of the launcher. Tension seemed even higher
this time around. Again, Bruce had the honor of reciting the countdown.
Reggie scowled, but had
no opportunity to complain as both men were suddenly pressed back into their
seats with a force equal to ten times their normal weight. The muted roar
of passing air and the high-pitched singing of the rapidly passing driver
coils had just begun when there was a sharp pop and then a steady hissing.
Reggie struggled to turn his leadened head towards the sound. He could see
just the edge of a white plume which curved back, dancing chaotically in
"Houston, we have a problem,"
the engineer said in a subdued, strangulated cry. "We must have split a seam.
We're losing nitrogen."
"Roger that," came the reply
from Casandra down at Belo Horizonte. "We show a rapid drop in nitrogen
pressure." Their instruments also indicated a drop in bucket coil temperature
as the liquefied air boiled and escaped, carrying heat energy with it. But
Casandra knew that when the nitrogen ran dry, this trend would rapidly reverse
itself. Standing now, she reached out for the back of the chair in front
of her, making the technician occupying it secretly wish she would go pick
on some one else's chair for a change.
* * *
Juscelino and his wife sat
in lounge chairs they had set up in the backyard, and were looking up at
the space launcher which hovered overhead. Being out here was a bit silly;
they could see nothing but a string of balloons at this distance. They were
getting far more information concerning this second manned launch attempt
on the small TV Delores had set up in the back doorway. But it was still
pleasant to lie back and sip maté, and interesting to realize that
two men were up there trying to do what no one had ever done before. The
near-fatal mishap on the first attempt only made it more exciting.
Suddenly, a thin white line
began to slowly trace itself a straight path along the bottom of the balloons.
It looked something like the contrail of a high altitude jet, but Juscelino
had paid enough attention to this whole affair to know that neither jet engines
nor rockets had anything to do with how these vehicles were propelled.
He turned to Delores and
gravely stated, "Looks like the Yankees are having troubles again."
* * *
In the bullet, Bruce and
Reggie could hear the last of the nitrogen coolant venting out of the bucket.
It hadn't taken long in the low pressure air which surrounded them. The special
ceramic-metal alloys in the bucket coil windings began to rise in temperature
and to lose their super-conducting abilities. Now the dense electrical currents
in the coils began to encounter resistance to their circular flowing, causing
the temperature to rise still further. It was a snowballing effect which
would eventually cause all current flow to cease. Even now, the men could
feel their acceleration begin to slack off as the bucket's magnetic field
diminished, leaving the mass-driver coils with less and less to grab on to.
As their speed and field
strength began to fall, the magnetic induction levitation effect which suspended
their craft began to fail. "The landing gear are going down," Reggie reported.
"We're dropping." With a screech, the gears contacted the now-useless levitation
strips. They were rolling on wheels now, and not very quickly at that.
Slowly, gradually, the vehicle
came to a protracted halt.
"Well, that certainly was
an anti-climactic end to this whole trip," Reggie declared with disgust.
Bruce scowled and spoke
into his helmet mike. "Launcher Control, Franklin here. What's our next step?"
"Standby Bullet Two," came
the reply from the ground. Then there was a lengthy silence which the two
men spent regarding each other soberly.
* * *
Casandra Morris began asking
questions of the young technician operating the console before her. "Simon,
the repair bullets are designed to go out to specific locations on the launcher.
Can we send one out to them?"
"The repair bullets are
one-seaters, remember," the tech responded. "To pick up both men, we would
have to make two trips."
"I don't really care much
for that idea," she stated. "The man left behind would have to wait over
an hour for the next capacitor charging. I feel like every minute I leave
someone up there, the more dangerous it is for them."
"Another point which occurs
to me," Simon added, "Is that the repair bullets have a pretty cramped cockpit.
The repairmen just barely fit in wearing their pressure suits. The space
suits Franklin and Deitrich are wearing have even larger backpacks. I don't
know if I can guarantee they could get the canopy down and latched once they
"We can't afford to waste
that much time. Can we send the alternate passenger bullet out to them, instead?"
"We would have to use the
same acceleration and deceleration programs which we use to drive the repair
bullets," the man said thoughtfully. "I think they're just subroutines in
the main repair bullet program. We wouldn't want to run the repair bullet
preparation code, just the repair bullet movement codes."
"Can you pull out the
acceleration and deceleration subroutines, and run them separately from the
main program?" she asked.
"Ummm... I think I can,"
Simon said, studying his monitor. "Yes...yes I can."
"Do it". She had come
dangerously close to saying "Make it so". Reggie was definitely beginning
to rub off on her.
* * *
"With bucket field strength
at zero, there's nothing we can do to move your bullet," Casandra told the
stranded engineers. "We're going to have to send another passenger bullet
out to get you. We have an alternate bullet on standby. It's fully prepped,
but we're going to have to wait for the mass-driver capacitors to re-charge.
That's going to take," a slight pause, "a little under an hour."
"How are we going to get
from the one vehicle to the other?" Bruce wanted to know.
"You've got space suits.
You can walk."
"Easier said than done,"
Bruce muttered, looking around them. He turned to Reggie and said, "The other
bullet is going to pull up to us from behind, so you know what that means.
We're going to have to clamber back over the top of this thing."
They slid down and latched
their faceplates, and then manually opened a vent to equalize the air pressure
in the cramped little cabin. Now they could hear a faint, continuous hiss
in their helmets as the life support system in their back packs kicked in.
Pressure remained good, but the suits felt stiffer now. The canopy popped
up, and got no farther than about two and a half feet before striking the
top of the mass-driver. One at a time, they laboriously wiggled their way
out of the tiny craft.
As soon as he had a chance
to get out and look at their situation, Reggie knew Bruce had been right
about having to climb over the top of their bullet. There was no way they
could walk around it. The highest levitation strip was too far beneath the
curved hull of the space capsule to stand on. Bruce pushed the canopy back
down. Reggie stooped to give him a boost up onto the nose of the craft, then
took Bruce's outstretched hand to climb up with him.
The most hazardous part
of this maneuver was that there was no place for them to attach the three-meter
safety lines which hung in coiled loops from the waist of both suits. Trying
not to think about the fact that they were twenty four kilometers above the
Earth, the two men cautiously crept over the smooth, curving topside of the
Reggie was the first to
slip over the back-side of the vehicle. He wasted no time at all in attaching
his safety line to a small loop mounted on a girder.
Bruce was shifting around
to drop down as well when Reggie said, "Hey, no. Why take any chances? Throw
me your line, and let me secure it first". Bruce complied.
"Are you sure you're making
those attachments correctly?" Bruce asked.
"The latches are idiot-proof."
"In that case, my question
is: Did you verify that personally?"
Reggie turned to look up
at the Head Engineer, and saw an uncharacteristically devilish grin on his
"Ah, abuse," Reggie calmly
concluded, and then helped his companion down from the vehicle.
* * *
After nearly an hour of
waiting for the capacitors to charge and their ride to arrive, the two men
were very bored. The views of the titanic balloons overhead and the landscape
below, as fantastic as they may be, were static and could only remain interesting
for so long.
Reggie was sitting at the
bottom of a driver coil, casually swinging his legs over an inconceivable
drop. He was whistling through his third repetition of "Wouldn't You Like
to Fly in My Beautiful Balloon?". He had earlier been trying to play a MOD
file on his PC for the old melody, but the air up here was so thin that it
could scarcely be heard. Earlier than that, he had folded up his "Emergency
Capsule Evacuation Procedures" checklist into a paper airplane. He tossed
it from the launcher, only to see it drop straight downwards more or less
like a rock. Again: thin air.
Bruce had preferred Reggie's
MOD-playing PC to Reggie's whistling. The air being blown between his lips
was rasping over his helmet mike and making a sound in Bruce's headphones
which was setting him on edge. Hoping to provoke a conversation, so that
the symphony of twentieth-century pop would cease, Bruce asked his companion
"Reggie, when Sky Bridge
is routinely sending thousands of people into space, and the price for space
activities drops to next to nothing, what would you like to do?"
"Go back to the states,
and get a decent Pizza. They just don't know how to make them right down
"No," he persisted. "I mean
what would you like to do in space?". Reggie began to leer at the
mere thought of his reply, prompting Bruce to hastily re-word his question.
