Right Side Up: A History of the Space Transportation System

Great TL, I'm assuming that this is the end? And a quick question about the RD-701 in the Lifter II and Groza Stages, are these stages both hybrid hydrolox/kerolox, with tankage for both?
Great TL, I'm assuming that this is the end? And a quick question about the RD-701 in the Lifter II and Groza Stages, are these stages both hybrid hydrolox/kerolox, with tankage for both?

Not quite the end--we'll have an epilogue up very shortly to tie up all the loose ends we can, and to formally close out the TL.

The Lifter II first stage is a tripropellant system, with tankage for both fuels, but the second stage is hydrolox only. The new Russian stages use a similar setup--tripropellant first stage, hydrolox only for upper stages.
Chapter 20: Epilogue
Part IV: Safing

Constitution hit the runway nose-up, rear-wheels-first, her engines suddenly reversing thrust to slow her down even as her rudders opened into a speed brake. The force on her wheels exerted a massive turning moment on the great Lifter, pushing her nose back down to Earth, slamming the nose gear down with another puff of smoke as the tires rapidly spun up. A drogue chute popped out of her aft end, slowing her down further as the Lifter shed the last of the kinetic energy her rockets and jets had given her.

The Lifter rolled slowly, leisurely down the long Spacecraft Landing Facility runway, as a small fleet of support vehicles rolled out to meet her. When at last her wheels stopped, and her crewmembers radioed the tower to inform them that everything was nominal, the waiting support trucks began to drive up, the Vertical Egress Platform (or “VEP”--an ordinary cherry-picker renamed in typical NASA fashion) at the convoy’s head. Raising its platform over the Lifter’s hatch, the platform carried up two coveralled and hardhatted NASA technicians, who reached down into the Lifter’s now-open flight deck and helped Young and Crippen climb out of the now-inert spacecraft. All-smiles, they began to congratulate the flight crew on a job well-done, but Young stopped them gently. “Mission’s not over yet, boys. Save it for when Freddo and Dick can join in.”

Despite the Moon’s airlessness, each of the astronauts walking on its surface was constantly immersed in mechanical noises produced from within their suits. NASA engineers had done their best to muffle them, but the low whirring and whining of fans and pumps, the gurgling of water through their liquid cooling garments, and even just the echoes of their own breathing and heartbeats joined to create an ever-present background. Against the Moon’s surface, a seemingly endless and monotonous expanse of beiges and grays, their bright white suits, each with a brightly colored stripe for identification, were almost blinding.

Per tradition, Commander Collins wore red stripes on her shoulders and helmet. Precourt, as second-in-command, wore blue, while Hadfield got green and Massimino got yellow stripes. When they’d first started using the colored identification bands during geological field training in Hawaii, Hadfield had drolly remarked, “It’s morphin’ time.”

Within the first two days after landing, the crew had finished unpacking their supplies and equipment from Sojourner’s cargo holds, and had deployed the large inflatable Lab/Shelter that Goose had delivered before their landing. The shelter was a strangely ugly structure, not at all like the smooth-looking computer renderings that had filled NASA’s promotional material. The beta-cloth skin, folded for her trip to the Moon, now gave the impression of a white pineapple, all tiles and spiky pieces of skin not quite stretching over inflated kevlar. But it did its job--ample living and working space, for their two week stay before lunar nightfall.

The four astronauts, together, unpacked their experiment package and other tools. Some of their equipment would have been familiar their twelve forerunners in the Apollo Program--solar wind measurement instruments, magnetometers, seismographs, cosmic ray detectors--but the rest of their gear would have made the scientists and engineers of the 1960s and 1970s salivate with envy: a small, folding radio antenna, to prove the concept of lunar radio astronomy, so long pushed as a justification for a far-side base; new, much deeper core drills, with redesigned heads, to avoid the jams that had plagued the Apollo crews when they tried to extract deeper layers of regolith; a longer-range rover, with its own solar arrays and more capacity for samples and drilling equipment. Between these tools, the intensive geological training the crew had received in the year leading up to their flight, and the near-constant support of the crack team of geologists who huddled in a back room of Johnson Space Center, ILP-6 was set to fill new volumes on the geological mysteries of Earth’s sister world.

About three hours into their EVA, the CAPCOM announced that the President of the United States was on the line, to reenact Nixon’s most historic phone call and congratulate the crew.

“Hello, the crew of ILP-6! It is my greatest pleasure to congratulate you all on this historic achievement, the first human landing on the Moon since American astronauts departed it over a generation ago. Your work up there is paving the way for new triumphs in the exploration of space, shining a light into the darkness beyond our world in our common pursuit of discovery. You, the crew of ILP-6, are a beacon for all nations, not just the United States and those allies who have supported us in this venture, but for all those we continue to invite to join us. For that, I, and the entire United States, thank you.”

Not his worst speech ever. Collins, speaking for all of them, gave her scripted response. “Thank you, Mr. President, but it’s not just us up here. We are joined, in spirit and through our remote-sensing instruments, by the finest minds on Earth, by thousands of the engineers and technicians who made our journey here possible, and by millions of Americans and people around the world. Our achievement is not ours alone, but a team effort.”

“I would like to congratulate you all for your invaluable contributions in bringing about a successful conclusion to the Space Lifter Independence’s career,” began the President of Boeing, as he addressed the crowd of Boeing and NASA employees gathered around Independence on the Spacecraft Landing Facility runway. “Her unprecedented record of sixty-seven successful orbital launches would not have been possible without your tireless dedication to excellence and safety. Your commitment to our vision of on-time, on-budget, and on-target delivery for our customers is what has made almost every one of our launches a success. Thank you so much for being a part of our winning team.” He went on in that vein, associating the end of a 30-year program with a 30-month-old corporate safety campaign. As his words washed over the crowd as a mist might wash over stones, the Space Lifter made its stately way off the runway. Amateur photographers among the crowd clicked away, preserving a memento of the ship to which they had given a large part of their professional lives. A team of technicians had left one last mark of her flight career on the runway, painting a small-scale silhouette at the exact location where her wheels had stopped.

