Victory Lap

Image credit: NASA
Bob was a legend, or so he had read in the newspaper this morning. He didn't feel like a legend; he felt like he was playing hooky from his real job as NASA's Director of Space Shuttle Booster Operations. Then he reminded himself that this was an "inspection flight," so technically he was still flying a desk.

Of course, his desk for today was much more interesting than usual. Instead of wood grain and a pen set, he had a wide window above a complex console. A web-work and metal ejection seat replaced his leather desk chair, and an orange and white flight suit and helmet replaced his customary gray suit and light blue tie.

At the moment, a little more than seven million pounds of thrust pushed him back into his seat at the regulation 3.3 gravities of acceleration. The view out the window was a blue band shading to black and, above that, looking frankly enormous, the forward third of the Space Shuttle Orbiter Adventure.

"Booster 004, this is Houston. Bob, we are reading excess temperature on engine nine. Can you confirm that for us? Over." That was Danny in Mission Control.

Bob glanced at the computer screens. "Affirmative, Houston, we see that. Over."

"Flight Director says take no action," Danny said. "Modeling shows temp will stay within limits until shutdown. Over."

"We'll keep an eye on number nine. Thanks for the heads up. Over." Bob said, looking over at Ellen, his Commander on this flight.

She smiled, reached over, toggled Houston out of the mike loop. "That one always runs hot," she explained, "and they know it."

"The press corps wants to hear me talk, right?"

Ellen nodded vigorously, grinning. Then she toggled Houston back in and spoke. "Houston, we are 20 seconds from engine shutdown at my mark. Mark."

"Roger, Booster 004. Over," Danny said.

"Hey, Ellen," came another voice. It was Jim, Adventure's Commander for this Space Station mission. "Thanks for the lift. We're standing by for separation here. Over."

"Roger that, Adventure. We wish you smooth sailing. Over."

As Bob listened to the routine, relaxed conversation, he also listened to the noises from Booster 004. As liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen ran past anti-slosh baffles and down drains that led to turbopumps, engine bell cooling channels, and thrust chambers, the Booster's big tanks emptied and gradually became echo chambers. They picked up and magnified the rumble of its 10 J2-B engines. The sound rapidly grew louder, as though a roaring dragon were struggling to climb against the acceleration through the nearly empty tanks toward the forward-facing cockpit.

"Houston here," Danny said. "Booster shutdown in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - "

The roar became a rapidly diminishing whine, and Bob felt himself tipping forward against his shoulder straps. "Houston," said Ellen, sounding loud in the sudden quiet, "we confirm shutdown. Over."

"Confirmed here, too," said Danny. "Adventure, separation in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -"

A clunk shook the cockpit. Bob looked down for a second, taking in the mass of data on the three computer screens, then looked back up and exclaimed, "Holy sh-, I mean, cow." He heard someone laugh, realized it was Cal in the observer's seat.

Adventure had looked huge before, when it was attached to Booster 004 and he could only see part of its underside. Now the delta-winged Orbiter moved slowly forward, up, and away. He'd seen Orbiter sep a thousand times on video, but that hadn't captured the graceful enormity of it. Then he saw the Orbiter's four rear-mounted engine bells and the tip of its swept-back vertical stabilizer.

Ellen leaned forward against her straps to get a better view of Adventure's underside. "Clean separation. Attachment fixture doors are closed. Over."

"Adventure confirms, over."

Danny spoke. "We see a good separation. Time to come back to Earth, Bob. Over."

Back to Earth. He was aware of Ellen's momentary glance, then she returned to scanning the computer screens. "Roger that, Danny. Over."

It was the fifth time he'd come back to Earth, and it was almost certainly the last time. The unofficial retirement age for Commanders and Pilots was 50, and he would turn 56 next month. Hell, he wore bifocals. His knees creaked. His top-level management job had let him finagle a Booster run as Pilot at his advanced old age - after all, he was Booster boss, he'd never done a run, and he was - at least on paper - still a member of the Astronaut Corps. That's what he'd told the Administrator; and, after letting him hang for a year, that damned political hack had finally granted him permission.

