The following is a short story that I wrote as an exercise. I wanted to explore a few alternate history topics that I found interesting. One would be the lifting body program of the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I have a pet timeline that I’m working on which involves the rise of John Glenn as a political figure in the mid 1960’s, his ascent to the Vice Presidency under President Robert Kennedy, and the development of a more modest, lower-cost space shuttle akin to the Dream Chaser, or the HL-20.
For this story, I have purposefully not used the names of any real individuals as I do not wish to speak for those who cannot reply. I have tweaked certain elements found in David Portree’s “Dreaming a Different Apollo” series. I have also made a few subtle science-fiction references for those who enjoy an obscure easter egg or two.
In the early 1970’s, engineer Dale Reed proposed flying a modified X-24 or HL-10 into earth orbit and then landing it (see page 140). Had this flight gone ahead, it could have offered valuable knowledge for the development of the space shuttle, or possibly led development in another direction entirely.
As with any of my writing, my first goal is to tell an interesting story. The ripple effects of the events described are left as an exercise to the reader.
* * *
April 7th, 1974
Orbital Inclination: 50⁰
Altitude: 270 miles
Apollo 35 Mission
Though he’d have never admitted it, Cdr. Scott Keller thought this whole thing was a bit of a stunt.
When it was announced 18 months ago, he’d objected through all the usual channels. It bordered on ridiculous. They were going to take his Apollo, an otherwise perfect specimen, and attach a robot arm to the service module. Then, after a stay of 56 days on the Olympus, his crew would have to perform another rendezvous and an extraction maneuver before returning home short-handed.
He hadn’t been overly impressed with the X-24S when they showed it to him. “S” for Space-rated, they’d said. The thing looked like the offspring of an X-15 and a humpback whale. It was short, squat, bulby and the stubby wings at the back looked like they wouldn’t do a damn bit of good. They had launched it on a Saturn-IB late last year and there was a rendezvous in low orbit. The crew of Apollo 33 had done an inspection of its systems. Their LMP had even taken it for a check ride. Out a hundred miles from the CSM, and then back again. The systems had worked beautifully, then, ground control took over.
The X-24’s first reentry was unmanned. It had sailed down through the atmosphere, protected by a coating that was never part of the original design. The silver blob had landed at Edwards and was taken straight to R&D. They pronounced it a successful test and then got her ready to fly again.
Now they wanted to put a man in it.
This was Keller’s problem. Clearly the bird didn’t need a pilot. That, in and of itself, was something of a sacrilege. But now that they’d proven it could fly on its own, they wanted to have an astronaut fly it down from orbit. The whole theatricality of it was what stunk. It was barnstorming from 250 miles up. They were going to have his mission specialist fly this thing back to Edwards, just to prove that it could carry a man down.
Still, there was an old poem about reasons and doing things, and not asking why, and Keller, if nothing else, was a man who followed orders. As he maneuvered the Shenandoah to a distance of 50 feet from the Saturn-IB, he kept the disdain out of his voice.
“Houston, Shenandoah. We are holding at a distance of 50 feet, requesting permission to proceed with docking to the X-24. Over.”
A moment later he heard the CAPCOM reply, “Shenandoah, Houston. You are go for docking. Recommend you unlock the elbow joint on the ARA to allow for free rotation.
“Roger that Houston,” Keller signaled to his CMP to unlock the joint. The switch was thrown and he spoke again, “Houston, the ARA elbow is unlocked. We are proceeding to dock.”
The Apollo Robotic Arm (ARA), much like a human arm, could flex at the wrist and the elbow. Unlocking the elbow joint allowed it to rotate freely under force, which would absorb the force of grabbing the X-24. It was a safety measure that Keller had no intention of needing. He was confident that he could maneuver within range of the arm itself so that there was no relative velocity between the Shenandoah and the X-24. It would just be a matter of grabbing the other ship with the ARA.
His target was technically a small bar, just in front of the cockpit’s bubble canopy. It was only 6 inches wide, but that would be enough for the ARA to grasp and pull the spacecraft from the upper stage of the Saturn.
It was a slow push in, but, over the course of the next 10 minutes, a 50 foot distance became a 10 foot distance and the Shenandoah was close enough to the X-24 to be able to see the stitching on the pilot’s seat cushion. A nifty operation got the ARA attached to the bar and the elbow joint was locked into place. Then the Shenandoah’s RCS jets gave a small pulse which brought the X-24 out of her cocoon.
