Following the advent of NASA’s $10 million ‘X’ prize for the first re-usable spacecraft, many would-be spacemen emerged from the proverbial woodwork. Most stood very little chance of success, but amongst their number there was one who did…
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The cold war was the impetus for the Sputnik and Apollo missions, which were loosely based on the German ‘V’ rocket technology. Lately the space shuttle has expanded on this, but the basic principle has remained the same. That is, a large rocket has had to lift itself and its fuel, together with the appropriate module, supplies and crew, into orbit.
This has proved inefficient and expensive, with launches costing over $1 million a time. Five decades of ‘X’ craft development has now led to the unveiling of NASA’s new X33, which is hoped to be the first re-usable space craft. But in their wisdom, NASA decided to hedge their bets by offering a $10 million prize for anyone who could get their craft into orbit twice in two weeks, with three new astronauts.
British space projects have never really been taken that seriously, and whenever anyone has dared to announce something, they have always left themselves wide open to ridicule.
With the advent of the $10 million ‘X’ prize, many would be spacemen emerged out of the proverbial woodwork. Most stood very little chance of success, but somewhere amongst their number, there was one who did…
“How long have we got to stay here for, Sarge?” The young constable stared at his watch, eager for his meal break. He was getting hot, as the midday sun shone down from the late August sky.
“Until this crackpot’s finished!”
He was not the only one to feel the pangs of hunger starting to rumble around his stomach.
They had been asked to put in an appearance on the local playing fields, and the sergeant had just turned off the engine of the patrol car, after negotiating the small lane, which led down from the local pub. They had both seen a man sitting outside eating a ploughman’s lunch, which had not helped the situation.
“Do you think it’ll take long?”
The sergeant nodded his head disappointedly as he looked longingly back towards the Red Lion. He would have given a whole week’s wages for a cool pint of beer, and a sandwich. “I’d expect so!” A sense of disappointment filled the car, as they sat in silence for a moment.
They had parked by a small crowd of onlookers, who had gathered around a woman from the local TV news programme. She was busy signing autographs as the cameraman adjusted his tripod. A sound engineer made up the trio, although he had disappeared for a moment, to rummage about in the back of their four-wheel drive.
The shrill of a siren distracted everybody, making them all turn round towards a small boy, who had been sitting in the front seat of the ambulance positioned behind them. He was really enjoying himself, pretending that he was racing through the streets of the local town. But, now that he had been discovered, he slipped out of the door, fearful of a reprimand from his mother. The woman was already having to make her apologies to the crew, who fortunately, could see the funny side.
“So what’s all this about then?” The young constable popped his cap on, as he opened the patrol car door.
His sergeant shook his head, as he reached for his own cap. “Some idiot space man!” He pointed to the centre of the field, to where a small team of people was busily unfurling a large balloon, which stretched out across the grass.
Realising that he was requesting an explanation, the sergeant put his cap down. “It must be nearly two years ago when it all started. I met one of the firemen down the local, and he started telling me about this chap who’d come into the station. Apparently he was planning to test his rocket and thought that he ought to inform somebody. Very reluctantly they’d arranged to accompany him down here - more out of curiosity than anything else!”
“So what happened then?”
The sergeant began to smile. “Well, he set his rocket up over there, and at the count of ten he pressed a button on his control pad. The thing shot up into the air, before suddenly returning back to earth. They all dived for cover as it came down in the middle of the allotments, setting fire to one of the sheds!” They were both laughing. “It was the most serious fire that they’d had to deal with in weeks!”
“Was that the last he saw of him, then?”
The sergeant wiped the tears from his eyes. “No, about two months later the chap came back with a much larger one, and this time I had to go with them!” There was an air of expectation in the patrol car, as the sergeant reached the climax of his story. “He set the thing up just as he’d done the first time, before launching it into the sky. It shot through the clouds at great speed, before suddenly cutting out. The chap was overjoyed as it returned to earth on the end of a parachute - that was until it crashed through a vicar’s greenhouse. He was feeding his roses at the time, and we watched him fling himself to the ground, only to emerge all covered in horse manure! I’ve never laughed so much in all my life!” He was holding his sides, as the tears rolled down his face, wetting his shirt. “The vicar all covered in…!”
It took several minutes for him to regain his composure, as he took his handkerchief out, wiping the tears from his rosy cheeks. “This is no good, we’ll have to get out!”
They opened the doors, venturing out into the sunlight. Curiosity had got the better of the young constable, who found himself walking across the grass to investigate, whilst his sergeant struck up a conversation with ambulance crew.