"I mean, what would you like to build in space?"
"Oh gee, I don't know,"
the engineer casually said, cocking his head to one side. "Oh, I know!" Now
he broke into song, paraphrasing another oldies pop tune. "I want to be -
the owner of - the first bar on the moon."
"Be serious," Bruce chided.
"I am serious. The way I
figure it, in one-sixth gravity it won't hurt so bad when you fall off your
stool and hit the floor."
"Oh, well," Bruce said,
shaking his helmeted head sadly. "But I guess you know my dream."
"Yeah, yeah," Reggie responded.
"Sun-sats and space habitats."
"You bet. You'll have to
admit we can't keep on burning fossil fuels forever. Past a certain point,
the green-house effect will get so bad that L. A. will become a harbor. Solar
Power Satellites could provide the Earth with cheap, clean, plentiful energy
without end. With Sky Bridge providing inexpensive access to space, we can
mount mining expeditions to the moon and the asteroids. Those mines will
make things like SPS possible. Once we are out there using local resources,
space habitats will soon follow. Before this century is out," Bruce continued
earnestly, "there could come a time when there are more humans living in
space than on Earth."
"Everything you just said,"
Reggie pointed out, "Is chapter and verse straight out of 'The High Frontier'".
"That's right," Bruce agreed.
"And to think it was written back in the 1970's."
"Your problem," Reggie
suggested, "is that you worship Gerard O'Neill."
"Let's just say I'm one
of his disciples," Bruce acquiesced. Then he became wistful. "One of the
great regrets of my life is that I never got to meet him personally. I hate
to sound immodest, but I am famous now."
"I always preferred to be
notorious," Reggie interjected.
Bruce continued without
pausing. "Right now I can ask for and receive an audience with the most noted
scientists and engineers in the world. Nobel prize winners, even. But I didn't
become anyone well-known, anybody of note, until after Gerry's death before
the turn of the century. Gerry was always surrounded by people who put many
demands on his time, and I didn't feel I could just walk up and impose upon
him. It's funny," he added contemplatively, "I've heard he felt the same
way about Einstein."
"Uh-oh. Look out. Now he's
using the names Gerard O'Neill and Albert Einstein in the same sentence,"
Reggie said derisively.
"I am convinced," Bruce
insisted, "that those two names will go down in the history books side by
side. Einstein: the father of relativity. O'Neill: the architect of.....the
future. I wish I could have spoken to him."
"Do you know what I wish?"
Reggie asked softly.
"I wish we didn't have to
wear these space suit helmets," Reggie said while peering downwards. "This
would be a great place to hang out and spit on people's heads."
Despite his irritation at
Reggie's juvenile remark, Bruce could not restrain himself from chuckling
at the ludicrousness of it. At this height, they would be lucky to spot a
shopping mall, much less a shopper. Bruce gave up on trying to share with
his good friend, and lapsed into silence. In time, the whistling resumed.
A bullet with their names on it
Down at Launcher Control,
Casandra watched the capacitor voltage indicators climb up to the required
levels. The empty passenger bullet could now be dispatched to the two stranded
men. On a display at the front of the control center, a locator indicating
the vehicle's position on the launcher began to creep forward.
"Acceleration profile normal,"
Simon reported from the station in front of her. "Nearing the half-way point.
Deceleration commencing at...". Suddenly the young man's voice trailed off
in mid-sentence. He stared at his displays in disbelief.
"What is it?" Casandra asked
with growing concern.
"The bullet isn't decelerating!
Oh God. It's continuing to accelerate!"
"Check your software!"
"Read-outs indicate deceleration
program running normally, but the velocity indicator keeps going up!"
"Re-sequence the command
stack," she suggested tightly.
"It's not doing anything!"
the panicky tech exclaimed, his hands flying over the controls.
The location indicator continued
to crawl across the screen at a visibly faster rate. The velocity reading
now showed a speed well above mach 1.
Casandra thought furiously
for a moment before saying "Break and switch to acceleration program". The
operator turned to look up at her, aghast. "Do it!" she commanded.
Simon complied. The locator
continued to move from left to right, but now seemed to be slowing somewhat.
The command issued was having the opposite effect that it should.
"That did it! Velocity indicator
"Increase driver coil current
density to maximum". Cassandra dropped down to where her head was even with
that of Simon's. "Will it be enough to....."
"No," the console operator
replied sickly. "The bullet will still have a high velocity when it reaches
the men. There's nothing more we can do to slow it down."
The Head Controller suddenly
stood erect, and shouted to the screen at the front of the room. "Reggie,
Bruce, we can't stop it! Get out of there!!"
"What?" Bruce asked
"The bullet! We can't stop
The two men on the launcher
looked at each other incredulously, and then bolted to their feet. They could
see the bullet now. It grew as they watched, alternately shining and dimming
as it passed through mile-long shadows from the balloons overhead. When the
sun shone on it, smaller shadows from the mass-driver coils rippled over
its nose at maniacal speed. That nose pointed straight at where they stood.
The craft was barreling towards them far faster than any runaway freight
"Get out of there!!" Casandra
yelled to them.
Reggie looked around at
the empty air surrounding them. "Where?" was his plaintive cry.
The pair jumped from the
mass-driver. Before they could even come to the end of their three-meter
safely lines, the unstoppable bullet collided with their stalled craft. The
full load of rocket fuel exploded instantly.
The blast was strangely
muffled in the thin air. They could feel the concussion, but felt the impact
of small debris even harder. It peppered the backs of their space suits,
and bounced off of their helmets. Suddenly they were at the end of their
safety lines, and their fall was brought to a jerking halt. A pale blue flame
enveloped the men. They could feel a portion of the heat even through the
thick fabric of their suits and the heavily tinted face plates of their helmets.
Flaming wreckage fell all around them.
Then it was over. The
shrapnel-like fragments had passed, and the smoke and vapors quickly vanished
into the rarefied atmosphere around them. Pieces of wreckage tumbled downward
until they were out of sight. The men dangled above a drop to terrible to
"We're still alive!" Bruce
jubilantly reported to the ground. Then he realized Reggie was alive, but
in trouble. The young engineer had a wide-eyed expression, and his mouth
gaped spasmodically. Bruce immediately realized Reggie's space suit had been
punctured by some of the flying debris, and that he was now struggling to
breath the almost non-existent air at this altitude.
The rip was visible on Reggie's
left side. It looked to be about four centimeters long. The emergency tank
in his backpack would be discharging at the highest rate now, but would be
unable to maintain pressure with a tear in the suit that big.
Bruce began trying to swing
himself on his line so he could cross the less than one meter distance separating
them. Grabbing his friend's flailing arm, he then immediately began yanking
at the pouch on the hip of his space-suit for the suit repair patches. Clutching
Reggie with his legs now, the Head Engineer struggled to peel the adhesive
backing off of a patch. It was difficult work in the suit gloves. His thick,
clumsy fingers finally managed to get the backing free, and Bruce slapped
the patch over the tear. He furiously tamped it down all over. Soon Reggie
was looking somewhat less distressed, as his backpack slowly won its battle
to bring the pressure in the suit back up to normal levels.
"OK now," Reggie panted.
He lifted his head to look up, and then said, "Oh my God."
Bruce followed his friend's
gaze. Even before looking, he had fully expected to see the mangled remains
of both bullets lodged in the damaged mass-driver above them. But the backdrop
to this scene of burnt destruction looked like something out of a "giant
blob" horror movie.
The balloon immediately
above them had doubtless been riddled by the debris which had sprayed out
from the explosion like pellets from a shotgun blast. Now, rapidly deflating,
it was undulating and creeping down towards them like some impossibly vast,
The reflective disk of mylar
plastic beneath the balloon was torn away from its supporting ring by the
descending mass. The almost incomprehensible scale of the balloon's collapse
lent the twisting fabric a surreal kind of slow motion movement. It was like
watching gossamer fall though water. Walls of material were dropping all
around, and darkness descended on them.
The two men tried to assay
the damage to each other's space-suit before the light failed them entirely.
Both suits were streaked with dark soot. Reggie's did not appear to have
any more tears. But when he turned Bruce around on his line to look at his
backpack, Reggie could not keep himself from softly exclaiming "Uh-oh."
