Chapter 41: A Friend in Need...
Hi everyone, I cannot wait to showcase for you what I have in store this week, this is something I had honestly not planned to write about, but so much inspiration came to me at once, that I could not help but get it down and make this a part of our story. I want to thank Peter this week for all his help in designing not only some of the mechanisms in the story, but helping with the choreography as a whole. While we won't have images this week, I think what's coming next week will more than make up for it, I promise you that. Now, without further adieu, let's jump right in to Chapter 41!

Chapter 41: A Friend in Need...

The mood in the situation room was best described as unpleasant, as Anna waited for Dr. Liao and her delegation’s arrival. Their long range A321 had been on the ground for nearly two hours now, and the response team was getting anxious. Mitchell had probably walked around the room 20 odd times, and Walker was on her third cup of coffee. Time was a limiting factor, Anna thought, and they were certainly taking theirs. The sun was just starting to creep over Johnson’s campus as an armed security officer opened the door, leading the good doctor and her team in. Anna stood, brushing her wrinkled blazer into something resembling presentable. Trailing behind them was Sergei, deep circles under his eyes highlighting the degree of stress he was under. Anna had not seen him in a long, long time. He didn’t look human. She tried not to stare, and shook Doctor Liao’s hand. Her grip was firm, and Anna could not help but notice how focused she was, how not jet lagged she was. They sat down, the 8 of them gathering around a series of documents and slides. Soon - the complexity and severity of the issue at hand would become apparent. As the crew of Baochuan had prepared to depart asteroid 2003 TK9, there had been a serious failure with the Power Distribution Unit onboard, a critical component that regulated flow of electricity to the Solar Electric Propulsion system. Life support, comms and attitude control were all intact, but the ship’s primary propulsion element were offline. As Dr. Liao delivered her analysis, Anna watched as lines of worry crossed her face, breaking the strong exterior that she had walked in with. The final blow came from her aide, who delivered in the most precise manner he could - the crew could not survive if repairs were not carried out. He proceeded to go into detail, describing the graveness of the situation - they’d run out of food in three months, water cyclers would fail after 5… Dr Liao cut him off, addressing Anna directly for the first time since the meeting began: “We understand that politically, this is a difficult situation, and that our two nations have not made any steps toward collaboration in the past, but this is an urgent situation, we are asking for your help - we have men out there who are taking bold steps for their nation, and we hope that some form of agreement can be reached here. I am not willing to let my crew die out there, are you, Dr. Douglass?” The look in her eyes was not one of calculated political games, but of a woman frightened of the reality she faced. Anna took a moment to think of her response, some of the most careful words since her first steps on the Red Planet’s surface: “Dr. Liao, I assure you, our interests in regards to your crew’s safe return are in alignment. That goes without saying. We will do what we can, and what we must, to get your crew home. Give my folks some time to look over options, and prepare them for you. You must be tired after your long trip.” She stood, with Mitchell and Walker joining her, and excused herself - finally free of the tension of the conference room. The Chinese delegation stood with her and said their farewells, but Dr. Liao could not help but notice Anna casting one rather directed look at Ivanov as she stepped out of the room.

Within a few hours, representatives from the Air Force, NASA, ESA, and more had piled into Johnson, beginning to work through the problem at hand. The immediate issue at hand was technology sharing, something the Department of Defense had been reluctant to do. The issue of potentially involving nuclear material was something no one wanted to have to contend with, but options were slim. Several ideas began to spiral around the room, ranging from launching a new propulsion module to readying an MTV for retrieval. The DoD and DoE officials in the room were quick to shut this notion down, citing “national security concerns” as to why an MTV could not feasibly be readied, and why their nuclear material should not be allowed in the hands of those the United States viewed as “adversaries” in spaceflight. Anna would protest, citing the compatible docking systems of both the MTV and the Chinese vehicle, as well as the ability to rapidly reprogram the computer for operations of this nature - it was afterall the most robust vehicle humanity had ever designed for deep space. The twin Departments would have none of it, and cast the problem solving back towards the center of the room, leaving someone else to figure it out. The Lockheed team would soon step up to the plate, and present a radical option - deployment of a Cygnus vehicle. There had been a vehicle fairly far along in processing, bound for Odyssey, and most of its components were ready at the launch site. The issue then became transfer, as even a 6-booster Atlas did not have the power to kick Cygnus out to Baochuan. Lockheed would once again provide the answer - Sunjammer, the recently launched experimental tug, which had yet to fly a payload to its final destination. It had been designed as a multi-destination vehicle, chock full of additional margin to get them where they needed to be. The kick to 2003 TK9 was doable with the propellant they had left, and would not require any modifications to the 3 engined Atlas NG slated to launch the vehicle. Orbital Sciences would also extend their support to equipping the vehicle for deep space operation, using their network of tracking stations to keep the spacecraft on course towards the stranded spacecraft. Anna could not help but feel defeated as she walked back towards the conference room, straightening herself out to be presentable once more. Dr. Liao turned to face her as she stepped through the door, clearly having been pacing. Anna could tell she was uneasy about the armed guard outside the door. After they all were seated, Commander Douglass and Mitchell began to lay out the plan for their recovery. The CNSA technical specialists, while understanding that this plan did have considerable risk, seemed enthusiastic about the timeframes and the way forwards, and began to draw up plans to continue, but not all minds were present. Dr. Liao’s gaze would return to the poster of the MTV on the wall behind Anna, seeming to stare right through her as they worked through trajectories and options. Anna felt it too. The question sitting in her gut. Was it enough? Would they be able to get Sunjammer there? Would the crew be able to safely fix the spacecraft? As they all filed out of the conference room, and the two armed guards once again separated Dr. Liao from Anna, the two women could not help but cast one glance over their shoulder, unsure of whether or not this was the right choice.

— — — — — — — —​

Anna could not help but toss and turn, finally at home in bed after one of the longest days of her terrestrial career. Plans were well underway now, the Lockheed and Orbital teams were moving, and Sunjammer was being prepared. But Anna’s mind would not grow quiet - instead, as she drifted off to sleep, it would grow more turbulent, consumed with thoughts of the past and the prospect of the future. She dreamt of her own crew, strapped to their seats onboard Olympus 3 as they fell towards the planet, and the piercing tone of the NO LOCK alarm, the screams of agony of the crew of Olympus 9… Taylor… And now she found herself onboard this new ship, a damaged and haunted place, haunted like Hera was, watching as the faces of her old crewmates flashed before her eyes. No. This wasn’t right. No! She felt her world spin, clouding her mind even further. The faces of the Baochuán-3 crew, gaunt from starvation, asking, no - begging for her help. Help us Anna, please won’t you help us?... they called, grabbing for her in the ever darkening module, I’m trying! She woke with a start, thrust into the silence of her bedroom, her husband still asleep next to her. The room lay still, save for the slow repetitions of the overhead fan. Still waking from her sleep, she looked across the room, at the crew portrait of Olympus 3 that sat on her nightstand, the framed picture of her daughter, standing with her mother in front of the VAB. Slipping on her nightgown, she stepped out of the room, and picked up her phone.

— — — — — — — —​

3:38AM, Central Time
I-45S, Houston Texas


“Sergei - Sergei it’s Anna. You have to start getting Discovery ready, we have to prepare to activate Selene. You have to get everyone you know working now. Stop everything they’re doing for their Horizon rotation.”

“Anna, are you insane? That’s… That’s not possible. Are you seriously proposing we scramble an MTV against the will of the entire Department of Defense.”

“Yes, Sergei, I am.”

