Chapter 1 Spaceport America
“Welcome to Spaceport America Industrial Park”. A soft, reddish light was mounted above the sign and the words stood out clearly in the darkness.
Rob still got a bit of a thrill riding past that sign. The Spaceport terminal’s distinctive curve against a clear sky was a familiar sight to residents and tourists alike in New Mexico. Even if they could not afford an expensive joyride to space, everyone wanted to see the Spaceport. Tourists never came to the industrial park. But this was where the real work was performed. This was where Rob had worked for the past five years, since he dropped out of the University of Arizona’s doctoral program in favor of some real, hands-on space exploration.
Rob could see the main terminal in the distance, laid out like a huge butterfly half buried in the level sands that stretched between White Sands National Monument and the Elephant Butte Reservoir. The building’s rim was outlined in lights, shielded and tinted red to preserve views of the dark, starry sky. Dry, barren mountains rose against the horizon behind the Spaceport terminal, though they were hidden in the darkness as Rob rode in.
The Smart Cab dropped Rob off in front of Xplore’s building. Xplore specialized in space missions. Design, assembly, and mission control functions were housed in this building, along with the business offices. It was near the center of the block. The largest buildings and most prosperous companies were housed on Xplore’s side of the street. Behind them stretched the Spaceport’s launch facilities. A few gantries for vertical launches were visible, outlined in red lights.
Architects for the one and two story buildings that lined the street had generally abandoned the southwest style used in much of the town. Instead they favored sleek, uncluttered facades of glass, metal, and stone. Less impressive cinder block buildings, divided into small shops and offices, were found on streets to the south. The industrial park looked tidy, efficient, and prosperous.
Xplore’s employees generally kept a standard business-week schedule, but Rob worked a midnight to noon shift. The building was dark as he approached; its floor-to-ceiling lobby windows were black and reflected the subdued exterior lighting along the walkway. Striated mahogany tiles on the facade looked black at night. Rob walked briskly up to the doors of the deserted lobby lugging a cooler. He rarely left the building during his shift, so he carried his dinner and snacks.
Rob shivered a bit. The September night was chilly and felt slightly damp from the last of the summer rains, but he didn’t stop to zip his jacket. At the entrance, Rob tapped the access pad and pushed through the door into the lobby. The lobby lights came on automatically at their night-time setting. There was enough light to see by, but the ceiling and walls remained draped in shadows.
Xplore’s building was laid out in a big square surrounding a center courtyard. The lobby was two stories high, and would be bright during the day from the wall of windows. Even with reflective coatings, the lobby windows were an extravagance meant to impress arriving clients. There were sofas and upholstered chairs arranged in comfortable discussion groups, and a row of study carrels along one wall where visitors could work with some privacy. Two doors directly across from the entry, behind the empty welcome desk, led out to the courtyard with picnic tables and a desert garden.
The rest of the building was more practical. To the right a set of double-doors opened to the assembly wing of the building housing labs and shops, and stairs led to offices and conference rooms on the second floor. Rob turned left, however, through the double doors that opened to the mission control wing. The hall and rooms here were brightly lit and full of people preparing for the shift change.
Through an archway on the left was a common room and, from there, the locker rooms. About a dozen people were already inside, chatting in small groups. Rob looked around and quickly spotted his crew mates Lee and Trisha.
“Hi guys,” Rob greeted them. It was the first day of their work week, so they took a few minutes to catch up.
Today was Thursday and it was 11:00 pm, which was the start of Xplore’s Second Morning Shift. Mission control for craft in space was staffed twenty-four hours a day, every day. Each mission control crew worked three 12-hour days plus they attended a command-change meeting with the shift going off-duty. Xplore tried not to schedule anything demanding on Sundays, and covered whatever was needed with overtime.
Rob didn’t mind the odd hours. He thought he had the best job in the world. Xplore was the leading private space exploration company in the world. Sure, there were competitors, but Xplore could handle anything from launching a client’s prefabricated Earth-satellite to the total design, assembly, and operation of missions to the outer planets and the farthest reaches of the solar system. At Xplore, Rob could be part of major research projects such as the one he was reporting to tonight. Even though the mission was currently in one of the long quiet periods that occur while spacecraft coast through the vast empty distances between planets, he was working with his two best friends on this shift, so he couldn’t ask for a better assignment. And tonight there was a series of calibrations to be performed, which would make the shift more interesting.
