Copyright 2016 Mario V. Farina
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Mario V. Farina
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Asteroid Zircon is on a path to destroy life on Earth as we know it in about five months.” This was the most important sentence that the President had spoken when he made his address to the American people.
He had made this dramatic announcement on May 18. His face had borne a brooding, anguished-stricken appearance.
“My fellow Americans, as I speak, the leaders of nations around the world are issuing this same communiqué. A large object, which is known to be an asteroid, is traveling on a collision course with our world. Astronomers have named this asteroid, Zircon. To the best of our calculations, impact is possible in about five months. As yet, we don’t know the exact date or the precise point of impact though it is thought to be in the Long Island area of New York State. This body seems to be coming from the Asteroid Belt which is located between Mars and Jupiter.
On August 8, Wilma Brown received a call from Randy Rawlings at NASA’s Mission Control Center. She was pleased to hear the voice of the General Operations Chief.
“Hello, Randy, what’s new.” “Wilma, a plan has been tentatively formulated concerning Asteroid Zircon. We’re putting a crew together with Mike Martini as pilot. You’ve worked with him before. The idea is to have Space Shuttle, Victoria, go meet the asteroid to see what can be done.”
“What are we to do when we get there?”
Well, that hasn’t been decided quite yet.”
“Randy, what good would it do to go without a plan?”
“There is no time left for sitting around while a strategy is being formulated. We need to go meet the asteroid while it is still far from Earth. As were doing this, the planners in NASA can decide what they will want us to do when we get there.”
“Would nuking it be an option?”
“Yes, some people have suggested blasting it with an atomic explosion. But others have cautioned against this. They say that bombing would only break up one big asteroid into a lot of smaller ones. There would be a rain of asteroid fragments that would be just as bad as being smashed with the whole thing.”
“In his speech, the president had continued: there are thousands of asteroids in this belt that range in size from grains of sand to a irregular, rocky, and metallic objects many miles across. Frequently, asteroids leave their orbits and wander into space. In this form they are called meteoroids. Many of these objects fall to Earth in the form of meteors, which are also called shooting stars. So long as these objects are small, no measurable harm is ever done. However, large asteroids can, and have in the past, crashed to Earth causing much devastation.
Three weeks ago, a young man named Charles Wilkes, using a small, homemade telescope, discovered an asteroid that is thought to be between twelve to sixteen miles across. It is my agonizing duty to inform you that if this body were to hit Earth, all life on this planet would cease to exist, as we know it, in a matter of seconds. At the present time, unless something happens to change the path of this asteroid, it will collide with Earth at some time in early October.”
“The leaders of countries all over the world have planned a series of meetings to determine what can be done to keep a collision from occurring. In the meantime, I asked everyone to remain calm. There is nothing to be gained by fleeing. There is no place to go. Also there is nothing to be gained by engaging in unlawful activities. This will only make matters worse. What I do request is that, in addition to remaining calm, you submit any ideas that you might have as to how this dire peril can be averted.”
“How but giving it a little shove?” Wilma asked.
“That might work. But it’s a huge mass. Shuttle pictorials doesn’t have a lot of power in one of its OMS engines. After the fuel in the external tank has been used to get the shuttle into space, those engines have very little ability to do a great deal of shoving. They were designed for navigation.”
“Well, for whatever is decided, I want to do everything I can, Randy. Count me in.”
“Good, I knew you would say that. I’ll get back to you soon.”
On the day following his dramatic announcement, the president said in a news conference, throughout history, the world has faced and come through many desperate situations. I assure you, that it will happen again. Your calmness, your resolve, your ingenuity is required now as never before. Rest assured, that your President, and the other leaders of the world, will work at nothing more diligently then determining how to keep this threatening disaster from afflicting the world. We will keep you informed as to our progress with frequent reports. At this point, all I can conclude with is, God bless planet Earth!”
The morning papers were ablaze with headlines. There were articles telling about the Asteroid Belt, where it is located, how it functions, and how, at times it malfunctions. There were stories reporting on collisions that had occurred with Earth in the past. They told of huge craters in various parts of the world, how a collision of an asteroid with Earth was thought to have led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Many articles told about the famous Barringer meteor crater in Arizona.
Citizens came to know such asteroid names as Ida, Dactyl, Ceres, Gaspra, Mahilde, Geographos, and Vesta as well as they knew the names of the planets, Venus Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.
Wilma heard nothing until August 11. Randy’s voice crackled through the handset.
“Wilma, can you come right over. I’ve summoned the others. A nasty situation is developing here!”
“What’s the problem, Randy?”
“We been given a go-ahead for attempting to deflect the asteroid, but there is a crowd outside that thinks were getting ready to escape to some other planet. An ugly mob is surrounding the launch site and the people are making a lot of noise. I don’t have a great deal of time for explanations. Were going to try a launch in six hours. Can you come right over?”
“I’ll leave right now!”