Once Boeing’s President had reached the end of a precisely-written corporate speech for public consumption, he took a moment to take in the crowd from a more sincere perspective. He’d started at Boeing back in the heady days of the 1960s, when anything had seemed possible (and when things seemed impossible, Uncle Sam was footing the bill to double-check). He’d cut his teeth on the SST and the 747, and even done some of the design work on Lifter as a result. The program still had a few flights left in it--but the end of a nearly 40-year effort was in sight.

No, not the end. Not even the beginning of the end. But just like Churchill had said, it was the end of the beginning. Independence, as she began her final drive to the Lifter Processing Facility for her ‘de-clawing,’ the removal of her five rocket engines in preparation for her flight to Johnson Space Center for display, she passed by another vessel, which had made her own flight from Seattle just a day earlier. The new vessel was longer and lighter, and had many more engines packed onto her thrust structure. Though she was of a clean-sheet design, a casual inspection did not reveal all the differences. The biggest was her lack of a crewed flight deck. If all went well, the youngest engineers in the crowd before him would see her through a career as long and fruitful as Independence’s had been.

"I'm pleased today to announce that the first Lifter II booster will bear the name Independence, to carry on this magnificent spacecraft's legacy into the new millennium. To all of you who have been working on this one, or the next, I have just one thing to say."

“Watch it, kid, before you fall off the roof," called an engineer as the Lifter’s glare faded into a single distant point of light. The target of the shout, a Martin intern barely heard him, still transfixed with his Polaroid camera slung forgotten over a shoulder. The older man walked over and tried again. "Come on. There’s another of those in a few months, but we’ve got to get back to work if we want to get ours off on time too. You'll want to see this one go too, right?"

Strictly speaking, they weren’t supposed to be on top of the Vertical Integration Facility at all, but for the few minutes needed to watch STS-8 go up, no one bothered to enforce the rule. With one last glance up at the departing spaceplane, the intern turned back to the older engineer. “Yes sir!” he replied, and the two descended back into the Titan processing building.

Lit up by floodlights all around, the four mobile launchers in the Vertical Integration Facility were a hive of activity. Two of them held Titan cores, one of them already fitted with the solid rocket motors that made her one of the most powerful rockets on Earth.

One of. Now, she was a distant second or third, depending on what exactly the Russians were cooking up. And all of the expensive hardware they were delicately putting into place, everything from the big, dumb solids to the restartable upper stage, would soon plunge to the depths of the Atlantic.

This wasn’t the first Lifter flight Martin engineers had watched from the VIF, but familiarity didn’t remove the concerns that tempered their enjoyment of the spectacle. The USAF had already begun planning to launch bigger satellites on the Lifter, ones that Titan III couldn’t take even with the Centaur upper stage. While the intern had been years away from his own career challenges during the recession a decade earlier, but his father had worked for Boeing on the 707 line. He remembered his family’s worries when they’d had to leave Seattle during the lay-offs, and the implications that there were two Lifter missions scheduled before even the first of the Titan in work at the VIF would fly were striking.

As the crowd broke up and small groups headed off for a delayed lunch, they heard a distant thundering noise--the sonic boom as the Space Lifter returned to Kennedy Space Center, the confirmation that the mission had been a complete success.

Every Titan could only fly once. No one would buy an airliner ticket if a plane had to be scrapped after a single flight. The intern had read all the praise for the Lifter and the optimistic assessments of its future in the popular literature. He wasn’t all that worried himself--young, free, not tied down to anything in particular, here or at Boulder, he could afford to find greener pastures. But he liked Martin-Marietta enough to voice his concerns to Jim.

The older man waved him off. "Not our jobs, we just need to get the rockets off on schedule and safely. I'm sure somebody back in Boulder will have a plan."

“Yeah, I know it’s hard to believe,” Weinberger said, holding the telephone handset between his shoulder and his ear and clutching the rest of the device in his hands as he sorted through documents in a filing cabinet. “Two dozen flights per year, they’re promising, or more. No, Mr. President, I don’t know what they’ll be launching. The answer I’m basically getting is ‘build it and they will come.’ Honestly, I think they’re right.”

“Think of it like the railroad, Mr. President,” he continued, finding the relevant memo from Fletcher. “You don’t want to build a narrow, three-foot line only to find out that you need to scrap everything and build a standard-gauge line in its place just a few years later because it’s not enough. You want to build the most you can within the budget you get. I think that Flax has a number of good options there, but you know how it is with those empire-building engineers. It’s like herding cats. Everyone’s got their own pet idea they think is best. We won’t get a good recommendation out of them without you cutting through the bullshit and ordering something out of them.

"Yes, I can have the completed report on their findings so far for you in a few days. Thank you Mr. President.”

Caspar Weinberger put down the receiver, then pushed the entire phone away from him and took a look at its cord. As inconvenient as it was to carry the damned thing around when talking, he was glad it was there. For now, that meant the drive home and the evening would give him a chance to consider this, and everything else, in peace.

The NASA Associate Administrator just wished for a minute of peace to consider things. All day he and his staff had been receiving briefings on the options each NASA field center, and NASA’s contractors, considered most viable for the next step. Moon base, Mars landings, asteroid missions, Venus flybys, advanced propulsion development, the list went on. It didn’t help that he’d heard all the arguments before. Every attendee had had to lock his own satellite phone into a sealed box before the meetings began. Now, the Associate Administrator wished he had his, if only to fake a reason to step out of the meetings.

“Mars is the next logical step for our space program,” began Martin-Marietta’s Vice President for Space Operations, as he repeated the sales pitch he’d given the last administration on the feasibility of developing a zero-boil-off variant of Sierra and adapting it for use as a fully-reusable Earth-to-Mars-and-back spacecraft, using local oxygen to refill the propellant tanks. He was followed up by a team from the Armstrong program, discussing the results of their partial-gravity studies on human health and declaring their confidence in the use of spin-acceleration to counteract the deleterious effects of microgravity. That was, in a way, new, but the program had been going for years now--the gist of their conclusions had become common knowledge some time ago. Then a team from Glenn Research Center, talking about the advances they’d made in preserving slush hydrogen in space. The Mars lobby concluded that their program “only” needed one big technological advance--a lightweight, space-rated nuclear reactor to drive the cryocooler to preserve their hydrogen. Not, in itself, a bad idea, or even an unworkable one, but ideas he’d heard before. If only they’d saved him some trouble by just calling out “Arguments 17, 22, and 29!”