“Who’s Thing One and Thing Two this week?” Rob asked. It was a light-hearted question. Every few weeks their mission had different personnel from the client’s post-doctoral program assigned to work with the Xplore crews. Rob generally found talking to the post-docs a good way to keep up with gossip from their universities. The post-docs, being part of the client’s staff, could work whatever days and hours they wanted. Depending on what was going on, they often started in the middle of one shift and crossed into the next shift.
“Deb Vowell and Carl Levi,” Lee answered, scanning his pocket pad.
“Oh, yeah,” Rob said with a nod. “I remember them. They are both modeling Europa’s oceans. They’ve worked our shift before.”
“They’ve been here several times before. They’re good guys, and you really should be more tactful,” Lee advised.
“Oh, Rob’s just joking,” Trisha said. “He wouldn’t call them “things” to their faces.”
“I’ll be the epitome of tact in the control room,” Rob agreed, inclining his head and smiling. “But the post-docs come and go so quickly, it’s hard to keep all the names straight.” He didn’t mind the post-docs on-location at Xplore. Even though clients could monitor their missions from their home locations, there was something special about the actual experience of seeing Xplore’s labs and control rooms in action.
‘Such good experience,’ Rob thought to himself, ‘that some grad students decide to drop their studies and get a real job instead. Like I did.’
Trisha was pushing hangers along the uniform rack, chuckling to herself at their banter. All employees had a collection of Xplore shirts and hats, of course, but this rack held uniforms specifically chosen for the mission control crews. Xplore prided itself on providing full-service space missions, right down to uniforms. Someone, somewhere upstairs, did research on the best outfits to project whatever image the client wanted. For some missions they prescribed coveralls; for others, jackets and ties. Universities usually wanted a casual-but-competent look. Rob preferred wearing his own jeans with a uniform shirt, which is what his current mission required, so he was content.
Trisha found the right hangers, each with a name on the attached tag. She pulled off her own shirt and passed Rob’s to him. Lee reached around her and lifted his hanger carefully off the rack. Their uniform was a long sleeved, cardinal-red, button-down oxford shirt with the Xplore logo embroidered across the back yoke. On the front were two circles of Velcro. Rob pulled mission patches out of his jacket pocket. He slapped the Arizona Group logo above the left pocket on the uniform shirt, and the mission logo above the right. They kept the patches at the end of each shift when they dropped the used shirts off in the laundry bin.
“Meet you back here in a minute,” Trisha said as she headed for the women’s locker room door.
Rob carried his shirt into the men’s locker room, and pulled it on over his tee-shirt. He appraised himself in the mirror. Rob was a tall, lanky man with a smooth complexion that made him look like he was still in his early twenties. His light brown hair was naturally curly. He had to keep it trimmed short or it would run wild. He tucked his shirt in and returned to the mirror to straighten the mission patches.
‘Oops,’ he thought, noticing a bump under the shirt.
He reached inside the oxford shirt and pulled his ComCore off his tee shirt. His Command Core was a smooth oval, about the size of his thumb joint. Most people wore their ComCores like jewelry. Rob had his finished to look like a stone of brown-veined turquoise. The ComCore could be snapped into a necklace or a wrist band, but Rob usually wore his on a pocket clip. That was how he had it mounted tonight. The ComCore would interface wirelessly with his personal pocket-sized smart pad, or any screen that was configured to accept its unique coding.
Rob had the ComCore set to identify him for all the various machines he used in daily life. Liking a sense of control more than most people, Rob usually left his ComCore set to require a touch against an interface pad rather than just a wave in its direction. Whether paying at a store or opening his apartment door, Rob just tapped the interface circle on whatever pad he needed to access with the ComCore or with the smart pad; either would work. Rob clipped the ComCore safely inside one of his oxford shirt pockets and slipped his personal smart pad into the other pocket.