CBS had aired a TV special depicting what would occur in the final days. A speck of light no larger than the faintest of stars would become visible in the eastern sky’s about 10 days before impact. Day after day, it would loom larger and larger. Two days before impact, the asteroid would be so large that it would appear to have a diameter several times that of the moon. At night, its brightness would rival that of the sun.
On Impact Day, the object would be observed growing in size with every passing moment. Then it would begin shining with a fiery intensity. Ten seconds before impact, it would become a fireball that would fill the entire sky, it’s heat being intensely felt on Earth. Many persons would die from this cause alone. Then, collision – and doom!
When Wilma drove to the gate of the enormous launch complex, she encountered several thousand men and women massing in front of the guard shack. Shouts of “Take us with you!” Could be heard. Wilma nodded to the guard, who knew her from the time she helped discover the Bocci Ball planet.
Whereas, there had been very little panic among the population before, the CBS program continued to cause a great deal of alarm. In many cities, the roads became choked with outgoing traffic even though official reports advised that there was no place on earth that was safer than any other. Prices for critical goods like food and gasoline, even water, skyrocketed. Life on earth bore only a slight resemblance to normalcy; only the most essential work was being done. Church attendance increased several fold. There were a great many more reports of rapes, robberies, and murders than there had been in the past. However, none of the reports were more frightening than those that dealt with the horrors of the planet’s finals days and hours.
Randy Rawlings held out his hand in a warm greeting. He escorted Wilma to the Properties Room where space clothing was neatly stowed. “Suit up,” he said. “Then, I’ll go with you to the top of the tower. The rest of the crew should be arriving soon.
For many weeks after the president had made his initial statement, he had said nothing of either a pessimistic or optimistic nature. He, and the leaders of other nations, were bombarded with demands for information on what was being done. May faded into eternity, then June. On July 1, marches were held throughout the world with calls for something to be done to save humankind. Many of these marches turned ugly with individuals being maimed and killed.
Wilma was seated on a plain folding chair in the standby room two hundred feet above the ground, six steps away from the shuttle’s access hatch. Attendants arrived and opened it. With their assistance, she squeezed through the small opening and settled onto the couch-like copilot’s seat. The shuttle’s door was closed from the outside.
She activated the mike. Randy, what’s going on? Where are the others? When will they get here?”
“They’re being held up by the crowd, Wilma. All the members of the crew are trying to get through the gate, but the horde is blocking them. The mob keeps insisting that the crew is attempting to escape to Venus, Mars, or some other place. Fortunately, there is sufficient personnel in the Control Room to get you launched.”
“He’s in the same boat as the others. Events are taking a desperate turn. Our window for liftoff is almost gone, and I don’t think we have the luxury of being able to wait for the next one. You may need to fly Victoria by yourself!”
“Randy, you can’t be serious! It takes at least three persons to fly Victoria.”
“We could do most of the work for you here, Wilma. Right now, we have no choice. You may represent the only hope there is to save the world!”
“All right then, Randy. Let’s go for lunch!”
Officials, astronomers, physicists, scientists, and others had met, and had continued to meet in the capitals of the world. At the end of July, there still was no plan of action for averting the approaching catastrophe. It was now known that the exact date and time of the collision was to be October 3 at 233 in the afternoon; the point of impact 42° 42’ N, 73° 37’ West.
At the launch site there was a brief pause of forty-six seconds, then the count was resumed. When it reached zero, Shuttle Victoria ignited its two solid rocket boosters and thunderously, but smoothly, lifted from the launch pad. After two minutes of flight, the SRB’s engines separated and the three main engines of the shuttle took over the burden of taking Victoria into the stratosphere. Eighteen minutes later, the ship was two hundred miles into space, traveling at 17,500 miles per hour, on his way to a rendezvous with Asteroid Zircon. The trip was to take twenty-seven days.
“How are you feeling, Wilma?”
“Bored out of my mind, Randy. But you know, if I were to die on this voyage, I would still feel that I had left the world a very fortunate person. Think about the kings and emperors in the past who, despite their wealth, could not have had the experiences that I have enjoyed as a space traveler. I’m sure these rulers would have traded everything for a few minutes of my life.”
“You’ve become quite a philosopher, Wilma.”
“Well, I’ve had lots of time to think about it, Randy. How many days has it been? I’ve lost count.”
Is the twenty-seventh day, Wilma. You’re more than eleven million miles from Earth. You should be seeing Asteroid Zircon. The Army is still keeping the mob away from the gate. Mike and the others were able to get into the compound but are frustrated that they can’t be with you. It was good that you went to when you did. We wouldn’t have had another opportunity!”
“Randy, I see something in the distance that’s getting larger as I look at it. It’s coming toward me very fast and is beginning to take form.”
“What’s it like?”
“What I can see is very heavily crated. I would say is roughly ten to twelve miles in diameter. I can’t tell much about its length. It seems to be turning on its axis once every two or three minutes. I’m aiming the camera at it. Do you see it?”
