For-Profit Orbit

From: Qory Estenv, Flight Overadministrator
To: All Astronauts

In response to your request for clarification about the Initiative’s “souvenir policy”, we don’t particularly care if you want to shove a box of postcards, or vanity coins, or model kits of the Phoenix, or whatever else you like in your personal mass-allowance to make an esteyn or two.

We’re going to be cramming any spare cargo mass/volume we can find with our own official souvenirs, after all, and telling the people who’ve volunteered to ride a stack of bombs into space they can’t do the same would hardly be square play.


Flight Dynamics has informed me that he will personally throw the owner of anything that doesn’t show up on his mass-balance charts out of the airlock.

Inventory & Materiel Test were less colorful about it, but their response was substantively the same.

And both Accounting and I, as your obligator, would request that if you come up with a scheme that makes the kind of money that’d show up in the Initiative’s budget — share the wealth with the ones that flew you, okay?

– a sign once posted at SIFC,
from the Spaceflight Initiative archives

To The Moon!

(Turns out the first ship I want to do isn’t one of the ones anyone asked for. Oh, well.)


Operated by: Spaceflight Initiative
Type: Early exploration vessel.
Construction: Spaceflight Initiative.

Everyone’s heard of the Silverfall-class explorer, the starship that first carried eldrae from Eliéra to its moons. (A surprisingly large number of them have visited the museum out on Seléne where Silverfall Four — Moondancer — rests in state out on the regolith, where she was flown to her resting place by her original crew, and is kept in flight-ready condition by her many admirers.)

The design discussed here is of the Block II variant of the Silverfall-class, which incorporates the modifications made to improve performance and livability after studies performed on Silverfall Zero and Silverfall One, and whose two examples can be considered representative of the class, including as they do the actual craft, Moondancer, which made the first landing on Seléne; later design revisions included a number of specialized variants, but made no further changes to the basic design.

Length: 42.2 m, of which:

  • Mission module: 12.2 m.
  • Engineering frame: 18 m (overlaps with propulsion module)
  • Propulsion module: 12 m
  • Shock absorbers and pusher/ground plate: 12 m

Beam: 12 m (mission and propulsion module); 22m (widest point)
Mass (fueled): 616,200 kg

Gravity-well capable: Yes.
Atmosphere-capable: No.

Personnel: 2 required, as follows:

Flight Commander
Flight Director/Engineer

Accommodates 6 further mission specialists.

Drive: Silverfall-specific fission pulse drive with laser trigger; cold-gas attitude control and landing system.
Fuel: Plutonium coated fuel pellets.
Cruising (sustainable) thrust: 2.4 standard gravities
Delta-v reserve: 16,800 m/s

Drones: Simple automation only.


Star tracker
Inertial tracking platform
Passive EM array
Short-range collision-avoidance and docking radar
Mk. 1 Eyeball

Weapons: None, unless you count the drive.

Other systems:

Thorium pebble-bed power reactor
Omnidirectional radio transceiver
Communications laser
Whipple shield (habitable area only)
Canned (non-regenerative) life support; CO2 scrubbers
Redundant flight control systems
NaK pumped-loop high-power radiators and maneuvering heat-sinks
NH3 low-power radiators

Small craft: None.


The original Phoenix-class orbiter was once described as an explosion in a girder factory, and its smaller cousin, the Silverfall, maintains much of that look, despite at least some improvements in elegance between the designs. That, and that unlike the Phoenix, the Silverfall was designed as a pure space vessel, intended to be built at and operate from Oculus Station in Eliéra orbit, and to land only on airless Seléne and Elárion.

The layout of the Silverfall-class can be divided into four sections: the upper mission module, the engineering frame which sits atop and wraps around the propulsion module, and the shock absorber/pusher plate section at the bottom.

At the top, the mission module is divided into three tail-lander decks with plenum space in between. The uppermost deck, topped by a blunt cupola and surrounded by the various navigational and communications antennae, contains semicircular bridge and mission management sections, surrounded by the ship’s avionics. From it, an axial passage descends through the next two decks, terminating in a small engineering space (housed in an aft projection) where the mission module connects to the primary thrust truss of the engineering frame. A secondary access tube, normally depressurized, runs down from this passage through the engineering frame.

The second deck houses three pie-segment areas; the ship’s laboratory, workshop, and main stowage area. Opposite the stowage area, between the laboratory and workshop, a secondary airlock provides maintenance access while in flight to the exterior of the ship (with a ladder down to the upper levels of the engineering frame), and is the main access point when the starship is docked.

(Opposite this airlock, centered on the mission module’s vertical axis, is the gold plaque bearing the Imperial Star and the stylized rocket-and-crescent-moon of the Spaceflight Initiative, with beneath them the various names and logos of the various contributors making the Silverfall mission possible.)

