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Von Neumann's War: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Sunday, April 30, 2006 23:21 EDT



    Charlotte could hear her mom's angry voice through the walls of her room. She tried to surf the Internet and ignore the boisterous argument from downstairs, but it wasn't helping. It was obvious to Charlotte that it was her dad on the phone—only he could make her mother that angry. Charlotte continued to ignore the heated phone conversation between her parents. To keep her mind off them she visited her usual favorite websites: the Space Telescope Science Institute, the MAPUG site, the SETI League, Kazaa, then the University of Colorado's Athletic Department. Charlotte had hopes of getting a softball scholarship someday, but she was afraid that if she didn't grow a few more inches during her junior and senior years in high school she wouldn't be tall enough to be scholarship competitive. She then clicked through the physics department's site and gave up. The noise was just too much.

    "What do you mean it's okay to miss a few days of school! Don't you realize she's worried about keeping up her grades for a scholarship and that finals are at the end of the month? No, you probably don't because you never come around, do you?" her mother screamed into the phone. Charlotte could image in her mind's eye her mother tapping her left foot and resting her right fist on her hip.

    Charlotte's instant messenger dinged at her.



    Hello AstroGirl39, what's up! The message was from Tina.

    Hey DingBat101! My mom and dad are at it again! she typed.

    600 miles wasn't far 'nuf for those 2, huh :-).



    "Damnit, John! You just can't show up like that and expect her to drop everything just for you. She has a life of her own you know."



    Yeah, lots a luv between 'em. Charlotte shook her head as she typed.

    Yeah, that's how my parents were just after the divorce. It gets better.

    How r u? Charlotte typed.

    Got my braces adjusted today, so my mouth hurts. It looks like soup for a few days. Tina replied.

    Sorry. No big. U r lucky you got straight teeth. Yeah.

    Got news on the Michael situation!

    Yes? Charlotte typed reluctantly but anxiously.



    "Well, whatever! Just let her make the decision for herself."



    He asked my older brother if U were INTERESTED in anybody right now. So, R U ;-) ???

    Oh My God! What did he tell him?

    He said he didn't think so. I told bro to tell him that U like him.

    U did not!

    I did.



    "Charlotte! Your father is on the phone for you," her mother yelled upstairs at her.



    Call U later. Gotta go. B'bye.



    Charlotte clicked X on the Internet browser and stretched out across her bed, knocking over the Louisville Slugger that was leaning on her nightstand, then picked up the phone, "Okay, I got it."

    "Charlotte, honey?"

    "Hi Daddy, what's up?" she asked.

    "How'd the ccd camera work out for your telescope, slugger?"

    "It works great, thanks! Odd thing though, I think Mars is turning gray or something," she said.

    "Hmmm," John muttered. "Could have been atmospheric interference; perhaps it was lightly cloudy and you just didn't notice."

    "Mmmm, nah, don't think it was. What's all the business with Mom about?" Charlotte asked, wondering at the comment. There was no way that clouds could cause the changes she'd seen.

    "Yeah, about that, your mom just doesn't understand sometimes about great opportunities and priorities. Listen, I've been down in Huntsville, Alabama, all this week—it's a neat little town. I've got to run up to Denver and see Tina's mom for a day or so, then it's back to Alabama late next week for some meetings and I thought you might could go with me."

    "Dad, I'd love to see you, but why on Earth would I want to go to Hicksville, Alabama?" she asked.

    "Huntsville, Alabama, and you'd be surprised what all is there. How'd you like to go to Spacecamp at the NASA Space and Rocket Center where they built the rockets that went to the moon while I'm at work during the days? You'd have to miss about three days of school, but I could call your principal and talk to him about it. God knows it would be educational. Alice is coming down, too. I thought you might get Tina to come down and you two could go to Spacecamp together and hang out at the hotel pool, the space museum—they have some pretty cool rides. And there are a couple of malls a short cab ride from the hotel."

    "I'll go if Tina goes; I'd probably get bored out of my head by myself in the daytime." Charlotte thought that getting out of town now that Tina had spilled the beans to Michael that she liked him wasn't such a bad idea. "Can we really go to Spacecamp?"

    "Yeah, well, at your age it's the Space Academy actually and it's only three days, but it'll be a blast."

    "Sounds like fun."