"What is it?"
"Well, your main tanks look
fine, but your emergency oxygen cylinder is laid wide open."
"Then we're just going to
have to hope I won't need it," Bruce stated evenly.
Reggie began to turn him
back around. Then Bruce...
...suddenly dropped out
"Bruce!!!" Reggie cried.
Bruce was plummeting Earthward
rapidly. The undulating walls of descending material around him now seemed
to be shooting upward. Then he saw more than felt his outstretched
hand make sliding contact with the balloon fabric. A drowning man will clutch
at straws, and this falling man began to frantically clutch at the thin material.
Somehow, he finally managed to get a grip on the deflating balloon.
Still dangling from the
bottom of the mass-driver above, Reggie was enheartened to see Bruce grab
ahold of the balloon. But the balloon was still collapsing, and he watched
as it took his companion down further and further. Eventually, Bruce was
gone from his sight.
Without any discernible
jerk Bruce could feel, the material he was holding on to seemed to reach
its lowest point and stop. Despite his chill, the scent of sweat was now
strong in the confined space of his suit. His situation was precarious in
the extreme. He was suspended twenty four kilometers above the ground, holding
onto nothing but the remains of a deflated balloon. The mass-driver was now
the better part of a mile overhead. There was absolutely no way humanly possible
that he could climb back up.
Bruce began to climb.
* * *
Reggie was almost going
crazy thinking about the fate of his dear friend. For a while he stared at
the frayed safety line which had failed Bruce. Then, thinking at last of
the dangerous position he himself occupied, the engineer climbed up the three
meters of his own line, and clambered back onto the damaged mass-driver.
The balloon material was draped over the framework for almost as far as he
could see, and gave the mass-driver the appearance of a long, straight mine
shaft. Reggie briefed Launcher Control on what had happened.
Suddenly there was a familiar
voice on the communications channel. "Quit talking about me... like I'm not
here... if you would please," Bruce panted.
"Bruce!" Reggie exclaimed.
Then he felt somewhat foolish while recalling that he and his companion did
not communicate with sound waves through the thin atmosphere here, but though
the same radio system which linked them with Belo Horizonte.
Bruce's climb was already
becoming a struggle. His legs and feet were of little use. The pressure in
his suit gloves seemed to resist his efforts to close his fingers as tightly
as possible. He could feel a slickness in the fingertips which he knew was
blood seeping from around his abused nails. His faceplate, already darkened
by soot, was now beginning to fog up from his exertions, so that it was getting
more and more difficult to see. Fighting off thoughts of death, he continued
his slow, agonizing ascent.
At one point he stopped,
beyond exhaustion and overburdened with the hopelessness of his situation.
He wondered if he shouldn't just let go, and begin the maddeningly long drop
to the ground far below. But he couldn't bring himself to give in. Looking
upward, he saw a tatter of fabric waving freely, and realized he was close
to one of the tears in the balloon. He suddenly realized if he could just
get up to it and wiggle through, he could climb inside the balloon and have
rest. His energy levels renewed by a visible goal, he continued to grab fabric
and pull himself upwards.
Wouldn't you like to die in
your beautiful balloon?
Bruce finally made it to
the tear in the balloon fabric. It seemed just long enough for him to make
his way through. At first, the hump of his backpack frustrated his efforts
to climb in, but eventually he tipped over into the interior of the damaged
He found himself rapidly
sliding downward in darkness. The black interior of the solar balloon devoured
the light greedily and left none for his eyes. Bruce could not see where
he was tumbling to. For a while he worried about sliding over another tear
as big as the one which he had crawled in through. If he did, he would surely
slip out before he could grab onto the slick material, and then would begin
his long plummet to the ground.
Shortly, however, he came
to rest. Bruce found himself thrashing about blindly in a small pile of tiny
bits of junk. He identified it as pieces from the explosion which had penetrated
the skin of the balloon into the interior, and then slid down to the lowest
point just as he had. He lay still in the pitch blackness, and relaxed, free
at long last of the requirement to cling on for dear life. His overstressed
muscles ached horribly, but began to untense.
On the mass-driver, Reggie
continued to peer downward even though his friend had disappeared from sight
some time ago. He had not heard Bruce cry out, and hoped this was a good
sign. Then the voice of the engineer came over his headphones.
"Reggie, Cassandra, I'm
OK for now. I managed to climb inside of the balloon. I'm alright."
"Bruce, what happened?"
"A piece of debris from
the collision must have hit my safety line. All that twisting around caused
it to give way."
* * *
Down in Launcher Control,
Casandra tried desperately to come up with a way of rescuing both engineers.
Reggie was no problem. The capacitors were already recharging, and she had
just ordered another bullet to be prepped. The deceleration and acceleration
programs seemed to be working correctly again. Even if there was another
reversal of function, now that they knew what to do, they could be ready
Rescuing Bruce from his
position near the bottom of a deflated balloon was another matter. No aircraft
or rocket could help. Even if it were possible for a helicopter to fly at
the altitude required, it couldn't come close enough to rescue the stranded
engineer without getting its blades fouled in the balloon's limp fabric.
Bruce could not climb up. There was no way Reggie could climb down more than
a kilometer to him, even assuming he had a safety line that long.
Then it suddenly hit her.
"Start prepping the repair bullet now," she called out. Then turning to Simon,
Casandra asked, "Which of the balloon repairmen is on shift now?"
"Fairbanks," came the reply.
"Tell him to suit up, and
prepare for ascent. I have a job for him."
* * *
Bruce was sitting alone
in darkness when Cassandra's voice came to him. "Bruce, we've got a plan
for getting you out of there. The balloon repairmen have lines they can rappel
down to get at and fix deflated balloons. I'm going to send a repairman up
to you. He's going to lower himself down to where you are, get you, and then
lift you back up to the mass-driver. So you just sit tight and don't worry
until help arrives."
"Roger that. Sitting tight."
After 'sitting tight' for
ten or twenty minutes, Bruce found his mental attitude had completely reversed.
He knew soon he would be on his way back up to the mass-driver and, shortly
later, back down to the surface. He no longer feared dying on this day. The
ebony interior of the balloon which at first seemed so scary was now rather
comforting, actually. The darkness and warmth were positively womb-like.
There was even a slow swaying motion as the feeble winds at this altitude
gently pushed the limp balloon around. Bruce supposed he was in the world's
largest hammock, and felt his biggest worry now was the potential embarrassment
of being found asleep by his rescuer.
* * *
Up on the mass-driver, Reggie
was just beginning to relax when he noticed every once in a while he could
feel a curious tingling sensation through his boots. At first he worried
it might be some kind of electrical discharge. The amounts of current which
could be run through the driver coils was impressive, and with all of the
damage the collision had caused, an electrical short was not entirely out
of the question. He was just opening his mouth to ask Launcher Control if
there was anything about the capacitor charging which looked funny when another
explanation suddenly occurred to him. In the rarefied air which surrounded
him, there could be tremendous sounds which would hardly carry through his
helmet to his ears at all. He might simply be feeling sound vibrations through
his feet. He walked a short distance over to a driver coil and pressed his
helmet to it. He was instantly privy to the most astonishing sounds of groaning
metal and popping joints.
"Uh, Belo, I'm hearing the
awfullest lot of stressed metal sounds. I don't mean to be an alarmist, but
are you sure this thing isn't about to come apart?"
Bruce could hear Reggie's
comment perfectly well through his suit radio, and it shattered his tranquil
state. The collision had done some damage, but the launcher was in a state
of neutral buoyancy. There shouldn't be any kind of inordinate stress loads
on the mass-driver just because of some structural damage.
Then the explanation suddenly
hit him. It was the balloon in which he lay! It was no longer providing lift
to this section of the driver. But that by itself should not be a problem.
The design was redundant enough that the loss of one or two balloons was
never a catastrophic failure. The mass-driver could even support the dead
weight of a collapsed balloon provided that...
He felt his heart begin
to race as he asked, "Reggie, is this balloon draped over the mass-driver,
or is it hanging straight down?"
"What? It's hanging over
the driver as far as I can make out."
"Is it hanging evenly?"
Bruce inquired frantically. "Is there more or less as much material hanging
over one side as the other?"