Then the devotees of Diana gave their arguments in favor of a massive expansion in lunar infrastructure and a new base at the lunar South Pole. They pointed to the findings of the Lunar Rover and crewed ILP missions down into the abyss, the deposits of water ice--impure ice, ice that would need filtering and processing, but ice nonetheless. They pointed to the success of the other ISRU efforts, to bake oxygen out of rock, and to the prospects for manufacturing on the Moon from local iron and aluminum and silicon. They pointed to the possibility of cultivating better ISRU techniques and life-support systems a mere three days from Earth. Their arguments were not exactly bad, but the manufacture of spacecraft on the Moon was something that only made economic sense with hundreds, even thousands, of vessels making the voyage outward. The curious catch-22 of lunar exploitation: as the price of putting material into Earth orbit dropped, so did the cost of setting up an industrial base on the Moon--but so too did the return on that investment.

Finally (since their advocates were a very tiny minority), the advocates for the asteroids had their say. He’d heard the arguments for the flying mountains, the islands in the sky, often enough over the years--enough iron to cover the Earth in cities that reached deep into space, enough gold to make the labor of a thousand generations of miners seem futile, enough water to fill the oceans many times over, and as to science, a window into the very first years of the solar system. It was certainly a tempting idea, on the face of it--no new vehicles would really need development, save a longer-endurance version of Armstrong. But how much longer? The unfortunate realities of planetary trajectories meant that very few of the interesting asteroids were easy to access--either they were deep in the Main Belt, beyond Mars and half-way to Jupiter, or they had elongated orbits that took a great deal of fuel to match--and if you missed your launch window, would be totally inaccessible for years.

In truth, every possible option was in the same class of expenses and difficulty. The Martian militants were right--Sierra was an excellent foundation for a landing craft on Mars, even if it would likely take more development work than their zealous leader projected. The would-be asteroid miners were also right--Armstrong had already proven the concept of overcoming microgravity through rotation. With that issue settled, the greatest question remaining was “can useful material be harvested from an asteroid?” In that respect, the lunar lobby had the strongest advantage--they’d already demonstrated, on an experimental scale, the extraction of lunar resources, and they already had a fully-developed architecture for accessing the Moon.

Another paradox of lunar flight, this one specific to the existing architecture. The ships that travelled between Earth and the Moon already existed, so what new capability would really be developed by committing to a lunar base? That option didn’t quite fit into the prevailing NASA ideology of opening new frontiers.

As each speaker had his say, the arguments intensified.

“We could sustain a dozen people on the Moon indefinitely for the cost of one mission to Mars!”

“And you’ll bury us to our necks in regolith samples when we could be looking for evidence of life!”

At last, the meetings drew to their close. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll deliver my report on your proposed options to Administrator Cizadlo, and he’ll brief the President from there. I look forward to reconvening with you after he announces the new budget request.”

Even in September, the Phoenix heat was nearly unbearable. It was a relief to step into the air-conditioned convention center for the annual L-5 Society convention. Charles looked around the convention center lobby, taking in eclectic crowd--one of the stranger mixtures he’d ever seen. Attendees ranged from college students (even teenagers) like him to fifty-year-olds, from nerds in white shirts and slacks pulled up high to hippies who at least had the sense to tie their hair back. He even spotted one or two people in--yes, double-checking, they were in Trekkie costumes. For all the work that the L-5 Society had put into respectability since its foundation, particularly with Dr. O’Neill addressing the Senate, the group still held a core of science-fiction fans and utopian optimists.

Not that anyone was complaining--the convention was timed to coincide with the World Science Fiction Convention, after all. Where better to recruit?

Charles picked up one of the flyers giving the most recent schedule of talks and panels, and slipped into one of the conference rooms to get out from under the feet of the milling crowd. Someone was in there preparing for the day’s first lecture, a man with a bowl haircut and a long moustache, dressed much as Charles himself was, in bell-bottom jeans and a dotted collared shirt, making sure all the transparent presentation slides displayed properly. O’Neill was going to discuss his most recent work on lunar in-situ resource utilization from Ames. Keith Hensen was going to talk about the implications of a new treaty on seabed mining for space development (probably to condemn it, given the phrase “roadblock for space development” in the title). A manager from Johnson Space Center to discuss progress on the Space Lifter.

Then another talk by O’Neill and a guy named John Lewis--apparently from MIT--on the implications of Lifter for exploration and utilization of the asteroids. Charles glanced over the description of the talk briefly before looking for more events, then checked his watch. His eyes moved back over the page as he made his plans for the day, and wondered whether it was worth it to step back into the inferno outside for a coffee before the first talk.

“The Space Transportation System, starting with the Space Lifter and Space Shuttle, but also one day their descendents, promises to open up destinations not just familiar but beyond our imagination. Meteorites collected, not just around the world but on the Moon, have revealed that the thousands of asteroids that litter the solar system contain within them all the elements necessary to build a technological civilization. The unprecedented low costs of flights on the Space Lifter make it possible, for the first time, to contemplate economically tapping those resources, providing a source of resources for space industries that can one day supplant both Earth and the Moon.”

From a distance of thirty kilometers, one could not have guessed that the asteroid was mostly made of iron and nickel. Millions of years of drifting in space had worn it down, the constant stream of rock and dust fragments wearing away the sharp edges and burying them under a thin crust of debris.

But not everything was equally covered--newer craters punched through the dusty crust, exposing the peculiar, splashing craters in ductile iron. It was to those craters that Flying Mountain 1, now in her close orbit, paid particularly close attention, pointing her spectrometers and cameras at the exposed outcroppings of nickel-iron alloy, transmitting the results back to distant Earth.