    "Great. I'll come by Tuesday after school to help you pack. Well, let's see." There was a pause as her dad checked something. "It looks like our flight is first thing Wednesday morning and we'll come back on Sunday."

    "I'll call Tina and see if she wants to go. B'bye daddy, I love you."

    "I love you too, baby."



    "Who loves you, baby?" Charlotte laughed and screamed at the same time as the Moonshot launched the two teens ten stories straight up at over three gees. At the top of the ride there was a split second of freefall that made her stomach lurch. Charlotte was fine but she hoped that Tina didn't throw up all over her light blue astronaut flight suit.

    "I'm gonna kill youuu!" Tina screamed as the freefall broke and the ride jerked them back downward.

    Tina jumped from her seat the second the ride stopped and stumbled around, dizzy for a moment. Charlotte didn't appear to be affected by the thrill ride so she held her friend's arm and told the Space Academy instructor that she needed a break.

    "Ten minutes, then back around by the Saturn V out front," their instructor told them.

    Charlotte nodded and led Tina by the arm under the rocket engines of the Saturn IB and to the picnic area not far from the ride.

    "Wheeeww!" Charlotte wiped her brow. "That was cool. You okay?"

    "Yeah, that was all right. I wasn't expecting that thing to shoot off straight up that hard, wow!"

    "Well, it's called the Moonshot, you know."

    "Whatever," Tina was finally catching her breath. "I could use something to drink."

    "Hey, I'll get it, be right back." Charlotte could tell that Tina was still a little pale and was just trying to be bold in front of her. That was Tina's way. Charlotte had learned that years ago and just decided it was easier to play along than to call her on her weakness.

    "Here ya go," Charlotte returned with soft drinks and handed one to Tina who was looking at her watch. "We gotta get back."

    "You okay?"

    "Hey, it's me." Tina punched her on the arm, causing Charlotte to slosh her soda on her hand.

    Charlotte just shook her head back and forth muttering "Dingbat" under her breath.

    At the front of the George C. Marshall Space and Rocket Center the rest of the teen Space Academy group had collected and was being shushed by their instructors. The instructor was going on about the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program, then pointed to an elderly man with wild white hair and white fuzzy sideburns.

    "Okay, now we're fortunate enough today to have a very special guest here." The head instructor shook hands with the white-haired man. "The man who designed and built the first commercial spacecraft, from Scaled Composites, Mr. Burt Rutan."

    "Thank you, Jan. Hi everybody." Mr. Rutan began a short talk about how he had led his team of engineers to build a completely different type of space program than the kind that NASA had done. He talked about how exciting it would be to soon have hotels in space and tourists going to the Moon. He talked about his little composite spacecraft and how there were very few metal components on it. Then he asked if there were any questions. Charlotte raised her hand first and Burt pointed to her.

    "Yes, umm, what do you mean by a composite spacecraft with little metal in it? Is it plastic or something?"

    "That's a good question. It isn't plastic, actually it's more like fiberglass. In some cases we take a fiber cloth made of something like the Kevlar that bulletproof vests are made of, then we paint it with an epoxy resin kind of like the epoxy glue you can buy. When that hardens, it's lightweight but really strong. In other cases we mix up a resin and paint it onto a mold, let it dry, then repeat the process over and over until we build up enough of the material. The result is that the body and wings of the vehicle can be made cheaper, stronger, and lighter than say the body of the space shuttle orbiter. It's called a composite because it's just that, a composite of multiple materials—fibers, resins, and hardening agents."

    Rutan answered a few more questions from the group. One in particular from one of the know-it-alls in the group was funny.

    "Mr. Rutan, on the first flight of Spaceship One your pilot released a bunch of Skittles inside the cockpit. That seems dangerous to me—what if they'd have gotten into the instruments?"

    "Hmm, first of all, it was M&Ms I believe and secondly they melt in your mouth not in your spaceship." He chuckled.

    Then there was Tina's question.

    "Hey, I gotta know something. You guys keep talking about this being the rocket that went to the Moon here." She pointed at the giant Saturn V behind Rutan. "If that's the rocket that went to the Moon there, how'd they bring it back and set it up here?"

    "Dingbat!" Charlotte coughed.



    "So far, Mr. President, Project Neighborhood Watch is going well," Ronny said, trying not to yawn. Yawning in the President's face was considered a faux pas. "I believe we've put together an excellent team, developed a logical plan, and are implementing it with no glitches at this point. We should hit our launch window of August twenty-first."