The first time he returned to Earth, it was in an Apollo Command Module with Jerry and Paul and nearly a hundred kilos of moon rocks. He'd been Command Module Pilot on Apollo 22, back in '73, which included the first week-long lunar surface mission. Jerry and Paul had landed in Marius Hills and he'd kept busy as a one-armed paper hanger operating a suite of instruments in lunar orbit. He didn't expect he'd fly again beyond low-Earth orbit, and he was thinking of finding a job in industry. Then President Rockefeller had pushed to extend Apollo again, and he'd opted to stay in.

The second time, just two years later, he was Commander on Apollo 26. He would never forget the feeling of stepping out onto the moon the first time. No Earth in the sky - his was the first Farside landing.

The third time he'd commanded Apollo 30. That launch was unique - they'd put an S-IVB stage, LM, and CSM on the back of an almost-new Space Shuttle Booster. NASA needed all its Saturn V S-IC and S-II stages to launch Space Station Cores to build up the Space Base, and someone had suggested that it should be possible to substitute a Shuttle Booster for the first two stages of the Apollo Saturn V. Turned out that they were right.

He'd landed with Ed next to the sprawling Webb Array in the Sea of Ingenuity. The multi-billion-dollar teleoperated science complex had gone silent almost as soon as it was completed, so NASA, under a lot of pressure from an angry President and Congress, cobbled together a rapid-response repair mission. By then he was the only Farside explorer left in the Astronaut Corps, so they'd tapped him for the job. At 47 years of age, he was as old as Al Shepard had been when he'd stepped out onto the moon during Apollo 14 in 1971.

The Array wasn't built for astronaut servicing. Nevertheless, they'd managed to untangle a couple of robots from some poorly placed cables, tighten connectors, cycle the breakers - they'd had to twist the "hand" off a hapless robot to use it as a tool to manipulate the breakers since they weren't designed for fat gloved human fingers - and heard cheers in Mission Control as the Array came back to life.

The fourth time was Orbiter Flight Test-5 in '80. He'd visited the Space Station for two weeks to give the new Orbiter Endurance a good long soak in the near-Station Earth-orbital environment and to serve as a biomed guinea pig. ("Space and the Aging Astronaut," they'd called the experiment program, until he threw a fit. Looking back, he felt foolish for objecting to the name. It was accurate.) He knew that it was his final flight.

Then that old Russian cosmonaut, desk-bound for 20 years and so fat that they had to build a custom couch so he could ride Soyuz, flew an "inspection tour" mission to the Zarya Station. That planted the seed, and now here he was again, returning to Earth for the last time.

"Booster, this is Houston, please verify completion of your avoidance turn," said Danny, making him jump a little and bringing him back to the here and now. "Booster here," said Ellen. "Turn completed. Over."

"Adventure, second stage ignition in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 -," Danny said.

"Roger, Houston, Adventure here, we have ignition. Four good engines."

Bob had nearly lost sight of the Orbiter as he mused about his space career. However, as the four engines came on, pulling liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen propellants from Adventure's internal tanks, he saw it right away even though it wasn't dramatic. Just four round white lights set against the blue-black background. The Orbiter disappeared behind the upper edge of the window.

"Roger that," Danny said. "Woo-hoo!" said Jim. "We are headed uphill."

"Booster 004, this is Houston. We have you at the top of your parabola at 231,121 feet. Please run through reentry checklist. Over." "We're on it, Houston. Over," Ellen said.

The checklist included checking the switch settings for the ABES - the Air-Breathing Engine System. Everything was in its place, ready for jet engine deploy and activation at 23,000 feet.

"Ellen, now descending past 220,000 feet. Please check attitude for reentry," Danny said.

"Roger, Houston. We're seeing some glow outside," Ellen reported. A few moments later, a series of distant pops sounded. "Thrusters firing to auto-trim attitude," she added.