Across the void of space, to the Goldstone Observatory in California, through an internet link to a spare room of the Geostar Control Center in Boulder, Colorado. Geostar technicians and controllers, operating on a temporary contract for the Space Studies Institute, read the telemetry off on their computers, saving the data to DVDs for distribution to the universities and laboratories that had contributed instruments. At the last minute, someone had realized that the Geostar offices didn’t have the big screens that graced NASA’s control centers, and as such there was no dramatic way to reveal pictures to the journalists and guests-of-honor--SSI and Geostar executives, local dignitaries, the scientists who would actually process the data and make sense of it, and a handful of science fiction writers who had been attached to the SSI since before the beginning, serving as both a source of vision and a volunteer propaganda bureau. To mitigate that shortcoming, someone had borrowed a projector from a conference room and propped it up on a table, projecting the slowly-transmitted images onto a convenient whiteboard.

The JPL representatives, there to coordinate the SSI team with the DSN, chuckled a little at the Spartan arrangements. Not exactly Voyager 2, one of them muttered, calling to mind what had caused, by the standards of unmanned probes, a media extravaganza at every planet it visited. But, in truth, they all had learned a certain respect for their counterparts here, some of whom had even been invited to work on programming Le Verrier for her long sleep on the way to Neptune.

As the returned images slowly scanned onto the page, the dignitaries erupted in applause, and Jerry Pournelle, who had banged the drum most loudly for the Flying Mountain probes (“triumphs of the free market and American ingenuity,” “the true path to cities in space!”) clapped one of the technicians on the shoulder in congratulation. “Your team’s done great, Chuck! You’re bringing to life everything we said would happen!”

Charles accepted that praise, though he gave one caveat. “It’s just the pictures now, Jerry. It’ll take a while for the geologists to go through the spectrometer data and tell us what we really want to know about that rock.”

The celebrations died down even as more data flowed in, until a month later, when John Lewis broke the good news, opening the SSI press conference with “there’s platinum in them thar hills!”

In the cold, dark depths of the solar system, the brightest (both visually and in the infrared spectrum) object for millions of kilometers around drifted slowly toward Neptune. High over the dark blue cloud banks, while the planet was as yet only as large as large fruit held at arm’s length, explosive bolts fired, releasing the atmospheric probe, which began its long descent to the ice giant below.

Like the Galileo and Cassini probes before it, Le Verrier’s probe fell slowly, hoarding its precious battery power for the long fall. Passing the orbits of Neptune’s moons and its faint ring system, it finally hit the atmosphere, trailing a plume of ionized hydrogen and helium, glowing violet and red in its wake. Neptune’s gravity did not pull on it so severely as the two larger planets had pulled on their probes, however, and the probe survived the stress with no difficulty.

In the eerie light of the distant sun, shrunken almost to a point, the probe descended through cirrus clouds of water and ammonia, through a deck of methane clouds broken here and there by great dark clearings. Just as her predecessors had, she relayed back new data about Neptune’s atmosphere, unveiling the third of the solar system’s giant worlds.

Le Verrier, meanwhile, entered orbit around the planet, alone now without her probe, beginning her long program of studying the outermost gas planet’s complex weather, its faint dusty rings, and the great anomalous moon Triton, whose cantaloupe-rind of nitrogen ice concealed a hidden ocean of water and ammonia, and whose southern polar cap was marred by long dirty streaks left by eruptions of nitrogen gas. Voyager 2 had only seen half the surface; Le Verrier unveiled the rest of the world, feeding the minds of scientists who dared to hope that life might gain its stubborn foothold even in the darkest corners of the solar system. Spectrometers and cameras, visible and infrared and ultraviolet, scanned the surface from pole to pole on each pass, documenting features as small as a hundred meters--phenomenal resolution, for pictures taken at 20,000 kilometers. Pass by pass, Le Verrier pushed back Triton’s veil.

In the White House situation room, the President received the latest television streams from the KH-12s overflying eastern Europe. Tracked with remarkable precision, the cameras up there delivered to-the-minute information on exactly what was going on around Kharkiv. A hundred kilometers, with a resolution so high that, on a clear day, he could actually read unit insignia in the still photographs. The fog of war had been banished forever (except, of course, for actual fog).

The Russians were always careful not to step too far over the line, but they did like to toe it. Every time the Russian economy hiccuped just a little, every time someone got disappeared in Moscow, they started acting up. T-90s from the Guards Armored Divisions on maneuvers insultingly close to the Ukrainian border. Russian naval actions around Sevastopol. Their Tu-160s, the White Swans, the great supersonic bombers they used when they wanted to remind the world that they were a superpower, on long-range missions over the Black Sea. But the obscenities scrawled on tarps laid over some of the tanks--”Yob tvoyu mat, Amerikanyetsy!”--put paid to that notion, as only through such futile fist-waving could they answer his nigh-omniscient forces.

He rubbed the bridge of his nose wearily. He was tempted some days to just tell his staff to let him sleep through these shows-of-force, but he never succumbed to that temptation. Russians were Russians, and you could never count on them being sensible.

Even if they hadn’t actually been seen to cross the Ukrainian border since the 2nd Cavalry Regiment had taken up residence at Dnipropetrovsk. Not on any clear day, anyway--the only time they could escape NATO’s all-seeing eyes were during the harshest blizzards or wettest downpours. Without the atmosphere’s protective murk, the President could see every part of Russia from his house.

Distances vanish on the Moon. No trees, no atmospheric scattering. A mountain on the horizon looks like a hill just a hundred meters away. That that horizon is only 2.4 kilometers away only adds to the disorientation.

Such were the thoughts on the crew’s mind as they navigated the low, rolling blue-gray hills of the Ina caldera--a misnomer, since almost everyone was certain that the enigmatic D-shaped crater was not a collapsed volcanic dome. Low, smooth hills in a rubble-strewn plain, this was one of the Moon’s older “seas,” the Sea of Vapours, a broad lava plain on which the Sea of Serenity and the Sea of Rains impinged, their crater rims rising on the other side of the too-close horizon to form the towering Apennine and Haemus Mountains. Navigation within the strange feature was a minor hazard--hills on all sides blocking the view, and strange lunar shadows making it difficult to follow their maps. Without their direct link to the tracking satellite at L1, they’d have had to waste a lot more time doubling back or climbing hills.