The third, lowermost deck contains the crew quarters, divided into a number of modular pods, along with the galley, central mess, ‘fresher, and a small medical bay.

Six meters below the mission module is the propulsion module, a heavy steel capsule containing the guts of the nuclear-pulse drive that powers the Silverfall. For the most part, however, it is hidden by the engineering frame which wraps around and atop it, a mesh of trusses containing, most notably, the six pellet silos, evenly spaced around the ship, containing the plutonium fuel pellets, and the spherical tanks of cold-gas propellant and life-support supplies.

The lower surface of the engineering frame (along with that of the propulsion module) is the solid sheet of the protective shadow shield, protecting the upper sections of the craft from radiation produced by the pulse drive. The secondary access tube descending from the base of the mission module connects to the primary airlock, located directly above the edge of the shadow shield vertically beneath the secondary airlock, and from which a descent ladder can be lowered once the drive shroud is in place.

At its edges, laser modules extend past the edge of the shield to trigger the explosive coatings of the fuel pellets; just within those edges, sealed slots permit the segmented drive shroud to be lowered after landing, surrounding the mechanics of the shock absorbers and pusher plate, to protect disembarked astronauts from residual drive radiation.



2016_B(Alternate words: Beefcake.

…well, okay. I said to myself that I would keep all the alternate words that I don’t use first time through for potential later use, but with the best will in the world, I don’t think I can do anything with that one. Sorry, o beefcake-desirer!)

The path towards today’s helmet style grew out of a number of converging interests. Early Spaceflight Initiative helmets required more bulky hardware than modern compact systems, for example, which consumed and obscured much of the rear volume. Later industrial vacuum suits had the disadvantage of holding the wearer’s head in a forward-facing position, due to cushioning and ancillary equipment, restricting the wearer’s field of view. And then, of course, there were the various RFPs from the nascent Imperial Navy, and specifically the requests from the Flight Operations representatives, who were most insistent that while they were willing if reluctant to concede the impracticability of their traditional silk scarves as a vacuum suit accessory, relegating them to the role of dress uniform only, and even to acknowledge the uselessness of their equally traditional aviator goggles, they would not under any circumstances give up their leather-and-fur flight helmets.

(They had, after all, been presented upon graduation of every Pilot Officer since the first foundation of the Imperial Flying Corps. One might as well, in their view, expect a legionary to go into battle without his sword – or, as Military Service slang prefers to put it in either case – ‘stark ruddy naked’.)

And so we come to the modern bubble helmet, a spherical dome of smartglass sandwiched between high-impact sapphiroid. The outermost layer is gold-anodized, to block glare and harmful radiation (while in theory the smartglass could provide this filtration, the gold anodization is fail-safe, functioning even if suit power or data systems are malfunctioning), and designed to intrinsically shed fluids, dust, and electrical charge. The smartglass is capable of acting as an infinitely configurable variable-filter and information display surface, with HUD and augmented reality functions including night-vision and optical zoom. The view provided is unobstructed all around – even beyond the typical 100 degree head rotation – with the exception of two coin-sized spots above the eyeline and to each side where the headlight/camera modules are mounted. A third light/camera module, rear-mounted, provides a projectable rear view. These modules also include miniature trigraphic projectors, enabling the projection of status, communicative, and affective symbols over the wearer’s head.

The helmet is pressurized with the normal canned life support blend of oxygen and inert-mix, to standard ship’s pressure. (Since modern skinsuits incorporate MEMS-based respiration assistance, it is no longer necessary to use high-oxygen breathing mixes.) This is controlled by the systems torc at the base of the helmet, which locks onto the attachment ring/neck dam at the neck of the vacuum suit (itself connected to many fibers running throughout the suit fabric to prevent accidental detachment). Light nanofluid cushioning that surrounds the neck once the helmet is donned provides additional neck protection and stability.

The primary purpose of the systems torc, apart from this connection, is the containment of the suit’s data systems and mesh communications suite. (Its location permits it direct interface with its wearer’s back-neck laser-port, although an auxiliary manual keypad can be connected and mounted on an arm of the suit if desired.) It also contains a miniature high-pressure oxygen tank and rebreather/dehumidifier system as a final hour’s emergency life-support supply. The torc also contains the connectors for the PLSS backpack, including those which permit water, other beverages, food pastes, and pharmaceuticals to be dispensed to the wearer through a deployable pipette, or additionally in the case of pharmaceuticals, through an autoinjector into a neck vein.