“Anna, that's your career, that’s a conspiracy charge laid against you and this entire administration!”

“Then we don’t tell them. We tell them there’s a problem with the vehicle, that we have to go there and check it out. I don’t want us without options if Sunjammer fails.”

“Anna, you’re not thinking rationally! Get a hold of yourself, please. You’re asking us to do the unthinkable.”

“Sergei these men need us. If it was your crew-”

“What if it was? Could I have done any better than I did?”

“Sergei. I know you can do this.”

“Anna… I… This is suicide. We don’t know what we’re up against. There’s so much working against us here.”

“Sergei, we never know what we’re up against. We have to try.”

“... Okay, Anna - I’ll see what we can do. I assume you’re on the way to the center.”

“I’ll see you shortly, goodbye my friend.”

— — — — — — — —​

With nearly 1 week remaining before Cygnus was set to be launched, a crew filed out under the flood lamps to Launch Complex 39A. Publicly, their mission was to fly to Selene and perform maintenance, a routine flight, with a routine crew. Privately, they would be preparing to mount one of the most daring rescue missions of all time - staging themselves in orbit to be ready for anything that might happen. They performed the usual pleasantries, pre-launch photos, and the works. The DoD and DoE, respectively had tentatively cleared these plans, with the note that none of this would be made public - the US and China still had no public relationship in terms of spaceflight. They had also not cleared any sort of approach or docking operation, rather, an inspection of the foreign vehicle if something were to go wrong. The crew would make their way out to the vehicle, Discovery, and board the elevator to take them up to the veteran orbiter, full of supplies and equipment. Anna found herself drawn away from the activity at the pad, and instead, stood bunnysuited inside a cleanroom roughly five miles away, examining the Cygnus vehicle as the final cargo elements were loaded in. Dr. Liao stood at her side, agonizing about the equipment that had been flown in from Beijing. She seemed so concerned with the way the Orbital Sciences personnel were handling it, agonizing over every detail. Anna watched as the lines on her face moved behind her medical mask, creases forming on her brow. She admired her, the sheer amount of dedication that went into processing all of this equipment. After two hours in the clean room, the hatches on the spacecraft were sealed, and Anna, Dr. Liao and their teams stepped out of the facility. The Florida air was thick, but not uncomfortable as it had been during the humid Florida day. The Doctor’s fatigue was evident, her shoulders slumped and the tight ponytail she kept her hair in had frayed somewhat. It was clear that the weight of the world was on her shoulders, and her sleep had paid the price. Anna offered to drive her back to the house the agency had rented for the Chinese delegation, about 40 minutes away. The first few minutes were quiet, as Anna navigated her way out of the Space Center, the tension in the car palpable. Anna attempted to break the silence, her eyes scanning the horizon. “You know, there is a lot between the two of us that makes us similar. We have a lot riding on both of us, a lot of pressure to do well. I know how that can feel overwhelming…” Dr. Liao nodded, and spoke in a voice Anna had not heard before. “I feel so often that the world is on me. That there is a pressure unlike anything that has ever come before, for me… I fear for the outcome. I fear for my crewmembers out there. I have not felt this scared in a long time.” Anna swore that she heard her choking back tears. Just then, a pulse of light on the horizon, and a crackling rumble. Discovery had lit her three main engines, and her solids were quick to follow. The vehicle began to thunder skywards, shaking the landscape around them. The light seemed to grow, illuminating the faces of the two women, a second moon in a dark sky. Anna stopped the car, and they both stepped out, watching as the orbiter grew fainter and fainter. Dr. Liao seemed in awe, staring at this marvel of engineering as it pierced the night sky. In the car, a message popped up on Anna’s phone - from Sergei: “We are underway, god help us.”

The final days of prelaunch prep for Cygnus were hectic, hundreds of officials milling about, and the press was eager to determine what exactly had happened, why a resupply would be needed so soon, Endeavour had just returned from the "mail run" not 3 weeks prior. The official story was that the crew onboard Horizon was dealing with unexpected teething issues, and would require a series of EVAs before Expedition-3 would be cleared to launch. Anna didn’t like it, she found the lying to the press to be not true to what she signed up for. The Chinese had wanted it that way, they wanted to reveal the disaster on their terms. It irked her, but she went to sleep each night knowing that Selene was ready, should the need to deploy a crew. On the final night before the launch of Cygnus, Anna found it hard to sleep - she knew the complex series of maneuvers that would need to take place tomorrow would decide her course of action, and change the face of international relations for the foreseeable future. Morning came all too suddenly, and Anna made the trip to the press site, reuniting with Dr. Liao and her team. The Doctor stood confidently amongst her aides, reviewing trajectories and plans for the rendezvous later in the day. Never a stitch out of place, she thought, the Florida heat already ruining the ironing board’s work on her blazer. Dr Liao greeted her with a polite grin. “You look tired, Dr. Douglass. Did you sleep last night?” Anna chuckled, shaking her head. “No, I never sleep too well on launch day. I just want to get this show on the road.” It was Dr. Liao’s turn to chuckle, turning to face Anna for the first time; “I quite like that phrase. Let’s get this show on the road indeed.” In that moment, she felt human - more so than she had before. The countdown clock for the Atlas NG 562, a 5 meter fairing, 6 booster, 2 main engine variant, soon ticked down to zero, sending the vehicle roaring skyward. Ditching its solid rocket motors, the vehicle would press on with its AR1 powered core, thundering into the Florida sky. Not long after the shutdown of the Centaur upper stage, Cygnus would spread its fan-like wings, and wait for the embrace of Sunjammer, slowly closing in behind it over the course of several hours. Soon, Cygnus would feel the embrace of its solar electric transfer vehicle, and the journey to 2003 TK9 could commence.

— — — — — — — —​

The month long trip to the asteroid was one filled with tension. Sunjammer had performed its job admirably, and fine tuned Cygnus’ arrival before being jettisoned, no longer needed. Consumables were getting low onboard the spacecraft, and Anna felt concerned with the length of time the MTV could stand ready before needing to be serviced again. But arrival day loomed, and Anna would find herself filing into CNSA’s control room in Beijing, a gargantuan complex filled with screens and ex-military officials. There was a degree of discomfort for her. She felt the eyes of older staff members on her, scrutinizing the color of her skin, the way her hair was braided. She tried to put it out of her mind and focus. The crew onboard Baochuán-3 would soon catch sight of their helping hand, so far from home. Now, the delicate operation could begin, retrieval by the robotic arm. Two days before Cygnus’ projected arrival, the robotic arm on the ship had been powered up, and the crew would go through the motions of simulating capture of the spacecraft. The two mission specialists were already outside, ready to begin the process of repairing the spacecraft, ready for whatever came their way. Soon, Cygnus would be within 100 feet, the helmet cams of the spacewalkers capturing her approach. She had fared well on her journey, and soon, would be within the grasp of the spacewalkers, secured to Baochuán via the Robotic Manipulator system. Now, the hard part, getting to work. One of the key modifications of Cygnus had been the removal of the forward CBM and replacement with a hatch, so that the spacewalkers could easily access the cargo within. The egress process took time, eating into the consumables onboard, worrying controllers about the power and life support levels on the suits. The mood in the control room was tense, and Anna watched as the crew members worked on getting the required consumables into the small science airlock, and stow hardware on the outside of the spacecraft. Ultimately, the spacewalk would need to draw to a close, and the crew would retreat inside to prepare for another expedition in 2 days. At last, the final EVA for the crew would come to pass, and the difficult task of replacing the PDU could begin. Anna and Dr. Liao sat in the observing gallery of the control room, anxiously awaiting calls from the crew. The work was tough, the PDU for the vehicle sat in a rather difficult to reach spot, with the thought of servicing far from the minds of the designers. After six long hours, the call would come from Commander Liu, his voice weary but at last, confident: “Control, we have successful linkage to the PDU - the drive is online, we… we believe that we can make it home.” The room erupted, and for a brief moment, Anna thought she saw Dr. Liao smile…
 
Whew, if this hasn't been one of the tensest chapters to date....

