(ed note: in the year 2050, our heros are members of the Southwestern Rocket Society (SRS) fan club. The fans want to travel in space in the worst way, but civilians are not allowed to fly in their own ships.
On a field trip to Luna Louis' rocket junkyard they are stunned to find the space ship Absyrtis sitting in the lot. As it turns out that ship was Mr. Louis' last command when he was in the UN Space Force, and when the ship was decommissioned he managed to obtain it at scrap metal prices.
Club president Chubb Delany has an insane idea. He tells Mr. Louis that the club would love to refurbish the old ship, and fly it on a short hop to Luna. With Mr. Louis as captain.
Mr. Louis says if the club will promise that, he will give the ship to them free, along with any used rocket parts in the lot needed for the refurbishing.)
The day dawned bright and clear, the New Mexico sun
coming up in all its splendor over the Guadalupe Mountains to the east. But the crew of the Absyrtis
it; they had been up all night, working in the artificial
daylight of floodlamps, checking and re-checking. Some
of them noticed it was getting light outside, but it made
no impression on them.
The air around the ship and Luna Louis’ junk yard rang
with the tension which was mounting by the minute. There
were a million last-minute checks and calibrations to be
made, dozens of critical items which had to be taken care
of, and scores of temperamental, precise gadgets which
had to be watched and watched closely.
No one was conscious of time save for a moment in the
near future that was rushing closer with every tick of the
clock and announced in a booming voice over a loud-speaker.
Luna Louis seemed calm; he wasn’t. Chubb had no time
to be nervous; he was kept busy checking on the progress
of the division chiefs, and the division chiefs in turn were
kept busy seeing to it that every little item was taken care
of as stipulated on Louis’ pre-lift check sheet. The old
spaceman had compiled a complete manual—the ship’s
“cook book” and the crewman’s bible—entirely from memory. No one had grounds to doubt Luna Louis’ memory;
he had not been wrong in the past.
At X-minus one hour, the passengers and their baggage
were loaded. Members of the SRS who were not assigned
to the crew drew straws among themselves for the berths
available on this shake-down cruise. They did not make up
the full load the Absyrtis
was able to carry; Louis wanted
to run light and put extra mass into propellants in case of
trouble. And he didn’t want non-working people under
foot in what was essentially a new ship.
Greg Shearer accompanied the lawyer down to the lock,
and then Luna Louis got down to businessn The final briefing was short. “I’m lifting at 5-g. I want to get out of here
in a hurry to economize propellant We may need later.
Don’t let the noise bother you, and don’t worry about the
vibration. This bucket has a resonant structure frequency
of twenty-eight cycles.
“When you hit free fall, remember: don’t panic!
If something goes wrong, you’re dead so don’t worry about it.
Take your shots when we hit free fall; you must
do it in
case some of your men need help. Don’t use the emergency
procedures unless its absolutely necessary. I
trust you on
that, but some of your men may get scared; that’s why
each of you has a billy club
under your couch pads. One
man—just one man
—can kill us all.”
He stopped and look around. His eyes were now cold
and hard under the visor of his brilliant red baseball cap.
“We’ll sweat this first lift, all of us. But remember that
the boys who really
know how to do it are out there behind
that fence watching us. They don't think we have a chance;
I think we’ll do all right. Any questions?” There weren’t.
Gone was the glory. Gone was the thrill. Gone was
Chubb’s enthusiasm as he lay there on the co-pilot’s couch
chanting off the minutes left until zero time. Sweat was
rolling off him in tiny streams although Greg had long
since changed to space mix which was cool as it came out
of the blower duct.
Six months ago, a space ship lift had been a wonderful
thing to watch. Now, Chubb was beginning to realize it
was a terribly deadly game. So much depended on so
many little things, and once they were under way, there
was no backing out.
Was that stubborn solenoid valve going to stick? Had
he checked that sequence circuit thoroughly enough. Suppose there was an ignition delay which could blow the
tail off? Should they have gone to the time and expense
of static testing the propulsion system?
The little relays, the pieces of wire, the lengths of tubing, the bolts and nuts which he had put into this ship
Without really thinking about it were now the things which
stood between him and death. They had seemed so insignificant and common when he had installed them; they
were something more than that now. He had known this
feeling before; every engineer is inwardly stupified at the
tremendous strength and power of his achievements.
He was almost ready to call it quits, admit he was a
coward, and step out of the lock. But he recalled those
agonizing months of hard work refitting this old hulk of a
space ship and the terrible moments when they thought they
would never make it at all. And he thought of the men in the
ship with him, men who had put their hearts and souls
into this great adventure, had neglected then professions
and deserted their friends. And there were those outside
that fence who would give anything they possessed to be
inside the Absyrtis
at that moment.
There was LeRoy Finch who didn’t know if his heart
could stand the high accelerations. And Greg Shearer,
ridden with arthritis, who forced his stiff fingers to do
things that were painful to him. And there was Luna Louis.
“Ten minutes to zero, captain!” he snapped resolutely.
“Roger, mate! Call all hands to lift stations and report!”