Ina was one of the curiouser features of the Moon. Not an impact crater--that much was clear from its shape. Some geologists held out hope that Ina was a volcanic caldera, but the prevailing opinion was that it was only tens of millions of years old--created at a time when the Moon should have already lost all its heat to the cold cosmic background.

It would have remained a mystery for a years more if not for Mercury Observer finding similar features on the innermost planet. That finding had brought Ina into the spotlight, as a possible analogue for the Mercurian features.

Then there were the small fringe of respectable geologists who suggested that Ina was the result of a volatile explosion, of a pocket of vapors, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, water vapor, collecting in a cavity under the Moon’s surface, releasing in a single great burst when the walls had gotten too thin (punctured by a meteor?) or the pressure had grown too great. The implications of that origin would be the most remarkable--in geological terms, the Moon may as well have been venting volatiles yesterday. If that were the case, there could be other pockets of vapor under the Moon’s crust. Vapor, or even liquid.

And where there’s water…

The respectable ones stopped short of suggesting that. But they did send the crew of ILP-17 to get at the ground truth here. Trundling behind their pressurized rover, in an unpressurized trailer, was a deep drilling rig, and a set of chemical explosives to generate seismic waves for the benefit of their seismometers. Stopping periodically, as the sun crawled slowly from east to west and the Earth just as slowly went through its phases, almost directly on their zenith, they penetrated deep into the Moon’s regolith, snatching clues to the mystery of Ina from the depths, and carving new craters in the strangely smooth hills to map out that which they didn’t take.

Data filtered back through their sensors, recorded onto compact discs and transmitted back to Earth through the high-gain antenna. As the astronauts worked, the shadows slowly, imperceptibly moved across the ground. On this deceptive world, instincts for judging time and distance, honed for four billion years on Earth, became useless. The lying Moon hid many secrets from its visitors, secrets they had to pry out of it with diamond-tipped blades and high explosives. But, mused one of the astronauts as she replaced a worn-out drill bit, its apparent sterility may yet have been its greatest lie.

From the NASA causeway, watching the first Lifter II mission rise from LC-39B, the Martin intern--now a gray-haired veteran of Titan, TDD, and Sierra--echoed his old mentor to the intern in his own charge. “Well, that’s one for them and dozens for us. We’ll see what they can really afford to charge, and then somebody back in Colorado will make the calls. Sierra’s got a good, long run in her yet. But even if she doesn’t, we still need to stack them. We’re on track for a launch every week--and I’ll be damned if we’re held up for something my team does.”

The two of them made their way back to the Vertical Integration Facility in the shuttle-bus Martin provided for its employees to get to the show. Most were happy for an hour or three off, but all knew the real reason for it. This is what you’re up against. Get your noses to the grindstone.

The younger engineer wandered off into the controlled chaos, and the older man surveyed his domain. As Pad Operations Chief, everything in here was his: three Sierra boosters and four Fuji orbiters in various stages of preparation, and the dozens of technicians and engineers overseeing things. Two of the stacks were in pre-flight preparations, one with her engine bay covers all removed for final inspection and service. A fourth booster, he knew, was in transit from the landing pad at what had once been LC-20 and her corresponding upper stage was still in orbit maneuvering to hand off a GTO bird to one of McDonnell’s rebranded LTVs. As long as he’d been in charge--going on two years--Sierras had flown off every other week, like clockwork. Now, with a new set of orders for propellant services and for a new armada of low-orbit internet satellites, Trans-Pacific Launch Industries had announced a new goal of up to 50 launches per year.

The phone in his pocket began to vibrate. He took it out, read the name on the display panel, and extended the antenna to catch the satellite signal for audio reception. Unconsciously, he moved closer to the big bay doors to ensure minimal interference--a habit almost everyone had picked up in the past decade.

“Johnston here. Yeah, we’re on track. Teton’s service is taking a bit longer than planned, but the other two are good to go for Thursday and next Saturday, weather permitting. Let me get back to my desk, and I can give you the updates Tanegashima faxed me about their schedule.”

They didn’t quite make the following Saturday--weather remained the scourge of all launch managers. Monday was the best they could do. But when Monday morning came around, the viewing stands at Kennedy Space Center’s visitor center were stuffed to the gills. Through air filled with the cries of birds came, first, the jubilant voice of the event’s Master of Ceremonies:

“And we have a liftoff! Liftoff of the first chartered orbital tourist flight by Trans-Pacific Launch Industries!”

And then the distant roar of the Sierra’s LE-7 engines, reaching the NASA causeway after only two seconds.

Full reusability opened a new field of enterprise, that of private manned missions to Low Earth Orbit. Packed into their Everest capsule, the four tourists and their two handlers made the first commercial human flight to orbit. In addition to the major news networks, the mission’s sponsor--MTV--also transmitted launch footage live to its audience across the United States.

Shedding a great crust of ice from its hydrogen and oxygen tanks, the Sierra climbed into the Florida sky, its translucent violet flame of ionized hydrogen just barely visible. Up, higher, the rocket began its pitch-over maneuver aiming out over the Atlantic, north-east for a rendezvous with the Russian Mir space station, where the MTV team would remain for two weeks as tourists and amateur scientists, giving daily interviews to their adoring fans on Earth.

Three minutes after launch, the first stage cut off, its LE-7 engines falling briefly silent as the second stage separated, lighting its own LE-5 engines to settle propellant and air then lighting the main LE-7 to push the celebrities the rest of the way to their orbital getaway. Then the first stage pitched over, and relit its engines for the boost back to Cape Canaveral. It plunged engines-first into the atmosphere, controlling its trajectory through a combination of thrusters, titanium grid fins, and its own angle of attack, the cylinder generating its own aerodynamic lift as it fell to Earth at supersonic speeds.

The crowd at Cape Canaveral waited, unbreathing, as it speared through a thin deck of clouds over the landing pad at the former LC-20, still appearing far too fast to land safely, until it showed itself again, engines blazing for the landing burn, its six landing legs deployed and ready to take the final shock of landing. With a final puff of dust, the stage gently touched down on the concrete pad, and TPLI technicians rushed to secure it.