"Well, it's pretty hard
for me to tell from in here," Reggie replied. "What difference does it make?"
Cassandra felt a horrible
sinking sensation when she saw where Bruce was headed.
The engineer explained,
"Reggie, if the balloon is uneven then it could slip until it hangs straight
down. Remember, a limp balloon hanging down from its supports is too much
weight concentrated in too little area. If the balloon falls straight
down.....it'll be automatically jettisoned!"
In Launcher Control, Cassandra
quickly found herself frustrated in an attempt to determine how evenly the
balloon had fallen over the mass-driver. None of the sensors seemed to have
been designed with such an intent in mind. None of the cameras mounted on
the launcher were at an angle where much of the limp balloon could be seen
from the outside.
"Oh, come on people," she
cried out. Her tiny fist pounded on the head-rest of the seat before her.
"I can't believe that with all of this hardware and software at our disposal,
we can't answer a simple little question like this. Don't we have any long-range
video from the ground where we can get a good look at this thing?"
"What about...," the tech
in the seat she was pummeling meekly began, "...what about CNN?"
There was a moment of silence.
Without another word, Simon began twisting a dial on his console. The main
viewscreen at the front of the room switched through several different satellite
channels before stopping on CNN. Sure enough, they were showing live pictures
of the section of the launcher with the damaged balloon. Every network on
the planet was by now giving live coverage of the life-or-death struggle
taking place high in the skies above Brazil. CNN Headline News had been showing
this view ever since the balloon's deflation. The picture was washed out
with blue haze and jittered up and down from time to time, but was remarkably
clear nonetheless, considering the distance.
"Genius," the Head Controller
whispered quietly. She gave the little tech a pat on the arm. "Bruce, Reggie,
we can see the balloon now. It's about two-thirds over one side and one-third
over the other."
"That's not good," Bruce
said worriedly. "Reggie, can you tell if it's slipping any?"
Bruce's partner looked,
and realized he could now see the light at the end of the tunnel. In the
present case, however, this was not a good thing. When he first climbed back
up onto the mass-driver, Reggie had observed that the limp fabric hanging
over the framework of the driver formed a dark tunnel for almost as far as
he could see. But now, in one direction, the edge of the deflated balloon
was clearly visible. It was definitely closer than it had been. Indeed while
he watched, it jerked and drew back towards him even further.
"Bruce, the balloon is
"Reggie, you've got to secure
this thing, and keep it from going any further!"
Reggie frantically began
looking around for something jagged which he could use to penetrate the balloon
material, and snag it against something. In all this mess from the crashed
bullets, there had to be something. He yanked a promising-looking piece of
mangled metal out from the wreckage, and began jabbing it through the balloon
fabric. He was trying to twist the fragment around to wedge it against an
I-beam when the balloon lurched and began to slip rapidly. Reggie could feel
the mass-driver heave beneath his feet. The twisted piece of metal suddenly
levered around and was flung from his grasp. Reggie watched as one of the
legs of the V-shaped balloon support arced over the top of the mass-driver
and down, the massive aluminum I-beam bending like taffy. The balloon continued
to slide downwards, and didn't stop until it hung straight down from the
bottom of the space launcher.
"Bruce, I tried my best,
but the balloon just kept slipping! It's hanging straight down now!"
Reggie's report only confirmed
what Bruce had already suspected. He had earlier felt a faint sinking feeling
which told him he was dropping lower still.
The limp, mile-long balloon
swung slowly in complete silence. Perhaps there was still hope. The automatic
jettison function had not kicked in immediately. Bruce squeezed his eyes
shut, clenched his fists, and pleaded to the strain gauges in this part of
the driver to hush their piezoelectric complaining to the control
Reggie was making similar
prayers up on the mass-driver when he saw a faint yellow flash from below.
He also heard a muffled pop. The explosive bolts had fired. Reggie saw the
attachment point for the deflated balloon snap away downward from him.
Reggie's sudden exclamation
made Bruce fear the worst. Shortly there was no mistaking it. The sudden
lightness, the sickly sensation in his stomach, the fluttering in the material
around him, all told him what was happening.
He was falling twenty four
kilometers down to the Earth.
Mark Fairbanks slipped beneath
the upper torso of his pressure suit which hung on the supporting rack behind
him. He thrust himself upwards and was in. He had help this time. Technicians
on both sides began latching the seal between the upper and lower parts of
his suit, and then immediately turned to the task of getting his gloves on
There was a constant staccato
of camera flashes and shifting illuminations from video cameras as the reporters
pressed in as closely as they could. The questions they shouted out to him
were a meaningless babble. Mark was starting to wonder how he was going to
get past them.
A tech tossed him his helmet
from half-way across the suiting-up room. He caught the helmet smartly, and
began pushing his way through the crowd. The pressure-suited repairman ran
down the hallway with his helmet held beneath one arm. It was good to be
ahead of the pack of reporters dogging him, but he had to admit he was secretly
enjoying certain aspects of this. Soon he would descend on his web to rescue
the trapped designer far above, and then he would be a hero.
Mark was out the door and
heading towards the van which was waiting to take him to the launcher. He
glanced up at Sky Bridge, and then stopped dead in his tracks. His press
entourage skidded to a halt behind him.
The image of Sky Bridge
was very dim, filtered by the haze which covered the sky today. But one could
still see the damaged balloon had now separated from the launcher and was
very slowly falling away. The reporters surrounding Mark looked at this spectacle
in silence for a second or two. Then they scattered to video cameras, to
telephones, and to news vans. The repairman stood there alone, watching the
mile long strip of balloon fabric languidly descend towards the Earth.
He felt for the engineer
in that balloon, now surely condemned to death. But he couldn't keep himself
from feeling cheated somehow either.
"Oh well," he thought to
himself, "At least I had my fifteen minutes."
* * *
The material of the deflated
balloon pressed cloyingly all around Bruce. He was the human nuclease of
a comet bound for Earth. Reggie was silent. Casandra was silent. No one had
anything to say.
Bruce lay at the bottom
of the plummeting balloon and reflected on his life. Not a bad one all in
all. A few accomplishments here and there of which he could be proud. Still,
he wished he could have lived to see the first humans launched into space
from Sky Bridge. He even found himself concerned that this tragic death would
doubtless set the program back many months.
He began to wonder how much
more time he had. He knew enough about free-falling to know one did not
accelerate continuously all the way down. Instead, a body accelerated until
it reached a speed where the resistance of the air drag equaled the weight
of the body. That speed would never be exceeded. This was called the terminal
velocity. All the up-and-down maneuvers professional sky divers did were
accomplished by varying their body position so as to control their wind
resistance. This altered their velocity, and enabled them to match speeds
with other sky divers. The suits designed for the sport were even loose and
baggy precisely in order to increase the air drag.
Bruce had a sudden realization.
His air drag must be incredible. He was after all, trailing over a mile of
fluttering balloon fabric. What would the resistance be for such a staggeringly
long drogue? It was true he only had a sensation of falling for a brief period
right at the beginning. Right now, he had no impression of accelerating downward,
only of lying in a rippling sack, suspended by upward-rushing winds. He had
come to his terminal velocity rather quickly, he now realized. It would even
decrease somewhat as he entered into the thicker parts of the atmosphere.
He felt his spirits buoyed up by a new-found hope. There was a chance...just
the slimmest chance...he might survive this after all.
The engineer then began
to notice the interior of the balloon was not as pitch black as he had originally
thought. Now that his eyes were well dark-adapted, he could see there was
a faint light up above him. It brightened and dimmed with the undulations
of the balloon material. Bruce began to wonder if by some chance he had happened
to come to rest near the border between the dark, light-absorbing half of
the balloon and the clear, light-admitting half. It occurred to him that
if this were true, and if he could get to the transparent part, he could
see out. He then began to question if he really wanted to see out.
It might be easier on his nerves if he did not watch the ground as it rushed
up at him. But in the end he decided he wanted to see out. It had nothing
to do with macho notions about staring death in the face. Bruce was of the
inquiring, analytical personality type. He knew he wouldn't feel quite so
out of control of the situation if he could at least know what was going
on. For him, not knowing was definitely worse than knowing. Bruce began to
roll towards the light.