This is super well-written, with one of the main themes being the unease between the US and China's space programs. I really appreciate (from a narrative context anyway) the way their discussions are frequently obstructed by stiff boundaries - "national security" concerns precluding the use of the extremely capable MTV, and the unpleasant dance to keep the truth from the press. There's a real sense of how hard it can be for people with different backgrounds to operate together, even on the most common ground like saving lives. Anna and Dr. Liao bond as two characters who see past these difficulties into the honest good in each other's hearts; their relationship exemplifies that emotional human element that sets this story apart.

And of course, the gorgeous imagery of launch and in-space operations puts the icing on this chapter :)

Really glad to see their work come to fruition, and hopefully the return goes smoothly - I can't wait for the next part!
 
Wow that was tense, the fact you had me sat here reading every line, anticipating, fearing for the crew of Baochuán, not knowing how things would transpire. This was some of the best writing so far I can see why you couldn't stop to write it - can't wait to see what happens next week!
 
This is super well-written, with one of the main themes being the unease between the US and China's space programs. I really appreciate (from a narrative context anyway) the way their discussions are frequently obstructed by stiff boundaries - "national security" concerns precluding the use of the extremely capable MTV, and the unpleasant dance to keep the truth from the press. There's a real sense of how hard it can be for people with different backgrounds to operate together, even on the most common ground like saving lives.
I think this has been a reality of spaceflight for a long time, and will continue to be for a while, until we learn how best to understand and come together over issues that we face. It raises questions over how we can address things like inequity and miscommunication, in a way that really makes a profound difference in all of our lives. I think we're getting there, step by step. NASA has been a somewhat good example in highlighting inequity in the past and molding to fit the needs of the future, but there is a long way to go.
 
Really a good chapter.
Question: What are the sizes of the MTV and the Chinese vehicle?
 
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Schedule Update: Hi folks, I am a little behind on Chapter 43, so we may see that on Tuesday coming up, just to give me some additional time to catch up. Chapter 42 should be out at our normally scheduled time on Monday. Thanks for your patience!
 
Really a good chapter.
Question: What are the sizes of the MTV and the Chinese vehicle?

They are both "hugely impressive" though it should be noted one is using the metric scale and the other standard...
(If you've ever bought cloths by "measurement" over the internet you'll get that joke :) )

Schedule Update: Hi folks, I am a little behind on Chapter 43, so we may see that on Tuesday coming up, just to give me some additional time to catch up. Chapter 42 should be out at our normally scheduled time on Monday. Thanks for your patience!

No problem, take your time just don't forget that on midnight on Saturday "forum-time" rolls over for fall and Sunday becomes Tuesday...

Have a good weekend :)

Randy
 
Chapter 42: To Walk Upon Another Moon
Hello all, happy Monday! We have a lot to get into today, wrapping up some of our plot lines from last week, and really stepping into the shoes of the crew of Olympus 14 as they prepare to conduct the next bold endeavor in the program! I want to thank three people this week, Jay, Peter and Ben who have been so immensely amazing. Peter has provided excellent technical support as always, Jay has given us some fantastic images, and Ben provided us with the next installment of the soundtrack which you can listen to here! With that being said, on with the show!

Chapter 42: To Walk Upon Another Moon

“Today, New Year’s Day, 2017, we have achieved something great. On the dusty plains of Mongolia, three men stepped out of a Shenzhou capsule, alive and well. And we, at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, played a part. Equipment launched by the United States and our partners enabled us to respond rapidly to the first ever declaration of Article V of the Outer Space Treaty - necessitating that we help astronauts in need. Now, you may ask, why did we not speak out sooner? Why did we withhold information about the crisis in space? We felt it necessary to stay focused, to gather the facts, and to work with our new found comrades in space to get the job done - and that we have. This is a testament to a world united through the common cause of exploration, a world which is strengthened by its bonds with other cultures - we can overcome the impossible. And that we have today. The crew of Baochuán-3, just a few short months ago, faced uncertainty. And the world looked at that in the face and produced an answer. Our rapid response was a testament to the engineering power of our space program, supported internationally by our partners. I would like to thank my colleagues at the CNSA for their support in this operation, and trusting us with a way forward. I hope that this is a new dawn in the age of cooperation in space, a push forward, another momentous leap for all of humankind. Thank you, 谢谢.”

Anna smiled, stepping away from the podium, breathing a sigh of relief. The weight of the last several months had weighed on her, and she could feel the tension of the world leaving her. The scrambling of the MTV had ended up not necessary, something that was much to the relief of the DoD and DoE. It had been a tense few months for the crew, who had been left onboard the MTV to wait out the possibility of a rescue with their lifeboat. Now, Atlantis would be tasked with the safe return of the crew, their mission of "sitting and waiting" complete at last. Baochuán-3 had returned successfully, with the transfer vehicle even braking into low Earth Orbit for repairs. Everything had worked as they’d hoped, and finally, the world could breathe a little easier. As she walked into the underground parking lot, her phone began to vibrate - a phone call from a blocked number. Sweat formed on her palms, not for fear of consequences, but for the unknown. She held the cell phone to her ear, and for the first time, timidly uttered her hello. On the other end, a familiar voice, Dr Liao’s: “Dr. Douglass. I wanted to call you and thank you for what you did for me and my crew. And for what you did, but did not disclose. We saw all that you did, readying the MTV. It is not hard to disguise your intentions with something like that. But I will say this - That night… with you watching the Shuttle launch, I knew something special was there. I knew you wouldn’t stand by and not have the final say, so… I wanted to thank you personally. You are a good woman, and a good friend, Anna.” It was the first time she had heard the Doctor say her name. It felt kind, she felt kind. Like a friend who had been there all along.

— — — — — — — —​

On the Red Planet, the crew of Olympus 14 was preparing to make history. Prometheus and Taurus had so far served the crew well, carrying them to the planet and surface respectively. The landing site, Margaritifer Terra, was a heavily cratered region that had been extensively surveyed from orbit, seen as the gateway site for crew to eventually explore the Marineris region, the site of the upcoming Foundation base. Despite the distance, and the truncated nature of the mission, the crew would make the journey to the valley's ridgelines, humanity’s first look at a structure long seen from the ground. The first photo, taken by mission Surgeon Samantha Barnes, titled Vistas of Another would go on to win the 2017 Sony World Photography award, even before the crew would return. Here, Sam Bianchi would plant a flag of the Olympus program, and speak to the world as many before him had, remarking that the best phase of exploration was yet to come, and the planet of Mars was about to be open to all. “This planet” he would remark, “is a foothold to the stars. As we learn about how to live permanently here, we will gain more - a great achievement for a species who hasn’t been in the game very long.” The crew would once again use their new flying machines, conducting aerial surveys of the space below, identifying the landing ellipse that was to be used by the crew of Olympus 15, and the core module of Foundation with them. As their time on the surface came to an end, the crew would make their way back to the vicinity of their lander-base, wanting to limit the amount of resources they expended. A new technique had been trialed on this mission, the deployment of a greenhouse from one of the Logistics Modules delivered ahead of the crew. This inflatable hab was pressurized on Sol 20, and covered in regolith from Sol 30-43, where setup inside could take place. Not only did this add internal volume to their already rather expansive habitat, but infused an air of home, Planet Earth, into their facility. One of the first steps in setup would be the refining of the Martian soil, not an easy task given the high perchlorate content, which took several long days and a complicated refinement process. Eventually, the first few pounds of bio-treated dirt would be laid down in the new habitat. The first smell of wet earth, Mission Specialist Frederick Wilson would write in his memoir, brought tears to our eyes. We had been treating it for over 4 days, and our first batch was finally ready to be laid down in the greenhouse. We all gathered and took turns shoveling, feeling it between our fingers. It was beautiful… It felt like Genesis. I cannot explain it in any other way. The crew would plant their first crops, buttercrunch lettuce and several types of root vegetables, as well as set up a hydroponic system. Within several weeks, the first crops grown in Martian soil would be harvested, and the crew could begin to ponder the future of the planet, one where humans could walk amongst lush fields in the landscape.