“So Lance, you were the first musician--first professional musician, I should say--in space. How did that feel?”

[slightly nervous laughter]

“I know it’ll sound so cliched--almost everyone who’s ever been up there has to have said this at one point. It’s life-altering. You get a sense of how small we are, how unimportant our individual problems seem. I got some of that, but not in the way a lot of people talk about it, you know? I saw just how little life you can see from space. Most of America and Asia Australia are red or brown or tan, just like Mars. You really have to look to see where life clings on, almost like it’s all gonna slip off in a moment. Human life is even rarer--a few cities, on the coasts and along rivers, like moss on a rock. It’s just really hard to see any sign of us outside the big cities.

“But there are other things they don’t talk about as much. You can see the lines connecting us from up there, once you actually know where to look. You can watch ships, big feathery wakes between port cities. You can see planes--rows of them, if the light is right. Highways, trains, you can watch those travel across the world, and it’s amazing just how connected we really are. And now we’re even closer. We could have landed anywhere we wanted on that first orbit--anywhere on Earth in just a half-hour. I could see everyone’s house from up there. I’ve never felt more in-touch with the rest of the world than I did when I got about 300 miles away from any point on it.” [laughter]

“It’s really made a big impact on my life, and it’s what’s led me to work more for hurricane relief and famine relief. I don’t see how anyone can get up there and still view other people as ‘not my problem.’”

As Lance gave his testimony, the screen behind the host and his guests silently went through a sequence of photos he took, augmented by one that he hadn’t taken himself but which he felt captured his sentiments better than any words could: a whole-earth shot taken from the lunar surface by the ILP missions, half the Earth in daylight, half in night, the city lights enhanced to be visible beside the blinding sunlit face. Europe and Africa went into sunset, while China and Japan and India glowed against the starless background.

The camera that took that shot was but one of an entire array of instruments pointed skywards from the Moon’s dusty surface. Part of their surface experiment package would have been familiar to the twelve men who had walked on the Moon during the Apollo program--solar wind measuring instruments, magnetometers, seismographs--but the rest of their gear would have made the scientists and engineers of the 1960s and 1970s salivate with envy: a small, folding radio antenna, to prove the concept of lunar radio astronomy, so long pushed as a justification for a far-side base; new, much deeper core drills, with redesigned heads, to avoid the jams that had plagued the Apollo crews when they tried to extract deeper layers of regolith; and, most impressively, the Lunar Resource Utilization Furnace, a great insulated box with a fresnel lens and a sun-tracking mirror, which in combination raised mineral samples to such a great temperature that they broke down, yielding atomic oxygen and other free atoms--nasty stuff, until it was cooled off in the attached nozzle and condenser assembly. Then the extremely corrosive, metal-eating monster transformed into the gas that enabled complex life.

It was this system that Hadfield, in his green-striped suit, fed now through the manual hopper. It wasn’t remotely capable of sustaining the entire crew, particularly when its feedstock had to be hand-loaded by the universe’s most overqualified stoker. But as a proof-of-concept, it was invaluable. Straining against his suit’s resistance as the thin internal atmosphere fought harshly against his effort to bend his arms, Hadfield emptied an ilmenite-rich bag of rocks (from which, following due geological process, a number of samples had already been isolated and stored) into the infernal box, sealing the door shut when he finished and moving on to his next task, checking off another point on the monochromatic LCD checklist mounted to his wrist.

The oven had been running since the crew’s sixth terrestrial day on the Moon, cracking rocks with the unmitigated power of the sun. Once enough gas had been harvested for a purity analysis, the engineers on Earth who had built it rejoiced, for their tools had forced the Moon to give up a treasure that fueled life, mind, and industry, a treasure so common on Earth that most people take it for granted.

Perhaps not today, but soon, men and women could breath the Moon’s fruit, and fuel their ships with oxygen torn from regolith billions of years after it was first bound.

Shackleton Base was a hive of activity. For three weeks, the crew had been exploring the rim of the largest impact basin on the Moon, from the rare eternally-illuminated peaks to the frigid abysses at the pole itself. ILP-24 was a triple-landing mission--in addition to the normal crew cabin/laboratory and the actual crewed landing craft, there had been a second unmanned cargo delivery, bearing even more experiments and consumables and extending their stay from the standard 28 days to 56. The cargo pallet lay like an opened Christmas present half a kilometer from the laboratory, the various restraining harnesses loosened and unfurled with reckless abandon as the crew retrieved those systems they actually needed.

The experiments themselves formed a rough ellipse around the base, radio relays and infrared telescopes and sun-tracking solar arrays and a myriad of other tools needed to not only explore Shackleton but to harness it. Stowed safely in a mylar “shed,” ice samples harvested from the crater’s frozen depths awaited analysis in the laboratory’s mass spectrometer. Some had already been processed, vaporized, and the resultant water vapor, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide were captured for reuse. Cometary vapors, liberated after untold centuries in the darkness of the lunar Pole, awaited their new masters’ bidding in insulated bottles.

Half of the experiment pallet’s initial weight were chemical plants designed to turn the Moon’s crater and sun-scarred crust into useful air and fuel for the crew. Water was electrolyzed, carbon dioxide cracked into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Hydrogen and ilmenite reacted, releasing more water, and some metallic iron. Hydrocarbons were generated, and reacted with regolith to yield more carbon dioxide, painstakingly stripping oxygen away from silicon, sodium, and iron and binding it to the lighter elements delivered from the outermost reaches of the solar system.

Each process ran in its own time, powered by the uninterrupted polar sun, both directly, through concentrating lenses, and indirectly, through electricity. As each ran, efficiencies were measured, outputs tallied, as engineers on Earth made note of which process worked best, where they could improve for the next mission. Slowly but surely, humans learned to tame the Moon and make it work for them, to bring an entire new world into the sphere of human economics.

The experimental nature of the set-ups led to strange design compromises. For a time, engineers on Earth had scratched their heads over the problem of how best to deliver batches of regolith into the reactors, and extract the slag at the end. The mass through-put was too small for a continuous conveyor, and in any event such a system would be difficult to pack up for the trip to the Moon. After a few days of discussion, someone had realized that each ILP mission brought four dextrous, autonomous, all-terrain manipulators to the Moon.