“So how’s it all going then?”
There was a disgruntled tutting followed by the shaking of heads. “The damn fool’s going to kill himself… and take those others idiots with him!”
“Its hardly Cape Canaveral is it?” They all started to laugh, at the sergeant’s comment. “If he thinks that he can go into orbit in that thing, then he must be more crazy than we thought!” Laughter spread amongst the crowd, as the news team prepared for their first take.
“Can we have hush, please?” The soundman had reappeared with his furry boom microphone, and the crowd fell silent as the clipboard appeared and the camera began to roll.
“Following the announcement of NASA’s $10 million X prize for the first re-usable space craft, many people have been busily working away on their own designs. Today we are here on these playing fields to witness the first attempt by a British scientist!”
The camera panned around to where the vehicle was being prepared. It did not look all that impressive, in fact the reporter had trouble keeping a straight face as she beckoned the crew over, eager for an interview. One of them casually strolled across, with his hands in his pockets.
“Hello!” A jolly man with a goatee beard shook her warmly by the hand, he looked very relaxed and obviously pleased by all the attention. “John Appleby at your service!”
“Tell me, Mr Appleby - are you seriously going to attempt a space flight in that?”
The man laughed broadly. “And why not!” He had a twinkle in is eye as he spoke, which threw her a little.
“But it looks just like a hot air balloon!”
He smiled again as the camera focused in on his inflating craft.
“Well my dear, that’s exactly what it is!”
A bit of sniggering could be heard in the background, obviously coming from others who shared her thoughts. “Well, you must admit it’s quite a departure from the space shuttle!”
“I should think so too - that’s the most complicated vehicle ever invented!”
She looked a little perplexed. “But I thought you needed all of that technology for a successful space flight!”
He shook his head. “Oh, no, no, no, no!”
There was a brief pause, before she continued her questioning. “Have you spent several months in training?”
He shook his head. “No, although I have tried to walk the dog a little further lately, as I’ve begun to put on a little weight!” He held his stomach in his hands, as the background sniggering continued.
She was looking at his navy blue space suit, with its little red ‘UK Space Agency’ badge on it. Her expression of ridicule turned to one of worry. “But what happens if anything goes wrong?”
He looked surprisingly confident. “Well, we’ve all got emergency parachutes, and there’s a small helmet that clips onto the collar should any of us require oxygen!”
She went a little pale, clearly worried by his relaxed manner. “Are you sure it’s safe?”
He looked her straight in the eye. “What would you rather do, be strapped to a rocket, or float up gently on the end of a balloon?”
The reporter could see his point, but she was still more than a little sceptical. “Have you had any formal training for this mission?”
He shook his head. “No… but I did acquire a science degree a few years ago!”
When the others approached, Appleby held out a guiding hand. “I’d like to introduce you to my passengers!” The poor woman’s mouth opened, as her jaw dropped. “Passengers!” There were two of them - a rather elderly looking woman, and a balding businessman.
“I’d like to introduce you to Miss Blackstone our mobile librarian, and Mr Johnson who owns the local biscuit factory!”
There was a brief pause, before she continued her interview. “Doesn’t all this worry you at all?”
They both smiled. “Not a bit!”
Miss Blackstone was already very excited, whilst Mr Johnson took the opportunity to make a speech. “As your prospective parliamentary candidate for this town, I have already given this project my financial backing!” He was just about to get into full swing when a gasp from the crowd made the cameraman pan around, as the balloon began to inflate.
“You’ll have to excuse me, as I’ve work to do!” With that, Appleby returned to his craft, leaving the interviewer to the mercy of Mr Johnson. “I want to transform this town, taking it to new heights. My policies are to...”
Eventually, after a bit of a struggle, the reporter managed to start her summery. “That was the team of intrepid pioneers, who are the latest to attempt to win NASA’s $10 million X prize. Are we standing on the verge of a major breakthrough in space travel? You’ll have to tune into our afternoon bulletin for an update. This is Beverly Baxter, reporting from the playing fields… How was that?”
She got the thumbs up from her crew, and happily disappeared into the four-wheel drive, to call her editor. Meanwhile, Appleby and his team had gathered around the capsule as the final checks were made, before they clambered aboard.
It did not take long for the burners to heat enough of the air inside the balloon for it to lift gently off the ground. There was a slight tingle of excitement amongst the crowd as they watched it rise. A couple walked across to join the young constable, who was already lending a hand, much to his sergeant’s amusement. “It looks like we’re going to give it a police escort!” The crowd laughed again as he continued to ridicule.