Soon, their time on the surface would come to a close, and the crew would begin to prepare their intrepid lander for departure - on to the next adventure. There was some degree of apprehension amongst the crew - this was the first time since Olympus 6 that a crew had been split up to conduct a mission, only 4 crew members would be making the journey to Phobos, something which had never been attempted before. As the crew sat on the flight deck of the lander, pilot Dominic Granger would look out the window, and deliver some remarks before he would commit the group to the next phase of their adventure: “As we set off from our position here, our home away from home, we can leave in comfort, knowing that the next time Mars is inhabited by humans, it will be to stay. Godspeed to us, and godspeed to the next crew to view this world, Olympus 15. Preparing for terminal count…” With a go from mission control back on Earth, and good data connection to the Base Station, Taurus and her crew would leave the surface, the penultimate MSAV to do so. Through their ascent, they maintained a solid connection to the complex in orbit, ensuring that their arrival would go smoothly. At last, the great facility came into view, refitted numerous times during the course of the program, and the lander could dock, at rest for just a moment. The next week would see the crew begin to refit the upper stage, and transfer RCS propellant from the Base Station itself into the vehicle. There was enough fuel margin in their upper stage to make the journey to and from Phobos, but additional propellant was required under contingency plans, ensuring that in the event of a propulsion failure, backups were available. The mood in the complex was one of excitement, but the taste of worry lingered in everyone’s mouths. A new moon, a whole new world to explore, was not without risk. Orbiters had imaged Phobos hundreds of times, yet there were going to be features that could not be accounted for, systems that could potentially surpass their design life… That didn’t matter now, not anymore. As Commander Bianchi, the MSAV pilot Adia Alekseeva, Samantha Robinson and Kyle Barnes found themselves secure in the lander’s flight deck, they stared down the barrel of their next great adventure.

screenshot1831.png

Taurus sets out on her exciting new adventure, bidding farewell to her crew members onboard the Base Station-MTV complex.

Departure from the Base Station was slightly less than routine, the reduced weight of the vehicle resulted in more control authority than when departing for a surface sortie. This would concern the crew slightly, as they didn’t want to induce unnecessary vibrations in the Base Station structure. Ever so carefully, Taurus would back away, and the crew on station could get a good look at the vehicle. It looked so small now, compared to the great ship that met them at the beginning of their stay. Alekseeva would ever so carefully back away, with Sam Robinson documenting their departure on their Imax camera. The phasing burns were long, and once they were well clear of the complex, their upper stage engines could be lit once more, pushing them into the raised orbit of Phobos. Rendezvous with the moon was different to that of Earth’s moon - it was more like phasing with a space station rather than attempting to enter a gravity well. The first few hours of coast were largely spent photographing the surface, trying to identify past Olympus sites. It was a peaceful moment, one Robinson would reflect on after her flight, calling the nearly 28 hour transit some of the most boring excitement of her life. The first spotting of the moon would come on the MSAV’s targeting scopes, a small gray dot standing out against the thermal background of space, a striking departure from the burnt orange of the Martian landscape. A panel would flip out on the surface of the MSAV, installed for just this purpose, a laser rangefinder to assist in their approach. The precision guidance would activate, and the crew would strap in, ready for the next phase of their approach. The moon grew in their window, a menacing gray smudge on the wispy Martian atmosphere. Taurus barked and huffed as her RCS jets fine tuned her approach, her electronic eyes scanning the moonlet as it hovered over the planet. Now, the tricky part, arrival. As they crossed within a kilometer, the crew could begin to identify potential areas to secure the MSAV, courtesy of their newly installed Harpoon Kit. Alekseeva would pulse the RCS to maneuver Taurus into an orbit, if one could call it that. It was more so parallel flight, made possible by the moon’s low gravity. Here, they would remain stationary, scanning the surface looking for a landing site. As the crew observed the moon, a complication arose. The surface was covered in a layer of gravel, which would more than certainly be kicked up by any significant impact. Taurus, as robust a vehicle as it was, would be severely compromised if any of this debris would impact vital components. The crew would need to target their harpoons as precisely as possible, avoiding any significant debris kick from the moon. Barnes would take the stick, and begin to align Taurus as best he could - his experience in Australia’s Special Air Service as a sniper coming into its element. Silence filled the flight deck as they watched him, removing his helmet to get as close to the window as possible, gently puffing the RCS jets to stabilize the vehicle. His breath slowed, a ritual perfected in training and on the battlefield. Only the cabin fans would make any noise, and with the squeeze of a trigger, the harpoons would fire. Immediately, the reaction control thrusters would buck against the force of the mortar, and the sound of the cables unwrapping startled the crew from their silence. Taurus shook, preparing for the tug of the moon. Rather violently, the cables made contact in the center of Stickney Crater, and the vehicle began to tighten its grip, switching out of fine guidance mode. Taurus strained, and Bianchi primed the cable cut breaker, ready in case something went wrong. 3 green lights out of 4, one of the cables had not grasped the surface - within their margin but still not ideal. Alekseeva would stabilize the vehicle, groaning under the loads. The vehicle, like a spooked beast, needed time to settle. Soon, silence… Only the sound of their breathing, the fans and the occasional puff of the RCS. Jubilantly the crew would make the call to their colleagues on the basecamp: “Basecamp, Taurus, we’ve bagged ourselves a moon!”

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Reddened by Mars-light, Taurus makes her final approach to the diminutive world...

Setup of the descent truss had been an arduous process, only 3 confirmed contacts meant that the lander had to be significantly closer to ensure stability. The crew of four would enter their ARES suits, and begin the 60 meter climb down to the surface, suspended above a world they had started to grow familiar with. Bianchi would be the first down the truss, taking each step carefully. The scale of the world below them was almost nauseating, the curve of the moon was visible and shadows grew long around the terminator. Close behind were Barnes and Robinson, making their way down the truss, followed by Alekseeva. Ever so carefully, they would inch their way down, checking each other’s harnesses and their own gloves. Static charge was a concern on the moon, so coulometers were fixed to the multitool port on their wrist, and fed data directly into their heads up displays. Their MSAV hung above them, casting shadows in the “noon” sun as they descended, now only 20 meters from the surface. Their trepidation sat at the bottom of their boots, crawling up their legs and surrounding their hearts as they approached this alien world. There had not been the buildup of excitement like their landing on the surface of Mars, no great ride through the atmosphere… this was it. Now, just a meter off the surface, Bianchi paused; surveying the landscape of the moon. And there it sat, the final step, the threshold of an alien world that had evaded humanity for so long. He cast his gaze upwards at his crewmates, floating in the nearly undetectable force of gravity that the moon provided. Barnes gave him a thumbs up, and Alekseeva nodded, smiling - the final go ahead to step across that threshold. With a gentle push, his boots sank into the gravely surface of Stickney Crater, humanity’s first steps on another moon. “We have come so far, and there is so much beauty here…” He remarked, pausing to look back at his crew, “and I could not have done it alone. Let’s get to work.”