So it came to pass that a man who held two doctorates and had mastered nighttime aircraft carrier landings became the universe’s most overqualified stoker, straining against his suit’s resistance to load shovel-fulls of coal-dark moondust into a solar-heated furnace.

“Hey guys,” crackled the CAPCOM’s voice over his radio, on the crew-wide band. “The new budget request just got announced. Looks like the President’s finally made up her mind.”

Phil brought his hand up to wipe sweat from his forehead--there was not much, for his cooling garment had done its job, but the reaction was automatic. He stopped himself suddenly, remembering the helmet blocking the way, and shook slightly before checking the time display on his helmet’s inside surface. Slightly behind schedule. Still a lot to do before they could pack up for the traverse to the big boulder the satellite maps indicated a few kilometers off. The rest of the crew had their own tasks, each of which had to be finished before they could send two of them away. They’d already had to scratch that boulder from yesterday’s itinerary after a CO2 sensor started acting up in Fran’s suit.

“Copy that, Houston. We’re a bit busy out at the Thermolysis Plant. Can you save it for the traverse, or just give us the highlights?”

The National Air and Space Museum’s exhibit on the Space Lifter Constitution and her long flight career was always one of the more popular at the new annex. The great winged stage, still bearing the scorch marks of her last launch on her nose, belly, and around her thrust structure (where hot exhaust gasses, in the thin upper atmosphere, crawled up her skin), sat placidly under the bright ceiling lights, flanked, on one side, by the Shuttle Endeavour, with her payload bay open and her nose facing the ceiling, and on the other by one of the spare TDRS test articles to represent the multitude of commsats she’d sent into orbit. The thrust structure from an S-IVD stage completed the ensemble, giving visitors as complete a look as possible at the Space Transportation System.

A tour guide led a class of schoolchildren through, taking them under the Lifter’s bulbous nose (pointing up into the opened service hatch on the port side, at the Suborbital Experiment Bay), around the back to the five mighty F-1 engines, up the stairs to the catwalk over the Lifter, to take a look into the flight deck. She led them to Endeavour next, and showed them the LTV structural test article that filled its payload bay.

Among other things, the children learned that day of the multitude of destinations to which the Space Lifter had sent payloads and people--Spacelab, Armstrong, geostationary orbit, the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune--and the thousands of people who had worked on it, from the astronauts to the design and manufacturing engineers to the technicians who kept her running.

It is always difficult to tell, with children, who will do what when they come of age, as difficult as it is to tell which seed will sprout when sown. All of them were happy enough to take this special trip away from school for the day, and none were yet at that age where cynicism became cool. Some would reach that age, some would find other interests, some just plain did not have the knack for a career in space. But in some, the seed would find good ground, and bear good fruit.

Like the Lifter crew before them, Haise and Truly clambered out of the Shuttle’s hatch and onto the cherry-picker’s platform, shaking hands with grinning technicians as they went. Descending to the tarmac, broad smiles on their own faces, they stood at attention when they reached the ground and President Carter strode up to meet them, flanked by John Young and Robert Crippen, still in their own Lifter flight suits. Handshakes and smiles for the television and newspaper cameras ensued, the President cheerfully forgetting his own former antipathy toward the Space Transportation System for the sake of this historic occasion.

After enough mugging for the camera, Carter’s secret service detail herded all five men away from the Shuttle, around which technicians were still swarming as they completed her post-flight safing procedures. The unburned hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide had been safely sealed within its propellant tanks, after technicians ensured there was no significant leakage, but it was still, potentially, a ticking, highly toxic bomb. Climbing into Carter’s Presidential limousine for the short drive to Constitution, parked off the landing strip after her return to Earth, the President and his four guests-of-honor left the work of safing the Shuttle to the all-but-anonymous army of engineers and technicians that formed the true backbone and sinews of the American space program.

In front of Constitution stood a lectern marked with the seal of the President of the United States, itself standing on a raised wooden podium to allow television cameras to capture the entire Lifter in the background as Carter delivered his congratulatory speech. As Carter and his spacefaring entourage exited the limousine, a flock of dignitaries--the Administrator of NASA, the governor of Florida, the local congressional representatives, the Administrator of Kennedy Space Center, the Space Transportation System Program Head, the Head of the Astronaut Office--and a crowd of Kennedy Space Center employees and contractors gathered around, basking in the triumph of a job well-done. Still smiling for the cameras, Carter and the four astronauts mounted the platform as the President began his speech:

“The eighth launch of the Space Transportation System and the first landing of the Space Shuttle Endeavour is the historical equivalent of the driving of the golden spike which completed the first transcontinental railroad. It marks our entrance into a new era,” began Carter, flanked by his four astronauts. “Since 1957, we’ve relied on disposable rockets, precision-engineered machines destroyed after a single flight, to achieve our goals in space. I am proud to announce today the beginning of a new era, where ships like the Space Lifter open space to peaceful use by all Americans.

“Since President Kennedy first committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the Moon, many of our finest minds have been tackling the challenges of outer space, and finding ways to use them to solve problems on Earth. Through new communications technologies, we have brought people from all corners of the Earth together to share in our common humanity, to rejoice in what we share across all cultures, to build a global civilization based in the brotherhood of nations. New materials developed for use in space have found unlimited application in medicine and industry, helping to drive back the scourge of disease and to enhance our standard of living even as we conserve energy. From their heavenly perch, our astronauts have told the world just how fragile our world and its people are, and they have shared that image with all of us in the wondrous images they brought back.

“But our scientists’ reach has always exceeded their grasp, as it should. In recent years, in response to new challenges on Earth, to confront our energy crisis, the propagation of new diseases, and to fully tap the limitless resources of space, they have designed new laboratories, space power systems, and research platforms to broaden our understanding of the universe and the benefits it can yield for the people of Earth. Until now, the prohibitively high cost of launching into space has kept those plans on blueprints and blackboards, but that will not always be the case. I am proud to declare the reusable Space Transportation System operational from today on, to inaugurate this new age of routine, economical access to space.