Nothing improved Scott Keller’s mood like a successful maneuver. He was all-smiles as the Saturn’s upper stage floated away. Even with this silver bathtub stuck on the front of his nice, neat Apollo, he felt a grin wrinkling his face.
With that twang that made his accent nearly impossible to place, he spoke to the man in the right-hand seat, “What do you think Jack? Ready for a little barnstorming?”
Jack Crichton’s eyes lit up. He nodded vigorously. Despite his official title of “science pilot” on this flight, he hadn’t had the chance to do any actual flying. He’d been waiting for nearly 2 months for this chance and he was raring to go.
“Absolutely skipper. Just get me over there. I’m gonna give them a show.” Crichton had all the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.
Keller nodded, “Good to hear,” he keyed his PTT, “Houston, Shenandoah. We are clear of the S-IVB, ready for cabin depressurization and Crichton’s transfer over to the X-24. Requesting permission to proceed.”
Houston gave them the go and 45 minutes later, Jack Crichton emerged from the Shenandoah’s hatch and gingerly crawled along the ARA to the X-24’s cockpit. Keller and CMP Shraeder watched his safety lines like two referees looking at a goalpost.
Crichton pulled back the bubble window and sunk down into the X-24. A cockpit that tight is less a seat than a suit. By the procedure written over a year beforehand, his first priority was to secure the harness around him. Only then could his two safety lines be unclipped and slowly reeled back to the Shenandoah.
Cdr. Keller dutifully waited for Crichton to go through hatch-closure and power-up procedures before the Shenandoah dogged its hatch. It took half an hour to complete pressurization in the X-24, but it felt great to take the helmet off. A round of radio calls went through before the ARA was disengaged and the Shenandoah left Crichton to his fate with his shiny little spaceship.
Crichton used his suit radio to talk to CAPCOM, but as the Shenandoah’s orbit took her farther than 10 miles, it became more difficult to receive. He plugged his headset into the X-24’s console and used the on-board antenna for the first time.
“Houston, this is the X-24, transmitting through on-board systems. How do you read me now?”
“Five by five, X-24,” came the callback.
Crichton smirked as he made his next transmission. “Houston, X-24. Seeing as ‘ex twenty four’ is a bit of a mouthful, I am requesting a change in call-sign. Over.”
“Copy, X-24. What did you have in mind?”
“Houston, how about Aurora?”
A moment passed, presumably for someone to give their assent.
“Copy that Aurora. You are so redesignated.”
Crichton keyed off VOX for a moment and gave a small chuckle. The whole renaming thing had been pre-arranged months ago. But NASA’s Press Office knew an opportunity when they saw one. There was bound to be good coverage on a hot-dog astronaut renaming his silver spaceship before bravely flying it back to a landing in sunny southern California. It was staged and a little hammy, but it was Buck Rogers writ large and the reporters would eat it up.
He could see Atlantic coastline below him when he engaged the RCS thrusters. There wasn’t enough fuel or life support to linger in orbit for long. He made the preparations for the retro burn and checked his attitude control one last time before calling Houston again.
“Houston, Aurora. I have completed the translation to retro attitude. Please confirm the alignment and the burn parameters. Over.”
“Aurora, Houston. We have you right on the money, Jack. Burn will begin in T-minus 4 minutes, 30 seconds. Mark. Main engine setting to 75%. Burn duration is 45 seconds. Confirm.”
Jack Crichton triggered the clock at the top of the panel and checked the engine settings for the fourth time. He’d done this a hundred times in simulators on the ground, which was nothing compared to the final approaches he’d done in the X-24 a year ago. It had been an intensive training program, but he’d relished the opportunity to spread his wings.
In the minute before retrofire, he contemplated the what-ifs one last time. He’d considered what might happen if the engine failed. Truthfully, he wasn’t that concerned. If there was a complete failure, the Shenandoah should, theoretically be able to come in for another docking and he could return to Earth with Crichton and Shraeder. No, what was more concerning was the thought of the engine failing during the burn, in which case his entry angle could be off and his new vector may make it impossible for the Shenandoah, or anyone else for that matter, to help him.