    "This looks good, Ronny. Are there any problems that the White House can help with?" The President continued to thumb through the Daily Brief.

    "None that I can foresee, Mr. President," Ronny replied. "But the engineering on this is going to be complex. If anything comes up, I'll forward it to your attention."

    "Good. One more thing, Ronny."

    "Yes, sir?" the DDNRO asked.

    "Has the situation on Mars, well, has it changed any?"

    "Yes, sir, it has, but only for the worse. The change is more or less visible to the naked eye at this point, sir."

    "I see."



    Ret Ball: Well, friends. I will have to say that although I respected my good friend Megiddo's insight, I never really and truly could prove he was right. But Hiowa Lend, our investigative journalist, has been investigating the Mars phenomena and she believes she has uncovered something startling. Go ahead, Hiowa, you are on The Truth Nationwide.

    Hiowa Lend: Thanks, Ret, and that is absolutely correct. I recently hired several professional astronomers to make observations of Mars with their telescopes from professional observatories at three different universities across the country. And I can tell you definitively that Mars is indeed changing colors. The astronomers tell me that the surface color albedo has changed. The albedo is the measurement that astronomers use to describe the color and brightness of an astronomical object. And the astronomers I've talked with tell me that Mars has changed. Changed dramatically.

    Ret Ball: That is astounding, Hiowa! Let's get them on the air and let them tell us about it.

    Hiowa Lend: Well, Ret, that is the catch. It seems that none of them will come forward and speak publicly due to fear of professional ridicule and being ostracized from the community.

    Ret Ball: Isn't that amazing? I mean, if something is a fact, it's a fact. What harm could come of reporting it?

    Hiowa Lend: Well Ret, none of my sources will volunteer to come forward, but I can assure you that they're all well-respected astronomers.

    Ret Ball: Perhaps Megiddo was right. What if this really is a CIA cover-up and a right-wing conspiracy?

    Hiowa Lend: My sentiments exactly ,Ret.



    "This is funny as hell, John." Roger laughed as John Fisher, who was from Denver, gave him driving directions through his own hometown. "I grew up in this town and never been to the Boeing Delta IV rocket factory just ten miles away in Decatur. I mean, I've fished with my dad by the plant, but I've never actually been there. You know, come to think of it I've fished with him by the nuclear plant, too, and I've never been inside that thing. Hell, I'm glad you know how to drive to it. Otherwise we'd have to walk up the river."

    "Yeah, well, turn left there," John said with a smile. "You payload guys never seem to worry about how the rockets are actually put together. That's what I've been telling you all along. This rocket we're building is different from any other Delta IV Heavy; we've had to make extensive modifications to the attachment points."

    "So you keep telling me. And the hundred million dollar price tag on the modification didn't elude my notice either." Roger pulled his car into a visitor parking spot. One month into the Neighborhood Watch the first modified common booster core was being rolled off the line. John had led a scaled design "shake and bake" test out at the shake-stand at NASA MSFC and it looked like the hardpoints would hold. The finite-element analysis looked good and the scaled test looked good, but there would be no time for a full-scale test. They were just going to have to hook the three CBC tubes together, then strap on eight solid rocket boosters around them to these modified hardpoints. Roger was not as nervous about that as John was, but both men were at least apprehensive to some extent and wanted to see the manufacturing process in action. And there was still the modified second-stage fairing that had yet to be tested.

    It took them about fifteen minutes to make it through security protocols, stop off at the restroom, then find their way around. John had been to the Boeing rocket plant at least once a week since the Neighborhood Watch had started. He had been back and forth between Decatur and CCAFS in Florida routinely. Sometimes he would make the trip several times a week. John was trying to make sure that the rocket pieces got manufactured to design in Decatur, and that they would be integrated appropriately in Florida.

    "So, what exactly are we going to see?" Roger asked as he fiddled with the visitor badge on his jacket that read "No Escort Required."

    "This way," John said as he led Roger around a corner to the high-bay area. "They're running the third and final CBC outer shell today. We'll get to see that thing manufactured. But what I want you to see is the second-stage fairing-test model. It doesn't work. I mean, I know how to make it in Solid Edge and FEMAP as a finite element model, but we can't figure out how to build the damned thing and fit it in the rocket's aerodynamic shroud with the COTS and GOTS parts available."

