As we approach the final week counting down to the Sun Dragon launch event I present to you the opening chapter.
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7th June 2022, 06:29 local time
With less than a minute until launch, the roar of the engines’ ignition shuddered through the vessel. Commander Samantha Collins glanced to her left where Doctor Colette Laurent ran through the final safety checks. Samantha commanded the mission and, even after spending so many years in training together, still admired the older woman’s youthful looks.
Samantha frowned at her momentary distraction and returned her attention to her own multifunctional displays. On each screen she checked the key systems for the spacecraft.
Engine controls – green.
Life support – green.
Communications – green.
Flight controls – green.
Mission management – green.
“Mission Control, I’m showing green across the board,” she reported.
“Confirmed, Commander. Our board is also in the green. Launch is a go.”
The tension in her stomach increased. In part it came from bracing in preparation for the weight about to be piled on her, but for the most part it came from the thrill. She loved lift off, and she experienced a similar, although lesser, thrill even when taking off in an aeroplane. This was her third proper launch. The first had been a decade ago, one of the old Russian Soyuz rockets. They’d been dependable launch vehicles which had provided reliable service for decades and had only recently been phased out of service.
That launch had taken her up to the International Space Station for the first time. It had been smaller back then, with a crew of four – herself, two Russians and an Indian astronaut. That had been her first and only orbital mission while an active astronaut with NASA.
She had been grounded after that all-too-short trip, along with most of the other astronauts, thanks to a series of budget cuts during the early years of the 21st century.
That grim reality had all changed three years ago with the news that had stunned the world. Now here she was with a new international crew on the most important launch NASA, or any other space agency, had ever seen.
This launch was on the new Delta V Heavy, now approved for manned missions. The programme had needed to be accelerated as there wasn’t enough heavy lift capability available. This was the second time the rocket had launched into orbit – the first had taken the crew on their first visit to the space station.
She glanced again at Colette, who nodded in reply, indicating she confirmed the safety checks.
“Launch is a go.”
“Confirmed, Mission Control.”
With that instruction, the six crew members settled into their seats. Everyone checked their safety webbing for the last time. They were all committed now.
Samantha kept her face calm, but her excitement still fluttered inside her stomach. More than the thrill of the launch, she had always dreamed of going into space. She had achieved that goal already, and now she was about to start a mission that had been the dream of every astronaut for decades.
A launch into space also represented the ultimate expression of trust. Once the engines ignited and lift off began, there was nothing they could do to affect anything until they entered orbit. In theory, there was the emergency escape capsule. If they or anyone at Mission Control were quick enough, it might catapult them far enough for safety.
In reality, that was unlikely.
Astronauts trained hard. They trained for months, years in the case of the current mission; their training had a single purpose. That purpose was to make sure they could control any situation that developed, but during launch they relinquished that hard-earned control.
And Samantha loved every moment of it.
The vibration intensified, while in her ear she listened to Mission Control count down the final seconds.
And there it was.
The weight piled up upon her, although slowly at first. She heard Colette grunt in a soft voice as she experienced the same. The world resisted their launch with all of its might and pulled her down in her seat. Not even a lover’s grip could compare to that feeling.
With a roar that shuddered through her body, she felt the powerful rocket lift from the pad.
The pressure on her body increased as the rocket built up speed, slowly at first, then lurching into the sky. The sinking feeling in her stomach had been crushed from existence by the weight of gravity’s resistance to their launch.
Minutes later, a new and sharper vibration shook the speeding craft as the explosive bolts fired and released the first stage. Despite the great power of the rocket’s engines, it had to be divided into sections to reach beyond the atmosphere. The second set of rocket engines fired, propelling them faster as the spent stage fell away. With the mass of the ship reduced, this second stage would now push them out of the atmosphere and into space.
It was almost disappointing when the shaking stopped and the crew capsule settled into its arching orbit. The capsule would now coast along its transfer orbit. The mission used the new rapid transfer procedure, so they would have to circle the Earth twice before docking with the ISS. On her last visit, they’d required twelve orbits. Not that she had minded, as the view from orbit was amazing, even through the tiny portals in the crew capsule.
Samantha once again checked the readings on the displays in front of her. That had been another important part of their training. They had developed an odd paradox of trusting their instincts (although instincts tended to be training doing its own thing) and trusting their instruments.
The launch hadn’t been perfect, but was well within the required parameters. Next she checked with the rest of her crew.
“Is everyone okay?”
