The logical outcome of the space race, and the preliminary step towards the Moo, was the manned satellite, the Big Wheel moving in a stable orbit about the Earth, integrating the data necessary for a landing on the Moon, and eventually acting as a fuelling station for the Lunar rockets. After several failures, the station is ready, but even there, danger exists, unseen, unheard, invisible and terrible. Forced to exist in the belt of cosmic radiation surrounding the planet, men die within weeks from aplastic anemia. Seeking a solution to the problem, Doctor Paul Russell is sent up to the satellite and here learns of the two men fro the previous crew who vanished without a trace after spotting an unidentified spaceship in orbit further out from Earth than themselves.
Release date: April 30, 2015
Print pages: 192
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The third and final stage was yet to come. Above the surface of the Earth, at a height of more than a thousand miles, the capsule would reach the peak of its climb. Halfway around the globe from its take-off point, gravity would have reduced its forward velocity to a little over fourteen thousand miles per hour and the capsule would have to go through a further power manoeuvre to compensate for this loss of velocity and to put it into a circular orbit, making a full revolution of the Earth in a little over two hours.
Beyond the blank, peering faces of the instruments around the circular walls of the cabin, everything lay in a mechanical patience. The three degrees of movement would be automatically checked against the celestial reference points on the navigation maps. A suspended gimbal system consisting of three gyroscopes would be aligned so that it co-ordinated with the correct orbit, matching with the charts and photoelectric cell telescopes, relays setting into operation three electrically operated flywheels. Slowly, the vast capsule would turn in space to match exactly the position of this gimbal system. Only when these two were perfectly aligned would the third-stage rocket motors be fired for precisely fourteen seconds. The manned satellite would then be established in its circular orbit.
But that was all in the future. Many things would happen before then and of the four men inside the capsule, bodies straining weightlessly against their restraining straps, none of them were aware of anything that had happened since blast-off.
Kenyon opened his eyes slowly. There was a dull, throbbing ache at the back of his temples and the crusty feel of dried blood at the corners of his mouth. Mental reaction was slow and sluggish, not as immediate as he had thought it might have been, even under such conditions as these.
Slowly, he turned his head from side to side in an attempt to ease the nagging pain in his neck muscles. His eyes focussed automatically, screwing themselves up in reflex action against the harsh, actinic glare from the overhead lights. Gradually, details resolved themselves. Angles and contours took shape, emerged from the overall haze that swirled around him, forming vaguely seen images which, although unfamiliar for a while, soon took on a recognisable pattern of light and shadow.
The main lighting system was still functioning satisfactorily. The drive had ceased, but it was impossible to tell from his present position which of the stages had fired. It seemed as though he had been unconscious for a long time. Hours seemed to have passed since that first, terrible moment when the rockets had fired and a niagara of flame had belched from the base of the giant rocket, gushing into the vast concrete shaft below.
With a tremendous physical and mental effort, he pushed himself up on to his right elbow, peered about him through the transparent facepiece of the helmet, his gaze travelling around the small compartment. The others were still unconscious as far as he could see—at least none of them moved when he clicked on the communicator of his suit and called their names one after the other. Craning his neck, he glanced towards the main hatch. It was still sealed, of course—that, like everything else, was purely automatic—and the air pressure inside the chamber seemed normal judging by the gauge directly in front of him.
Carefully, he reached forward and unlocked the straps which held him down. For an instant, his body drifted upwards and the sickening sensation of vertigo worked its way up through his stomach and into his throat. But the sensation passed as he grabbed a tight hold of the sides of the couch and eased himself slowly over the edge until his magnetic boots made contact with the metal floor of the cabin and he was able to stand, swaying a little, but upright.
The orientation suddenly became normal. He made his way across the confined floor space to where the others lay on their acceleration couches, peered through the curved windows of their helmets, satisfied himself that they were still alive and merely unconscious, then turned his attention to the instruments. Not that they required any attention from him; they were purely automatic, obeying electrical impulses lasting less than a microsecond, reacting to changing conditions far quicker and more reliably than he could: but because the others were doubtless alive and would regain consciousness in their own good time with no help from him.
