“Destiny base, this is Houston. Come in, Destiny. Over.”
“Houston, Destiny. Go ahead. Over.” the call came back a few seconds later.
“Destiny, we’re preparing to hand over control of the X-80. Are you ready to receive? Over.”
“Roger, Houston. We are ready to take over guidance on your mark. Over.”
The X-80 was thirty years in the making. It could revolutionize travel between Earth and Mars. Its engine was designed to accelerate quickly to nearly one tenth the speed of light, one hundred million kilometers per hour, and maintain that speed indefinitely. It would reduce travel time between the planets from months to a matter of hours, and it would eliminate launch windows. If it worked, there would be no more waiting for the planets’ orbits to align. It would not only open up travel between the sister planets. It would open up the possibility of exploration within the entire solar system.
“Destiny, Houston. Prepare for hand over at twenty-three, ten, and zero seconds zulu. Do you copy? Over.”
“Roger, Houston. Twenty-three, ten, and zero. Over.”
Destiny base took command of the X-80 right on time. The crew currently manning Destiny base had been chosen specifically for this mission. They had arrived a year earlier, and they would stay four more years running test flights of the revolutionary new propulsion system. In a little less than a year they would act as flight controllers to the dozens of ships headed to Mars during the next launch window. Three of the crew were Commander Dr. Katarina Krupp and her two long time assistants who had designed the engine. The fourth member was the requisite botanist, Dr. Gardener. He had heard the joke before. Dr. Krupp enjoyed helping him in the greenhouse when she needed a break from her work. She never got tired of joking about his name and occupation, but she had already shortened it to simply calling him Gardener.
Dr. Krupp couldn’t stop grinning. “Okay, gentlemen, no time like the present. Run the systems diagnostics and prepare for our first test run. Ten percent power; one minute burn out and back.”
The systems diagnostics took an agonizingly long fifteen minutes to complete, but everything came up good to go. They plotted the course and firing instructions and uploaded everything to the X-80. The ship used thrusters to maneuver itself into position. Dr. Krupp laughed when she said, “Engage.” She loved old timey sci-fi so much that she almost called her engine a warp drive, but she resisted the urge because it wasn’t a warp drive. Instead, she settled for the more boring name of a sub-light propulsion system.
The ship fired its engine and rapidly began to accelerate away from the moon. Exactly one minute later the engine cut off. The ship used its thrusters to flip turn over and fired its engine for one more minute. Much of the second burn was consumed with stopping the forward momentum of the ship so the return trip took several hours. By the time the X-80 entered high lunar orbit, Dr. Krupp had already received congratulations from her staff and the brass back on Earth, and she was digging into the data in her lab.
Two months later, Dr. Krupp had a heated conversation with several high ranking Air Force officials. As heated a conversation as one could have with a built-in three second delay. She knew best how to interpret her data. She had designed the damned thing, for Christ’s sake. They almost sounded amused at how vehement she was about such a small anomaly.
They kept telling her things like, “Nothing ever goes according to plan, and you should know that, doctor.” And, “Progress comes with a certain amount of risk, doctor.” The way they emphasized ‘doctor’ at the end of practically every sentence made it sound insulting.
No matter how long or how loudly she talked, she couldn’t get them to understand that every step up in power had resulted in exponentially larger differences between her calculations and the results. She knew for a fact they were rotating in fresh generals to wear her down because the voices on the comm. would change ever so slightly, and it eventually worked. After eight hours, she finally acquiesced to their demands and scheduled a test run for the next day, but with a caveat. It would be at eighty percent power instead of a hundred. By her revised calculations, that would still be pushing the envelope.
The test began like all the rest except Dr. Krupp took no joy in saying, “Engage.” If she were right, her engine could be damaged beyond repair. If she were wrong, she’d be relieved, yes, but she’d also have lost a little credibility. Reputation could be rebuilt though. She hoped she was wrong; unfortunately, she was right. The X-80 reached seventy-seven percent power a little over fifteen minutes into its flight. It achieved ninety-three percent of expected velocity for that amount of power. Then it disappeared.
Near Earth Object tracking telescopes tracked it down based on its last known speed and trajectory. The X-80 had become the ex-80. It was hurtling toward the outer solar system as a cloud of little bits of rubber, metal, plutonium, and ice. The NEO trackers did report one interesting thing though. The remains of the X-80 hadn’t been found where they had been expected, and they were slowing down.
Even from tragedy, good things may come. The death of the X-80 brought with it many questions, recriminations, and inquiries. It also brought inspiration and a bold new theory.
After several days of slowing, the remains of the X-80 had settled in at a comfortable eighty thousand kilometers per hour on their journey towards their final resting place deep within Jupiter. Dr. Krupp theorized that the mass of the ship had thrown up a bow wake of space-time in front of it, essentially forcing it to drive up an increasingly steeper hill the faster it went. She spent the rest of her career trying to find a way to turn that to her advantage, but it was her son, James, who made the final breakthrough a few scant years before she passed away. She wouldn’t have had it any other way.