A Musing & the FAQ

On the evergreen question of what about us, Earth-now, the Imperials might find worthy of a little respect, a recent rewatching of Apollo 13 reminds me to mention that our space program, especially of the Apollo era, definitely qualifies.

Bear in mind, for one thing, that for various reasons involving their homeworld’s quirky perversions of physics, that their moon program, Project Silverfall, didn’t reach fruition until they were already a mature information-age society, and so Moondancer and her sister ships, along with Oculus Station and so forth, were all equipped with fancy, modern integrated network systems, and other technology of similar advancement, with the controls looking rather more like a Dragon V2 touchscreen-and-voice UI than anything else. (And, of course, it was a roomy Orion ship, not a capsule that barely fits its crew.)

So, y’know, it wasn’t quite “In a cave! With a box of scraps!” from their perspective, but getting to the moon with slipsticks and core memory, in a vehicle smaller than Moondancer‘s bridge — that’s remarkably impressive by any standards. And, of course, there’s simply no way you can’t respect any of the sodality of folks willing to strap their asses to a cannoboom and ride it into glory.

(On the other hand, the way the program was abruptly terminated after having served its political purpose of being a stick to beat the Soviets with pretty much confirms all of the negative stereotypes in the book, or at least the ones indexed under short-sightedness, Obstructive Naysaying, democracy, cratic government in general, and so forth.

Never mind all the people saying “What’s the point in going to space?”, then and now. I mean, it’s not like the Empire has never had any mental cripples, but by and large, they don’t give them column-inches or seats in the Senate.)

On another note, I am contemplating adding a FAQ page for the benefit of new visitors to the site. As such, I welcome nominations for Qs that are FA – which doesn’t mean a free for all in re new questions, I stipulate; nominate from questions already answered or posts which answer unspoken questions, please!


Before the Phoenix: Insufficient


“Ah, Flight, we may have a problem here. Give me the telemetry numbers on thrust, commanded versus actual?”

Skyreach, we show 92% actual versus 100% commanded. We’re running diagnostics, but assume you are still go at this time.”

“Status on the Roughneck?”, Laras queried the Taliths.

“Roughneck is sub-nominal, estrev –”

“- thrust is now at 89% of commanded, still decreasing –”

“- we have amber warnings, combustion chamber press low, temp low –”

“- performing drive-running self-diagnostic –”

Laras broke the wire seal, and flipped up the cover over the sealed sequence switches. “Advise on readiness for mode two abort.”

“Negative on that,” came from the Taliths and from Nellis together. The latter pressed his headset to his ears, then continued. “Skyreach vetoes abort request unless diagnostics show red.”

“We’ve got no reds-”

“- still working the problem.”

“Very well. Fíöré, how is this malfunction affecting the delta-v? Enough remaining to reach some sort of orbit?”

“Ah, negative on that, fuel consumption is holding on the nominal curve –”

“- we must be achieving only partial burn –”

“- we can reach altitude, but my preliminary numbers show us far short of orbital velocity.”

“Right,” Laras said. “Recompute trajectory for the longest suborbital hop you can give me, and transfer it to guidance. Tell Skyreach the new mission plan, and to stand by to implement. We’ll dump the Roughneck at apoapsis and reorient.”

Before the Phoenix: Imperfect Tools

Launch Control
Spaceflight Initiative

Mission Coordinator Laras Stelliré looked up from his monitors and their unhelpful loss-of-signal markers, and barked, “Status! Status reports, by stations. Do we have the ship?”

Nellis Steamweaver, at communications, pushing his headset firmly into his ears, was the first to respond.

“Voice communications are still up, so we have the capsule. I’ve got a lot of roar from the solids, some voices…” He tapped his transmit key, spoke into his throat mic. “Either their receiver’s out or they plain can’t hear me, though. I’m not getting any acknowledgement, just muffled high-octane commentary.”

Even as he glanced over at the technical consoles, the flight dynamics/systems engineering team, Lauré and Fíöré Talith, spoke as one:

“Confirmed cleared the tower successfully –”

“– radar track is nominal to this point –”

“– negative telemetry input on main channel –”

“– most probable case a capsule connector failure due to unexpectedly high vibration on lift –”

“– switching to auxiliary.”