Appleby’s head popped out of the hatch, giving them a final wave before signalling to one of his ground crew. “OK Charlie!”
Charlie was the man who had driven the lorry that had brought them here, and he walked forwards, as Appleby released the priming tank. He casually placed it on a sack trolley, wheeling it away whilst whistling merrily to himself as he went.
The balloon was nearly fully inflated now, and it was not long before the anchor ropes began to tighten, as the balloon pulled the capsule off the ground. Appleby signalled the man again, who switched on the cassette player in the cab turning up the volume, as a countdown sequence started. “Sixty, fifty nine, fifty eight…”
Everyone waited, as they approached the final few seconds “Five, four, three, two, one!” There was a loud cheer from the crowd as Appleby released the cables and they began to rise slowly.
The camera was rolling as the balloon cast a long shadow over the spectators, grouped by the emergency vehicles. Beverly Baxter was busily doing her piece for the next news bulletin. She had done her best to build it up, in the hope that it might be used later in the ‘and finally’ slot. Even the sergeant managed an enthusiastic cheer - although he had mocked them, in his heart he wished them well. The crowd were still waving as it began to fill the sky above their heads. They seamed happy enough, even if it did not look much like a space craft. The waving continued, as the balloon got a little smaller in the sky, although some people were already beginning to leave.
A mobile phone rang in the distance; it was the editor, who wanted the pictures beamed straight into his newsroom. The reporter got very excited at the prospect of appearing on national television.
A loud voice rang out in her ear. It was her editor again, fuming at the sight of the balloon. She had neglected to mention that it was shaped like a giant chocolate biscuit, which was not that surprising considering the main sponsor! Once it had all but disappeared, the remaining people decided to retire to local pub, where a temporary command centre had been set up in the bar.
“Well, so far so good!” Appleby relaxed, as the balloon rose slowly into the sky. “Who needs all those G-forces anyway!’’
Miss Blackstone beamed with pleasure, her eyes glued to the altimeter. She craved excitement, and in her mind this was going to be the greatest thrill of all. Mr Johnson on the other hand, nervously twitched in his seat. For all of his bluster he was a real coward at heart.
The gauge rose slowly towards the magic 70-mile figure, where they would then have to maintain a sub-orbital trajectory, before descending, and repeating the whole process again within the next two weeks to win the prize.
The capsule was a little cramped, although there was room to move about. It was quite similar in design to the ones used on the Apollo missions - primitive but effective!
“I’d like to see the faces of those people at NASA when they see us!” They all started to laugh, in the knowledge that the ‘biscuit’ would soon be nudging the edge of space.
In the bar of the Red Lion, Rosie had been having the same thought, but not knowing their number, she decided to call the local observatory at Jodrell Bank instead. She was a typical busty barmaid who Appleby had known for years. After a brief romance they had become good friends, and she was his natural choice to man the control centre.
“Good morning, Jodrell Bank Observatory!” The voice of an elderly man crackled over the speakerphone.
“Oh hello, I wonder if you could help me?”
“I’ll do my best madam!”
She took a deep breath. “My friend John is attempting to win the X prize, and I wondered if you could give me the number for NASA?”
There was a brief silence, before he spoke again. “The X prize eh!”
She took another deep breath. “He’s already in the sky above you, heading into orbit!”
There was a bit of a scramble, as he got his binoculars out. “Where exactly is he?” The man was obviously scouring the sky for a space ship.
“He’s in a capsule suspended beneath a balloon shaped like a giant ‘biscuit!”
“Well bless my soul!” He obviously must have found it, by his expression.
“Brian, you’d better get NASA on the blower!”
Rosie was politely left on hold, as a connection was made with their main control room in Florida.
“Is this some sort of a joke?” A rather irate official banged his fist down on his desk.
“Well, I’ve got Jodrell Bank on the other line sir!”
There was a moment’s hesitation. “I know those British are a bit eccentric, but they’re certainly not stupid!” He had been preparing the X33 for another test launch, when he had received the call.
“Hello!” He almost shouted down the line as they connected him with the observatory.
“Good morning!” There was a sharp intake of breath. “What the hell is going on over there?”
There was a slight pause, as the man from Jodrell Bank held the receiver away from his ear. “Oh, some of our chaps have lifted off in pursuit of your X prize, and we were wondering if you’d be kind enough to talk to their support team!”
There followed another pause, whilst satellites were re-aligned. “We have them on the big screen!” He was looking at the biscuit, as it rose calmly through the clouds.“
“What the hell is that?” He put his head in his hands. “Of all the…”