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Warp Speed: Chapter Eight

       Last updated: Friday, June 11, 2004 21:43 EDT



    I was looking out the window whether Colonel Ames liked it or not. The International Space Station loomed over as we approached the Universal Docking Module. Television just doesn’t give you a feel for how immense the ISS really is. As you get closer you can tell that parts of it were made by different countries. The Russian components are either black or shiny. ESA and NASDA modules are shiny. The majority of the space station is white; these sections being made by the United States of America. Although the space station looks like a jumbled mish mash made by several different manufacturers, it does look like it was designed with some sort of madness to its designer’s method.

    I held on to a computer terminal stand as we docked, expecting a jolt. I never felt a thing. Ray and Tabitha knew what they were doing up front. A period of protocol passed (I assumed pressure equalization) and we were all allowed access to the station. I roamed wherever I could go. I bumped into a fellow from Japan and I realized that I was in the Japanese Experiment Module. I asked if there were any experiments going on outside mounted to the “back-porch.”

    Wang Che, as I gathered was his name, told me that, “We had a marfunction on the Lemote Manipuratol system yestelday. It damaged the terescope plimaly millol and siezed the tlacking motols togethel.”

    “You don’t say,” I responded. “What caused it?”

    “Not sule. But, we are wolking on it,” he replied.

    My trek through Russian territory was about the same, so I returned to American soil, uh aluminum and composites, and just hung out. Tabitha finally relaxed a little. She introduced me to one of the astronauts who would be going home with us, since Carla and Roald were staying behind.

    “Anson Clemons, this is Tracy Edmunds. Tracy has been up here for going on three months,” Tabitha informed me.

    “Wow! Are you ready to go home yet?”

    “Yeah, I miss my husband and kids,” she told me with a smile. Tabitha giggled a bit.

    “Anson, this is Malcom Edmunds, Tracy’s husband.” Tabitha laughed. Getting the joke, I shook Malcom’s hand.

    “Nice to meet you. You better hurry home. I think your wife is looking for you. Are your kids here too?”

    “The eight-year-old really wanted to come, believe me.”

    Tracy shrugged, winked at Malcom and said, “I don’t know why they wouldn’t let me bring her.”

    I could tell that Tabitha must have known the infamous eight year old, since she responded with an outburst of laughter and then, “ISS ain’t ready for that type of malfunction yet.”

    We talked for a while longer and then Malcom and Tracy began to ingress to the Space Shuttle.

    Tabitha held my arm. “Wait a second, Anson.”

    “What’s up?”

    “I want to know what you think about something.” She looked at me seriously. I couldn’t tell if these were her Colonel eyes or her Tabitha eyes. She’d make one hell of a card player. Actually, I had heard she was one.

    “Well, something is a rather broad topic. Not sure what I think about it. Could you narrow it down a little?”

    “Okay smart guy. The Japanese wrecked the telescope on the ‘back-porch’ yesterday.” Colonel Ames (not Tabitha) said. That solved that.

    “I know. Wang told me. Or is it Che? Do Japanese use their first name as their first name or their last name as their first name?” I asked, and then repeated it to myself to make sure I said it correctly.

    “Wangche is his surname. And Wangche was supposed to use that telescope tomorrow to image a planned rendezvous of two satellites. They’re meeting up for the first in space robotic satellite repair.” Tabitha spoke as if she were giving a debriefing.

    “Hold on a minute. Does it have to happen tomorrow? I mean, why can’t they wait?” I was perplexed by the dilemma.

    “The microspacecraft has used up most of its fuel supply to achieve a matching orbit with the satellite. More than a few more days of attitude corrections would use all of its fuel and not leave enough for the orbit raising to the GEO disposal or junkyard orbit.”

    She continued with the main problem. “There are a few smaller telescopes here on the station that could be used but they would require an EVA to locate them in line of sight of the rendezvous.”

    “I don’t think that would work anyway.” I interrupted her again. “The pointing and tracking system required for that type of rendezvous would be high-tech stuff. I don’t think you could just move a telescope over here to watch it. There are a couple of commercial scopes and software packages that might could do it. You reckon Meade delivers up here?”