— — — — — — — —​

Far away, in the depths of space, a transformation was taking place. Having lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center aboard a Helios launch vehicle only a few weeks prior, the Harriet Tubman Space Telescope was being born. A spacecraft, years in the making, was unfolding into the proper shape, every move carefully choreographed to take place exactly as it needed to happen. Her gold mirrors would never again see the light of day as the sunshield expanded to its final size. Power was flowing through the spacecraft, and coolant would soon bring the spacecraft down to its final operating temperature. On the sunlit side, the docking system, built to enable future servicing and cryogenic refueling, was primed, ensuring that all systems were functional for its projected 20 year lifespan. The telescope had no cameras other than what it carried to gaze into the cosmos, so the crews on the ground could only wait in agony as the great spacecraft bloomed like a flower, every day a step closer to first light. Soon, the wait would be over… and the great telescope would showcase worlds like no other - a window into time itself.
 
Phobos!!! The soundtrack for today was very fun to make, and the approach to this unfamiliar moon was the highlight for me. The crew working to secure and stabilize Taurus is a really interesting image of how such a mission could play out.

I also love to see even a bit more of the dynamic between Anna & Dr. Liao - I can't help but feel they'll hear from each other again in the future. This last call really gives the sense that all the stress and hardship of the past few weeks and months was worth it, in the end.
 
I also love to see even a bit more of the dynamic between Anna & Dr. Liao - I can't help but feel they'll hear from each other again in the future. This last call really gives the sense that all the stress and hardship of the past few weeks and months was worth it, in the end.
Through adversity, we find strength, and I am so happy that these two character's chemistry meant so much. I do think we'll see her again in the future, one can only hope.
 
Chapter 43: A Grand Odyssey
Hello everyone, happy Monday! I'm super excited to be back and bringing you our 43rd chapter, only a few more weeks now, isn't that crazy? This week, I wanna thank Jay and Steven, who've given us some amazing images as usual. I wanted to take some time to say thank you to everyone who's read so far, I cannot explain how much I appreciate the time and care you all have given me. It is an honor to be here! As we come to the end, I am considering what is next, and I cannot wait to share what I have in store. We are really just getting started. Let's jump right in!

Chapter 43: A Grand Odyssey

“Hello my darling… Yes, I slept alright. I feel alright… yes, yes, the weather looks good here today, I feel good about our chances of making it off the ground today, our weather concerns from last week are no more, I think… Is she sleeping? She’s up? Put her on the phone… Hello kiddo, did you stay up all night? Oh, your mom let you? Okay… Yeah, your papa’s all ready to go… I know it's a long time, but I promise I’ll be back soon. N-no… nothing bad is gonna happen. Papa’s friend Anna is gonna call you and your mom later, okay? You remember Miss Anna… The nice lady who helped Mama out.. Promise me you’ll focus on your schoolwork, and take care of Mama? Good, I love you, let me speak to your mother okay?... Hi Sylvia, no, I feel alright… The dreams were there just a bit last night. But I’ll be alright. It’s time for me to get going. I love you. Anna will call you soon, okay? I love you with all of my heart, please don’t ever forget that.”

Sergei Ivanov set the phone down on the side table in the suit up room, and cast his gaze out to the launch pad. It was a quiet morning in the jungle, birds and various other creatures had not yet roused from their slumber to start their day. There, four miles away, sat a EuroZenit, steaming in the early morning mists of the Amazon Rainforest. Liberte Dream had been rolled out two days prior, standing tall at the pad in its clusters of support towers. A familiar hand rested on Ivanov’s shoulder, former Olympus 9 crewmate Dr. Nicolas Delon. Their assignment to Athena had been somewhat of a blessing for Ivanov, now staring down the barrel of command. He had stressed to his superiors that the rigors of flight would be easier on him if there were a few familiar faces. Delon had been a natural choice, for he had been the glue of the crew post accident, ensuring that they all spent time together whenever possible. “Come on Sergei,” Delon remarked, a technician performing checks on his Fenix suit, “I think it is time for our adventure to begin.” Ivanov smiled, gathering his life support briefcase, and headed for the double doors. The crew of four would leave the grip of the planet just under two hours later, setting a course for Athena. Their ascent was flawless, powering across the Atlantic ocean in the morning light - visible just for a moment along the coast of Columbia. With a thump, their second stage would fire, and Ivanov would find himself releasing his grip from his harness, a moment of anxiety over. The second stage would continue the push, the four crew members pressed into their seats - nearly there. With a second thump, and a moment of silence, they knew they had done it. Orbit. Now, floating free from their carrier rocket, the crew could begin to explore their next steps. Their mission was to oversee the expansion of the facility, the final in a series planned to maximize use of the station. For this, the Americans would contribute an inflatable module, derived from technology used on the iconic MTVs. Docking would take place two days after liftoff, and as Ivanov entered the station, and gazed down at the Earth, he would pick up his phone to call his wife and daughter, remarking at the majesty of the world below them, and wishing he could bring the view to them. With this, work could begin in earnest, setting up a new workshop inside the station’s new, vast interior. This would be one of the final expansions to Athena before she was declared “optimally complete”, the final addition being a solar array tower to be delivered by the Americans. Athena had grown from humble beginnings into a station that stood apart from the rest. A capable crewed and uncrewed platform, Athena stood to be a leader alongside her big sister Horizon for years to come.