It was not as easy a matter
as he had thought it would be. The fabric in which he was ensnared pressed
tightly around his body on all sides. He felt like a man who had been foolish
enough to step out onto a pool cover, and had immediately plunged beneath
the surface with the plastic sheet cold and cloying, sealing his body off
from the air above. But with a laborious rolling motion, Bruce began to make
slow, steady progress. At one point he found himself afflicted with a sudden
worry that perhaps the light did not come from the clear area of the balloon
at all, but from another tear. He could be rolling towards a hole which would
dump him to the ground. He resolved to be cautious, but to continue.
The light around him continued
to brighten until it became dazzling. Though he now had his eyes tightly
shut, Bruce knew he had arrived. The thin fabric of the solar-heated side
of the balloon had transitioned to the tough, clear plastic of the transparent
half. He could feel the difference, even through his thick space-suit gloves.
Now he could look out at the brilliantly-lit Earth which he approached. The
ground was obscured behind a high, thin layer of semi-transparent haze. The
view did not seem to be changing very rapidly. This was both reassuring and
nerve-wracking. It gave support to Bruce's hope that his terminal velocity
was not deadly high. But it also made him wonder when this ordeal was ever
going to end.
Now there was a visible
enlargement in the scene below. It was in the layer of water vapor which
hung above the land. Suddenly, before he had hardly realized it, he was breaking
though that thin layer and the details of the landscape below it were abruptly
thrown into sharp, sickening contrast.
Bruce was plummeting downward
like a meteor with a long, lazy tail. Many thousands of eyes down in Brazil
were turned upward towards him, watching his long, long fall with open horror.
Many cameras were pointed up as well, so millions more watched with concern
on their televisions. And still he fell.
The designer had dropped
to a level where he was sure the air was breathable. He briefly considered
taking off his helmet but then thought better of it. His head was about to
need all the protection it could get. Now Bruce could see he was falling
towards rain forest. Giant trees reached up at him.
This is it...
There was a snapping, popping
crash, and a stunning blow across his hips and left thigh. It felt like he
had bounced off a tree branch. Bruce was pitched over onto his back. Blow
after blow assailed him. Luckily, his space suit backpack now seemed to be
taking the brunt of the impacts. His head rattled around inside of his helmet
until he was convinced one or the other would surely break.
Then stillness. Silence.
He had stopped. Somehow, he had survived. For the longest time Bruce lay
still in the hammock created by the deflated balloon, content to merely savor
life and consciousness and existence itself. Then he began to move limbs
experimentally. Nothing seemed to be broken. His body was covered with bruises
and his head with bumps, but he was fairly sure he would be able to walk
away from this balloon without help.
Finding a way out did not
prove difficult. The material all around him was now in tatters with tree
branches poking through. He picked one of the longer tears, and slid out
through it. He was in a tree, only about six or eight feet from the ground.
Wincing as he used bruised muscles, Bruce made his way down to the forest
He removed his helmet and
dumped it to the ground. The damp smell of the rain forest immediately wafted
to his nose. He looked up at the tree in which this part of the balloon was
snagged. Bruce realized part of what he owed his life to was the fact that
the balloon catching on the tree limbs had made his halt a much more gradual
one. He hated to reflect on his fate had he come down on a road or a parking
The sounds of approaching
vehicles could now be heard. Suddenly he was surrounded by reporters who
gaped at him open-mouthed. Bruce realized to his chagrin that they had come
not to interview him, but to stare at and photograph his mangled remains.
In short order, however, they got over their initial shock at having a live
subject, and the barrage of questions began.
Even now, Bruce already
knew that the headlines for next week's assortment of grocery check-out-line
tabloids would all be variations on the same theme: Man Falls 24 Kilometers...And
Lives! / Survives! / Walks Away Unharmed! etc.
Soon Casandra arrived in
an Acceleration Inc. van. She stared at the engineer in his soot-darkened
space-suit. The man looked like he had been to Hell and back. Bruce's first
temptation was to pick the little woman up in a fierce hug. He suspected
it was probably her quick thinking and actions which had kept a bad situation
from being far worse. But Bruce and Casandra mutually agreed to settle for
"Nice to see you alive,"
she said quietly.
The pair headed out of the
woods to the nearby road. The view was surreal in the extreme. The balloon
fabric blanketed the landscape all around. It draped entire forests. Traffic
was backing up on the road. Two police officers climbed a small hill in search
of the edge of the balloon, intending to drag it off of the road. On reaching
the crest of the hill, they looked with despair at the sight of nearly a
mile of fabric stretching off towards the horizon. The officers doubled back,
and began directing cars to simply roll over the thin material. Acceleration
had quite a clean-up job on their hands.
* * *
The van delivered them back
to Launcher Control in Belo Horizonte. They had been there quite a while
when news arrived that Reggie had completed the trip back down from Sky Bridge,
and was on his way to Launcher Control. Bruce wasn't surprised he had beat
his friend back. He did, after all, take the direct express route.
The van containing Reggie
pulled up. The lightly-charred, space-suited engineer hopped out, and began
trotting over to the pair. Casandra suddenly bolted to him and threw herself
all over the slightly abashed man. Reggie dropped his helmet and held on
"Oh God, Reggie, I thought
I was going to lose you again!"
Bruce stood there dumb-founded.
Reggie glanced at him sheepishly over her shoulder. Bruce had no idea. He
had always assumed Reggie left for his weekly trips to Rio De Janeiro alone,
and, knowing Reggie, had probably spent each weekend with a different woman.
Now Bruce was no longer so sure.
* * *
The next week, the trio
found themselves once again in the Failure Analysis Lab. Investigation of
the wreckage indicated the rupture in the bucket which leaked out their nitrogen
coolant had been caused by thermal stress. The passenger bullet was the first
bullet to have an electric heater. A significant amount of heat from the
bullet had leaked out into the bucket, causing a huge thermal differential.
The solution to this problem was as simple a matter as beefing up the insulation
around the passenger bullet. This certainly would not take any longer than
the repairs to the damaged portion of the mass-driver.
The reason behind the mysterious
reversal of the deceleration and acceleration functions came up during a
bug hunt through the control programs. They had sent off the second passenger
bullet with the same codes which were normally used to send the repair bullets
out to specific locations on the launcher. It was the first time that this
had been done. It was also the first time the repair bullet deceleration
subroutine had been run separately from the repair bullet driver program.
One of the things the driver program did was reset a sign-bit in the master
control processor. After any run of code, this bit could have been left high
or low depending on the circumstances of the bullet movement. Unfortunately,
the resetting code was in the main part of the bullet driver program, not
in the individual acceleration and deceleration subroutines. Since they were
not prepping a repair bullet, but a passenger bullet instead, this code had
not been run, and the sign-bit had not been reset prior to deceleration.
Positive became negative and vice versa. The deceleration and acceleration
functions became swapped. Reggie cut the sign-bit reset code from the main
repair bullet driver program and pasted it near the beginning of the acceleration
and deceleration subroutines.
Reggie waited for Bruce
to angrily demand the name of the programmer. When the request was not
forthcoming he asked, "What, no calling out on the carpet for the man
responsible? And I had bought tickets to this performance."
"The programmer had no way
of knowing the repair bullet driver subroutines would ever get run independently
of the main program," the head engineer explained. "The way he had it written
worked perfectly well for normal procedures. I wouldn't scream at anyone
for not having a God-like ability to see into the future, only for bad
Third try's a charm?
On the morning of the third
launch attempt, Bruce awoke to leaden skies. There was a solid gray overcast.
This would not affect today's attempt in the slightest. In fact, one of the
advantages of Sky Bridge over rocket launches was that it was not bound to
the vagaries of what the rocket people called "launch conditions". But Bruce
longed for sunshine nonetheless.
Launcher Control reported
all systems go. The major damage to the superstructure of Sky Bridge had
been repaired. There were a number of coils in the area of the collision
which were still non-functional, but this was not a problem. A number of
spare coils sat near the end of the launcher, and only engaged to make up
for coils which were down. There were more than enough of these redundant
coils to make up the difference.
In no time, Bruce and his
partner were suited up and ascending in the elevator car. At one point Reggie
noticed Bruce was banging around on his PC with an annoyed expression on
"What's the matter?" Reggie
"My PC is making an annoying,
high-pitched, whining sound," Bruce complained.