“All hands, prepare for lift! All divisions report!”
“Electronics standing by.”
“Power room ready!”
“And co-pilot and astrogation ready! All hands to lift
stations and ready for lift, captain!”
“Very well. Final checks, please. Clear our lift with
“All boards, Test-Fly to TEST! Perform final checks and
report compliance! Electronics, clear with Traffic Control
and secure your radar contacts!”
For the last time, Louis and Chubh ran their final checks.
Item by item, they went down the list. Then Chubb said,
“Final checks complete in control room, skipper!”
“Roger,mate!” Louis switched off his intercom and spoke
privately to Chubb, “It looks good, mate; it looks good. I
think we might make it after all.”
“Sure, we’ll make it, skipper,” Chubb reassured him as
he started the autopilot. He watched the chronometer.
“Five minutes to zero! Five minutes to zero! Divisions
report compliance on checks”
“Roger from power room!”
“Roger from electronics!”
“Roger from shipmaster!”
“Final checks complete, skipper.”
Louis’ voice was sharp and raspy as he spoke from his
couch, flipping up the safety guards over the switches and
carefully adjusting knobs, “Stand by for lift! Red light condition!"
“Condition red, all hands! All boards, Test-Fly to FLY!
Four and one-half minutes to zero!” Chubb snapped.
“Electronics to FLY!”
“Power room to FLY!”
“Shipmaster to FLY!”
Louis flipped a switch. “Key your board!”
Slipping the key from around his wrist, Chubb inserted it in his board and turned it. “Power room, you may un-lock!”
“Un-locked in power room! Tanks pressurizing! Reactor
heat coming up!”
“Three and one-half minutes to zero!”
“Electronics reporting! Radar forward is hunting! Green
light from Traffic!”
“If you can’t fix it, let it hunt!” Louis ordered.
Chubb took a deep breath and threw a switch, anxiously
watching tell-tale lights on the board. “Gyros
tracking! Autopilot tracking!” he reported with relief. For
five hours he had babied those gyros up to speed and held
them steady; it had been no easy task to erect and orient
them with the ship at a tilt, and even more difficult to adjust their speed precisely so they would not precess
“Two minutes to zero!”
“Steady as she goes, mate,” Louis’ voice came back
levelly. “Give me thirty-second counts.” The skipper, the
mastermind of the ship operation inside and out, was calm
but tense. He held the reins over everything; he was the
absolute master at this point, a god in a steel and titanium
“Ninety seconds to zero!”
“Reactor to heat! Tanks pressurized! Pumps coming up!”
“Call up your shaft speeds!” Louis requested.
“All coming up in synch!” LeRoy’s voice boomed over
the interphone. The scream of the pumps could be heard
in the background. “Four thousand r-p-m—five thousand—
six thousand—seven—eight—steadying—nine thousand…
peaked at ninety-four hundred… They’re holding!”
“Bearing temps and outlet pressures?” Louis was vitally
interested in the performance of the pumps. They were the
only mechanically moving parts in the propulsion system.
“Normal!—Pump Five just dropped a hundred!—There it
They could feel it in the control room now. Those six
large staged-centrifigal pumps turning over as they would
shake the most solid of structures. The vibration was a
piercing, pulsing scream from the deck plates, bulkheads,
“Sixty seconds to zero!”
“Give me aft view on the tv monitor!” the skipper ordered. It was Bert who complied from the electronics compartment below.
“Forty-five seconds to zero!” Chubb smoothed his coveralls under him, adjusted his panel slightly, and pulled his
hood down to where he could look through its
eyepiece while still keeping the panel in view.
The pumps were shaking the ship in every member.
“Plugs away! Ship power!” came LeRoy’s high-pitched
voice. “Whoa! Port generator just quit!”
“Switch to emergency!”
“Emergency batteries on! The inverter’s getting hot!”
Chubb felt the skipper should call a hold as he said this
last. If the inverter went out, the radar would lose its
source of pulsed power, and a ship without radar was blind.
But Louis said nothing.
“Autopilot in command! Seven—six—five—four—”
His voice was drowned out by a snarling, thundering,
rippling, beating universe of noise.
Chubb never knew there could be so much noise.
It shook the bulkheads and rattled the deck plates. It
bounced Chubb up and down on the couch pads. The
mighty thrust of the Absyrtis’
rocket engines hammered at
the structure of the ship. “Ship is away!”
There was a sudden, backsnapping jolt and Chubb knew
that the breakaways on the guy lines holding the ship had
failed. The lines had merely parted, but two-centimeter
steel cable does not give way easily.
He sneaked a quick glance at the tv monitor, but all
he saw was a malestrom of sand, flaming gases, and the
litter and sheds of Luna Louis’ junk yard being scattered
all over the desert.
Then the ship really
began to shake as the combustion
vibration of the rocket engines reinforced and excited the
natural resonance of the hull. It jarred Chubb’s teeth even
though he Was being compressed into his pads by the force
of five gravities of acceleration. Instrument needles were
bouncing wildly, so he quit looking at them; he couldn’t
see them anyway because he was being shaken so hard.