— — — — — — — —​

The work done on the surface of Phobos had revealed more than planetary scientists could have ever hoped for. The rocky, miniscule world was something of an oddity on its discovery, what appeared to be a trapped asteroid orbiting low around the planet. Work done on the surface by Olympus 14 had revealed a world with a long history, closer to the asteroids found in the furthest reaches of the asteroid belt. It furthered the theory that these two, strange little moons were captured asteroids, brought into orbit of Mars by some sort of great disturbance eons ago. Over 60 kg of samples were retrieved from the surface, bringing forth a new era of understanding for the diminutive moon. Soon, the crew of intrepid moon explorers would be reunited with their comrades in low Martian orbit. The job done, they would send Taurus to its disposal orbit, a nearly tearful farewell for a ship that had served them so gallantly. Like a great beast awakening from its slumber, Prometheus’ engines would roar to life in the vacuum of space, pushing the crew towards their home planet, a blue green marble suspended so delicately in the cosmos. As the Red Planet faded from view, Commander Bianchi would reflect on his position now - the first human to walk upon the surface of Phobos, another moon. Quietly, he wondered where this plucky little species would go next. As the crew of Olympus 14 set sail for home, a plethora of launches would begin at Kennedy Space Center and Baikonur Cosmodrome, starting with one most crucial - Phoenix class MADV 1, Enterprise. Stacking of the MADV on top of Jupiter-OPAV had been a complex and time consuming endeavor, special aero-skirts had to be installed to account for the biplane like fins of the vehicle. Engineers at Michoud had not been pleased with the requirements, but knew that this would only have to happen twice. With Enterprise stacked, and Adventure firmly bolted to the side of the vehicle, the countdown could begin for her maiden flight. A little over two weeks after rollout, Enterprise would leap off the pad, her immense weight obvious in the flight profile of the vehicle. Nearly 9 minutes after liftoff, Enterprise would be floating free, with Adventure beginning her once around to be recovered by ground teams. In Baikonur, the 13th and final MSAV, Hydra, would roll out to the pad, the culmination of over 20 years of international cooperation. With a great roar, the Energia’s plethora of engines would ignite, lofting the vehicle skywards. In orbit, the two landers would be docked to their Transfer Elements, as the final checks were being performed on Selene. Her last flight, Olympus 12, had showcased just how capable of a vehicle she was, a more modernized version of the iconic MTVs that had served humanity for so many years. The final launch of the campaign would be the Foundation Core Module, launched in a similar style to that of Horizon not too long ago. The vehicle would be enshrouded this time in a hammerhead aeroshell, another first for the Jupiter-OPAV program, due to the slight bulge outwards of the airlock. The vehicle would be the penultimate flight of the campaign, riding Tenacity to orbit after a 24 hour recycle in the count. The OPAV system was coming up on its 30th year of flight, and remained a leader in heavy lift for NASA and the Olympus partners, a key asset in ensuring a sustainable human presence on Mars. It maintained its nearly spotless service record for delivering payloads to orbit, even with the Perseverance accident still sitting in some folk’s minds. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle would roll out, Intrepid in all her glory. Her time as the Martian Support Orbiter was coming to an end, it would seem, as activities around the cape seemed to preclude her existence, and the shuttle fleet as a whole. Venturestar had shown that it was capable of lifting cargo to stations, and the Advanced Crew Exploration Vehicle would soon fill the crew vehicle role, bringing astronauts to their waiting chariots. But for now, it was her time to shine. The international crew, commanded by American Michael Mikulka, would lift off on Intrepid’s first attempt, carrying the valiant crew skyward to the waiting Selene, waiting for them like a sleeping leviathan. Docking would take place nearly two days later, and Intrepid would perform the usual pleasantries, unloading late-stage cargo and prepping the crew for their voyage to the Red Planet. Soon, the greatest fleet ever assembled would commit to their voyage, a product of years of planning, now culminating in the first steps towards permanent settlement on the surface of Mars.

On the pad at LC-41 sat a new breed of spacecraft, one years in the making. The Advanced Crew Exploration vehicle, derived from the iconic lifeboats that had kept crews of Olympus missions safe, was now a fully fledged spacecraft in its own right. With a new, robust, multirole service module, the vehicle was capable of flights to Low Earth Orbit as well as continuing to support sorties to the Red Planet. The vehicle would soon, if the first test flight went well, take over the crew role from the venerable Space Shuttle, something the NASA workforce had been quietly coming to terms with for many years. Lessons learned from the shuttle program also enabled reusability to be incorporated into the capsule’s design The launch vehicle was also making its debut, however, it was not entirely new. The first stage was an Atlas NG stage, two AR1 engines in their recovery pod and six solid rocket motors, while the upper stage consisted of the new Centaur EvO, a 5.4 meter cryogenic stage with the powerful RL60 engine. ACEV sat tucked in an adapter fairing, adorned with its Launch Escape Tower, cryogenic steam venting from the upper stage. Today’s flight would be uncrewed, a two week demonstration mission to Horizon, where her systems would be checked in preparation for her debut on crew rotation missions, as well as on sorties to the Red Planet. The first vehicle, Columbia, had rolled off the joint Airbus-Lockheed production line and had been outfitted with as-close to mission ready equipment as possible. In the early spring morning of April 26, the 6 solid rocket motors and twin AR1s would roar to life, and the vehicle would leap off the pad. The brilliant light and crackle of the engines would wake a sleeping Titusville, as the launch commentators called out status updates. The vehicle would quickly pierce Mach 1, its solid motors jettisoning into the turbulent airstream below it. Soon, the booster core would be drained of its fuel, and the new upper stage would ignite, pushing Columbia into its parking orbit. The vehicle performed flawlessly, and soon, the new crew vehicle would be free to extend its quad solar panels, soaking up the sun on the trek to Horizon. The vehicle would take a slower route to the station, a two day rendezvous to check out systems and ensure that all was well for docking. The crew of Expedition 5, having just been delivered by Challenger, would stand at the ready to receive the vehicle on the aft docking port. Like a bird of prey, Columbia would silently stalk her target, performing a fly around maneuver for crew inspection. The first American capsule to fly since the mid 70s, and she looked damn fine. The vehicle would come to port on the aft end of the station, and the docking rings would merge two spacecraft into one. Now, joined at last, the past, present and future of spaceflight would come into focus. The crew would board Columbia and inspect her systems, rummaging around the flight deck. She was only designed for short term operations, however, a crew of 8 would make the squeeze onboard if needed - mostly for ferry flights to stations or waiting MTVs. Missions on their own were also possible, usually accompanied by waiting transfer elements or logistics modules. The spacecraft’s hum was different, not clunky and mechanical like the shuttle before it, but soft, smooth, almost sterile. Not lived in yet. The crew knew, in their minds, that this would soon change. After a week of operations on the station, the hatches would be sealed, and the great spacecraft would part ways. Onboard cameras on Columbia would document the departure, and soon, the station would be nothing more than a speck of light in the thermal cameras. The crew onboard Horizon would watch as she plunged through the atmosphere, heading for a picture perfect landing off the coast of Hawaii. The next generation of crew vehicles was here.

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ACEV Columbia makes her approach to Horizon, with Challenger and Liberté watching diligently. The next generation of crewed spacecraft was well and truly here.

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Now, safely at port onboard the station, the crew can begin to assess her capabilities, and look forward to all the ACEV fleet will bring for Human Spaceflight.


— — — — — — — —
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Cast free of Phaeton, Odysseus and Telemachus can begin their long journey towards Neptune, well over a decade in deep space...

On Launch Pad 39A, Jupiter-OPAV Inspiration sat steaming in the Florida heat, in the final phases of fuel top up before her projected liftoff window. Inspiration was one of the least used OPAV pods of the fleet, having been taken offline temporarily to be refitted with advanced flight control systems, and upgraded engines. Now, she was poised to return to the fold, launching Odysseus and its transfer stage towards Neptune. As missions had gone, she was pretty advanced, weight had been shaved in various areas, and new technologies implemented designed to prove their worth in deep space. Years of cruise meant the spacecraft had to be hardened against the brutal forces of cosmic radiation, and careful management of fuel. She also required power to be available for a long time to come, so solar cells were immediately out of the question. Instead, she resembled something like an out of shape Cassini, her propulsion and utility section covered in powerful radioisotope thermoelectric generators, with a series of lithium ion battery banks onboard. Her electronic sensor system, called NSIM (Neptune System Imaging Matrix), would be some of the most powerful optics ever deployed in deep space. Onboard, the probe carried a passenger, the Telemachus atmospheric probe. On a crisp fall morning at the Cape, Inspiration and her Phaeton upper stage would break free from the gravity of the planet, and begin to power the mission towards a rendezvous with Neptune. After nearly 25 minutes of powered flight, the spacecraft would separate from its carrier rocket, turning back to look at the planet from whence it came, the first steps in a brand new adventure. Nearly 13 years later, Odysseus and Telemachus would arrive at Neptune, ready to begin a long and storied career as one of the Solar System's most intrepid explorers...
 
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There's really a sense that the story is carrying itself into the future, between the debut of promising new vehicles, and the beginning of the end for so many familiar systems. It's hard to believe we've come so far, but it never gets any less exciting!