“In the future, vehicles like this and its successors may go on to revolutionize how we power our planet, and other benefits of spaceflight we can only dream of today. But it begins with this flight here today, and I congratulate the crew and the team which have brought them here."

The wind whistled quietly, faintly in the thin, dry carbon dioxide atmosphere. Not unpleasantly, but just enough to add ambiance to the sunset. The sky had gone from the dusty yellow-to-olive color it had had at mid-day to a richer variation. As if looking at a negative of a photo from Earth, the astronaut could see the sky turn blue around the sun as it descended to the horizon, the greater thickness of the air near the ground scattering the light enough to finally approximate the clear blue skies of the home planet. Her work would have to wait for tomorrow, now. As she turned to return to her pressurized rover, the wind blew red dust into and around her fresh footprints.

The clouds rose up towards them, like cotton stained yellow. Below the mylar envelope and the triple-layer plastics of the windscreens, the conditions went from something approximating Earth normal to a hellish heat and pressure that made the planet’s name almost humorous. The small balloon’s commander checked the radar, then called back to the main base. “Aphrodite, this is Ishtar on Relay 2. Radar’s showing we still have calm winds for the descent--radar is returning about 250 kilometers per hour. Ready for Maxwell release?” After a moment, the reply crackled back from Aphrodite's controllers that they were ready. “Understood. We’re coming up on drop altitude, stand by for lander release….now! Godspeed Maxwell 3.” Wrapped in armor against fire and acid, the shining globe of the probe dropped below to the surface, and Ishar turned her nose into the winds to return to her survey patterns. Another week or two, then back to the better facilities at Aphrodite.

It was dark now, not just the long lunar night, but also the “night” half of the illumination cycle, necessary for the plants to fruit properly. In the greenhouse, the only sound was that of fans circulating the air, ensuring a precise mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, and keeping the humidity from getting too bad in any one place. The only light now was the blue-white glow of the gibbous Earth, filtering down through the transparent roof, by which it was just possible to make out the golden color of ripening wheat.
Bravo with the epilogue!

It was amazing by itself, and wrapped altogether, this was an amazing timeline! Thank you very much for writing it.
where ships like the Space Lifter open space to peaceful use by all Americans.
I'm still not sure the Americans would want to trust their primary heavy-lift vehicle to foreign engines, even if they are built in the US under license. Sure, the Atlas V OTL lofted DoD payloads, but the Delta was there as well, with similar payload capabilities at the high end.
Once more, but unfortunately for the last time, I will express great appreciation of this story and the work put into it. It's written from a position of experience, and this shows in both the quality of writing and the depth of research. It's alternate history at its best: a tantalising hypothesis opening a parallel avenue of human development, while still leaning close enough to OTL to invite interesting comparisons. Though I would love to see it go on, the epilogue makes it clear that we now venture into the realm of science-fiction, where the demands of realism necessitate silence. We do not know yet what the flight rates and space infrastructure of TTL's present will lead to, as its heights will not be met for some years. The three teasers at the end promise some great things however, and I hope that in no great amount of time the data will be there to speculate on its particulars with more certainty. As for the present, I am most eager to see what the authors come up with next, and their expertise makes that I'll be sure to read it.
This was fantastic! An absolute amazing alt-history. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to show my full amazement and utter respect in these words, but thank you for spending the time and energy to create a history dreamed of by dreamers and aspirers. I loved it. And while I’m a bit sad it had to end, it ended on a beautiful note.
As always a great and somewhat sorrowful read :) Mostly the 'feels' when I caught the "L5er" references, (early member) and think of the 'could-have-beens' implied. You all do great work.

Did Hadfield bring his guitar along?
They certainly imply it when they call that space tourist the first 'professional' musician in space.

Not to the Moon’s surface, sadly. The mass and volume margins for a personal guitar just weren’t there on the first flights. However, many instruments have been flown to LEO, particularly to the Armstrong laboratory and Mir. As in OTL, the first such instrument (after Wally Schirra’s OTL harmonica during the Gemini program) was a saxophone.

We’re glad everyone enjoyed the epilogue and the TL as a whole! As TheBataFour observes, we have run up against the border between AH and SF, which is why we stopped here—TTL has the beginnings of a private LEO space station industry, a fully-reusable Earth-Moon transportation infrastructure, and a whole lot more data on things like artificial gravity, the planet Neptune, and asteroid composition than we do. The question is whether that will go anywhere at all—and that question remains to be answered. But we hope that we’ve established a plausible scenario where the world could be a few years closer to that answer through the smart use of staging, and through building the Space Shuttle right-side up.
Bit of a necro I know but I ran across this "Right Side Up" model at NASM so I thought I'd share:



This thread is the first tl to hit me right in the feels at the end there, and I've read tls on nuclear wars. This was a great timeline.
This thread is the first tl to hit me right in the feels at the end there, and I've read tls on nuclear wars. This was a great timeline.
Thank you very much, it was a pleasure working on it with @Polish Eagle. As you've been going back through and liking so many of the posts, I went back and re-read it myself as a whole unit for the first time since we did our final edits passes, and I really enjoyed what we put together. If you liked this, you might dig up and read the two space TLs by @nixonshead, who helped us out with art but who has also proved he writes amazingly well aiming at the gut to an unfair degree. :)

By the way, for anyone who still has this on watch, if you enjoyed this, go vote for us at this year's Turtledove awards! We're on thread B here, about midway down the list: remember, it's approval voting so you can vote for as many TLs as you believe deserve your vote!
The exact PoD is the inclusion of the INT-22 in the 1965 studies (the 1962 study is actually historical), though the first point where the timeline diverges from OTL in a way anyone but a major space nerd would notice is actually still yet to come.
Where can I find this 1962 study?
It's cited in Space Shuttle Decision, Chapter 2. Unfortunately, I also don't have a full copy, if you find one let me know!
I've learned that if you go to history.nasa.gov and search for sp4221, you'll find the full copy of the book including a link to the table of contents. There's also a copy available at Amazon.com, but I should warn you that one customer wrote a review which said they prefer history. nasa.gov's copy because it "is better formatted, properly organized, and actually includes the illustrations".
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