    “I was afraid of that. Any other suggestions? You’re the astronomer after all.” She held onto a rail and righted herself a little closer with respect to me.

    “Pointing and tracking is the big bugaboo here. Let’s see …” Something dinged in my mind. “Let’s go find Fines.”

    We found Terrence in the Russian Zarya Control Module poking around.

    “Terrence, my man, I have a puzzle for you.” I filled him in on the problem. The two of us started talking and drawing on pads. Tabitha interrupted with an occasional comment. After about an hour of deliberation we still hadn’t come up with any brilliant ideas.

    “Well Tabitha, I guess it is an EVA after all.” I admitted. She seemed disappointed. While we were talking, one of the Russian crewmen drifted by with a piece of equipment in his hand and a roll of duct tape in the other. I watched out of the corner of my eye as the cosmonaut delicately taped the instrument he was carrying to a telescopic extension rod he was supporting against a control panel.

    “What’s that?” I asked him, interrupting Terrence mid-sentence.

    “This is a star tracker camera. It needs to be extended further from the airlock door for the experiment we’re performing.”

    “You mean that the duct tape will survive in space?” I was flabbergasted.

    “You Americans always think things must cost billions before you can use them.” He scowled and drifted back out of the module with his star tracker on a makeshift extension pole.

    He was right. NASA would have done a study for six months on extension poles and then released a Request For Quote to several different contractors to bid on the pole. After Peer Review Services paid, fed, and boarded a small army to grade them and Legal okayed the decision, an award would be given to one of the contractors. The contractor would have to build three or four of these things and destroy them in shake tests, vacuum tests, and the like. Then a fancy new space-qualified extension pole would be manufactured. Of course it would fail somehow and need a modification. All of this to the tune of about three million dollars. How much does a roll of duct tape cost? Heck NASCAR has been using it for years. But I digress again. I went back to the conversation with Terrence and Tabitha.

    “Terrence, how much mass is the dish on your mini radar system?” I thought aloud.

    “No way, Anson. If we use that system for pointing and tracking, it would give away the accuracy of it to the Japanese. No more secret.” Terrence tugged at his lower lip.

    “Can’t we just not use it at optimum capacity? Besides, If we duct tape a telescope to it, there would sure be a heck of a lot of jitter in that connection.”

    Tabitha interjected, “No matter anyway. Terrence’s system is in the payload bay of the Shuttle. I just don’t see a way to do this without an EVA.”

    “How much time do we have before the rendezvous?” I asked.

    Tabitha looked at her watch, “About twenty-two hours.”

    “Even if we do an EVA, what do we do?” I wasn’t sure if this problem had a good solution.

    “The Japanese do an EVA and bring in their broken telescope. Wangche has been depressurizing for a while now. Then we go from there.”

    “Yes ma’am, Colonel.” Terrence saluted and departed. I hadn’t seen anybody salute Tabitha before. It must have been an instinct for Terrence.



    Wangche Lynn brought the Japanese Low Noise Optical Instrument Package in through the airlock a couple of hours later. While waiting, Tabitha and I had dinner in the Habitation Module. We played around for about ten minutes in the microgravity. I spun her around a few times and she had me do some flying spin kicks. I soon realized that spin kicks are virtually impossible without gravity. Tabitha did a few dazzling spins and tucks and flips that affected me in just the right way. I really wished there were some hidey-hole that we could find and get friendly. That just wasn’t going to happen. This was the longest period of time we’d been in space that Tabitha was just Tabitha and not Colonel Ames – and it was very short-lived, too short-lived. I had had something on my mind that I wanted to talk to her about at the right moment, and this one didn’t last long enough. Or I chickened out.

    Upon further inspection of the JLNOIP, Wangche decided that the optic was damaged but salvageable, but the pointing system was completely destroyed. Tabitha and I knew that there would be only one way to fix it and accomplish the tasks that the Japanese crew had been preparing for the past month. We also knew that they couldn’t have access to the classified equipment in the payload bay either.