I really love Ivanov's mission in the beginning - well-deserved, almost a "redemption" for a character who's been through so much. That whole opening segment is some truly beautiful writing. And our new friends are all looking gorgeous as well :)
 
I really love Ivanov's mission in the beginning - well-deserved, almost a "redemption" for a character who's been through so much. That whole opening segment is some truly beautiful writing. And our new friends are all looking gorgeous as well :)
For me, Ivanov was one of the most important characters to come back to in the story - a character that reminds us of our flaws, and works towards redemption and a new outlook on life. When I wrote the Olympus 9 accident, I wasn't sure that I'd ever come back to Sergei, that he would resign in disgrace somewhere. But I see the importance of revisiting his character, and understanding that his role is just as important as those who lead successful missions. In the end, he got the crew home, and he deserves a shot at redemption.
 
Chapter 43.5: Image Annex
Hi folks, I don't have too much to say, other than I'm super grateful that Jay has taken the time to produce some amazing images for us, and continues to showcase his ever improving camera angles of all the cool spacecraft in our story. While we covered all of the amazing events of rendezvous and docking in the previous installment, I wanted to showcase launch of the spacecraft on top of its Atlas EvO rocket. Let's jump right in!

Chapter 43.5: Image Annex

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Liftoff of ACEV Columbia on her maiden voyage, riding atop an Atlas EvO C622, the crew configuration with 6 solid rocket motors, 2 main engines and 2 upper stage RL60s.
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Good sep! Atlas jettisons its solid rocket motors after burnout, continuing on the twin AR1 engines alone for the remainder of core stage burn.
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Mighty Atlas continues on, Columbia protected underneath the fairing of her Launch Escape System from the harsh near-space environment.
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BECO -Booster Engine Cut Off and stage separation. Pneumatics around the second stage will help push the core away from the Centaur EvO stage, while the AR1 section prepares for jettison and recovery.
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Good light of the twin RL60s, giving the ever changing Centaur the power it needs to carry Columbia to orbit.
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Panel and Tower jettison, ACEV can now soak up the sun for the first time since her encapsulation at Launch Complex 41. This is the final push towards orbit.
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Nearly there now...
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And cutoff! Good separation of Columbia from her upper stage...
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Good solar wing deployment! Columbia is now well on her way to a date with Horizon, paving the way for a new era of human spaceflight.
 
Chapter 44: Say Again?
Good afternoon everyone, happy Monday! I apologize for the delay in posting, I received my COVID booster yesterday and its taken its toll on me. But - the show must go on! This week, I have 3 people I want to thank: Jay for the amazing images, with more to come on Wednesday for our image annex, Ben for their help on a musical piece to accompany this chapter, which you can listen to here, and Peter for the technical advice to help me proceed in writing. Let's start the show, shall we?

Chapter 44: Say Again?

John F Kennedy International Airport
Queens - New York City
12:20 am Local Time


"Kennedy Tower, Kennedy Tower, this is the Pentagon, we need you to do a ground stop on everything, clear the air space."

“This is Kennedy Tower, say again?”

“I need you to issue a ground stop and divert everything away from the airport, clear every runway. Get every emergency vehicle ready, you need to do this as soon as possible!”

"We can't do that, we have flights coming in from Europe, I have planes on final - it's the middle of the goddamn evening!"

"I don't care what you do or where you send them - those flights need to be somewhere else. Divert them to Newark. We require the whole airfield, top priority - national security priority”

"What could you possibly have coming for us?"

"Venturestar."

“Jesus, that shuttle thing?”

“That’s affirm, Kennedy.”

“Kennedy, are you still there?”

“Yes, just, hold on a second…”

“We’re kind of on a tight schedule.”

“…. Roger that, moving into emergency procedures, patch us in with your folks in control, how long do we have?”

“About 15 minutes, Kennedy Tower.”

“Right. I’m gonna need individual controllers to handle flights, call Newark!”

“Patching you to the Venturestar folks now…”

“Alright folks listen up, we have a spacecraft that’s gonna make use of our runway facilities this evening, I need the ground foamed and ready, emergency crews standing by, who am I talking to?”

“This is Edwards - Venturestar control”

“Hiya, I’m Steve. I'll be talking you in today. Can you give me a status of the aircraft-er, spacecraft, Edwards?”

“Well, it’s a glider, sir, so we’ll have to get it right. We had an engine pop on ascent, we’ve vented propellant and are moving through our entry interface. Have you ever handled a landing like this before?”

“Ain’t that a bitch… no I have not.”

— — — — — — — —​

As morning broke over a rather disjointed Kennedy airport, the extent of what had transpired the previous evening was revealed to a dreary New York. Lofting a payload for the DoD, Venturestar Dauntless had passed through the most arduous part of climb, maximum dynamic pressure, when one of the small nozzles on her mighty aerospike engines had ruptured, tearing a not too insignifcant hole in the airframe. The vehicle would shut down its remaining engines, electronics working overtime to calculate how much time in the air it had left, before selecting a runway within their glideslope - New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. The first reports of something being amiss at the airport came from the sounds of the double sonic booms as she entered by night, rattling the windows of Long Islanders. This, however did not rouse them from their beds, the sights and sounds of the city were enough to numb anyone to strange bumps in the night. The next indication that something strange had happened from Twitter, as passengers on ferries headed into the city spotted something… unusual sitting in the EMAS at the end of one of Kennedy’s runways. Dauntless, rather indignantly, sat, unsure firefighters gathering around her to inspect her. Anxious Lockheed engineers would mill about her, remarking at her tires sitting stuck in the arresting system. Military officials had cordoned off the area, her classified payload still stuck inside the bay. Flights landing at the iconic airport were treated to a view of the vehicle, with pilots doing their best to inform passengers of why exactly it was there. Needless to say, Kennedy was in shambles. After two days out in the elements, Dauntless was loaded onto a covered barge, and began the long journey back down to Florida for teardown and inspection. NASA, the primary future customer for Venturestar, would express their concerns. A vehicle, such as this, bearing down on a commercial runway would not necessarily generate good optics for the program. Lockheed did their best to retort, reminding the agency of the importance of vehicle recovery. Day after day of tedious inspection would do some good to comfort NASA, knowing that their teams were on top of the problems. After a final, thorough inspection, the Venturestar fleet would be allowed to proceed towards flight once more, set for their first demonstration flight to Horizon scheduled for next year.

— — — — — — — —​

Four sets of nuclear engines would ignite at Mars, and the fleet could begin their slow burn for arrival. The “15 Armada”, as they’d been dubbed by the press, was now on the final stretch towards, the final few steps before victory on the Red Planet. Firmly in the lead was the crew’s MTV, Selene, as she pressed on towards a rendezvous with the Mars Base Station. The transit had been long, as they had been for missions past, but the crew could not help but rejoice at the sight of the Red Planet, now so large in their window. Next up would be the Foundation Core Module, placed in a lower orbit than the MTV and Base Station to ensure the minimal heating possible on entry. The crew watched and waited, counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds until orbital entry. Capturing around Mars was something of a perfected science now, but for this crew in particular, there was a feeling of nervousness. This was the nexus of settlement on the planet, a permanent foundation for humanity to operate out of. With a cheerful tone from the flight computer, and exhaustion of the Transfer Element, Foundation was in orbit, and the crew could turn their attention to the next two vehicles headed for the planet. Up first was Hydra, the last MSAV vehicle to fly as part of the Olympus program. She bore a special paint scheme, signed by all of those who worked on her, and bearing every patch of the program thus far - including the ill fated Olympus 9. For the crew, it was a bittersweet moment, one of the last great titans of the “Old Way”, a now outdated and outclassed way of doing things. The expendable way. She would capture into a lazy, eccentric orbit, lowering slowly over the coming weeks as the crew prepared for their journey to the surface. On the surface already were the two logistics modules, standard for the conversion of the descent stage into their home away from home - with a twist. These modules would be outfitted with equipment for the base, which was set to touch down nearby only a few days before the crew. Finally, the last components of the fleet would enter orbit, MADV Enterprise, her thermal resistant hull glowing red in the Mars light. Enterprise would spend a good deal of time away from the Base Station itself, doing independent checks, managing boiloff and performing wayfinding activities. After nearly two weeks after the entire fleet had arrived, the Core Module of the base would fire its attitude control engines, and begin the plunge into the atmosphere. The crew onboard the Base Station could only watch as their home on the surface would dip into the wispy clouds of Mars, a turbulent and dusty world awaiting it. Moment by moment, the crew would wait for acquisition of signal, the sign that all had gone to plan. 6 minutes after entry, a tone from the flight computers - the final stage of descent, powered flight, had begun. Grainy footage transmitted from the landing cameras showed the spacecraft slewing over terrain, fighting tooth and nail to get to the landing site. An automated voice would call out the distances, 50… 40… 30… the dust would pick up and swirl around the spacecraft, rapidly pulsing its RCS to keep itself stable. At last, contact light… Humanity’s first home on the Red Planet, now with all of its legs on solid ground.