He lost all sense of time. After seeming hours, he felt
the vibration build up to the point where he had to shut
his eyes and hold on with all he had. The increased vibration told him that the ship was passing sonic speed, and
that in turn would bring blessed relief from the flooding
Then there was no sound except the rattle and shake
of the ship’s old plates and the thunderous whine of the
pumps in the tail. He could hear the scream of the dyna-
motors in the electronics compartment aft and the Whistling
note of the doppler radar as is climbed up—and up—and
up the musical scale until it Was an ear-splitting screech.
All of this he heard through a gray haze. He couldn’t
breathe; he was pinned to his couch, his heart racing and
his anns flattened against their rests. And he knew why
high body mass was a disqualifying factor in space flight.
His body muscles were no stronger than a lighter man’s,
yet they had to support more apparent mass under acceleration.
The take-offs of the antipodal rockets had been nothing
like this! He could feel this in his face, in his bones, in his
entrails. With the noise and the acceleration, he felt nearer
death than he had ever been. If this doesn’t stop,
wildly and dismally, if it doesn’t stop, I’ll die! I can’t stand
this much longer! I can’t stand it! Whang! Clank! Slam!
“Cut-off” LeRoy’s voice screamed breathlessly over the
There were three more rough jolts, and the force holding him to his couch suddenly disappeared completely. His
stomach made a violent attempt to eject itself through his
throat, and he convulsed involuntarily. Then his eyes came
into focus and a sensation akin to dizziness overcame him.
The control room was suddenly over on its side, then upside-down, then right-side-up again. Then his astrostat hood
swam upwards in front of him, the panel following it. It
began to spin to the right, then stopped and sank toward
him. But something has gone wrong!
was his thought. He still
felt weight! They couldn’t be in free-fall!
Chubb had had limited experience in sub-gravity on the
antipodal rocket trips; it was not entirely new to him. It was
diiferent, but not new. Before his autonomic nervous system
could build up a “storm”, he got a hold of himself. It took
a moment for the nystagmus
of his eyes to stop. Then he
remembered the injection. With practiced movement, he
tried to bring his hand to the pocket in the arm rest—and
over-shot the mark by a foot. On the second try, he got his
fingers firmly around the ampule and gave himself his shot
right through his coveralls into his thigh muscles.
It helped. He gripped the arm rests and shouted into
the interphone, “Al! divisions report!”
“Power room here!” LeRoy’s voice came back. Good old LeRoy! Maybe his heart isn't as bad as everybody thought!
“Power plant in cut-off!” LeRoy Went on. “Pumps running
down! Tanks holding pressure! But the reactor heat-exchanger is running too hot! We can’t get it down!”
“Louis told me that might be normal! Keep your pumps
running if you have to! How’s that generator?”
“Out like a light! But the inverter’s holding! We’re okay.
But, buddy, that was rough!”
“Shipmaster reporting,” Greg called in. “My baliwick’s
running. I’ve got a lot of sick passengers and I’m not
feeling too chipper myself. Doc Barcarez is giving drop-shots or knock-outs as the case requires.”
“Electronics Report!” Chubb snapped after a few seconds’
silence. “Bert! Report!”
Bert’s head appeared instead in the aft hatch. His face
was pale and drawn, his dark hair and horn-rimmed glasses
giving him a ghostly appearance. There was a cut under
his left eye with blood streaming in all directions over his
face. “I’ve got a busted intercom,” he reported, “but one
of my boys has a busted jaw. Thanks for the billy
Chubb nodded and gulped, moving his hand slowly over
to press against his stomach. He salivated freely for a
second, then decided he wasn’t going to lose everything
“Bert Eggstrom will relinquish the command of his division to his senior engineer and report to the control room
to assume the duties of the executive officer. Power officer,
secure your power room from lift and proceed with underway activities. Electronics, notify White Sands Traffic
Control of the situation and have them stand by for my
formal report later. We’ll also need some radar fixes very
shortly.” He switched off the interphone and turned to
Bert. “Set up Program Number Two on the computer and
get ready to process data. Move
, while I get this star fix!”
He pulled the astrostat hood down over his eyes while
Bert seated himself before the computer console by the
chart desk and began to program the computer.
He scribbled the star angles on a pad attached to the
astrostat and started making a preliminary determination.
Actually, it was no star fix, but a sight on Venus, Jupiter,
Luna, and Sol for Euler angles
of ship attitude
. On the
short jump to Luna, he would rely heavily on the precision of radar and doppler data. The trajectory was too
short and too simple for him to bother with stellar methods.
finished his calculations to find Bert hovering near him.
“Does is check?” the new first mate asked.
“Looks good. I think we can live with it.”
“Computer’s ready. Bob Danforth's taken over below for
me and has the radar data ready.”
When they all showed up-some of them looking half-dead—Chubb was still running the computer. He checked
the answer and satisfied himself with it, then set the device up to run a continuous program of trajectory by presenting x-, y-, and z-plots on three chart recorders.