    “Here’s the plan,” I said to Tabitha, not giving her time to interrupt once I had her attention. “You sneak the telescope and the focal plane instruments away from the Japanese. I’ll give the optics and detectors a once over. Then Terrence and I will go out into the Shuttle and attach the thing to the radar assembly of his experiment. We feed the telemetry, point and track data, and the focal plane images through the modem on Terrence’s experiment. Tomorrow, during the rendezvous, we send the Japanese the feedback control sequences and let them point the telescope for the experiment. When it’s over we cut the circuit and fly off in the Shuttle.” I paused for air.

    “We have to get approval first!” I knew she would say that.

    Believe it or not, we got approval for the EVA and for the process we planned. The biggest hurdle was getting Terrence’s bosses to okay the project but we assured them no damage or exfiltration of the equipment technology would take place.

    Typical of NASA, some group of engineers dirtside were put to work developing a schedule for us. After the bright boys figured out about how long it would take us to do the job, they added a twenty percent contingency to that, then added another time delay according to some formula for designing EVAs. Tabitha was told to schedule a four-hour later departure from ISS than in the original flight plan. I really didn’t believe that it would take us four extra hours to complete the tasks, but I kept my mouth shut. Besides, Terrence and I had to start preparing for the EVA. The Shuttle environment would have to be brought back down to lower than atmospheric pressure immediately. Lowering the pressure in the environment would help prevent getting the bends in the very low pressure environment of the spacesuits.

    Since this was a NASA-sanctioned plan, Tabitha didn’t have to sneak the telescope away from Wangche after all. She just explained that we had a fix and the Japanese astronauts couldn’t be involved with it. Then she asked them plainly if they wanted to get the data for the rendezvous or not.

    The JLNOIP focal plane detectors were all in good and operational condition. The primary optic on the other hand, had a scratch about an inch wide across it from one side to the other. Even worse, the scratch had been caused when the support for the secondary mirror, called a spider, collapsed into the larger primary mirror due to the force on it from the “Lemote Manipuratol Alm” or Remote Manipulator Arm. So, a new spider had to be rigged somehow or other. I was able to repair the structural pieces from parts on the Shuttle and the ISS. However, the large primary mirror couldn’t be made as good as new without serious repolishing and recoating. I did some quick calculations on a scratchpad and discovered that the total aperture of the telescope wouldn’t be required in order to gather enough light to image the satellite rendezvous only twenty-eight thousand miles away. This meant that the efficiency of the primary optic could be a little worse than its original specifications. I did comment that the inch wide scratch across the optics diameter wasn’t to factory specs. I also did some image calculations and decided that the error in the image that the scratch would cause would be negligible. Some slight spatial filtering would take place, but that just couldn’t be helped. Maybe the Japanese team had an optical wavefront guru working for them who could clean that part out of the images later.

    I managed to bang the telescope and the rest of the JLNOIP back in working order and Terrence and I completed the EVA to mount it on his radar pointing and tracking experiment hardware in the Shuttle bay. We used some bungee chord, a few hose clamps, a lot of duct tape, and some ISS camera-mounting hardware we “McGuyvered” into a mount for the JLNOIP. Terrence and I played with the point-and-track algorithms until we had the telescope pointing to classified parameters. Duct tape is amazing. Then Terrence wrote a random noise function into the code that would cause the JLNOIP to demonstrate a pointing jitter just short of state-of-the-art. I was impressed by Lt. Fine’s engineering prowess.

    We handed the datalink over to the Japanese about thirty minutes before the rendezvous. From the oohs and ahs and the machine gun Japanese banter we could hear over the UHF, they must have been impressed. I high-fived Terrence and reminded him that we weren’t getting paid for this work since we were payload specialists.

    “Hey! Perhaps we should bill NASA when we get back,” he joked.

    “I’ll have my lawyer look into it,” I agreed only a little more seriously. “I’m certain there would be a way to call this misuse of private resources or some other legalese term. Maybe since you’re Air Force, we could get the Inspector General involved.”

    We left ISS about three hours and fifty-eight minutes later than the original flight plan. Those bright boys at NASA are good at schedules I guess. As we departed from the Docking Module I muttered to myself, “Glad I kept my mouth shut about the schedule thing.”

    “What’s that?” Terrence overheard me.

    “Nothing. I’m just glad to be here.”

    “Me too!” he said.

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