"Yeah, and so's the user,
so what's a guy to do?"
Bruce sullenly let the witticism
slide. Noting that something seemed to have Bruce down this morning, Reggie
persisted in trying to bring a smile to his friend's face.
"Hey, did you see what
Time is calling you now?"
"The Man Who Fell to Earth."
The car was approaching
the dark underside of the solid cloud layer. Gradually, they became surrounded
by dim blankness. Suddenly the elevator ground to a halt. They bobbed briefly,
and then were still, surrounded by a silent gray nimbus.
"Hang on guys," came the
voice of Casandra over their helmet speakers. "We're tracking the problem
Bruce gazed out a window
at nothingness. He noticed one of the cameramen in the car with them was
pointing a camera directly at his face. He tried to change his expression
from glum depression to one of grim determination. He had a ghastly vision
of the elevator car suddenly plunging downward to the boarding platform several
kilometers below. But he knew this was a silly fear. There were at least
three or four independent braking mechanisms in the car's pulley system which
would work when nothing else in the system would. Then the motors whined
back to life, and they resumed their climb.
"Hey, look at it this way,"
Reggie chirped. "We've had our malfunction of the day. It can't be anything
else but smooth sailing from here on out."
Bruce had a hard time sharing
in his companion's cheerfulness. Then the dark, colorless fog surrounding
them gradually began to brighten. It slowly transformed from drab gray to
a brilliant white. Blue skies and a dazzling sun suddenly appeared overhead.
The car was ascending upwards above a limitless flat plane of cotton. The
sky directly above was the deepest, richest color of blue imaginable. This
unreal blue-black hue to the sky and this pure, penetrating, white sunlight
now streaming down into the elevator car were previously known only to mountain
climbers and aircraft pilots. Bruce felt his sagging spirits begin to lift.
* * *
In no time the pair sat
in their launch vehicle, poised and ready to take off. For Bruce, there was
razor-sharp alertness, but no tension this time. Just a fierce determination
to prove that his child had the potential he had always claimed for it.
For the third time, Bruce
recited the count-down.
Reggie grinned, but the
grin soon became the grimace of rapid acceleration as the weights of the
two men were immediately multiplied by ten. There was a building rush of
rarefied air flowing around them. Sky Bridge began its soft, high-pitched
singing. Balloons were passing by too fast to perceive.
Suddenly, they were out
of the launcher. There was a slight sensation of slowing, much softer than
on their first disastrous attempt. This was merely the deceleration of punching
a tunnel through the thin gases of the upper atmosphere. The landscape far
below passed beneath the nose of the craft with impressive speed. The
already-dark sky ahead grew darker still as they rapidly left the remaining
atmosphere behind. Like a cinematic lapse-dissolve, the azure sky transformed
to star-lit blackness.
They were in space.
The experience of zero gravity
was both strange and delightful. A small nut which had lain unnoticed on
the floor was now slowly tumbling past Bruce's face. It was difficult for
either man to keep from playing around with the PC's now floating freely
over their laps.
They now had a half-orbit
ahead of them before the rendezvous maneuver which would circularize their
orbit and send them to space station Alpha. This meant forty five minutes
of coasting freely. Time enough for a little sight-seeing.
Bruce had heard one of the
Space Shuttle astronauts describe orbiting the Earth as like a ride in the
gondola of a hot-air balloon. The comparison was a good one. They drifted
in serene silence while the landscape of the Earth slid by.
Clouds layered the atmosphere.
In the seemingly tiny gap beneath each cloud, the shadows which they cast
on the surface of the Earth could be seen. It looked as though the clouds
had been painted on the topside of a sheet of glass which had been laid atop
It was interesting to compare
the outlines of the continents with the familiar traces learned in geography
school. Some lands were tan or gold with desert. Others were green with forest.
Mountain peaks stood out vividly with the white of snows.
The most staggering sight
was that of the sun disappearing behind the edge of the Earth. The sun moved
closer and closer to the limb of the planet, which was outlined with a thin,
blue arc of haze. When the sun touched this haze, it seemed to set it afire.
Gorgeous yellows, oranges, and reds shone through the atmosphere. It was
a sunset in the shape of a rainbow. The light soon dimmed, and blackness
was all around.
But the Earth was not completely
dark. Here and there one could see the glow of major cities. Oil field flares
dotted the Middle East. One could occasionally spot flickers from lightning
Both men seemed overawed
by the beauty of the Earth and of space. For Bruce, this was the culmination
of a childhood dream. He was in space at last. Even Reggie, who usually had
a smart remark for every situation, was reverently silent.
Shortly after crossing back
into daylight, the four small rocket engines at the tail of the passenger
bullet fired. The aimlessly drifting nut was drawn to the back of the cabin
and stayed there. The small, hydrogen-oxygen engines gave a smooth, gentle
ride. This burn brought the perigee, or low point of their still-lopsided
orbit, up out of the atmosphere. On the screen of Reggie's PC they could
see their orbital plot as a thin line which still dipped back down into the
atmosphere at approximately the same area as the launcher. As the orbit
circularization engines fired, the low point of the orbit slowly raised above
the atmosphere. They continued their modest acceleration until the orbit
plot became a perfect circle, and then the thrust ceased. Their indicator
was now very close to that of space station Alpha.
There was one more brief
engine fire to bring them in on the approach path to the station. Alpha could
now be seen as a multi-branching collection of cylinders, solar panels, and
heat radiators. It had grown enormously in the years since Sky Bridge became
Automated systems maneuvered
their small craft into a cylindrical hanger bay about twice as big in diameter
as the bullet. The bullet slid into a cradle and locked down. A large door
on the entrance to the hangar swung down and sealed in place. A hissing noise
gradually became noticeable as the hangar was pressurized, and sound was
The canopy raised. The two
men cautiously swam up out of their craft, and pushed off to the hatch at
the station end of the hanger. The hatch was already opening to reveal several
enthusiastically smiling faces all oriented at different angles. The crewmen
of Alpha reached through the open hatch to grab the hands of the engineers
and pump them vigorously. For a moment, Bruce couldn't understand why this
was creating a sense of deja vu. Then he realized this event echoed the
Apollo-Soyuz linkup, with the American and Russian astronauts shaking hands
and smiling to each other through the open hatchway joining their two craft.
That event had been broadcast live on television, and was recorded for posterity.
This event also was being broadcast to millions, and would be replayed down
through history for as long as humans existed.
* * *
Bruce and Reggie both took
to zero-G eagerly. Reggie soon discovered even his own natural exuberance
could not begin to compete with Bruce's enthusiasm for joyful frolic in the
They stayed on Alpha for
almost a week, being interviewed from Earth, playing tourist, and even visiting
the materials processing engineers working at the station. The Alpha engineers
eagerly showed off the new class of zero-G processed materials they were
creating in space. The Sky Bridge designers discussed with them potential
uses for the super-materials in construction. Among the possibilities were
even bigger and better space launchers.
* * *
All too soon their visit
had drawn to a close. Now it was time to prove the last promise made for
their system: that a safe return to Earth was possible. After the hanger
bay depressurized, the outer door opened, and the cradle gently pushed the
passenger bullet out. A tether which was mounted on the top of their space
craft connected them to a giant take-up reel in the hanger. Line was reeled
out, and the bullet drifted towards the Earth. They dropped to altitudes
where orbital velocity was somewhat higher than at Alpha. But the tether
kept them at the same orbital speed as the station. As a result, a very tiny
fraction of the Earth's gravity pull could be felt, and the cable came under
They were lowered until
they had reached the end of the line. They hung there momentarily, waiting
for the precise moment. Then the tether attachment on the bullet released,
and the line snapped away upward. The bullet was now on a slightly altered
trajectory, one which would graze the upper atmosphere. This would be enough
to kill their orbit and bring them back to the surface.
Half an orbit later, they
began to re-enter Earth's atmosphere, and radio contact with Belo Horizonte
was lost. This loss of signal was expected, and was caused by the buildup
of plasma around the speeding passenger bullet. It was true what the Shuttle
astronauts said: re-entry was like flying through a neon tube. They were
surrounded by a diffuse, pinkish-red glow. Although Bruce and Reggie couldn't
see it, they knew the belly of their craft was also glowing. The pair were
pressed down in their seats as tiny collisions with millions of air molecules
decelerated the vehicle. The speed of the bullet dropped tremendously, and
the crimson light faded.