    "Why not?" Roger raised his left eyebrow in concern.

    "Well, we had the three second stage RL10B-2 engines modified to have twice the fuel and oxidizer like Dr. Powell's trajectory design requires, but doing that makes the pressure vessels an odd size and there are no COTS or GOTS space-qualified tanks that will fit in the shroud." John paused in his explanation and started chatting with a fellow running a piece of manufacturing equipment that looked more like a computer than a milling machine.

    "Oh, they're about to weld that up now. If you hurry you can catch it," the man told him.

    "Great, thanks, Mike." John patted the man on the shoulder. "Roger, this way. That big crane and cylinder down there is where the booster core casing is rolled up. Mike there says they're about to roll off the third CBC. Let's hurry down to that end so we can see this better. Oh, one more thing. Stay inside the yellow painted lines, otherwise somebody will get a briefing about OSHA and safety."

    "Yellow lines, got it."

    As the two men made it to the end of the high-bay a large sheet of aluminum that had a honeycomb structure milled out into it on its up side was slid up under a big roller by an unseen conveyor. The larger roller drum then pressed onto the sheet metal. The aluminum bucked, then rolled itself up into a cylinder about five meters in diameter around the huge drum roller. The former sheet that was now an aluminum tube was lifted upright by its end.

    "Watch this part; it's cool as hell." John pointed at the large welding apparatus as it dropped to the seam of the sheet-metal cylinder.

    Roger watched as a large welding rod that looked more like a pointed trailer hitch ball was pressed against the aluminum rocket tube while the ball was spinning at God only knew how many thousands of revolutions per minute. The welding rod was touched to the aluminum where it had been rolled together and it spun so fast that when it touched the metal the friction of it was hot enough to force the welding of the aluminum seam. The welding rod zipped down what it was turning into a rocket tube with a screech, sealing the seam with a near perfect joint.

    "That is some cool shit." Roger grinned like a kid in a candy store. He allowed himself the break of standing and staring in awe for just a few moments more before it was back to the urgent business of the Neighborhood Watch.

    "Now, why don't we get to looking at this second stage model, 'cause I've got to get back to work on the focal plane array packages for the telescope." Roger put his hands in his pants pockets and the little kid's giddy stare turned to a more serious one.

    "Right. It's around the corridor here." John led Roger to another room with a shake table in it. Atop the table was a one-tenth scaled model of the second stage system.

    There were three scaled engines on the table. The engines were the "stretched" or "extended" RL10B-2 motors from Pratt & Whitney. In order to have twice the specific impulse and burn time, the tankage for both fuel and oxidizer had to be larger. The problem was that the rocket design team had not been able to find available tankage parts that had been flight-proven and were the appropriate size.

    Roger surveyed the parts and the various engineering drawings lying on the floor and pinned to the walls around the room. There was one Solid Edge drawing of the engines on a computer monitor. Somebody must have just been in the room and stepped out for a moment or their screen saver was turned off. How damned hard could this be, he thought. We just need bigger tanks! I've got so much shit to be doing!

    "You see, Rog, if we use the tanks from any other engine the pumps won't fit, the frame will be too large to fit in the aerodynamic shroud without building a new shroud, or the structural design will be questionable, which means we aren't certain about the shake and bake of the larger frame. And if we go to a modified shroud we have to run all new CFD models of the ascent friction and you know that Dr. Powell won't be happy with that."

    "Uh huh." Roger frowned.

    "There just aren't enough available COTS or GOTS engine parts to solve this problem." John pointed to the model, pointing out the deficiencies in the design. "Open for suggestions here."

    "Jesus, John, has this country been wrapped up in paperwork and bureaucracy for so long that just doing things is beyond us? Stack a couple of gas tanks out of old pickups together! Whatever it takes!"

    "Weeelll." John stretched out the word. "I do have a solution, but it isn't from a space-qualified piece of hardware and both the Air Force and NASA frown on such. But if—"

    "John. Let's hear your idea."

    "Okay. It really is simple, but you'll have to get a waiver from NRO, or Boeing will never approve or build it. I've been round and round with them about it. In their mind it's just way too much risk. That's really why I brought you." He pointed to the computer monitor. "Here look at this. I've tried to convince them that this is what we need to do but . . . well, hell, it has been harder than it was getting them to agree to the mods for the strap-on boosters. Risk-averse assholes."

