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Damned to Heaven Cover Author
Damned to Heaven
The space shuttle is in trouble and time isn't the crew's only enemy

by Bob Mahoney


From Chapter 1 - The Near Future

Galveston Island, Texas West End
Sunday October 15 4:31 a.m. Central Time

William Francis Drake stood a few paces from the gently lapping surf, carefully scanning the star-filled sky. He paused every few seconds and fixed his gaze, searching for the telltale contrast of any motion against the static starfield. He found none.

Drake, lead flight director of the shuttle mission currently on its way to Space Station Alpha, wasn't in a hurry. He normally left for the control center three hours before his shift to gain a firm sense of the team coming off console. He often learned more from their pre-handover discussions than from the rushed and packaged handover itself.

His pre-commute tarries on the beach were getting longer, however, cutting into that three-hour margin. Even if the timing of a mission support shift didn't get him out in the pre-dawn or post-dusk darkness looking for a satellite flyover, he would still stroll out to watch the waves, searching for the motivation to make the drive.

But the forty-five minute commute wasn't the problem. Drake enjoyed driving and his classical piano and harpsichord tapes made even stop-and-go tolerable. It was, instead, the battle he faced on the other end that forced him to strive, each and every day, for inspiration.

He lowered his gaze, catching a hint of foam on the dark sea.

Year by year, Drake's passion for spaceflight lost more ground in his daily battle against the bureaucracy. He knew his thirty-year war wasn't unique and millions across the globe faced a similar struggle, but lately he sensed that his war was coming to an end.

Drake was tired. Tired of the organizational stupidity. Tired of the political interference. And tired, most of all, of the timidness.

He turned away from the water and toward his still-dark house. His wife's hospital shift wouldn't start for another four hours. Since their individual careers rarely synchronized they had long ago taken to leaving goodbye-kiss notes to avoid interrupting any much-needed sleep. Today Drake had carefully placed a vacation photo of the two of them that highlighted an especially amusing memory. He knew she would laugh out loud.

Drake turned back toward the Gulf and closed his eyes. This week, at least, I'm on console. Although his superiors had thrown together the present mission with a string of bad judgement calls, he still enjoyed working with his flight control team. The key, he knew, would be to keep his focus inside Mission Control and away from the bigger picture. I don't want to get angry any more.

He looked skyward again, automatically scanning for any fleck of brilliance carried along by orbital motion.

How had it started, all those years ago? What ignited this passion? Drake stopped, suspecting he had caught something moving. He realized quickly his intense scanning had momentarily tricked his eyes so he switched to a new patch of sky.

The magazines. Von Braun and Bonestell and their articles in those big-picture magazines, back when I was, lord, six or seven. Giant space stations, Moon missions, expeditions to Mars . . . how could I not fall under the spell? He returned his gaze to the surf. And this is where it's brought me. Barely holding on to a passion under siege.

The cool breeze on his face reminded him of his wife's latest request that he finally grow a beard. William Drake hadn't worn a beard for his entire adult life. For more than a decade, he had served in the Air Force. Then, when he transferred to NASA, he had stayed clean-shaven to avoid the Santa Claus effect—Drake believed that no matter how severe his appearance underneath, a beard would convey joviality. Drake preferred severity, aware that his chiseled features and stern countenance helped melt unprepared flight controllers into puddles of stammering dribble. He believed this helped encourage excellence in his team members.

Drake was not aware, however, that the soulfulness in his eyes almost completely cooled the burn of his infamous glares. Even as Drake scorched them with his polite but sarcastic grillings, flight controllers saw in those eyes a father's concern for their own success. You just couldn't let Drake down.

Drake returned to his starfield scan, redirecting his thoughts to the day ahead.

After the docking Drake's team would step in for a relatively light shift. The shuttle crew would transfer a few supplies to Station, conduct some formal post-docking ceremonies, and then pack it in for the night. Of course, these crews might skip the ceremonies, since half of them went through it all just three months ago.

Drake brought his gaze back down to the surf.

Drake had always harbored doubts about the Space Station assembly plan, especially its intolerance to snags. His experiences as lead flight director for four of the earlier assembly missions had only reinforced these doubts. Thirty years in space operations had taught Drake to build contingencies into every operation, but the architects of the Station assembly sequence had not followed this precept. As the launch manifest unraveled during the first three quarters of the year due to weather delays and hardware glitches, the Space Station Program Office fumbled through numerous mission reshufflings that only made things worse. The current mission, heavily reworked from above, was their attempt to clean up the mess and get back on track.

Drake sensed his face hardening into a grimace as he clenched his teeth. No, I've got to just let it go.

He relaxed again. Maybe I need to grow a beard. If I can look jovial, maybe I'll feel jovial.

Drake raised his eyes to continue his scan across the heavens. Just a few more minutes. Then I can get going.

Space Shuttle Discovery
150 nautical miles (nmi) above the South Indian Ocean
Sunday October 15
1 day 8 hours 31 minutes Mission Elapsed Time (Docking - 5 hours 15 minutes)

Air Force Captain and NASA Shuttle Pilot Emily Stevens found the view mesmerizing. Digesting the reality that she was looking up at a curving ocean while flying backwards, however, was a bit much this early in the morning. Space adaptation sickness could hit anybody this early in a flight, especially a rookie like her.

A mechanical pencil drifted forward and broke her trance. She reflexively grabbed it out of the air, stuck it to the eyebrow panel's Velcro, then returned to her Rendezvous Checklist.

Today was rendezvous and docking day, and soon Stevens and her crewmates would flip the shuttle over to execute the first of the day's eight targeted engine firings. Mission Control had already uplinked its best knowledge of both the Station's and shuttle's current trajectories into Discovery's computers and Stevens had started the onboard rendezvous navigation software. A good omen came when Discovery's K.u.-band rendezvous radar failed self-test during cockpit reconfiguration. Traditionally, only when the radar passed self-test did the team worry—then it would surely fail when they needed it most.

In-between executing the tasks called out in the timeline Stevens flipped ahead, noting especially those steps that had given her trouble during training. Most had more to do with the arcane language of spaceflight than with any technical deficiency on her part, but Stevens wasn't taking any chances. More than one experienced colleague had advised her of the two guaranteed ways to kill yourself: don't follow the procedures at all, or follow them to the letter. . . .

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