The glow outside grew in intensity, and Bob could feel himself growing heavy. Then he felt the big Booster perform a stately bank and turn, shedding energy. A minute later, with the glow fading, it banked again, then its nose slowly dropped. The blue sea and the hazy east coast of Florida spread out before them. He thought that he could make out the Gulf of Mexico on the far side of the Florida peninsula. He saw Ellen grin. She toggled Houston out of the loop. "I never get tired of that view. Orbiters don't see it, since they mostly come in from the west."

"When are you going to orbit, Ellen?" Bob asked. Ellen had flown more Booster flights than anyone; by now she should have been an Orbiter Commander.

"Oh, not all of us want to go uphill," she said. She laughed. "I want to be the very best Booster pilot NASA has. Besides, I like having you for a boss." Before Bob could reply, she toggled in Houston again.

"Houston, this is Booster 004, we are in gliding descent, awaiting ABES deploy. Rudder and ailerons active. Minor buffeting. Can you give me a weather report? Over."

"Booster, we have you right on course. Weather at Strip 01 is fine. Mild crosswinds - five to eight knots. Light rain," said Danny.

"Roger that," she said.

A minute later, as Bob scanned the computer screens, Cal spoke. Bob kept forgetting he was sitting back there. "I'd like to do three or four Booster flights and then do Orbiter flights after that. Not that I mind having you as a boss, Bob."

"I have reports on your sim runs. I think you'll be out of my hair pretty quick," said Bob. Cal laughed.

"OK, boys," Ellen said, "we are passing 27,000 feet. Prepare for ABES deploy at 23,000, brake-flaps at 22,500." Eight ABES were folded up in compartments in the thickest parts of the Booster's delta wings and two in its belly, between its main landing gear doors. As a fail-safe, the jet engines were designed to drop and lock with gravity doing the work.

"Booster, this is Houston. Good news - Adventure is in orbit," Danny said. A long pause. "We have you at 23,500 feet, good descent angle and speed. ABES deploy on my mark - 3, 2, 1 - mark."

There was a series of clunks, and for a moment Ellen looked alarmed - a look Bob hadn't seen on her face before. He didn't like it.

"Houston, please confirm ABES deploy. Also brake-flaps. Over," she said, keeping her voice level.

There was a pause. "Uh, Booster, we're looking at the data. Stand by," Danny said.

There was another pause, longer this time. Ellen turned to Bob, opened her mouth - then Danny interrupted.

"Ellen, we see eight engines deployed. Numbers 5 and 6 are not deployed, as best we can tell. You're coming in fast, which supports that hypothesis. Less drag with just eight ABES hanging. We have no data on the brake-flaps. Seems we have some dead sensors. Do you want to have a second try at 5 and 6? Over."

Ellen was checking computer screens. "Standby on that, Houston. Request permission to commence ABES start."

"You know best, Booster. Over." Ellen toggled Houston out of the loop.

Image credit: NASA
"OK, Bob, Cal, we have a situation," Ellen said, pressing buttons and flipping switches. "We are now two ABES out. Booster is certified for safe descent and landing with one ABES out. Five and six - the belly ABES -  are not deployed, so we don't have their drag, and we're coming in hot, putting too much pressure on the wings and the deployed engine connections as we get deeper into the atmosphere. Plus, maybe no brake-flaps. This could get messy."

As she spoke, the deployed ABES whined. The Booster shook. "Good, we have all eight deployed ABES running normally. I can control our descent so we don't melt our wings. Bob, watch the ABES temps for me. Cal, stay sharp. Tell me if you see or hear anything peculiar. Got that?"

"Affirmative," Cal and Bob said simultaneously.

Bob looked at the computer screens. He didn't like what he saw. "Ellen, we have over-temps on 1, 10, 9, and 2."

"All the outboard engines, as you'd expect. Tell me when they exceed safe limits."

"They exceed safe limits."

Ellen grimaced. She toggled Houston in. "OK, Houston, we've slowed some, but we're still too fast, and the outboard ABES are overheating. I want to try to deploy 5 and 6 now to get some more drag. Over."