    John pulled up a PowerPoint slide file and opened it. He scrolled through the slides to the second stage portion.

    "Here is the standard RL10B-2." John grabbed the tankage portion with the copy tool, then pasted it into a new slide. He then duplicated the tank. "I want to take two tanks and cut one end off each and then just weld the damned things together. Oh, there would have to be some adjustments to the cryo pipes, a little bit of structural integrity support, and stuff like that, but it should work." He finished creating the image on the PowerPoint slide.

    "I knew it was simple. Why don't we just do it," Roger said rather than asking.

    "I'm telling you, Rog, without you telling them that they would be free of reprisal if the thing fails, Boeing isn't going to even consider it. It took us most of the first week to convince them to add the extra strap-on hardpoints. It wasn't like we really were using duct tape and Bondo!" John shook his head in disgust and threw up his hands.

    "John, get started. I'm going back to the office to take care of this. You catch a cab back to the hotel." Roger knew John could see that he was angry and that somebody was about to get a good old-fashioned southern ass chewin'.



    "I don't give a good Goddamn, Charlie. If John says he wants it done, then by God do it. We ain't worried about political fallout here, we're worried about the future of the freakin' human race for crying out loud . . . un huh . . . no . . . no . . . uh . . . no . . . GODDAMNITALLTOHELL Charlie I said NO! If I have to fly to D.C. and get more horsepower behind my decision I'll leave today and you'll be looking for a new fucking job tomorrow. You hear what I'm telling you?" Roger had had enough of the corporate risk-averse culture that was holding back the program. The bean counters at the top of the culture were a larger impediment to the development of the program than the immense technical requirements and compressed schedule. Roger was irate and working on about a day and a half of sleep in the last month. It felt good to vent on these bean counting assholes a little, he thought to himself.

    "All right then . . . yes, okay. Well, Charlie I appreciate you getting this done. And I don't want to have this conversation again. I want John Fisher to have a blank check and a rubber stamp approval with y'all from now on. We do not have the time to have this conversation over and over every time somebody points out that we're jumping all over the process. Yep, Ronny'll back me up on this. Back me up on this, Ronny. . . . I'll pick up the other line and call him right this minute if it'll help you. . . . No. Okay then." Roger sat down in his chair and exhaled loudly.

    "Ok Charlie, thanks for your help. Hey listen, we're doing great stuff here and don't forget that part of it. Okay then." Roger hung up the phone and screamed at the top of his lungs for about three minutes. Then he opened up his telescope modeling program on his laptop and went back to work.



    Dr. Reynolds, Dr. Powell, Davis, Dr. Ronny Guerrero, General Riggs, NASA MSFC Director Dr. Byron and the President's science advisor sat in the VIP bunker at the east coast launch facility at CCAFS with several Boeing and Lockheed Martin higher-ups, USAF 45th Space Wing Program support manager, and other upper echelon contractors and members of the Neighborhood Watch program.

    Dr. John Fisher burst into the bunker VIP support room with two hours to spare before launch. He was obviously flustered; multiple beads of sweat had formed on his forehead, and his usually well-combed hair was in disarray. The sweat could have been from stress but maybe not—after all, it was a beautiful August day in sunny Florida, which meant hotter than hell.

    John pulled a laptop out of locked double bags, and set it down on the conference table and plugged it into the portable projector he also pulled out of the bags. "This Machine is Approved Top Secret/Neighborhood Watch" was stamped on the front and back of the laptop and the projector.

    "Sorry I'm late. There were some last minute hold procedures that I was tending to," he said.

    "That's quite all right, John," Roger told him.

    "Yes, Dr. Fisher, just as long as we don't miss the big show," the science advisor to the President responded. George Fines pointed out the window at the rocket on the pad. "I can't wait to hear you explain that behemoth to us."

    Roger looked out the window across the lake to the launchpad. The fact that they could discuss Special Access Top Secret in a room with a window and people milling around outside in the hallway was a sign of the times. Things were changing in the old ways of doing things. Time and urgency didn't allow for all of the slow security protocols to be followed, so new ones were used in the interim and they were all approved by the Office of the President of the United States of America. Otherwise, some of them would never get past standard security personnel.

