The good thing about starship disasters is that they so rarely turn into catastrophes.
Which is to say, sure, you can kill yourself, and you get your crew and your passengers killed, and if you try hard enough, you can go hurtling out of the system into the deep black at ludicrous speed, even while glowing with enough hard rads that no salvor’ll want to touch your hull for the next hundred thousand years. But space is big, its contents are small, and dramatic screw-ups that manage to take out other people by the mucker-ton therefore require sufficiently extraordinary talent that the Fourth Directorate will be crawling all over the site even before the wrecker gets there.
That is unfortunately not the case with interface vehicles, where the gravity well and the atmosphere bend physics all out of shape.
And you are flying, let me remind you, a real starship. Not some dinky aluminum-balloon sounding rocket that will obligingly shred itself into confetti and fireballs if the launch goes wrong; you’re flying maybe 3,000 tons of titanium composite and cerametals – not to mention the hot soup – that will come down hard, and will not come down happy.
This is a problem.
It’s not a problem for long. Well, if you’re flying the vehicle in question, it’s a problem for even less long, but you know what I mean.
Most dramatic engine failures happen very quickly indeed – on the pad, or within the first seconds of flight – at which point the starport disaster team will be on hand to clean up both you and your mess. And if you can keep things running long enough to get to orbital altitude – even on a suborbital trajectory – the odds are good in any kind of developed system that someone has a tug or a powerful OTV that can meet you and drag you the rest of the way upstairs while you get on the horn and have an unpleasant discussion with your insurance carrier.
That leaves the couple of minutes in the middle. Too high and fast for the starport to assist you; too low and slow for help from on high.
So what do you do, in that situation, if your main drive is failing and the auxiliary isn’t kicking in and you’ve got a sad board on all your backups?
Make sure you have the other kind of backup.
See, they don’t leave handling that sort of situation up to the Flight Commander. They know the sort of people who become Flight Commanders, and that they’ll try to save their ship right up until the very last second after it becomes a major incident. As is right and proper, but does not lead to the optimal outcome in this sort of case.
And they don’t leave handling it up to space traffic control, either, as they come from the same kind of dedicated stock that will try to save their traffic up to the very last second, too.
It’s in the hands of one man, titled Downrange Safety, who sits in a bunker at the starport. He has a live feed of all the traffic control instrumentation, everything he needs to see when a launch or landing trajectory has gone grossly off-track and out of safety limits. He has priority “flammifer exigent” access to the orbital defense grid, and to the starport’s launching lasers, and to anything else that might be useful.
He has a fully-automated system with executive authority to blast any incipient disasters right out of the sky, and he has a button which holds that system’s fire.
For three seconds at a time.
And that’s why I don’t fly interface vehicles.
– Svínif Kalyn-ith-Kalyn,
former Downrange Safety at Anniax Interplanetary, 6022-6167