He walked back to the common room and surveyed his crew, all neatly dressed in their crisp matching shirts. Lee was dark haired and round faced, with soft shoulders, and a bit round in the middle too. Trisha was shorter than the average lady, with a perky nose and ready smile. She wore her long light brown hair pulled back into a pony tail. They were good crew mates and good friends, which made the current mission a pleasure.
The three turned down the hall and continued to Mission Control Room 3 for their command-change meeting.
Six mission control rooms ranged along the hall on the left. A wall of windows on the right looked out into the central courtyard with its picnic tables and xeriscaped garden. A large break room occupied the far corner where the control room hall met the rear hall. The break room was open to the halls, and included a full kitchen, tables and chairs. Along one wall were some pin-ball machines. They were replicas of antiques that actually worked, and there was a bucket of slugs to feed into their coin slots. At the far end was a seating area of arm chairs around a wall that could morph into a floor-to-ceiling screen, perfect for use with the gaming controls that lay scattered around the room. Between the break room, locker rooms, and courtyard, you could spend days at Xplore without leaving the building. Occasionally people did stay for days when there was a big push for some mission.
Rob and his friends worked on one of the largest missions Xplore was running at the time, a project named “Mapping Europa”. The client, the Arizona Group, used a spacecraft design that had recently become popular for planetary missions. Called a “Groupo”, it carried several telerobotic satellites attached around a single core craft. For Mapping Europa, Xplore had launched two spacecraft that were identical twins; Groupo One and Groupo Two. MEG1 and MEG2 for short.
Each of the twin craft carried six satellites bound for the Jupiter system, specifically for the moon Europa. The satellites would be deployed to create a network of instrumentation that would image and analyze Europa’s ice-covered oceans and, with luck, the ocean floor below. Rob’s crew handled MEG1 in MC3; the crew handling MEG2 was next door in MC4.
Space missions had once been vastly expensive, something only governments of wealthy countries could afford. As space flight had become more of a business, space held less military prestige. While the military space-race had petered out, the competition among universities had heated up. An ambitious space mission was hard for a single university to accomplish alone. Research missions were accomplished by consortia of universities and non-profits, with as many corporate sponsors and individual subscribers as they could attract.
Planetary science was trendy. Individuals around the world would subscribe to a mission and watch it unfold on the Internet. They’d debate which studies to perform, rate the research reports, and vote on mission names and uniforms. Special Internet sites give them a 24-hour a day window on the missions and they were the first to hear discoveries announced. Some subscribers would even see their own proposed experiments fly.
The Europa mapping mission with its twin spacecraft belonged to the University Network of Outer Solar System Exploration. The consortium involved several American and European universities which provided imaging across a wide range of wavelengths, from radio frequencies through infrared to ultraviolet and gamma ray. Spectroscopy was provided by UPMC in France. They shared the data they collected to support hundreds of faculty and student research projects. The principal investigator for the consortium was at the University of Arizona. The university was a long time Xplore client, so at Xplore they tended to think of MEG as Arizona’s mission.
Xplore was currently “driving the bus”, as Rob liked to put it, for the mission to Europa. They had completed final assembly of the universities’ instrumentation modules and launched the twins from Xplore’s launch pad on the east side of the Spaceport last April. Now Xplore managed the flight dynamics and all the data storage, fussing with course corrections and aiming the instruments as directed by the university researchers. Most of the instrumentation was operated directly by University of Arizona and UPMC scientists in their own control rooms on their distant campuses.
Arizona had sold subscriptions to the MEG mission to people all over the world. Subscribers could interact with the researchers, receive special programs about the mission, or just enjoy watching events unfold on Arizona’s Internet site. Premium subscribers could use mission data for their own research and businesses, and had access to unedited, real-time coverage over the Internet. Rob waved to the Internet-cameras as he entered the MEG1 control room. Being a controller for an on-line, subscriber-based mission meant learning not to swear or scratch yourself in embarrassing places, since the front half of the control room was fully covered by net-cams.
After the launches were complete and the craft safely established on their trajectories to Europa, the large launch crews had turned the MEGs over to the three-person Bus-Driver crews. These crews tended the spacecraft as they coasted along towards the Jupiter system and would, in turn, relinquish them to the orbital insertion and science crews later in the mission. Xplore’s excellent mission planning meant the flights had been satisfyingly routine.