    John clicked open the slideshow on his laptop and hit the magical keystroke combination that made the projector understand the computer and start displaying the laptop's screen on the big screen at the end of the conference table on the south wall of the VIP bunker support room.

    "Okay. I think that's it." He clicked a few more buttons, scrolled to the slideshow and began.

    "Well, in order to get Percival to the planet Mars in as short a period of time possible, Dr. Tom Powell developed a strawman design for a launch vehicle. The Modified Delta IV Heavy launch vehicle out there on the SLC-37 CCAFS launch pad is the resultant product of his original design. It's mostly the same as he originally suggested." John paused and cleared his throat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. "It's hot today," he muttered.

    "That's right, John," Tom interrupted. "You fellas did a good job and built the rocket I had in mind almost to a T or at least as near as makes no difference."

    "Uh, okay." John nodded to Tom and continued. "Dr. Fines, as you may or may not be aware of the typical Delta IV Heavy configuration, this is a modified version of that. This rocket has even heavier capability than the Heavy. The rocket consists of the main common booster core (CBC) tube with a Rocketdyne RS-68 liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen (LO2/LH2) rocket motor base with a thrust vector control nozzle in the middle that can supply up to 650,000 pounds of thrust and 410 seconds of specific impulse. These CBCs were built in Decatur, Alabama, at the Boeing Delta IV rocket plant and they had to be modified slightly, but I'll get to that in a minute." John moved through the slides quickly.

    "On either side of the central CBC tube is another CBC tube assembly strapped on. Each of these CBCs has a modified upper stage fairing atop and their engines should produce the same thrust characteristics as the central CBC. This portion of the rocket is the standard Delta IV Heavy that you may have seen before." He paused and noticed that Ronny was nodding in acknowledgement.

    "Now, in order to increase the throw weight of the launch vehicle and therefore the mission spacecraft velocity, eight Alliant Techsystems graphite-epoxy GEM-60 solid rocket strap-on boosters are also attached at the base of each of the three larger CBC tubes of the Boeing built-rocket. As you can see from the slide—or better yet from out the window—there are three of these boosters attached to each of the side CBCs: one at zero, ninety degrees and minus ninety degrees. Two solid boosters are placed on either side of the central CBC at ninety and minus ninety degree locations. The GEM-60 strap-ons enable the launch vehicle to accommodate a much larger spacecraft payload than the standard Delta IV Heavy, much larger." Roger cleared his throat and nodded that he was going to interrupt.

    "You see, Dr. Fines, this was required because Percival's throw weight to Mars was on the upper limit for a long mission timeline. The half-meter diameter primary mirror for the telescope alone ended up being about eighty kilograms. And with the other instruments and spacecraft structure, there was just no way the Delta IV Heavy and three upper stages would get the satellite to Mars in the hoped for four-to-five-month mission time. Tom here came up with the idea of adding the solid strap-on boosters to the rocket for the added boost. This did it on paper." Roger smirked, then added, "It took some doing and some expensive modifications contracts for Boeing to do it in reality, but they finally got the ball rolling and did it and on schedule." Fines sat quietly and nodded in response without making any facial expressions whatsoever. Roger nodded back to John to take over.

    "Above the CBCs we connected three modified and connected Pratt & Whitney RL10B-2 cryogenic rocket motors to make up the second stage. Each of the modified engines will, hopefully, supply as much as 60,000 pounds of thrust over a burn time of 2250 seconds. Then above that is a single modified RL10B-2 making up the third stage. And finally, a standard RL10B-2 with half the burn time makes up the fourth stage."

    "Above that," Roger stood and moved to the front of the room, "is the payload." He pointed to the payload shroud section. "The reason we're here is the payload, of course. It's attached atop the fourth stage and housed via the aluminum isogrid payload fairing and shroud. Here is where Percival sits." Roger nodded to John to click the slides.

    "This project is a culmination of what mankind can do in a hurry if we really have to," Ronny Guerrero added. He understood that it was a culmination of brilliant design, development, and manufacturing. It was also the culmination of less than five months worth of work that was completed by a small army of a few thousand men and women. Ronny wanted to make sure that the President's advisor understood this.

    "Let's hope it's a successful culmination," the science advisor said, smiling faintly.

    The Neighborhood Watch team sat quietly for the next hour and a half. John and Alan were in and out of the room checking with Launch Control to gather any good or bad news. The countdown was going as according to schedule. The men sat listening to the launch countdown protocols, anxiously awaiting the final countdown.