"Roger that, Booster. Uh, Ellen, Flight Director has activated emergency teams. Over," Danny said, his voice shaking a little.

Ellen swore under her breath. "Thank you, Danny." As she spoke she flipped the switches to deploy ABES 5 and 6.

"Computer 1 is down," Bob said. Long pause. "But so are ABES 5 and 6."

"Hot-damn," said Ellen. She thumbed the activation button. A new whine began.

"Booster, your descent is off-nominal for KSC Strip 01. We need you to reset for contingency landing in Orlando," Danny said. "Teams there are activating."

Bob said, "We have 10 good ABES. I think. One and 10 still exceed temp limits. Five is running slow." He looked again. "Or maybe not at all. Make that nine good ABES."

"Houston, acknowledge Orlando landing. I have one ABES out and two at risk. Brake flaps read open, but it doesn't feel like it. You might want to activate Tampa and the Coast Guard," Ellen said.

A pause. "And Coast Guard. Roger, Ellen."

Ellen toggled out Houston. "So, boss, Cal, I just said we might ditch in the Gulf."

Bob grinned. "I got that. I've lived through some splashdowns."

Ellen smiled back, glad for his attempt at humor. "You're the last guy left in the Astronaut Corps who can say that. But you splashed in Apollo gumdrops. I don't have to tell you that a Booster ditch is officially unsurvivable. I believe the book on that. With all our big tankage, we're too fragile to hold together if we belly flop. Dammit. Right now our landing point is drifting past Orlando." She cycled a switch. "Where are those damned brake flaps? It's like they fell off."

The cabin shook. Ellen shook her head, toggled Houston back into the com loop. "We're finally subsonic, Houston. Over."

Danny spoke. "Ellen, we've told Tampa to expect you. Coast Guard and Air Force assets are moving into position for sea recovery, but we advise against water landing. Over." Ellen rolled her eyes.

Bob looked closely at the computer screens. "Computer 2 is down," he said quietly.

"Oh, this is not fair," said Cal.

"So now we can't rely on on-board data for our landing point. Houston, do you see we are minus two computers? Over." Ellen sounded exasperated, but otherwise in control.

"Affirmative, Booster 004, we see that. Still have you targeted for Tampa. Over."

"But Tampa has no alignment circle," Bob muttered, too softly for anyone to hear.

"But Tampa has no alignment circle," Danny said a moment later. "Flight Director recommends you eject over water. Over."

Cal coughed and smiled weakly. "I cannot eject. It's the risk the observer runs."

"Oh, hell," said Ellen. "Houston, we are trying for Tampa. It's that or lose Cal."

Bob cleared his throat. "Excuse me - Ellen, Danny, Cal, anyone else who's listening - I am pulling rank here. We cannot land in Tampa without putting the local population at risk. Ellen and Cal will eject over water. No - no time for debate," he said, louder, overriding their objections. He began to unbuckle his straps. "Cal, get your ass over here. I'm observer now."

Bob stood, turned, and began to unbuckle Cal, who, after a few stunned moments, helped him. Then Cal took Bob's seat. Bob waited to see if Cal could get himself buckled in, saw that despite his shaking hands he could, then sat in the observer seat. He buckled in, then looked around. "You know, for an observer seat, this is a crap view."

Ellen drew a deep breath, let it out, and turned back to her controls. "OK, let's do this," she said. She toggled out Houston. "Like in those drills we never thought we'd actually need."

She checked and readied her suit and helmet and armed her seat, calling out each action as she performed it. Cal followed along. Then she confirmed that Cal was ready.

When that was finished, she said, "You can help me, guys. Just tell me if you hear or see anything unusual. I trust you more than the one computer we have left."

Bob knew there was really nothing left for them to do. He admired Ellen for trying to distract them from that fact, however.

"There's a grinding noise aft," Cal said. "I can feel the vibration of it when I put my hand on the console."

"Yes, that's ABES 5's turbofan free-spinning in the air-flow - saw it just before the second computer went down," said Bob. "We might've had a fire in there."

