Launching a new timeline here (hope the name isn't taken). I'll answer questions here and there as they come, but I'm hoping to tell the story, for the most part, through a series of short stories and let internal context clues do a good chunk of the heavy lifting. Still, I'll try not to leave you in suspense for too long between posts. Hope you enjoy this first installment. Ocean Of Storms 21 January 1967 X-20 Dyna-Soar Orbital Inclination: 80 degrees Altitude: 220 miles Callsign: Eagle From the ground, even if someone was looking for it, it would have been almost impossible to spot the X-20. The black exterior soaked in sunlight like a sponge and an observer’s best chance would have been to catch a glint of sunshine off of the cockpit window as the spacecraft crossed the terminator line. The mockup that was shown to the public was emblazoned with big white “U.S. AIR FORCE” lettering, but the real one was as black as night, save for Old Glory on her dorsal fin. Truthfully, that wasn’t really important. Even if you could spot the X-20 and even if you knew what you were looking at, by the time anyone could do anything about it, this mission would be over. “Cheyenne, Eagle. I have the Corona in sight. Range to target is 35 feet. Requesting go order for docking.” The X-20’s pilot was relieved to have gotten this far. He had been strapped into this seat for the past 36 hours and the interesting part of this flight was about to begin. The headset gave its familiar beep a moment later, “Eagle, this is Cheyenne Center, you are go for receptacle opening and docking. Repeat, go for docking. Recommend you move to suit oxygen and confirm backup before commencing maneuvers.” They’re worried I’m gonna crack the windshield when I close in, he thought. Still, no one ever died from being too careful. He closed the valves for his external airflow and sealed the helmet visor. Technically, he was now on an independent life support system, totally separated from the cabin air that moved around him. He had become, essentially, a spacecraft within a spacecraft, as his suit was vacuum rated. “Roger Cheyenne. Suit LS is confirmed. Keying the receptacle door now.” On his right, there was a toggle at his elbow. He pressed it forward to the OPN side and could hear the small whirring of a motor behind him. Just behind the cockpit, on the starboard side of the spacecraft, a door opened revealing a small alcove. The padded space within was designed to give a smooth ride all the way to Edwards. Half of him wondered if his cargo would be more comfortable on the way home than he was. In the moments he was performing these functions, Eagle had drifted about 2 feet closer in to the Corona. He double checked his range and reconfirmed that his target was clean. The Corona satellite looked like a metal cigar floating in space. Cigar being the nicer image, though a lesser observer might have used a more phallic reference. Her cameras were housed internally, but the clarity of viewing her through a vacuum made it easy to spot where their portholes were. He didn’t focus there though. The pilot’s eyes were set on the small loop at her stern. This was where he would latch on. A small hoop, which was appropriate as it was about the size of a basketball, with an empty cone to help guide in the male portion of the docking system. Calling the device a docking arm was very generous. Even the engineers who had tacked on the system would have to admit that it was little more than a rounded steel shaft on a low support. It had but one purpose, and that was to slip neatly into the Corona’s female mount. The arm was mounted on the starboard wing. Two hours from now, it would be jettisoned and would make a small fiery trail over the Pacific, trailing behind the Eagle as she returned home. This was the tricky bit. The pilot maneuvered within 10 feet, but the last few were critical. His RCS fuel was at 55%, which was enough to get in, but he wanted to preserve at least 35% for retrofire and any emergency that may crop up before landing. Up here, fuel was life, or so the instructors had said once a day, every day, for three years. The Corona had been augmented with the docking sleeve, but there was no device on her frame that he could use to guide himself in. It was a matter of keeping his head turned to the right and keeping an eye on the arm, the sleeve and his rangefinder. All while wearing a space suit and maintaining vigilance over the myriad of systems that kept the X-20 functioning. No wonder the Air Force was already hard at work on a prototype that could carry 2 pilots. As far as he was concerned, it couldn’t get off the ground soon enough. Left, down, overcorrecting right. He was thankful that CAPCOM wasn’t asking for any updates. Cheyenne Mountain was technically in-charge, but even they knew when to shut up and let him fly. “Three feet.” That was all they were getting from him for a status report. The docking arm’s tip slipped in front of the cone’s far end and he felt a shudder as it slid against the surface. His half a foot per second of speed took care of the rest. There was a lurch as the docking arm slid home, but when it caught, it was solid. There had been a concern that he might bounce off. After all, this had never been tried before. This was only the 3rd flight of the X-20. He let out a long breath and checked for signs of motion. There was a slight yaw, but only a couple of degrees per minute he estimated. That was to be expected when you bring together two spacecraft of comparable size in this way. “Cheyenne, Eagle. Capture confirmed.” He could hear a cheer in the background as the call came back. “Roger, Eagle. We have you confirmed as locked in. Confirm that you are prepared to receive and we will trigger the transfer on your mark.” “Cheyenne, Eagle. Prepared to receive. 