A swift check of the instruments told him that the second stage had functioned correctly and had already been jettisoned, that the capsule was turning slowly on to course and the final stage would come into operation in exactly seven hundred and forty seconds. In less than two minutes, he had found the answer to most of the urgent questions in his mind and by the end of that time, the others had opened their eyes and were struggling to sit up and orientate themselves.
“What’s the present position?” Venner’s voice was brisk and crisp as usual. He moved forward slowly and haltingly, turning his head from side to side with curious jerky motions.
“We’re outside the atmosphere,” muttered Kenyon abruptly, waving a gloved hand towards the meters. “Well outside, I’d say. Turning slowly on to course.”
“Everything all right?”
“If we can trust the instruments—yes.”
“If we can’t trust them, then there isn’t anything we can trust,” interrupted Calver. There was a faint touch of irritation in his voice. Kenyon recognised it instantly and knew the reason behind it. Calver was the engineer of the team, a man who knew more than just engineering mechanics, but stressed that side of his training, even though he was an electronics expert in his own right.
Venner gestured impatiently with his hand. “We’ve got less than ten minutes before the last rocket stage fires. Before then, we must check all of the instruments. Nothing can be left to chance at this stage. Once we’re in orbit, there will be plenty of time to take stock of things. Right now, what we need to know, is how far we’ve deviated off course, if at all, our forward velocity, air pressure and reserves, and anything else you can think of which may be important now or at a later stage.”
“That’s a pretty tall order, but we’ll do the best we can,” said Mallory, the fourth member of the crew. He shrugged his shoulders, moved across to the main instrument panel and began checking the dials methodically. Kenyon watched him for a moment, then walked over to the port and glanced out.
His first glimpse shocked him. He had been prepared for the vast, stretching emptiness which he had always imagined space would be like, had known that somehow, there would be a tremendous emptiness in which the capsule would hang motionless with a shrunken sun standing off in the black distance in a halo of glory, with a powdering of stars around them such as man had never known; but space, as he looked out through the small circular port, was nothing like that.
Instead, it was a vast, looming ball of blue and green and brown, mottled with vague patches of white; a terrible, crushing thing that seemed to be falling down towards them with an irresistible swiftness, to sweep them out of existence. He blinked his eyes several times to rid himself of the illusion, swaying weakly and conscious of an increasing sense of dizziness. The floor of the capsule seemed to be oscillating gently from side to side so that he found it difficult to keep his balance, but that too was an illusion and soon passed as he walked back into the centre of the cabin.
“How’s it going?” he asked after a moment, swallowing in an effort to keep his voice even.
Mallory looked round. There was an expression of puzzlement on his thin, aquiline features, plainly seen through the facepiece. They had not yet removed their suits in order to retain their protection against the tremendous acceleration once the last stage fired, swinging them along the circular orbit about Earth.
“It doesn’t look too good,” he said slowly. He indicated the glittering array of dials.
“Something wrong?” Kenyon hurried over. He was aware of the others coming forward.
“Perhaps.” Mallory eyed him steadily for a moment. “I’m not sure.”
“What is it?”
“The gyroscopes. We’re slightly off course. Not much, I’ll admit, perhaps half a second of arc, but once that drive fires, that difference may be magnified a million times.”
“Can you be sure of this?” Kenyon peered closely at the instrument which the other indicated, but could detect no variation from the normal.
Mallory looked uneasy behind the transparent mask, like a man obsessed with some obscure problem which required an immediate answer. His gaze wandered around the small cabin before it finally rested on the circular face of the chronometer with the red sweep hand marking off the seconds inexorably. He pursed his thin lips reflectively.
“I can’t understand how this happened. Everything was checked down to the last detail before we blasted off. Nothing was left to chance.”
“A great many things could have happened over which we had no control whatever,” interrupted Calver savagely. He bit his lip, then enumerated them. “We only have rough figures for the density gradient of the upper atmosphere. It could vary by as much as five per cent. over the figures we used. This is the first time we’ve ever sent up a manned satellite.”
“The Russians have done it,” interrupted Kenyon sharply. “That’s the main reason why we’re here. To beat them to it.”
“Exactly.” Calver pressed home his point. “But we do know for an indisputable fact that every one of the Soviet preliminary trials with manned satellites failed. The crews all died.”
Kenyon scowled. “So what else could have happened to send us off course like this?”