Laras glanced down again, and peeled his white-knuckled fingers off the edges of his console as the secondary telemetry – not as detailed, but enough – flooded in from Skyreach. The trajectory display on his central screen filled in the extrapolated earlier data; the capsule accelerating smoothly between the flight plan’s minimax lines.

* * *


“Booster neck-down – thrust dropping!”

Nellis glanced over at the Taliths, nodded in acknowledgement, and spoke into his headset.

“Skyreach, Flight, can you hear me now? Skyreach, acknowledge, please!”

“Skyreach copies, Flight.” A burst of loud static came over the air. “– can hear you, too.”

“How are you doing up there, Skyreach?”

“On the good side, Flight, all systems are blue. On the bad side, so is my ass.”

Nellis snorted. “Thank you, Skyreach, we’re all glad to hear half of that. In that case, you are go to commence Roughneck ignition while you’ve still got ullage thrust.”

“As you say, Flight. Hydropower transfer initiated and igniters to run. Turbopumps spooling up… and ignition.” The slowly decreasing acceleration numbers on the monitors leapt forward again. “Confirm thrust, Flight.”

“Climbing on the curve, Skyreach… and holding at 20% nominal.” The roar of the boosters fell away in Nellis’s headset, overtaken by the throbbing rumble of the liquid motor. He glanced up at his status monitor, where flight dynamics had flash-highlighted the booster combustion chamber pressure. “And we show burnout on the boosters per sched. You are go for booster separation.”

“Confirmed, Flight.”

Three muffled explosions sounded in Nellis’s headset; the red-highlighted booster telemetry flicked over to no-signal amber.

“Skyreach, we confirm booster separation.”

* * *


“Skyreach, Flight, we show you having passed max Q, confirm please?”

“Flight, this is Skyreach, we confirm max Q.”

“Skyreach, you are go for throttle-up.”

“Acknowledged, Flight.”

* * *


“Ah, Flight, we may have a problem here. Give me the telemetry numbers on thrust, commanded versus actual?”

“Skyreach, we show 92% actual versus 100% commanded. We’re running diagnostics, but assume you are still go at this time.”

Before the Phoenix: Preparations

The sculpted hull of the starship rose impossibly skyward, looming over the queuing passengers as if it might fall upon them any minute. Gleaming chrome and gold, it shone in the sunlight against the black-painted metal of the stardock. The subdued roar of its warming engines, readying themselves to propel it to the farthest worlds of the Stellar Imperium, rose from the thrust pit and made the ground tremble…

Ienith Steamweaver sighed in irritation and tossed his copy of Wonders of Tomorrow aside. “Gleaming, sculpted hull” was, at best, a charitable description of the Initiative’s first – and, given their rapidly dwindling budget, quite possibly last – orbital craft. “Stardock”, for that matter, was altogether too grand a name for a concrete pad surrounded by earth berms, and the lashed-together dyanail1 scaffolding that would hold their rocket in place. But there was only so much you could expect when getting a decent spin assist meant being stuck out on an island at the far dawn-edge of the world and, he admitted to himself, when trying to work those wonders on that limited budget.

A clang from above announced that the engineering siblings had finally got the Skyreach capsule successfully mated with the main body of the rocket. Ienith walked over and patted its metal flank, chilly in Lormyrian’s tropical heat. The metal did gleam, at least, thanks to a lot of polishing, although it still bore an unmistakable resemblance to the pressurized tank it had started out life as, if you avoided looking at the tangled plumbing and bulging engine bell at its base. Pulling his circuit tester from his pocket, he began his part of the preflight procedure – checking and double-checking the burn-through clamps that held the rocket to the pad, and the explosive clamps that held the boosters –

The barrels of slow-burning explosive.

– to its side. Well, at least they’d been used before and were known to work. Although they’d never been used before with anyone sitting on top of them.

This would all make me pretty damn worried for whoever’s going to be flying this thing.

But then, that would be me.

1. A plant similar to Terran bamboo.


In the anonymous-questions box today, I received an inquiry into what the point of divergence, as it were, was that led to the eldrae Spaceflight Initiative developing with vigor into exactly the kind of space program we didn’t get?