The rumble as the engine fired was enough to spook him a bit. He could hear it through the walls of the spacecraft. It was louder than he was expecting, but, no one had heard it fire in orbit before. Still, it was over, as promised, in exactly 45 seconds. He could recognize the sounds of throttling down as the retrofire completed. Whatever happened now, he would definitely be coming back to Earth.
He pulled back on the stick and sent the Aurora into a neat little flip that put her into belly-down position. Knowing what was about to happen, he took a moment to calm himself and enjoy the fading sunlight, enjoy the coming twilight, enjoy the silence and mentally prepare for reentry.
“Aurora, Houston. Your trajectory is good. We have you at entry interface in 1 minute. We expect radio blackout and will reacquire you over Hawaii.”
“Copy that Houston. Hope you’re all paying customers. This is going to be quite a show.”
The first sign of reentry was a slight vibration. The ship held steady, but there was the faintest bit of buffeting as the sun came over the horizon. Crichton grinned as the first streaks of orange, ionized air, came past the cockpit. It felt like something out of a pulp comic, to be flying a ship, really flying that is, in a ship with wings, through the upper atmosphere. Outside it looked like he was soaring through a neon tube. The Aurora’s nose glowed like her namesake. He admitted that the name selected by the Press Office could not have been a better choice.
The slow static crackle in his ears went away and he felt the ship shudder. Something seemed wrong. Instrumentation showed no sign of problems. He checked the buses and saw no signs of trouble. Caution and warning lights were all fine, but he was hearing absolutely nothing in his headset. If not for that, he’d have thought it was just another gust in the upper atmosphere. The space cowboy bravado faded faster than the glow from the reentry heat.
He looked down and could see the Pacific Ocean laid out like a great blue carpet across the world. His altitude settings had him right on the money.
“Houston, this is Aurora. How do you read me now?”
“Houston, this is Aurora. Do you read over?”
“Houston, this is Aurora. Transmitting in the blind. I am not receiving you at all. Repeat, I am not receiving. Switching to auxiliary communications system.”
He reached behind the stick and flipped the toggle to AUX. Still he heard nothing. Not even static.
“Houston, this is Aurora, transmitting auxiliary in the blind. How do you read me now?”
He tapped his ears to try to shake something loose, but there was nothing for it.
“Houston, this is Aurora.” He paused. By the book, he should declare an emergency, but somehow that felt wrong. He had no idea if they were reading him on the ground or not, but if they were, this would be a hell of a blow to the program. He’d spent enough time with this bird to not want her reputation damaged. Besides, declaring an emergency wouldn’t do him much good either way. If Houston was reading him, they’d know by now that he was deaf. If they weren’t, then it wouldn’t matter anyway.
He put as much confidence in his voice as he could muster. Admittedly, it wasn’t much. “Houston, Aurora. Transmitting in the blind. Entry complete. Altitude 40,000 ft. Heading 050. Proceeding to make the turn. Will attempt to reacquire signal over Vandenburg. Projected landing at Edwards in 7 minutes. Over.”
He could sense the air moving over the Aurora’s curves. For an aviator, it was about as sexy as this ship could get. He felt like a flea riding on a dog. There was some inherent instability to the lifting body design and he couldn’t afford to let the ship roll. But as long as he maintained attitude, she would fly true.
“Trust the ship, trust the math,” he said aloud as he looked down. A lot of very smart people had calculated his trajectories and timed out every maneuver down to the second. So what if he didn’t have Houston talking to him the whole way home. “You think Lindbergh had 50 guys in white shirts talking to him the whole way? You’re a pilot, fly the damn plane!”
By the mission plan, he put the Aurora into a slight roll to the right. Just 10 degrees, enough to let the air catch and pull her into a trajectory that was more East than Northeast. If he’d timed it right, then he’d be on course for Edwards.
Though it was still far below, he couldn’t yet see anything but open ocean. The idea of ditching in the ocean didn’t have much appeal. Last year, he’d asked the engineers, with the X-24’s bathtub shape, about the prospects of it floating.
“Don’t try it,” was the reply.
Technically, he didn’t need Edwards. This little bumblebee he was flying could, hypothetically, put down on just about any runway. Worst case scenario, he’d try to find a patch of open desert or empty highway and put her down there. If he’d turned too far, he wondered about the prospect of landing in Los Angeles. He clicked his tongue. The X-24 almost looked like something out of a movie anyway.
He checked his instrumentation again and could see no particular signs of trouble. It was almost more unnerving that way. Clearly there was something up with the communications system, but there was nothing to indicate that on the board.
