Righting the Mission

Luis Freire May 14, 2021
Historical
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The train ride that morning seemed endless. He fruitlessly recalled the telephone call the night before, “We need a scene, about a complicated matter but one no longer than a TV commercial, can you have it ready by tomorrow?” He deflected hours later, “This train ride is taking longer than the time necessary for writing a screenplay!” Nonetheless, he focused on the sky visible through the passenger window, and it dawned on him. “What captivates the attention and awe in people of all ages more than the launch of a space vehicle, one that orbits the upper atmosphere, and keeps them waiting in anticipation for hours, days, or weeks at a time?” He had it, and gathered his thoughts, quickly strode into the nearest library, feverishly rummaging through newspaper clippings, novels, and reports. This was his first version, one with potential.

The Countdown

Enter the rank and file of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Florida: Johnson Space Center this is Kennedy Space Center requesting a 7 day launch window, over
Texas: Copy, this is Johnson Space Center, standby for clearance

T MINUS 6 DAYS AND COUNTING
Texas: Cape Canaveral, do you read?
Florida: That’s a copy, Johnson

T MINUS 5 DAYS AND COUNTING
Texas: This is Johnson Space Center, clearing orbiter, weather is go, satellite link is go, ground control personnel is reporting to duty, standby for across the board Operation Status
Florida: Kennedy Space Center making that a copy, standing-by

T MINUS 4 DAYS AND COUNTING
Texas: Kennedy, this is Johnson Space Center, ground control personnel is reporting flap sensor green, aileron sensor green, elevon sensor green, rudder sensor green, speed brake sensor green, engine throttle relay nominal, computer matrix functional, astronaut vitals indicate optimal range, Kennedy, proceed with countdown procedure
Florida: Copy, this is Kennedy Space Center escalating flight dynamics, over

T MINUS 3 DAYS AND COUNTING
Texas: Kennedy, Johnson Space Center relaying message by Commander-in-Chief, “a moment of silence for crew of Challenger and Columbia, Christa McAuliffe, 1986 Teacher in Space, Barbara Morgan, 2007 Educator in Space, We salute you, America remembers”
Florida: That’s a copy Johnson, Kennedy Space Center over

T MINUS 2 DAYS AND COUNTING
Florida: Johnson, Kennedy Space Center showing feedback panels at 100% intervals, weather remains clear, vehicle fuel cells holding, shuttle crew in formation, over
Texas: Kennedy, Johnson Space Center reading clear, all systems stable, relinquishing control to Cape Canaveral for final launch contingencies, report any anomalies, over

T MINUS 1 DAY AND COUNTING
Florida: Copy, Kennedy Space Center clearing all launch constraints, accelerating liftoff, propulsion, and rocket recovery stages

T MINUS 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1
[First a long and thunderous turbulence then a hollow pause followed by silence and radio static discharge]
Solar rays flickering, radiation factor elevated, Kennedy Space Center standing-by for final telemetry

After turning the dialogue over to the director, he waited like a family member hovering over a hospital room for the doctor’s diagnosis to the patient. “It can start here as a teaser moment between children, or as chatter among adults, definitely, but I need the suspenseful climax added on.” It was the only way to impress the audience, so it seems. “Not a problem,” he murmured compliantly. The library provided everything to bulge the scene up a notch, or two. He diligently sorted through the photocopied material on space flight and honed the event into minute details, profuse interaction, and unadulterated closure. This, in turn, was the spectacle to end all spectacles.

The Departure

In near ritualistic manner, the spectators and top brass at Kennedy Space Center coalesce about the launch pad; Jet Propulsion Laboratory glances in anticipation

60 SECONDS BEFORE LIFTOFF
Broadcast: Orbiter Test Conductor requesting radio check by Shuttle Launch Control for launch commit
Cape Canaveral: Water system flowing underneath launch pad for sound suppression, onboard computer control set for flight sequence into preliminary orbit, fill and drain valves for liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen closed, solid rocket booster flight data recorder in operation

1 MINUTE AFTER LIFTOFF
Cape Canaveral: Handing over flight dynamics to Houston Ground Control during vehicle ascent
Houston Ground Control: Shuttle Commander, reverse spacecraft to maintain Earth reference point above crew cabin, initiate throttle down at maximum dynamic pressure to throttle up at sound barrier, over

2 MINUTES AFTER LIFTOFF
Houston Ground Control: Shuttle speed at 2000 miles per hour, clear to detach solid rocket booster
Shuttle Commander: Copy Houston, standby for solid rocket booster separation status

After 4 minutes, shuttle velocity increases by a factor of 5, contouring apparent optical ripple through sound barrier displacement, surpassing maximum dynamic pressure, reaching an altitude of 60 miles

6 MINUTES AFTER LIFTOFF
Houston Ground Control: Shuttle speed at 10,000 miles per hour, clear to release external fuel tank
Shuttle Commander: Copy, standby for external fuel tank status

7 MINUTES AFTER LIFTOFF
Houston Ground Control: Reverse spacecraft to maintain outer space reference point above crew cabin
Shuttle Commander: Copy, climate sensors at nominal temperature level for shuttle avionics cooling cycle

8 MINUTES AFTER LIFTOFF
Houston Ground Control: Heads-up to heads-down navigation setting vehicle heading to Space Station with estimated time of arrival in 48 hours
Shuttle Commander: Copy, external fuel tank in free-fall formation, vehicle completing preliminary orbit, Space Station in range for docking mode

The Space Station Rendezvous Sequence

ORBITING VELOCITY AT 25 TIMES THE SPEED OF SOUND
Astronauts thrusting jet engines to align with Space Station, view of Earth formations from the 200 mile altitude contrasting with brimming luster of metallic satellite complexion, the brilliance of the Sun flanked by erratic flashes of thunder during the darkening night passages, muted by luminous glare of the Moon

EARTH ROTATION COMPRESSING NIGHT AND DAY INTERVAL
Day passes into night and back again in haste as the astronauts begin the space walk, donning space suit, coupling the Truss apparatus onto the Space Station by remote guidance of cabin crew allayed with surveillance from Houston Ground Control, satellite downlink detected for communication loop

The Return

AT TWICE THE SPEED OF SOUND
Orbiter initiates steep descent through atmosphere, making final approach to Cape Canaveral by applying aerodynamic braking through turn angles slighted by engine thrust to enter heading alignment

AT THE SPEED OF SOUND
Shuttle pilot maneuvers directly in line with runway, using austere glide pattern against head winds

AT SUBSONIC SPEED
Flight dynamics officer acknowledges sonic booms as shuttle breaches cloud layer, flight engineer extends main landing gear, unfurls parachute for rapid deceleration
Cape Canaveral staff and shuttle crew converge for post-flight debriefing, media coverage concludes the mission

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was a narrative etched in gold. The playwright and the director departed, each to his own corner of the world, each with a copy of the screenplay. Their demeanor no different than: a dignitary with a treaty in hand, an inventor with a blueprint, an athlete with Olympic stamina, on and on. The work having only just begun. The editing of video, the mixing of audio, posters on transit lines under billboards perched over cliffs and roads, the pomp along with gallantry by thespian, one and all; everything that creates a smoke screen and a blizzard of excitement and anticipation for a mere moment of dramatic entertainment. For they knew better than most that the best part of the act, besides the overture, is the box office draw. A tidal wave of indulgence, indeed.

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