Ellen looked puzzled. "If we had a fire, why no alarm?"

"Houston here." It was a new voice. Ellen worked the coms toggle. "This is Gene Kranz. We confirm no Tampa landing. As I understand it, Cal and Ellen are in ejection seats. You will eject at 4000 feet in" - a long pause - "about 90 seconds. Bob?"

"Yes, Gene?"

"Godspeed. Over."

"Thank you, Flight Director. Over."

Ellen and Cal's faces were ashen. Now it was his turn to give his shipmates something new to think about. He made a sign for Ellen to toggle out Houston. She complied.

"Kids, listen. Be sure you keep your heads down when your seats light off. We're low enough to breathe, so disconnect your breather, mask, and hoses so they don't catch on something or hit you in the face. Crappy design - I kept trying to get that changed. You don't need that junk, so leave it here. On the floor. Got it?"

"Yes, boss," said Ellen. Cal nodded as he began to dismantle his breathing gear.

As they took off their breathing apparatus, Bob continued. "When they do the post-mortem on this flight, tell them I said to look into the electrical system. I think the alarm shorted in the ABES 5 compartment and started this mess. Three wiring trunks cross right over 5 and 6. Probably melted some wires. Tell them I fixed the damned Webb Array, so I know all about electricity. Got that?"

"You know all about electricity," Ellen said. "Got it." Bob winked.

Then he reached under the observer seat. "I'm going to use this seat cushion to protect myself from the blast when you guys go. I plan to live through this. If I don't, though, please tell the Administrator that I said he's a useless hack."

Cal's eyes went wide. Ellen nodded in solemn agreement and Bob couldn't help but smile.

"You can be the very best Orbiter Commander NASA has," he told Ellen.

"Not if I tell the Administrator that," she said. Then they both laughed. Ellen's laugh was only a little forced.

"This is Houston. Please confirm your ejection seats are armed. Over."

Ellen toggled in Houston, checked Cal's seat again. "This is Booster 004 - seats armed."

"Eject on my mark." Ellen and Cal grasped their loud handles and Bob brought up his improvised shield. "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - mark!"

Booster 004's cabin became the inside of a tornado, and despite his headphones and helmet Bob was deafened. He felt a wave of intense heat. The seat cushion was torn from his hands - he saw it spin away out the now-open roof of the cabin. Glass broke somewhere in the cabin, and the Booster lurched as the open roof panel increased drag.

Then there was relative calm. Bob looked out the window. The view was better with the ejection seats gone, he mused.

"Houston, this is Booster 004. Please be advised that Ellen and Cal are away. Over." Before anyone could say anything, Bob unplugged his mike and headphones. Out the window, he saw the glint of Sun off water.

"I'm returning to Earth for the last time," he said to the empty cabin. "And this time I mean it."


"Space Shuttle Descriptions for Operations Support Systems Study - Case 900," D. Cassidy, Bellcomm, 31 December 1970.

"The Space Shuttle Booster," R. Lynch, General Dynamics/Convair Aerospace; paper presented at the 8th Space Congress in Cocoa Beach, Florida, 1 April 1971.

Space Shuttle Booster Air Breathing Engine System, Report No. 76-115-0-505, Rockwell/IBM/American Airlines/Honeywell/General Dynamics, no date (1971).

More Information

An Alternate Station/Shuttle Evolution: The Spirit of '76 (1970)

McDonnell Douglas Phase B Space Station (1970)

Where to Launch and Land the Space Shuttle (1971-1972)

What if a Space Shuttle Orbiter Had to Ditch? (1975)


  1. Hey, so I just saw your twitter. You're insane.

  2. Well, dang. I want Bob to make it.

    1. Only Jeb could stick that landing.

    2. Me, too. He's a hero. But oftentimes heroism means dying well.


  3. This is... superb writing. So exciting and sad at the same time. The dreamed space shuttle - the enormous fully-reusable machine of 1969 - turning into a death trap. Very moving. I was at the edge of my seat as I red this piece.