Communications can be provided directly by the torc, either via the laser-port interface or via miniaturized microphones and loudspeakers built into the torc surface. Alternately, many wearers prefer the use of a simple headset worn under the helmet, which connects to the torc using local mesh radio.

– A History of Space Hardware, Orbital Education Initiative

The Talentarian

(Well, obviously I’ve been thinking about Mars rovers since yesterday’s movie-watching, so here, have some inspiration results…)

“…the Wayseeker rover, launched by the Spaceflight Initiative in 2208 and arriving in the following year, was the first Talentar probe to make use of a polymorphic software-derived artificial intelligence to enable full local autonomy, rather than relying on extensive teleoperation and command sequence transmission from Eliéra. Designed to perform a variety of geological and atmospheric studies, including clarifying water availability and mapping local resource concentrations in preparation for later in-person scientific and potential colonial missions.

Wayseeker performed far above expectations, completing its original mission to schedule within the first six months after landing, but then continued to operate for almost twelve Eliéran years, performing extensive resource surveys of Kirinal Planum and the western, shallower end of Quinjaní Vallis, before contact was finally lost during a particularly fierce dust storm near the end of 2221.

“The Wayseeker rover was rediscovered, largely intact, and excavated by an expedition sponsored by the University of Talentar in 2614. On examination of the rover’s non-volatile memory banks, the leaders of the expedition discovered early signs of an emergent AI developing within the rover’s experimental polymorphic software matrix, presumably catalyzed by its greatly extended run-time and increased need for autonomous decision-making. The emergence, however, had been terminated by the rover’s loss in the storm – a regrettable loss to science, as such an emergent intelligence would have greatly predated the awakening of the first documented sophont AI, CALLÍËNS, in 2594. In accordance with emerging trends in cyberethics and popular enthusiasm of the time, the University’s cognitive scientists and wakeners completed the uplift of Wayseeker to full digisapience.

“Ve rapidly found veirself catapulted into the spotlight as an instant celebrity and a hero of Project Copperfall and the ongoing Talentarian colonization effort, culminating in the 2616 vote by the Shareholders’ Assembly of the Talentarian Commonwealth which unanimously proclaimed Wayseeker, as the de facto first and oldest colonist on the planet, First Citizen Perpetual of the Commonwealth, with all associated honors and stipends attached thereto.

“Today, Wayseeker – still wearing veir original chassis, with only necessary repairs and upgrades – remains the First Citizen Perpetual of the Commonwealth, happily performing the ceremonial duties of the office and welcoming newcomers to the planet, although ve prefers to eschew politics. Ve also serves as curator of the Copperfall Museum in Quinjano Dome, and as Visiting Professor of Talentarian Geography and Ecopoetics at the University of Talentar, although ve is in the habit of taking long leaves of absence from both posts to undertake personal scientific expeditions into the Talentarian wilderness, and to spend some time alone with ‘veir planet’.”

Talentar Blossoming: the Early Years,
Vallis Muetry-ith-Miritar

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: Countdown

Ienith Steamweaver tried and failed to restrain a grin as the techs tightened the straps holding him down, hooked up his oxygen mask, and slammed the hatch of the Skyreach capsule shut above him. It was happening. It was happening today. He was going to orbit.

…on top of a couple of hundred thousands of pounds of liquid hydrox.

Well, either way, he’d still end up in orbit.

* * *

“Flight, Skyreach Zero, primary comm check if you would?”

“Flight copies on the main, Skyreach, got you 12 by 12. Switch to aux channel and repeat, over.”

“Flight, Skyreach Zero on aux channel.”

“Comm check passed, Skyreach, ready to start the clock?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be, Flight.”

“Copy that, Skyreach Zero, ready to start MET clock at minus twelve minutes on our mark. Three, two, one, mark.”

“Clock is running, Flight.”

* * *

“Skyreach, Flight at minus ten minutes, ready for systems checkout. Life support?”

“Tank pressures are nominal, oxygen flow is positive, cabin pressure test shows no leaks. Life support is go flight.”

“Life support diagnostics show all blue here, confirming go flight. Power?”

“Batteries show full charge, drain is nominal on external power. Fuel cells are stable shutdown. Power systems are go flight.”

“Power is blue across, confirming go flight. Guidance?”

“Gyros at speed and clutched. Instruments show nominal values for index location. Guidance systems are go flight.”

“Guidance is blue across, confirming go flight. Motors?”

“The Roughneck shows tank pressures nominal and diagnostics all blue. Decoupler self-test circuits, blue and blue. Booster self-test, blue. Motors are go flight.”

“Our diagnostics agree, confirming go flight. Data systems?”

“Three cores up and running, in agreement. Diagnostic request gives all-zeros-optimal. Telemetry ping is positive, main and aux channels. Data systems are go flight.”