"Belo, this is Bullet Three,"
Reggie stated. "Come in."
"Bullet Three, this is Control,"
said Casandra. "We read you loud and clear". The joy in her voice was evident.
The steerable parachute
deployed without problems. The automatic guidance systems steered them towards
the landing field north of the starting end of Sky Bridge. One of the radial
landing strips was automatically selected based on wind direction, and they
began to line up with it.
"Touchdown," Reggie reported.
The parachute and the brakes
in the landing gear combined their efforts, bringing the bullet to a halt.
A tow car approached the tiny craft. Under normal circumstances, this car
would have pulled the passenger bullet to the terminal with the passengers
still inside. But neither Bruce nor Reggie could be restrained. They popped
the canopy, leapt out, threw their helmets to the tarmac, and embraced each
All restraint was lost in
the Launcher Control Room as well. Technicians let out triumphant yells and
threw sheaves of paper up into the air in the grand style of the old NASA.
Casandra was literally jumping up and down with joy. She was also
enthusiastically pumping back and forth on the back of the seat in front
Simon rode the wildly bucking
chair with a good-natured grin on his face. But at the same time, the technician
was inspired to conceive a new design feature for the Launcher Control Room:
a circular railing surrounding the seldom-sat-in Head Controller's chair.
Something sturdy; suitable for gripping, tapping, pounding, and general abuse.
Simon resolved to discuss it with Bruce at the next opportunity.
2031: A hopeful present
Bruce tied up his bathrobe,
and groggily padded from the bedroom hallway into the kitchen. The windows
were still open (nights were never very chilly here), and both sunlight and
bird song were streaming though. He approached the coffee maker, ordering
it to dispense his morning cup. He remembered a time in his life when he
was a young man, and could launch up from his bed and into his day without
the fuel of caffeine. He blamed the habit on all of those years he had spent
in Brazil. Life there seemed to revolve around coffee. Oh well, he reflected,
there were probably worse vices he could have picked up in Brazil.
He approached the living
room, and called out, "TV on. Channel ISNN". The wall-sized television sprang
to life. Christmas was approaching, and American Spacelines was back to showing
the commercial about the space colonist preparing to head down to his parents
on Earth for the holidays. The background music was "I'll Be Home For Christmas".
The young man boarded a Spacelines aerospace plane which then undocked from
the habitat, flew to the blue and white globe of the Earth, re-entered the
atmosphere, and glided down to a landing. All the while, the colonist looked
out the window, and smiled at nostalgic thoughts of his parent's home. Mushy
stuff, but Bruce looked at it anyway.
Then an attractive anchorlady
appeared, looking into the camera.
"Hello, I'm Emily Rockwell,
and this is the Inner-System News Network."
"Our feature story today
comes to us from outside the Inner-System. The inter-planetary space craft
Discoverer I is nearing Jupiter. We will be having reports from the Discoverer
shortly, but we thought it might be interesting to first look at how well
science fiction has done at predicting this momentous event: the manned
exploration of the Jovian system."
"The first serious science
fiction movie to deal with a voyage to Jupiter (or indeed the first movie
to deal with any kind of space travel in a serious way) was Stanley
Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey' released by MGM in 1968. Although this
was a landmark movie, and remains a classic still popular today, it is
nonetheless a twentieth century view of how future space travel would be
The report began showing
documentary footage illustrating each of her points. "Although the launch
of 2001's Discovery is not shown, it is assumed that even if the craft was
assembled in orbit, it was certainly launched from the Earth system. But
in reality, the first Jupiter expedition was mounted in the asteroid belt
by people who had already been living and working there for over a decade."
"And what about that rebellious
computer, HAL? No science fiction writer of the last century could have predicted
that the first crew to voyage to Jupiter would have not just one talking
computer, but one for each member of the crew. In fact, we all now carry
computers with us which, though philosophers may debate their ability to
think, can certainly understand our spoken commands, and respond with a voice
of their own. The crew of Discoverer report they have not yet noted any unusually
independent attitudes in their PCs, but assure us they're keeping a very
close eye out."
Emily smiled at her audience
mischievously. The documentary footage resumed.
"But the biggest miss 2001
makes is on the scale of the project. Kubrick's Discovery craft was smaller
than an aircraft carrier, and had a crew of five. But the real-life Discoverer
space ship is a community in space. It is a modified Model One Bernal Sphere
one kilometer in diameter. It boasts schools, libraries, cinemas, malls,
sports stadiums, and parks. It is also a setting which the inhabitants are
already well used to. With very few exceptions, the crew consists of people
who have already made a home in space, and have lived in habitats which are
It was true that Discoverer's
main rotating sphere was enormous next to 2001's modest spinning centrifuge.
But the traveling habitat being shown on the TV still looked small compared
to Bruce's current surroundings. He left the couch, and walked over to a
window to pull back a curtain and view the Model Three Bernal Sphere which
was his home. It was four kilometers in diameter, a vast inside-out world.
Sometimes natural clouds would form in a cylindrical area encircling the
spin axis. Even on a clear day like today, the villages and fields on the
far side of the sphere were hazy in the sky and indistinct with distance.
Bruce noticed there were
a number of hang gliders already practicing their sport in the skies above.
One was diving down lower. It was a dare-devil game. The closer to the axis
hang gliders flew, the lower the gravity. As they moved away from the center
line, the air began to push them around with the rotation of the colony,
and they grew heavier. It was a contest among them to see how low one could
go and still recover.
A smile came to his lips
as he recalled a story on last week's news. A hang glider pilot had come
down right in the middle of an out-door restaurant. Fortunately, there were
no injuries involved. The pilot turned out to be well into his sixties. Too
old, one would think, to indulge in such foolishness. Bruce was intrigued
to hear that the errant pilot was a retired balloon repairman for Sky Bridge
One, and had been associated with the project from its very earliest days.
Bruce had probably passed the man in the hallways of the Launcher Control
building more than once. It was a small Solar System.
During his reverie, Emily
Rockwell had looked at two or three other science fiction movies which dated
back to the twenty-tens and twenty-twenties and also dealt with the exploration
of Jupiter. Now she was moving on to the next story.
"Today marks the twenty-fifth
anniversary of the first successful manned launch from Sky Bridge One. This
event, more than any other in the history of humanity's move outward into
the Inner-System, is credited with beginning the process which led to space
as a frontier for the average man."
There followed historical
footage which brought back to Bruce a rush of memories from those bygone
years. Once again he watched a youthful Reggie and himself shake the hands
of the Alpha crewmen. The archival footage was interspersed with clips from
an interview ISNN had recorded in his home just last week. He had a live
interview scheduled with them for this afternoon.
There were two reasons for
this day to make him think of that part of his life. It was also the day
his old partner Reggie Deitrich was coming to join him for that interview.
The doorbell rang. Bruce
headed to the door with an eager smile. When the door was thrown open, a
look of dismay immediately covered his face.
His old friend was encased
in a horrid-looking, very complicated set of leg braces. He was bent over
a walker, and looked as though the effort of traversing the short distance
from his rental car to Bruce's front step had drained the last bit of strength
he had in the world.
Reggie began to scowl. "Quit
looking at me like that! I'm not old and feeble. Not yet, anyway. It's just
that you guys keep the gravity turned up way too high in this crazy ball."
Reggie started to fitfully
push on his walker, and lumbered into Bruce's home. Bruce shut the door behind
him. Reggie kept up the complaining every laborious inch of the way.
"Smart habitat engineers
design for a rotation rate producing an artificial gravity of one-sixth G.
That way their dear old lunar friends can come to visit them in comfort and
"You're on the moon now?"
Reggie turned around to
look at him. "Well of course I'm on the moon now. Don't you keep up with
what your old friends are up to? Oh, by the way, here."
Reggie reached into a tote
bag hooked onto the front of the walker, and pulled out a T-shirt which he
handed to Bruce. Bruce held it up. There was the famous picture of Buzz Aldrin
on the moon saluting the American flag. Above this were the words "My friend
went to Tranquility Base Memorial Park, and all I got was a lousy T-shirt".