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Waiting ever so patiently in orbit, Enterprise prepares for the next phase of her journey, the long road to the planet's surface.

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Hydra brings her crew on one last ride...
Prep for surface operations hastily followed, and after nearly a month and a half at Mars, the hatches were sealed, and Hydra would undock from its berth, and begin the long fall towards the planet. Under the watchful eye of the Base Station, MTV and a distant Enterprise, Hydra would commit to the landing - Lander Pilot Lance Novak at the controls. Once again, the crew would feel the pull of gravity as the planet wrapped its hands around them, dust starting to scuff the paint. With a jolt, the last ballute to be deployed by a crewed lander for the foreseeable future would be deployed, and the crew would begin to recognize familiar sights on the surface, the maze-like network of Noctis stretching out below them. With a thump, and the spin down of the turbopumps of the engines, the vehicle would come to a stop at last, the last descent carried out by an MSAV vehicle. It was for the crew, a brief moment of triumph, a moment where they could celebrate, before the long road ahead could begin. The first steps of their mission would be to suit up and start the traverse over to the base, a short 1 km walk that would take them to Foundation’s door. The rise of the valley walls in the distance acted as reminder of just how strange and new this location was, smack dab in the middle of some of the most complex and intricate geography on the whole planet. It was almost eerie. As the crew approached, they began to capture the majesty of what lay before them, a new home on the surface of the planet, packaged ever so nicely for them by the kind folks on Earth. Mission Surgeon Misha Petrov quipped, as they began the entry procedure, that “after all this time renting on the surface, it was time to settle down, start a life…” This sense of humor and joy would continue as the days of setup continued, reveling in the sheer amount of space available to the crew. They would soon get to work, hauling the cargo modules over and attaching them to the radial ports of the base, ensuring strong and durable seals as they unpacked their supplies. This was to be the main way of expansion of the base, new cargo resupply modules being repurposed into functional space. While not as spacious as the core, this would act as a solid complement to the sheer volume available to them, with another core sized module projected to be delivered 5 years down the line. On the end of their week of set up, the crew would sit down to a meal, “clinking” their glasses (in this case, pouches of fluid) as they rejoiced in the warmth and comfort of the first home on Mars. “Today,” Aki Onishi, mission geologist remarked, “Is not a day that I as a child or perhaps others saw coming in my life… But here we are, a family together on Mars. To us!” Weeks soon turned into months, and the time for a most crucial test would come. In orbit, a silent leviathan, eyeing the dusty surface of the planet below. Enterprise would finally get her chance to spread her wings. Like a great beast waking from her slumber, her 6 main engines would light once, very briefly, to push the spacecraft out of orbit, lined up with a pre-established landing zone. Inside Foundation’s core module, the dinner table had turned into a command center, with every member of the crew anxiously watching as Enterprise’s skin began to heat. Like the shuttle before her, she would bank with turns, using her high surface area to slow down as much as possible. The atmosphere, once a tenuous force on her body panels, was now thick enough to start to work with, and the spacecraft could re-orient itself for supersonic retropropulsion. With a dramatic pitch up of the nose, the vehicle would point its engines at the surface, arresting their fall. On the surface, the slightest vibration began to register on sensors dotted around the base - Enterprise was announcing her arrival. The first indications of her imminent approach came on the external cameras of the base, a spot moving in the sky. Mission Specialist Emilia Pagani was the first to spot her, sprinting to the window to capture a better view. As she grew closer to the surface, Enterprise’s engines would increase their power, moving ever slower. Soon, nearly a kilometer and a half from the base, she would come to a near hover, lowering her gargantuan and alien frame to the surface. With a cloud of steam and vapor, the vehicle would settle, sitting at rest for the first time since the moments before departure from Earth. On the surface, and back home, crews rejoiced. The age of sustainable human exploration had arrived - in style.

— — — — — — — —​

At Kennedy Space Center, a metamorphosis was taking place. On Pad 41, ACEV Kitty Hawk was being prepared for her debut crewed launch to Horizon, the first demonstration of her capabilities as a crew vehicle, supporting expeditions to the grand complex and later on to Mars. Her rollout had been seamless, and weather was looking solid for the first launch attempt a little over a week from now. But none of that mattered right now - two distinguished veterans were arriving. At 88 years old, John Young had watched it all, first the moon and now on to Mars, and had played his part in building the shuttle program with which the Olympus program had stood tall upon. Now, that program was beginning to wind down - the first step of it beginning this evening. And who better to be there than a man who had been with it from the start, commander of STS-2, and Flight Director on STS-1. A crowd of space enthusiasts had flocked to the Space Coast, eager to catch sight of the first, last landing. Challenger’s final landing. She had been a fleet leader, a constant and steady presence in space. From Skylab to Odyssey to Gateway and Horizon, Challenger had done it all, and Commander Young had been there to bear witness. Before the end of the next two years, the remaining shuttles would slowly be withdrawn from service, performing their final functions as ACEV and Venturestar stood ready to pick up the slack, a testament to lessons learned throughout the program. The evening air was thick, typical of Florida nights, and jets roared overhead as they scanned the skies for Challenger’s arrival. Soon, the double sonic booms would give her away, and Commander Young’s face lit up - just like when he had seen the great machine for the first time. As the vehicle’s main gear would make contact with the runway one final time, and the fleet of vehicles would race to meet her and her crew, Commander Young could breathe a little easier, and reflect on this magnificent machine that sat, finally still before him. Challenger put herself on the line for every crew that followed him, venturing alone into space to blaze a trail that ultimately leads to Mars. At the end though she wasn’t alone. Not like her first foray into the unknown Cradled in her wings was the crew she was always built for. The people she served. The spirit of tomorrow.
 
I think this is one of the best chapters. Very emotional.
However, how do the Marsians plan to deal with the radiation? Will they dig underground?
 
Lovely chapter today! Venturestar's dramatic landing makes for a great opening, and each new member of the 15 Armada was a treat to read about. This new era of Mars exploration feels so incredibly promising, and MADV Enterprise is just so cool to see... I'll definitely miss the old MSAVs though - that last shot is a great way to say goodbye.

Speaking of goodbyes....I'm not sure I'm ready to see the shuttles retire. The last paragraph from today was a beautiful tribute to all they've accomplished, both in our timeline and in Proxima. It always feels just a bit too soon....
 
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