    1. That's very kind of you to say. I am of two minds WRT these alternate history excursions. This is meant to be a space history blog, but sometimes it's hard to get across what it might have been like had we been more aggressive, more ambitious, in our space program (and not only in our planning). The alternate history stuff allows me to "cheat," to introduce a human element and speculate a bit (though I base everything on plans mentioned at least once in some sort of formal spaceflight planning document).


  4. I wish you could post it here
    There is a story format we call a "vignette" and your text you be the perfect space vignette.
    Here is an example of a vignette space story I wrote
    Obviously it's YOUR text and YOUR intellelctual property. I won't interfere. Cheers !

    1. I'll have a look at this. I've looked at the Alternate History forum, but I don't recall whether I noticed the vignettes. Even if I don't post this there - and why shouldn't I? - I thank you for steering me to the vignettes.


  5. Fantastic as always. I'm an avid connoisseur of alternate history, and this is something delicious. Thank you for your creativity.

    1. You are too kind! I don't think anyone has ever called anything I wrote "delicious" before. I'm curious - I read a lot of AH, but I'm always eager to discover new stuff. What's your favorite AH publication?

      I have a soft spot for Sobel's FOR WANT OF A NAIL. I prefer essay-style AH to stories, and often browse the Internet for AH cartography.


  6. Extremely well written. Makes me homesick for the future I thought I was going to grow up with

    1. Thanks - you are too kind. I know what you mean about that future we missed.


  7. Great read - thanks for that :-)
    Did you base the electrical fault scenario on a cited failure mode concern for the booster return concept?

    Great stuff - keep it up. I really enjoy your work.



    1. You're welcome.

      I came up with that one myself. I needed something that would manifest itself gradually, not simply tear the Booster to pieces and kill everyone.

      BTW, they should have run out of ABES fuel about midway through this scenario. The flyback booster had very little margin when it came to flyback propellant. I elected to ignore that. Had they made it to a strip, there'a a good chance they'd not have had landing gear - 5 and 6 were very near to the main gear, so the latter could easily have been damaged.


  8. You know it's a great story when the reader is left wanting more. Mission accomplished!

    1. An addendum - BTW, I suspect the ejection system would have worked differently had we built the Orbiter/Booster combination. If they ejected out the roof before Orbiter sep, they'd run into the Orbiter. Ouch! If they ejected out the sides, they'd hit the canards or wings. Not sure how they'd eject before the Orbiter separated, to be honest.


  9. Glad you enjoyed it! It's different from the more essay-style alternate history I usually do, but akin to the one about the 1974 lunar circumnavigation told from a fictional Charlie Duke's perspective. I read a document about the ABES and this one just popped into my head. I liked the idea of NASA/Tom Paine getting what it/he wanted and still suffering a Shuttle accident - liked getting across the idea that, no matter how fancy our technology, we'd see failures.


  10. Looks like 12 engines--not 10

    1. I nearly always favor documents over artist concepts. The documents I cited mostly call for 10 first-stage (Booster) engines. They aren't too specific about the type of engines, but I opted for a "J-2B" because that would have probably been the least costly alternative and folks can readily picture a J-2 because it was an important Saturn/Apollo engine. The second-stage (Orbiter) engines would also have been J2-Bs. Incidentally, the Orbiter in the artwork has two engines, but I gave it four.


  11. Could you post a link to Part 4?

  12. Thank you for that story. You should write more fiction...

  13. They could eject downwards, I think there was a Russian plane that did that.

    1. Doesn't seem to be any reason they couldn't. Perhaps the Booster crew escape system would include a mode setting - for ejection with the Orbiter attached, they could go through the floor, and with no Orbiter attached they could go through the ceiling. Not sure either would work on the launch pad - if the crew ejected through the floor, they'd hit the launch tower. Maybe they'd have a sideways mode, too?



I like hearing from my readers. No rules except the obvious ones - please keep it civil and on topic.

Advertiser comments have led me to enable comment moderation.