“Ground mirror agrees, confirming go flight. Cargo?”

“That’s Flight Commander Cargo to you, Nellis,” Ienith said dryly, “and I’m go flight.”

* * *

“Flight, Skyreach at minus six minutes. Fuel cells prestarted and ready for load, over.”

“Stand by, Skyreach… Skyreach, you are on internal power. Umbilical is disconnected.”

“Skyreach confirms internal power.”

“The pad is clear, Skyreach. You are go for hydro power unit start.”

“HPU start, stand by… Flight, we show HPU start. Hydro pressure climbing on nominal curve.”

* * *

“Skyreach, Flight at minus one minute. Sequencer is running in automatic. You are launch commit. Acknowledge.”

“Skyreach is launch commit, acknowledged.”

* * *

“Flight at minus twelve beats, launching on the solids alone, ignition at minus three with clamp release on burn-through. Good flight, Skyreach.





Even within the sealed confines of launch control, the remainder of the count was obliterated by indescribable thunder. 

* * *

Down in the launch control bunker, the mission coordinator shook off momentary paralysis and stared at his unhelpful monitors: the display from the pad showing nothing but clouds of fire, the downlinks showing loss-of-signal markers. 

“Status! Status reports, by stations. Do we have the ship?”


ODeepHab Eleven
Eastern Abyssal
Gulf of Antareä

The incoming voice rattled scratchily from the speaker. “Benthic Needle, we have you on our magnetograph now. Confirm your position.”

“Inertial guidance shows us eight-eleven porisedt from sonar target, relative bearing zero-eight-five, station-keeping against current. Request calibration reading on relative depth, DeepHab.”

Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!

“Benthic Needle, we show your relative depth as two porisedt above our datum, with a three degree for’ard pitch.”

“Thanks, DeepHab. Retrimming.”

Water gurgled into the trim tanks as the pilot adjusted the controls.

Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!

“We’re ready for terminal guidance, DeepHab. Advisory: we have negative, repeat negative, visual capability.”

“Proceed on heading zero-six-zero for eleven-one porisedt to intercept final vector, Benthic Needle, activate high-resolution targeting sonar, and hold; descend six porisedt to four below datum relative for moon pool access. Map follows.”

A burst of data-noise later, the proposed course mapped itself out in blue-green trigraphics on the inside of the minisub’s blank steel cupola.

“Executing, DeepHab.”

Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!

“Say, Benthic Needle, out of curiosity, why does the Spaceflight Initiative want you guys to practice blind docking anyway?”

“No mystery, DeepHab. The Needle’s shipping out to Isimír next year. There’s no light down in its subcrustal ocean, so we’re learning to operate without it.”

“There’s no light down here, either, Needle, but we do have lights.”

“Yeah, but there’s never been any light down in Isimír’s ocean. If there’s any life down there, it’d be rude to go lightin’ the place up before we find out if it’ll poison the locals.”

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.

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.

We Possess, So It Seems, One Of Man’s Greatest Dreams: Author’s Notes

For those who didn’t catch the reference in the title of that last fic-a-day, the reference was to the chorus of the filk piece Home on Lagrange (The L5 Song), copyright 1978 by William S. Higgins and Barry D. Gehm.

The lyrics are as follows:

Oh, give me a locus where the gravitons focus
Where the three-body problem is solved,
Where the microwaves play down at three degrees K,
And the cold virus never evolved.


Home, home on LaGrange,
Where the space debris always collects,
We possess, so it seems, two of Man’s greatest dreams:
Solar power and zero-gee sex.

We eat algae pie, our vacuum is high,
Our ball bearings are perfectly round.
Our horizon is curved, our warheads are MIRVed,
And a kilogram weighs half a pound.


If we run out of space for our burgeoning race
No more Lebensraum left for the Mensch
When we’re ready to start, we can take Mars apart,
If we just find a big enough wrench.


I’m sick of this place, it’s just McDonald’s in space,
And living up here is a bore.
Tell the shiggies, “Don’t cry,” they can kiss me goodbye
‘Cause I’m moving next week to L4!


We Possess, So It Seems, One Of Man’s Greatest Dreams

1 Let’s see, status board – blue across?

2 Blue across here, check.

1 Cabin ventilation; filters to micro, flow to high, temperature down to set-point 20.

2 Check.

1 Access panels stowed and covered?

2 Check.

1 Got the tethers and jets?

2 Right here.  Honey wine, my dear?

1 Ah, thank you.  [pause] Oh, and cabin transcript recorder – off.

2 [giggle] Che-

[loss of audio signal; telemetry recording continues]

– transcript of Spaceflight Initiative mission Orbital Rendezvous