Reggie had finished his
slow journey across the living room, and without invitation collapsed into
an over-stuffed couch. He sprawled there like limp spaghetti.
"What are you doing on the
moon?" Bruce inquired.
"Dr. Bruce Franklin, my
dearest and oldest friend. Don't you remember the life's ambition I once
shared with you in our youth?"
Bruce's eyes darted to one
side and then returned. "You own the first bar on the moon?"
"Well, it's really more
of a night club, actually. The name of the place is 'Tycho's Nose'. I called
it that partly because it's in the crater Tycho, but also because the guy
really knew how to party.
"It's a great place," the
old man enthused. "On the sign outside there's a picture of Tycho Brahe,
you know. And there's this little yellow light near the tip of his nose,
you see? And it winks on and off...wink...wink...wink. It's glinting, you
"Tycho's nose may have been
made of gold, but it was painted flesh color," Bruce stated.
"Oh, hell," Reggie waved
a hand in front of him dismissively, and then immediately let it collapse
back down onto his chest. "I'll take historical color over historical facts
any day. So anyway, I now provide drink and comfort to the poor working stiffs
who mine the ore which you use to build these pleasure palaces in the sky.
I believe we also have the distinction of being the only off-world bar to
"To serve what?"
"Guaraná. You remember!
The Brazilian answer to Coca-Cola?"
"Oh, that's right. I recall
you were having crates of it shipped to you after we returned to the states."
"Oh, by the way," Reggie
suddenly remembered, "Casandra says to send her love. She was going to come
with me to see you, but when I told her New Brazil was an Earth-gravity habitat,
she just smiled at me and said 'Bon Voyage'".
"Say, you really are suffering
aren't you?" Bruce said with concern. "Hey, we've got a park that's fairly
high up on the sphere. It's just below the south windows. Gravity there won't
be one-sixth, but it's a lot less than here. Let me put something on, and
then I'll take you there."
"Oh by all means," Reggie
drawled, "let's go to your park". The emphasis was on the word 'your'. Bruce
seemed somewhat embarrassed before he turned and left.
When Bruce returned he helped
Reggie out to the car, and then placed his walker in the back seat. He got
in, touched his thumb to a sensor, and said "Destination: Franklin Park."
The vehicle started out
of the driveway, and turned off onto a road which headed toward one of the
two rings of windows which encircled both "poles" of the habitat. As they
traveled further up the sphere, the grade of the road became steeper. At
the same time, however, both the car and its contents became lighter, and
the electric motors had no trouble keeping the car moving. The road began
to snake back and forth a bit, and then ended at a small parking lot in front
of a glassed-in elevator.
The reduction in gravity
had resulted in a visible improvement in Reggie's condition. He no longer
seemed quite so old and infirm. He slipped out of the leg braces, and left
the walker behind in the car, although he did still carry a cane which he
had brought along.
The pair boarded an elevator,
and it slowly rose. It deposited them at the entrance to Franklin Park. The
park was a level, shelf-like projection which jutted out from the wall of
the sphere just below the curving ring of windows at this end. Above the
tree tops, concentrated sunlight which had been gathered by vast mirrors
on the outside of the habitat streamed past to illuminate the other side
of the sphere.
Children were cavorting
here and there through the park lands, enjoying the low gravity. Some turned
graceful back-flips. Others swung through the trees like slow-motion monkeys.
The two men began walking
in the direction of a row of statues. The row was straight, but could be
seen to arc upward slightly in the distance. At this higher level in the
sphere, the curving of the ground was more apparent.
They neared the first statue.
It was Johanne Kepler. He held an orrery in his outstretched hand.
"Kepler," Reggie harrumphed.
"Wouldn't have amounted to anything if not for the observational data of
"Tycho's data would have
had no meaning without Kepler's equations to explain them," Bruce countered.
Changing subjects, Reggie
asked him, "Have you been keeping up with all of the new space launcher
development these days?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty familiar
with the newer designs..." Bruce started.
Reggie continued undeterred.
"They expanded Sky Bridge One again. Six hundred and twenty kilometers now.
Only takes five G's to leave Earth. And the newest launcher they just finished
in Africa is not only longer, it's bigger in diameter, too. The passenger
craft they're launching from it are comparable to the fuselage of a Boeing
777. You remember the 777, right?
"And of course our lunar
launchers are even more impressive," Reggie added with pride. "We use them
for deceleration too, you know. One offers direct non-stop flight from the
surface of the moon to re-entry into Earth's atmosphere."
In the course of this
conversation they had passed the statues of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.
Each figure held an object identified with the life of the individual.
Reggie was tapping the pedestal
of the next statue with his cane. "This must be where you come to pray every
Bruce gazed up at the figure
of Gerard K. O'Neill. He had always felt it was a particularly good likeness.
The Beatles hair-cut, the ubiquitous turtle-neck sweater, the lop-sided smile,
all were there. He held a small model of an O'Neill Cylinder space habitat.
The eyes of every statue
in the park were slightly elevated, as though each genius were looking at
some vision above the heads of ordinary mortals. One would certainly expect
this in the O'Neill figure. But Bruce felt that more than any other statue
in the park, the eyes of this one seemed to be taking in the surroundings.
Bruce liked to think Gerry was enjoying his excellent view of the vast expanse
of land which curved away all around, and that the crooked grin came from
a sense of vindication.
Reggie had continued on
to the next statue. Bruce reluctantly joined him.
"Ugh," Reggie said while
pointing upward with his cane. "Definitely the ugliest of the lot."
This was, of course, the
statue of Bruce Franklin. The figure held a mass-driver coil in its hand.
"And I'm not even dead yet,"
Bruce complained. "At least they could have waited, and spared me the
"Oh, sure. Your modesty
was always one of your strong points. Hey, lookie here." Reggie was fishing
around in his pants pocket, and now withdrew a short length of red crayon,
sans paper, with a finely sharpened point. Bruce immediately began to chuckle.
He recognized it as one of the "bullets" from the model of Sky Bridge Reggie
had built all those years ago.
"Do you know why I brought
this out now?" Reggie asked him.
"I suppose to remind me
of a time long ago when we were both young men and space launchers were nothing
but a gleam in our youthful eyes."
"Wrong. I'm going to go
back, climb up on Gerry, and give him a red mustache."
"Yeah, right," Bruce snorted
derisively. "Like you had the strength, you feeble old bastard."
"Senile old coot," Reggie
The pair turned and started
back towards the entrance of the park. They needed to start thinking about
getting ready for that ISNN interview.
"I could probably find you
a nice, zero-gravity hotel we could put you up in while you stay," Bruce
"Are you kidding? Like I
want to sleep in a room that's surrounded by Earther newlyweds bouncing off
the walls all night long. No thanks. Don't you worry about me. I'll get along.
I'm not old and feeble yet, you know."
As the pair headed back
along the pathway to the elevator, it occurred to Bruce that he was supremely
happy. He had survived the man-rating of Sky Bridge: his greatest single
creation. He was exactly where he had always wanted to be. His oldest and
dearest friend was still around to abuse him.
And best of all, the future
was back on track.
I cannot claim originality
for the concept behind Sky Bridge. Gerard O'Neill described such a structure
in the "Wild Cards" chapter of his book 2081: A Hopeful View of the Human
Future. He considered it as the ultimate space transportation system
for a very distant future, and allowed that, "Some of that system may in
operation by 2081, but not, I would guess, very much of it". So all I have
done is merely perform a radical acceleration on his time-table.
The notion of a mile-wide
solar-powered hot-air balloon permanently supporting both itself and a load
high in the upper atmosphere may at first seem almost beyond belief, but
the concept has been thoroughly studied by researchers at the Franklin Institute.
They were interested in developing a manned research platform for study of
the upper atmosphere. The project was called STARS: Solar Thermal Aerostat
Research Station. Buckminster Fuller was also reported to have promoted the
idea. Unfortunately, I have not yet gotten hold of the original paper, so
any gross errors concerning the design of the balloons are entirely mine.
The point is that their calculations indicated such a balloon would work.
I merely repeat it endlessly for Sky Bridge.
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