“Houston, Aurora. Still in the blind. I have turned through 080 and I am proceeding with landing as scheduled. Please have everyone standing by down there.”
It was as close to a call for help as he would allow himself.
He almost cheered as saw the California coastline up ahead. Crichton chided himself, “You found North America. Good job slick. It was bound to be there anyways. Now, where are you?”
The trouble with California coastline is that there’s so much of it, and it looks, for the most part, like the coastline in Mexico and Oregon. Fortunately, the test flights had prepared him on what to look for.
As Crichton recognized Point Arguello, relief crashed over him like a wave. He’d managed to fly to basically the point he’d intended to. His altitude was a little lower than he’d prefer, but it was within a decent margin.
Being over dry land gave him a certain level of security. He was able to identify Vandenburg Air Force Base and felt like he might manage to pull this off after all. He still needed to get halfway to Nevada, but technically he was right where he wanted to be.
“Houston in the blind, this is Aurora. Altitude is at the lower end of the margin. Be advised, I will not be making a turn for runway 22R at Edwards. I’m gonna come in straight on the line.”
That was a little bit dicey. Not doing a sweeping turn for final approach would preserve energy, which translated to altitude, but it would also preserve a lot of speed. The Aurora would be coming in hot. It was a judgement call that he was forced to make. The kind of thing that Mission Control would have loved to weigh in on.
“Houston, Aurora. I have sighted the field at Edwards. This will be my last call.” He instantly regretted the way he’d phrased that; hoping for a moment that no one on the ground had heard him.
It was a stick and rudder operation now. No wave-offs, no second chances. Just the air, the ship and the runway. “So, from terrifying to nerve-wracking. You got here, now the hard part. Put her down.”
He came through 2000 feet and checked his airspeed. He was lower than he wanted and faster than he wanted and, if he’d had any fuel, it would have been the perfect time to pull up, circle the field and make a new approach.
Aurora shimmied a little bit and he felt her try to roll right. He kicked the rudder and eased the stick and she settled. This was no time to get into an aeronautical argument. “Just hold steady. Almost there.”
His left hand reached for the landing gear controller. It was a big black pull-bar that was very satisfying to yank towards him and he heard the whirr of the landing gear deploy.
“So far, so good.”
Below him he could see movement on the ground. There were trucks standing by and he thought he spotted an ambulance, which did nothing to calm his nerves.
The alignment for 22R was good. He’d practiced this before. Nose up, kill the velocity a bit. Nice and easy, let stall tease her right out of the air.
The altimeter unwound slowly, like a cat in a sunbeam. At 20 feet, he knew he had it made.
The rear wheels kissed the runway like a mother sending her child off to college. His airspeed indicator was still high, but he felt the low rumble of tires on the ground. The nose gear basically took care of itself. The Aurora screamed down the runway, like a racecar making for the finish line.
Crichton had a moment to look off to the side. A pair of T-38’s soared by overhead. They’d been with him for 50 miles, but he hadn’t really noticed them. He felt foolish all of a sudden. He’d been so concentrated on his instruments and the 10 degrees right in front of him that he’d not seen them pull alongside. He locked the rudder in place and double checked that he had full deployment of flaps.
Aurora was still doing around 60mph as she passed the end of the runway. It didn’t matter much. Out here, the “runway” was more agreed upon than built. It was basically painted onto the desert floor and the sand on either end wasn’t much different from the sand in the middle.
A desert tortoise watched NASA’s latest spacecraft roll past. It wasn’t impressed.
It took another minute or so for the ship to roll to a stop. His body relaxed and he realized that most of his muscles had been clenched tight since he was over the Pacific. The kinetic energy of a straight-shot approach had carried the Aurora for nearly half a mile past the runway. He made a note to tell the engineers to consider putting in a drag chute for later flights. Considering she’d gotten him down in one piece, Crichton felt confident that there would be later flights.
* * *
A week later, they’d figured out that the issue hadn’t been a fault with the communications system, but rather with his headset. He’d been transmitting blind, but Houston had gotten every word he’d said. He’d had a rather large audience listening the whole way down.
While the NASA brass had lauded him for landing a prototype ship with almost no assistance, the NASA Press office did have one complaint: His mike had been hot the whole way down.
In the Astronaut Corps, Jack Crichton became known as the man who found North America.
* * *