Tonight would be more interesting than usual. The schedule called for exercising various systems on MEG1. MEG2, which had launched about a month behind MEG1, would repeat the exercise in a few weeks. Although the Arizona and French controllers would be performing most of the work, Xplore’s crews had to position MEG1 for them and check various attitude dynamics. The previous shift has started the work, and Rob was anxious to find out how things were going.
As Rob hung his jacket by the door, he paused to look around the room. MC3 was large and windowless. A small conference table was pushed against the front wall, below the large wall screens. Long, curved benches held three rows of work stations facing the table and screens. Chairs were pulled up to the two front benches and the third bench was raised higher for people who preferred to stand. Along the back wall of the room were some comfy chairs and small tables, and a coffee pot by a little sink.
Rob headed for the coffee and slid his cooler under a table. This entire back-section of the room was behind the net-cams and provided a bit of privacy to relax during the shift without leaving the control room. The two post-docs from the university were already there, pouring coffee and pulling smart pads out of their backpacks. With a hurried nod to Rob, they walked back to the conference table in front of the room.
Xplore prided itself on the cyber security it offered missions, but the security features in the control room was discreetly unobtrusive. The room seemed to be papered in a muted beige grass cloth, but a network of fine metallic strands woven into the covering shielded the room from any outside attempts to scan or access the electronics. As an added protection, uploads could only be sent from the first row of control stations, which had security chips unique to the mission embedded in the hardware. The net-cams that streamed the mission to subscribers were physically isolated from all other electronics in the room. Telemetry arriving from MEG1 was also physically isolated. A lazy-susan data-management unit about three feet across hung in the ceiling. While the telemetry was archived directly in Xplore’s proprietary system, memory units rotated every hundredth of a second to transfer data to the subscriber Internet site. The physical gap maintained between mission control and the Internet provided a comforting sense of protection to clients that no amount of cyber security could achieve.
The outgoing mission control crew had gathered around the small conference table at the front of the room below the wall screens. Only a half-dozen work stations were set up on the curved benches that faced the screens. The room could accommodate much larger crews than what needed for the current phase of MEG1’s mission.
The lead for the crew going off-duty was Alyssa Sanchez. She was prepared for the command-change meeting. She had a lap-sized tablet clipped into a caddy, which was the configuration most people preferred for serious input work. Her shift report was displayed on the center wall screen above. The rest of her crew, along with Trisha and Lee, were already seated at the conference table.
“It’s been a pretty nominal day,” Sanchez began without preamble as Rob sat down. “MEG1 crossed Mars’s orbit before you walked in, and Arizona got this great image in visible light. She tapped her caddy’s controls and a wall screen filled with an orangey, egg-shaped image of Mars more than half-illuminated by the sun. “We’ve done the calibrations in the visible light frequencies through ultraviolet on the A, B, and C satellites. Arizona had trouble getting the infrared operating. They may try it again on your shift, and you may need to adjust MEG1’s attitude for that.”
Another few taps and Sanchez brought up several telemetry tables. “Here are the data we’ve been concentrating on.”
Trisha and Lee talked with their counterparts, the post-docs chatted in a corner, and in short order Rob’s Second Morning Shift was ready to assume command.
“Morning shift takes command,” he said formally to Sanchez. This was a little ceremony for the net-cams.
“Have a good shift,” she responded.
“See you tomorrow,” Rob waved to the departing crew as he pulled on a headset.
The crew pulled on headsets and greeted their counterparts in Arizona and France as they set up their work stations. Each work station screen was clipped into a caddy that projected a control board on the bench in front of the user. Snapping the screen out of the caddy turned it into a handy tablet. Since individuals could choose from a variety of sizes and configurations, it took a few minutes for everyone to arrange a work station to their own preferences. Lee carefully folded his shirt cuffs up inside his shirt sleeves and was sitting forward in his chair. The slouched look he had outside the locker rooms, like an over-grown puppy, had been replaced with a sharp, crisp style as he settled into his work station.
“MEG1 must be right in the middle of the Trojans,” Lee said, looking up at the wall screen that now displayed a computer animation of the craft’s position in the solar system.
“I thought the Trojan asteroids were in Jupiter’s orbit,” Trisha said.