    Finally, after four and half months of around-the-clock effort from thousands of the space community's best and brightest, the culmination of that effort was about to go. The Neighborhood Watch was about to happen. Of course, it would not arrive at Mars for nearly another five months.



    Tina and Charlotte sat at the Florida hotel's beachfront with the water splashing at their feet as each breaker rolled in. Although school had started that week, they both were excited to miss a day or two of school, to sit on the beach and do nothing. Charlotte's dad and Tina's mother had insisted that the two of them make this trip. The parent's of oth of the teens seemed unusually touchy-feely to the girls and were acting as though they hadn't seen their girls in years and might not get to see them again for years. Charlotte just chalked it up to the divorce and the amount of overtime her dad had been working. Tina didn't say much about it other than that they were stressing her out.

    "You know," Tina dug her toes into the sand as the surf covered her feet. "I like this trip a lot better than the one to Hicksville."

    "Aww come on, Tina. Te Mars ride was fun. And you nearly wet your panties on that Moonshot thing," Charlotte added with a laugh. "And you gotta admit, flying the Space Shuttle simulator and driving those little Lego Mars rovers was kinda cool."

    "Yeah, but this is the beach," Tina said, holding both arms out wide, cocking her hips to the left, and nodding to the ocean.

    Charlotte smiled and nodded toward the two young men with about three percent body fat surfing just north of them. Just then one of the surfers wiped out and stood up, shaking the water from his long hair.

    "I guess I'd have to agree with you on that one, Dingbat."

    "You said it, Astrogirl." Tina acknowledged the two hunky surfers with a whistle.

    "Uh huh."

    "So when is it going to be?" Tina asked, shielding her eyes and looking to the north as her mother had told them to do, but at the same time not taking her eyes off the two hunky surfers.

    "It should be any second unless they had some kind of hold. You know what they're launching?" Charlotte said as she searched the skyline for any sign of a rocket launch.

    "Well, Mom just said it was classified. But I don't get why she could bring us to see a launch if it's classified."

    "Dingbat!" Charlotte said with a chuckle. "How they gonna hide from all the local people that a big, bright, and noisy rocket just fired off? My dad said it was classified and that I couldn't ask him any questions about what is on it. But the fact that there's going to be a launch isn't classified."

    "You think it'll be that bright in the dayt—look!" Tina stopped midsentence and pointed north-northeast.

    "Oh wow! It's really bright! And check out that smoke trail!" Charlotte was giddy and pointing at the modified Boeing rocket as it pulled upward from Earth's gravity well. Both girls had seen smaller launches their parents had attended, but this one was different. The rocket's rumble was a solid body blow, as heavy even as the shuttle launches. Others along the beach turned toward the sky to watch the massive rocket—one of the largest to launch from the Cape since the legendary Saturns. One of the surfers wiped out, but the girls failed to notice. None of them had any idea what was onboard, where it was going, or why. But, they were fascinated by the rocket, its bright glare and rumble going on and on . . .



    "Congratulations, John." Roger shook Dr. Fisher's hand and patted him on the back. "Doin' good, right?"

    "That's right." John slumped in his chair in the VIP support room. "The launch vehicle functioned flawlessly and the telemetry reports so far tell us that the modified rocket system has pushed Percival into an Earth escape trajectory. Control tells me that the first stage combination of three kick motors fired and completed its burn, then separated. The second kick motor repeated the process from ignition to burnout with no problems. The third kick motor functioned likewise. The telemetry data downloaded from the star trackers to the main bus guidance and navigation computer tells that the software activated the algorithm to optimize the final thrust vectoring for the optimal burn vector to enter into the Mars incident trajectory. So, boss, my job is done. The spacecraft is on its way to Mars." John grinned and loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. "I'm gonna go find me an umbrella out there on the beach somewhere and sleep under it for about two days."

    "Good job, John. That sounds like a really good idea." Roger wished he could join him but there were payload checks that had to be run. But, all things considered, there was not really a lot to do over the next four and half months while Percival coasted toward Mars. Maybe the beach was a good idea.

    It would be a little less than five months before Percival would fly-by less than a hundred kilometers from the strangely changing planet, but in the meantime the instruments and science suite began to come online for checkouts and operational status. What should we do now? Waiting sucks. Roger thought.

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