Mallory shrugged. “A small variation in the forward velocity, especially during the second stage, could account for it. Or even some slight mechanical fault in the gyroscopes themselves. It could be any one, or even a combination of a thousand little, seemingly insignificant things.”
“So we’re stuck with the fact that we’re off course by a hair’s breadth,” muttered Calver. “Just where does that get us? And what’s more to the point as far as our chances of survival are concerned, what can we do about it?”
“Nothing,” said Mallory flatly. “Nothing at all. The third stage rockets will fire in less than thirty-five seconds. I suggest we strap ourselves down on to the couches and leave this problem until we have time to check everything again.”
Kenyon said nothing. A moment later, after another glance at the chronometer, he walked back to his couch, lay down on it and snapped the straps across his legs and chest before the feeling of weightlessness, which came the instant he tugged his magnetic boots free of the metal floor, could overwhelm him. A vague sensation of depression, tinged with an indefinable fear, was beginning to creep over him, clouding his mind, making it a little difficult for him to think properly. Despite his efforts to be completely rational about the situation, which now seemed to have altered radically, he could feel his mind beginning to slip disconcertingly into a woolly sense of despair.
There was only one way in which to fight this feeling of apathetic helplessness which was flooding his brain. He had to continue the process of disciplining his mind into one track, to think only of the project in hand, to allow his brain to take into consideration only those things which were immediately essential to the plan behind their presence there.
The information they collected and sent back to Earth would help the next team which came up here, even though they themselves failed in this initial attempt. Their lives were of little importance in themselves, only so far as they could aid the furtherance of knowledge which would enable the scientists of the United States to put the first manned space station into orbit.
He lay quite still on his couch. Now that he had snapped himself out of the black mood of despair which had threatened to overwhelm him, his mind was functioning normally again, quickly and clearly. Keep on thinking about these things, he told himself fiercely; think about the tremendous planning which had gone into this particular project, the vast field of scientific knowledge which it would open up. Think about the inescapable fact that they were the first men into space with a fifty-fifty chance of survival. No matter how he tried, he couldn’t put their survival rating any higher than that, but it ought to be enough. So they were slightly off course, but it was possible that Mallory was over-rating the danger.
He had no doubt that when the third stage of the drive did come into operation, it would accentuate this slight deviation. So all right—they would drift a little off course—but that wasn’t bound to be catastrophic! They still had the small auxiliary jets which they could break out whenever they had made the necessary computations to allow them to work out their new course. These had been provided as an additional safety measure. Almost of their own volition, his eyelids drooped. The brilliant glare of the overhead lights shone through the skin of his lids for an instant, shining redly into his brain.
Then, almost before he was aware of it, before he could really condition his body to the fact, the drive came on. Weightlessness vanished in a single tearing instant. The screaming thunder of the rockets poured through his shrinking body. The thin song hummed in his ears and the thrusting weight of acceleration drove him down into the couch, increasing and increasing, until it threatened to pass beyond the limits of bearability. He felt as though his lungs and chest were being squeezed by some gigantic, invisible hand, all of the air being pressed out of them, compressing his limbs.
Within seconds, he had blacked out.
The Secretary of State stirs uncomfortably in his chair. He is, and looks, uneasy.
“What is the present position regarding the space capsule put up into orbit ten hours ago, Mr. Secretary?” The reporter is a brash, young man in his late twenties. He sits impatiently and expectantly on the edge of his chair, pencil poised over the pad held on his knee.
“So far, we have received little information which can be released to the public at the present time.” The Secretary of State shrugs his shoulders with a helpless gesture. “You must realise that this is a very early stage in the project and it will be impossible for us to make a statement which could answer many of the questions I’m sure you’re wanting to ask.”
The reporter is unconvinced. He writes something hurriedly on his pad, then glances up swiftly. “Can you tell us whether or not everything is going according to plan. I understand that both Mount Wilson and Palomar are tracking the capsule visually and we’re in constant touch with Jodrell Bank in England where their radio telescope is tracking it continually so long as it is above their horizon.”
“That is perfectly correct.”
“And you can still give us no definite information?”
For some time the statesman sits behind his desk, looking at the other solemnly with brooding eyes. He seems to have become. . .
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