“Jupiter’s Trojans are better known, but every planet has asteroids called Trojans in its orbit” Lee said. “Jupiter has over a million of them, if you count everything larger than a kilometer in size.”
“I did my thesis on the chemical composition of the Martian Trojans,” he continued, tapping his controls to zoom in on the animation. “There are only three large Martian Trojans, but there must be at least ten times that many smaller ones, trapped in their positions relative to the planet, essentially forever.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Lee looked over at Rob. “MEG1 can’t become trapped in the Trojan node. She is moving outward from the sun, across Mars’s orbit.
“I wonder if we will get an image of an uncataloged asteroid.” Lee turned back to his work station and overlaid the known Trojan asteroids on MEG1’s path.
“So that’s what you studied? These Trojan asteroids?”
“Actually, I did my thesis on the Trojans in the trailing node, the L5 node,” Lee said. “There are a total of five nodes for each planet. The nodes are gravitational sweet spots where small objects are balanced between the planet’s gravity and the sun’s gravity. Their orbits are stable. MEG1 is passing through Mars leading node right now, the L4 node.”
“Why ‘L4′?” Rob asked. He was squinting at an image from one of MEG1’s satellites, trying to spot a Trojan asteroid.
The “L” is for “Lagrange”, the French astronomer who first worked out the math in the 1700s. The first asteroids found were named after characters from the Trojan War; you know, the ancient Greek myth with the Trojan Horse. I don’t know why. But the term “Trojans” has become a convention.
“Remember it this way,” Lee said, half turning towards Rob in his chair. “The leading Trojans come before the planet in its orbit, and the number four comes before five. The trailing Trojans come after the planet, and five comes after four. The L4 node leads the planet; the L5 node follows the planet. All planets have Trojans and it’s the same terminology for all of them.
“It’s like,” Lee swiveled in his chair, tented his fingers, and pushed his hands out towards Rob like a swimmer cutting through the water. “It’s like the L4 Trojan asteroids are riding a gravitational bow wave from Mars, but they never get pushed to the side, so they ride forever.”
“So where are nodes one, two, and three?”
“I’ll show you a diagram,” Lee said, “but it’s irrelevant to MEG1. All that really matters to her is that there’s a lot of empty space between asteroids, even the Trojan asteroids in the L4 node,” he said, turning again to his work station. “We aren’t likely to see any of them by chance.”
“Why depend on chance? Let’s go searching for asteroids, shall we?” Trisha asked, pulling up her command menu.
“I need some targets to check MEG1’s radar system,” she said with a grin. “That’s part of navigation and that’s my job. Nothing out here to use but asteroids, anyway.”
Rob chuckled. Trisha would find an asteroid for Lee. The calibration routines initiated by the previous shift continued to go well. Arizona decided to delay their infrared diagnostics until the next shift, so Rob didn’t even have to deal with the one glitch that had turned up in MEG1’s instruments so far.
“We can perform the saturation calibration for spectroscopy this shift,” Trisha said. “I’ll need to adjust MEG1’s attitude to aim the first satellite’s imagers at the sun.”
Rob opened his mic to the shared channel and told the French controllers at UPMC that Xplore was sending the command to position MEG1 for their first saturation calibration.
“Ready when you are,” the French crew lead replied. “We will tag our command to initiate ze spectrum analysez after your attitude change iz complete.”
“Leave your visible-light imager on, please,” Rob said to Arizona. “We’ll use it to confirm our attitude.”
“Copy. Visible-light command sent… now,” came back the reply. It would take 4 minutes, 20.94 seconds for the command to reach MEG1.
Trisha doubled checked MEG1’s current attitude telemetry and sent her attitude modification commands.
“About five minutes for the transmission, then roughly twenty minutes for MEG1 to execute,” Trisha said, examining a bell-shaped curve of MEG response times from the designers’ simulation runs. The time it took for MEG1 to respond depended, in part, on where she was in her internal programs when the transmission arrived. The mission designers ran countless simulations to build a curve that included all possible response scenarios and their probabilities. “Then another five minutes to get back to us.” She relaxed back into her seat.
“I’m going to grab a cup of coffee,” Rob said.
Continue reading Chapter 2 here.