Well, I’ve touched on a little bit of this before. Some of it originates in more-or-less innate cultural differences playing out, and some of it has to do with the different economic and planning time horizons of a long-lived species. I could talk about greater tendencies towards curiosity and neophilia and not having an untimely crisis of cultural self-confidence.

But if I had to reduce it to one thing, it’d be the way that all those folks who prefer to smugly pontificate about why things can’t be done – be it technical limitations or economic ones – or shouldn’t be done, or aren’t worth doing, etc., rather than getting down to the hard work of figuring out how it can be done, tend to find themselves being marched out of the Senate, or wherever, by their peers, and then duly mocked, denounced, and belittled to the plaudits of the crowd and the amusement of the children.

Imperial culture is really hard on those it perceives as Obstructive Naysayers. It certainly doesn’t go around listening to them.

Space Programs

title text: “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space—each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

Initially (economically) irrationally decision, anyway.

I used this trope extensively in developing the Eldraeverse; of course, those single-planet cultures which find themselves overtaken by the expanding edge of the Associated Worlds do eventually get into space. Only to find themselves relegated to playing catch-up in a galactic society that sees them as eternal second-placers, but, hey, lack of ambition has consequences.

[Originally posted elsewhere, 2011/5/3 – I ran across it again, today, and dammit, it’s still relevant.]

Phoenix Falling

The Spaceflight Initiative Flight Center was built at the far western edge of the Bright Desert where the mountains come down to meet it, next to the hundreds of square miles set aside as the Orbital Launch Reservation.  The Center itself perches on land cut out of the edge of the mountains, and back into the mountains; even when the Initiative was first proposed they knew that they’d be relying on nuclear pulse drives, and the cold wind that’s always blowing off the slopes keeps the launch fallout at bay.

When you arrive at the Center, down from the mountains or up from the trains, you’re at the west end of Starflight Drive.  There’re roads going off to either side and back into the underways, and a couple of big cuttings going down into the desert, but the Drive itself is a straight shot from the entrance right to the far side of the Center, where there’s a little stubby white box of a building built right into the cliff edge.  There’s a much bigger modern building there too, now, sitting almost right on top of it – that’s the new Operations Control, because they still run experimental flights out of the Center today.  The old one’s a museum now, showing off simulations of the old flights to visitors, but that little white bunker was where everything happened in the early days.

But before you reach Opscon, you come to a section of the Drive lined with weeping blackwood trees and golden statues, each one with its own plaque, inset letters giving mission and crew names.  Swiftrunner.  Sunscraper Four.  Redblossom Twelve.  Oculus Forty.  Copperfall One.  Oculus Three.  And just before you reach the bunker entrance, the last statue – a golden astronaut dressed in one of the old soft-shell crew suits, upraised fist clenching the lumpy shape of a drive pellet and, at her feet, a fragment of hull-metal blackened and seared with plasma scoring.

Phoenix Five

Meris Claves-ith-Lelad
Elissa Corith-ith-Corith
Alvis Peressin-ith-Perise

That one was mine.

*             *             *

I was public affairs at Opscon for Five, and it had been an excellent mission from that point of view so far.  Everyone on the planet was behind the Initiative that year.

It was a cold spring day when Five was scheduled to return, and we were confident.  We’d had five previous flights go up and return without anything but a few glitches in the secondary systems.  The Phoenix stack worked.  And the rest of the mission had gone perfectly.  The new communications array checked out, twelve by twelve.  The research labs were already cooing over the results of Alvis’s microgravity experiments, and clamoring to get their hands on them once they landed.  And Elissa’s spacewalk had come together perfectly, first time.  Fourteen minutes outside the vehicle; no pressure loss, no ballooning.  Able to maneuver; indeed, able to maneuver elegantly.

And we had an experienced crew for the first time.  This was Meris’s – Meris ith-Lelad’s – second flight; she’d been second pilot on Phoenix One the previous year.  Were we less prepared for something to go wrong?  I don’t think so; we all understood we were pushing hard into the unknown.  But we were certainly expecting it – I was certainly expecting it – less than we had been.