“I’m fine,” Colette replied, her accent warm, her voice trembling with excitement. Samantha wasn’t alone in enjoying the thrill of a launch. It was no coincidence that they’d both been pilots in their respective air forces.
Ronald Larsson’s deep Southern drawl sounded next across the intercom. “I’m A-OK. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
“Steady there, I think I’m going to be sick.” Professor Stephen MacQuire’s clipped British accent irritated Samantha. If anyone was going to puke, she would have bet it would have been him. “Just joking.” And then he did that nasal laugh of his.
It was going to be a long voyage.
“All good here.” Juliet Jakes was the third American in the crew.
“Da. I’m fine,” Piotr Vasilevitch confirmed. His accent was thick, but he sounded as calm as he always did. He spoke perfect English, but sometimes he enjoyed letting the accent run free.
“Good to hear. Stay in your seats until we dock with the ISS,” Samantha instructed.
Not that there was any space for anyone to move. The original design of the Orion capsule allowed for only four crew members, so with six on board, things were more than a little cramped. Extensive modifications had been needed to facilitate the launch of the entire crew in a single capsule.
Still, they only needed to suffer the cramped conditions for the short ferry to the space station, so it would only be for another hour or so. Then they’d be inside the space station, and that had grown to accommodate the construction crew. With the two extra habitation modules, there would be sufficient space for them all.
On their first pass, they couldn’t see the ship clearly. It appeared as a vague cross-shaped silhouette behind the International Space Station. Samantha watched through the small windows, even though she could have got a better view from the camera displays.
On the second pass, the procedure for the docking approach kept her too busy for sightseeing. Juliet and Ronald started describing the scene to the others. Samantha switched them to a private channel so that she could focus on the approach.
“Orion 4. This is ISS, we have you on approach. We’re seeing you on a clean vector.”
“ISS, this is Orion 4. Confirmed.”
The chatter back and forth remained business-like as they performed the delicate ballet of docking the capsule with the station. The station was huge, a large sprawling structure with several cylindrical modules. Each of the modules was larger than the capsule that approached it in a delicate manoeuvre.
Despite its superior size, the station was fragile. A collision would risk the ten astronauts on the station as well as causing damage that could cause millions, if not billions, of dollars to fix.
Minutes of subtle adjustments later, the capsule connected with the station’s docking ring, and with several mechanical clunks a seal formed.
Then it became a simple matter of waiting.
It took the two Russian cosmonauts on the station another fifteen minutes to secure the connection and open the capsule.
Samantha looked through the porthole again, but found her view blocked by one of the vast solar panels. A brief hiss of escaping air announced the opening of the airlock. A grinning, bearded face greeted them in Russian. Samantha replied in kind – everyone visiting the ISS had to be fluent in Russian.
The crew took a little while to find their space legs. All of them except Colette, who floated through the airlock with her usual natural grace. They’d all been in orbit before and they’d all trained in the ‘Vomit Comet’ to prepare them, although weightlessness in the diving plane didn’t feel anything like microgravity in orbit.
Samantha followed Colette into the station. After being cramped in the capsule, it appeared spacious and bright. A brief smile crossed her face as she realised that the current crew and construction team, who had been stationed here for the past six months, would surely disagree.
The station looked oddly primitive. Wires and tubing lined the connecting tunnel, which opened into a wider space. There the theme continued. Given all the money required to put and maintain this station in orbit, it was difficult to appreciate why so much had been spent from the décor alone.
The simple truth was that putting anything into space was expensive, and by an order of magnitude more costly if humans had to live there.
The construction crew weren’t here to welcome them – they were still busy on the vessel making it ready for the next day’s departure. Instead, the normal crew of the station waited for them. The first thing she thought was how young they looked. Samantha was the youngest of the arrived crew and she was at least ten years older than any of the astronauts who welcomed them.
For this mission, going so far into space without the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field, they would be exposed to the radiation dangers of the solar wind. For such prolonged exposure, only crew aged between 45 and 55 and with the correct genetic disposition had been considered. That gave them a greater chance of surviving the long journey than a younger crew.
She thanked them for the offered tubes of juice, drinking the cool liquid with some relish. As the remaining four crew members entered the module, it didn’t take long for the space to become cramped. The first Russian led them to one of the two new habitation modules. She saw the personal effects of some the construction team attached to the walls.
They’d be there for the rest of the day. The ISS crew were busy setting up their tasks for the coming launch, but would join them for a celebratory meal that evening. The next day, the crew would transfer to their vessel and finalise preparations for their departure.