“I do see it! Magnificent! the computers tell us that you’re approaching the asteroid at about five miles per second and that it’s coming toward you at about four miles per second. We’ve activated the OMS engines to stop your forward movement. That will reverse your direction so that you’ll be headed back toward Earth flying backwards.”
“Do the computers know what they’re doing, Randy?”
“Trust them, Wilma. The computers will allow Asteroid Zircon to chase you until it catches you. Then you’ll both be moving toward Earth, in tandem at the same velocity.”
“The asteroid will pick up speed as it moves toward Earth,”?”
“True, but will we’ll accelerate Victoria also. When your speeds are matched, we’ll try a pushing maneuver. We’ll be using the OMS engines for this.”
On Planet Earth time passed too slowly for some; too fast for others. For Wilma, it was neither. Time seemed to have no existence.
“Randy, do you know what it’s like to be face-to-face with the nose and of a gigantic asteroid?”
“No, and I don’t think I’d like to know, Wilma. We see that your just a couple of feet from each other. How would you describe this thing?”
“Front a distance, it looks like a huge sponge, Randy. There are deep holes all over it like it was stabbed with poles. There are only a few flat places where it looks like it wasn’t hit by something. Right now I’m at one end of it.”
‘Do you see where you could give the asteroid a shove?”
“Yes, there’s a smooth spot just to the left of dead on. I can push there with the nose of the shuttle and try to get the asteroid to turn to its left.”
“It wouldn’t take much of a deflection to save Earth, Wilma. A part of one degree would do it at this distance. When the shuttle touches it, push it a little!”
“The asteroid has just made it light contact, Randy. I’m applying the jets, one fourth power. Anything happening?”
“No, apply more power!”
“Half power! Now?”
“Nothing. Got to full power!”
“One hundred percent! What’s happening?”
“Nothing yet, keep pushing.”
“I have power for only one more minute, Randy.”
“I know, we have no choice, Wilma. Keep it up.”
“Power’s gone! Anything?”
“What’s the bottom line, Randy?”
“I don’t know if I can put it into words, Wilma!”
“I’m going to put on the space suit and step on to that wretched rock.”
“What good will that do?”
“Maybe I just want to give it a good swift kick.”
“Wilma, what are you doing? The asteroid is shaking like there was an army marching on it.”
“I’m just walking around. What is this thing made of? Gravity is intense, much more than on earth. I can hardly move my feet. Point the camera my way can you see me?”
“I see you. Whenever you move, even a little, the asteroid jiggles.”
“What happens when I lift my right arm this way?”
“According to the computers, there is a very slight deviation of the asteroid to the right!”
“And when I left the other arm?”
“The asteroid swerves to the left. The deviation is very slight but measurable. Wilma, this could save the world! Keep doing what you’re doing!”
“What’s making a change course?”
“I can only guess, Wilma. We know very little about this. Scientists have thought that there is a so-called solar wind that travels through space like winds travels through the air on Earth. It’s composed of a highly ionized plasma of gas – mostly hydrogen. It could be that your arms are acting like ailerons on an airplane. The longer you hold up your arm, the farther will be the deviation of the asteroid away from Earth.”
“The shuttle, Randy! Look what’s happening!”
“The asteroid is veering away from the shuttle, Wilma. It’s Zircon that’s moving, not Victoria.”
“Then, I’m going to be marooned on this rock! I’m not using an umbilical cord.”
“How much fuel do you have in your pack?”
“Enough for about on hundred seconds, but I’m not going back to the shuttle until we turn the asteroid enough so that it ceases to threaten Earth.”
“Good news! Our calculations show that the asteroid has changed its course enough so that it will miss Earth by about a thousand miles, then fly off into space looking for some other poor planet to smash into.”
“Randy, I can barely see the shuttle.”
“Get off the asteroid now, Wilma. Go back to the shuttle. Do it while you can still see it.”
“I’ll do that, Randy, but then what? There is no more fuel in the OMS engines. How will I get back to earth?”
“You can use the Reaction Control System. The jets are tiny but they can turn you in the right direction. From where you are, it will take about twenty-five days for you to return to Earth. Then, we’ll take Victoria around the world several times, each time getting you closer and closer to earth at a slower and slower velocity.”
“Sort of like victory laps, Randy?”
“Well deserved victory laps, Wilma! Then will land you light as a feather at the Johnson Space Center in Texas. By the way, the world knows what you’re doing. You’re a heroine, Wilma. Be prepared for a great welcome!”
The President announced that an asteroid had been discovered headed straight for Earth and would make impact in October. Life on Earth, as we know it, would be destroyed. World leaders were at a loss knowing how to avoid having this calamity occur. Finally, Wilma Brown found herself next to this asteroid faced with finding a method of avoiding the catastrophe. Was she able to measure up to the challenge?