She was in re-entry phase, balancing on her pusher plate, when it happened, having entered loss-of-signal at 76 miles up, and I’d finished giving the usual briefing to the press.  All normal, nothing to worry about, even if being out of touch did raise the level of tension around here.  I was halfway through recapping earlier parts of the mission briefing to keep them busy – we’d learned on Zero that it did nobody’s calm any good to have the press asking questions during the white-knuckle no-communications, no-telemetry part of the flight – when the discreet anomaly light lit up on my console, telling me to wrap it up and clear the room.

I don’t remember what I said then.  I do recall that they left the press room a lot more quietly than I was expecting, but all I can remember is staring through the window at the radar display, where the blip showing Five in her descent had elongated to a streak.  There was debris coming off the ship.

By the time I got down to the control room, we’d got partial telemetry back.  Beran ith-Issarthyl – flight communications – was calling over and over.  “Phoenix Five, Opscon, do you read?  Phoenix Five, Opscon, confirm status,” but the board was lit up, crimson as death, with the status we did have.  ACS BURN.  Attitude thrusters firing, which wasn’t a part of any entry program.  AXIS INSTABILITY.  Which explained the thruster burn, at least, but — BUNKER LOW WARN.  HYD2 PRESS LOW.  C BUS UNDERVOLT.  VIBRAT EX-PARAM.

The radio crackled and spat, then produced words.  Meris’s voice, loud over a roaring that for one lunatic moment I thought might be static, but was the roaring of the ACS jets trying to nail Five in the right attitude for entry, keep her balanced, keep her alive…

“–scon, Five, do you read?  Opscon, this is… nix Five… you read?”

“Yes, Five, we have you.  This is Opscon.  Report status, please.  We show…”

“Anomalous readings and debris, yes.”  Her voice stayed calm, professionalism overcoming strain, and I tried not to think about just how bad things must be in the ship that I could hear any strain in her voice.  “Status is pessimal, Opscon.  We had structural failure about four minutes into LOS.  The port-dorsal pellet silo is gone, looks like it pivoted outside the plate shadow.  I say again, the port-dorsal pellet silo is gone.  By the system failure pattern, we’ve got penetrations all along the core structure. Sssht–abin integrity stable, for now.  Over.”

“Five, Opscon.  Acknowledge your status… ah, wait one, Five, we’re running models.  Over.”

“Time’s running out, Opscon.  Static moment’s shot all to dark with the silo gone.  We’re running the ACS at hard burn to maintain attitude.  ACS fuel remaining shows 15% and dropping.  Estimate four minutes remaining.  Over.”

Running feet.  The rustle of engineers paging hurriedly through blueprints.  A babble of voices, suggestion after suggestion, none viable.  No way to use the gyros to stabilize.  Not enough fuel pellets left to abort back to orbit even without the missing silo, and even if the core penetrations hadn’t wrecked the ship’s ability to stand up to thrust.  No way to get more fuel to the ACS…

“Opscon, Five.”  The signal cut through the chatter.  “ACS fuel remaining now 7%.  Stable flight time now one point five.”  A pause before her voice returned, all strain now gone from it.  “We’re, ah, all agreed up here.  Are we go for STARBURST?”

Program STARBURST.  A contingency that we never briefed the press about.  The Phoenices were big ships compared to anything we’d put into space before, or that had burned up harmlessly on the way down.  If Five went into tumble, she’d shred, and tear, and melt, and kill her crew, but she wouldn’t burn up… and shortly thereafter, most of her six thousand tonnes of flaming metal and plutonium fuel would come slamming back to earth in a few large pieces – and so we all knew that the one thing that couldn’t be permitted was for her to come down in those pieces.  STARBURST existed to ensure that, in the simplest way that a nuclear pulse-drive ship could.

I looked across the room, all chatter stilled, at Beran.  Tears were running down his face – my own face was wet, not that I’d noticed – but he kept his voice steady as he replied.  “Five, Opscon concurs.  You are go for STARBURST.  Go well, my friends.  You will be remembered.”

“Roger, Opscon.  Programming for STARBURST now.  Tell our families we love them.  Tell Six… tell Six to have a drink for us when they get up here.”  A burst of static.  “It was a good fli-”

Nuclear fire blossomed in the desert sky.  Phoenix Five had fallen.

Dedicated to the crews of Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11, Challenger, Columbia, and all the other astronauts and cosmonauts who have died furthering the cause of human spaceflight.  Per ardua, ad astra.