10 seconds on my mark. Mark.” He kept his eyes on the small door in what he had begun to think of as the underside of Corona. The silver cylinder slipped silently out and he felt a thump behind him as it found its way into the padded compartment of the X-20. He keyed the door toggle back to CLS and made the call everyone had been waiting for. “Cheyenne Center. Cargo transferred.” One hundred miles below, the Cheyenne Center Flight Director made a remark about the astronaut’s deadpan tone at such a pivotal moment. It took a few minutes to confirm the ground track and make sure that the cargo itself was not loose in the container. After a quiet ten minutes while the ground control processed new information, the X-20 pilot got a little restless. “Cheyenne Center, this is Eagle. Requesting permission to undock.” It took a long moment for the call to come back. “You’re go Neil. Engineering recommends a single pulse from the RCS.” The pilot winced at the use of his Christian name. With the redundant layers of radio security, it wasn’t likely to get back to Russia, but why chance it. He locked the flight stick into position and switched to a push-button control for the RCS. Better to not risk a hand motion fouling the maneuver. He pushed the switch to AFT and felt a shudder. Out the right window, the arm didn’t slip from the cone. The Corona pitched down, taking the X-20 with her. This wasn’t good. “Cheyenne, Eagle. Negative release on the Corona. Moving to correct the pitch angle.” He keyed the RCS back to fly-by-wire and pulsed the jets to stop the rotation. The spacecraft were stable again, but he was still attached to this thing. “Eagle, Cheyenne. FIDO is authorizing one more attempt using RCS undocking. After that, we’ll go to disengagement.” “Copy that Cheyenne. RCS at 42%. Gonna try this again.” He stayed with the stick this time and pulsed the RCS. The lurch was jarring, but the result was the same. The docking arm was still stuck in the Corona’s cone and the pair had begun to tumble again. “Whoa… okay. Bringing her back to one.” The deadpan tone was gone. He was getting a bit concerned. “Eagle, Cheyenne. We’re gonna have you disengage the arm, but you’re about to have LOS as you leave the CSQ tracking station. We’ll pick you up in 5 minutes over Hawaii and we’ll have a plan for you then. Copy?” The pilot gritted his teeth. “Roger Cheyenne. Just gonna sit here for a few minutes. I’ll be waiting for your call. It was a tense five minutes with nothing to do but wait. During the loss of signal, he considered that Cheyenne control must have felt the same way when he was docking: a flurry of activity on the other end of the line, but nothing to be done here. He was relieved to hear the communications beep and Jerry Swinson’s voice coming through from Colorado. “Eagle, Cheyenne. Can’t get rid of us that easily.” The pilot was all business, “Roger that. Do you have the maneuver ready?” “We do indeed. We want you to trigger the pyro for the arm and engineering would rather you did not do any RCS burns until after we have the ability to assess. Repeat, do not fire RCS until ground track has a read.” “The pyro will push me away on it’s own? Over.” “That’s the plan Eagle. Engineering thinks that the pyro fire itself will provide enough of a kick to clear Eagle. Reconnaissance confirms that the loss of the cone function is acceptable. You’re gonna leave Corona with the arm still engaged. After separation, we’ll have you back on flight plan and we’ll proceed with retro.” “Roger that Cheyenne. Ready to disengage the arm on your mark.” “Go Eagle.” There was a small white flash as the explosive bolts fired on the top of the starboard wing. The docking arm separated cleanly from the X-20 and the moment arm of the force rolled the Eagle away slowly, like a tired dog settling down for a long nap. He breathed another sigh of relief as the two spacecraft got some space between them. He looked up and saw the detached arm sticking uselessly out of the Corona’s cone. No one would ever dock with the Corona again, but that was a problem for another day. An hour later, he was ready to come home. Retrofire went smoothly a hundred miles over the coast of New Zealand. The engine module at the back of the ship separated smoothly and would make a nice little meteor shower twenty minutes later for anyone in the middle of the Pacific who happened to look up. Communications blackout came and went. It was spooky to be out of contact, but it was to be expected. Reentry was simultaneously the scariest and most exciting part of the flight for him. Docking and transfer had been tricky to be sure, but screaming through the upper atmosphere with a thick metal sheet as his only protection from a fiery demise… it was enough to get the blood pumping. As he came down through the stratosphere, the Eagle remembered that she was, at her core, still an aircraft. The wings cooled down and the X-20 began its long glide to the California coastline. Over Port Arguello, he saw the T-38’s come in from the south. “Cheyenne, I have sighted the escorts. They are taking position on my wing. Expect touchdown in 5 minutes.” “Copy Eagle. Safety crews are standing by. Escort flight confirms your ground track as good. You are go for landing.” The X-20 swooped down from a clear blue desert sky. Its black silhouette looking, for all the world, like some kind of alien space bat coming in to chomp down on some unexpecting humans. Neil Armstrong cracked a smile as he sighted runway 22R for Edwards Air Force Base. He felt the X-20’s momentum through his seat as he came down through 3,000 feet. The final turn burned off the last of that momentum and the whirr of the landing skids lowering told him there was nothing left but to fly the plane. The skids weren’t his favorite part of the system, but they had worked on two earlier flights and the runways at Edwards were basically painted sand. Armstrong made his final alignment and heard the snap-roar of the rear skids touching down on the desert floor. He brought the X-20’s nose down like a hummingbird and could see a couple of support trucks speeding along out the left-hand window, eager to meet up with the spacecraft as it came to a stop. Technically, he should have done a radio call to confirm touchdown, but his focus was on the stick and the task at hand. No one would blame him. After all, he was still a civilian pilot, even if this was an Air Force spacecraft. The roar of the skids against the desert sand faded from loud to dull and when it finally reached full quiet, all he could hear was the low moan of the air pumps. It was a very tranquil feeling to know that both he and the ship had gotten home safe. “Cheyenne, Edwards Base here. The Eagle has landed.” In the coming days, Air Force assessments determined that the failure of the docking arm was not a drastic blow to the Corona reconnaissance system. The film packages spit out by the satellite could still be obtained by parachute snag. The X-20 had proven a limited effectiveness in achieving on-orbit objectives. Still, word among the X-20 pilots was that the program's lifespan was about to be cut horrendously short. The X-20 would soon be grounded, not for mechanical failure, or a defect in functionality. It was to be brought down by an enemy that could never be countered by engineering or skill in a pilot's seat. Politics was about to clip the wings of the Air Force's primary access for manned orbital flights.