October 8th, 1999
by John Martellaro
I was in an aisle seat, sitting on pins and needles. It was my first time, and I was pretty damn scared. But you know me. I'll try anything once. Besides, I'd paid for it. Not gonna back out now.
The light overhead came on. That was my signal to go aft. So I unbuckled my seat belt and floated into the aisle. A gentle push on the seatback propelled me aft. Good thing I was in the back of the shuttle or I would have bounced off every seatback on the way.
There was a wide door that opened into the airlock cabin, and I could see a few techs holding out their hands to catch me. One was a really cute blonde with blue eyes and a pony tail. So I wasn't too annoyed when she grabbed my thigh and squeezed to slow me down.
Getting into a space suit in zero-g is easier than it looks. You just pull your legs up, hold the "pants" legs out in front of you and shoot your feet into them. Then you grab the collar, push one arm into a sleeve and kinda wiggle into it. Takes about 20 seconds.
After I got the suit on, the techs strapped the parachute onto me and ran the rip cord up to my chest. Then they guided me over to a 3 meter diameter, silver sphere. That was my ride. The hatch was open, so all I had to do was stick my feet out, and they guided my shoulders into the seat buckles. After they strapped me in, the blonde leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek.
"Happy birthday!" she said and smiled. Oh, man. Those blue eyes...
Then they put my helmet on and showed me how to dial the opacity I wanted. I also had to practice releasing the face plate for later. Took me two tries. The blonde was distracting me.
They shut the hatch, and I watched the bar rotate on my side as they secured it. I heard a gentle whoosh of air as the pressure built up a little for the integrity check. That's when I had a minute to gaze at the "instrument panel." The instrument panel was way too simple for my liking. There was a big red metal bar that said:
That's all. No instruments. No emergency procedures. No radio. No ejection seat. Push the button, then rock and roll.
I could see the techs leaving the airlock through the lexan view port in front of me. Sheesh! Five centimeters of plastic between me and a fiery death. I sat hoping those engineers knew their stuff. After the techs closed their airlock door, I saw a big green light on the wall turn yellow, then red. The sphere rocked a little as the air rushed out. Then, whoomph! I was moving. The pedestal must have pushed me just a little, and I started drifting. That was the scariest port of the whole ride, actually.
As my sphere slowly moved out of the airlock, I felt suddenly isolated and helpless. The farther I drifted, the scarier it got. At first, all I could see was the SuperShuttle fuselage. It was huge. Then, after a few seconds, I could see the delta wings. I came out on the top of the shuttle, so the wings were square to me. After awhile, the shuttle got small enough so I could see the whole thing, brilliant white against the black sky. (It was "above" me.) I couldn't see too many stars because the sun was glaring on the view port, off to the side. When the shuttle was totally inside the red rectangle glowing in my view port, I was at liberty to "punch it."
So I punched it.
I didn't feel anything at first. Very slowly, the SuperShuttle started moving out of the rectangle and was no longer visible in the view port. I realized that the sphere was actually rotating, getting ready for the de-orbit burn. Then I noticed the numbers glowing in red in the bottom of my face plate: altitude and g's. The altitude said 165,200 meters. Zero g's.
Then I heard it and felt it at the same time. BANG! Scared the hell out of me. I thought I thought I had been hit by something, but it was just the de-orbit solid lighting up. I thought the deceleration was going to be gentle, but it wasn't. I was instantly pressed back in my seat and the g-meter jumped to 2 g's and started climbing.
3 g's.... 4 g's.... 4.5 g's...
Now I was cursing myself because I was so busy gawking at the shuttle, I forgot to dim the helmet's face plate. If the sun came into the view port, I was gonna get scorched. With a lot of effort, I crawled my hand up my chest and finally got the opacity turned up.
I closed my eyes and prayed.
After about a minute, I think, I could see fire in the view port. It was swirling around and around. I don't know if I was rotating or the hot gasses were just swirling that way. I was hard pressed to do anything but breathe and watch the altimeter. It said 150,000 meters. It was dropping fast. 140,000... 130,000...
It seemed like an eternity, but later, they told me it was just three minutes. The first change I noticed was that the fire went away and the sky was a deep purple. The altimeter said 20,000 meters. The g forces had let up quite a bit and were now about 2 g's. Then I saw a drogue chute flutter out, and it whipped around so hard, I thought it was gonna rip right off. In a few seconds, the sky got much more blue, and then I realized it was show time. So I got ready. As the altimeter approached 5,000 meters, I folded my arms over my chest and took a deep breath.
The sphere split apart at the top and literally dumped me. That's the second scariest part. All of a sudden, you fall head first as the seat straps let loose and WHAM!. The air hits your faceplate and you're tumbling. It didn't take me long to get spread-eagled and stabilize. Those mandatory skydiving lessons were... well... mandatory.
There it was! The spaceport. I could see the runways right underneath me. I don't know how they did it, but I was right on target. At 3,000 meters I popped open the faceplate and started breathing real air. It smelled pretty good, lot's better than canned air. I could smell trees! Amazing.
The altitude ticked off in my faceplate as I rotated slightly to look at the snowcapped Sierras in the distance. What a ride!
At 500 meters, I popped the chute and, whumps, there went my stomach again. Man, talk about g forces! It wasn't too hard to steer the chute, actually a para-sail, to the landing area -- which was a big cross hatched area with a yellow circle in the middle.
If I could land in the 20 meter diameter circle in the middle, I'd get half off the next ride. I tugged on the lines and flared, but I had too much lateral speed and overshot the circle by about 10 meters.
Not bad. Take that, Scott Carpenter!
As I sat in the spaceport restaurant, sipping on an iced-tea, and looking out the window at the blue sky, I thought about how far we had come. It was August 7, 2027, my seventeenth birthday. It wasn't that many years ago when the 20th century astronauts risked their lives riding into space on made-over ICBMs. Those missiles had a nasty habit of exploding at the most inconvenient times, but men crawled into little capsules, buttoned up, and took the wildest rides of their lives. Some died. The ones who didn't die got National medals. Now you just pay 2000 bucks, about a week's pay at my summer job, and you can do it for fun. Yeah, maybe it's a little dangerous. Like driving too fast is dangerous. But no one ever got killed space diving.
The robo-server came over and handed me the bill for lunch on a touchpad. All I had to do was press my thumbprint in the corner of the screen, and my lunch was paid for. As I sat fiddling with the touch pad on the table, I looked up and saw another SuperShuttle slowly climbing from the pad in cloud of white fire. What a beautiful spacecraft!
We've come a long way in computer technology too, you know. Yesterday, my science history teacher was telling us about Arthur C. Clarke, the father of the geosynchronous communications satellite. According to Mr. Barnes, Arthur C. Clarke once said that we always overestimate the rate of technological change in the short term, but underestimate in the long run. I think it's like, when I go visit my grandma, she still has an old General Electric transistor radio bought by her mom way back in 1959. It still works! It has seven discrete transistors each about the size of a small peanut. Mr. Barnes said if you'd asked an engineer of the day how many years it would take before we could put 275 million transistors inside the volume of a BB shot, he would have said, "Oh, maybe the year 2200." (A grave underestimation, you see, of technology's pace in the long term.) But, Mr. Barnes, continued, if you had asked Neil Armstrong, when he returned from his historic flight to the Moon in 1969 when he thought the first astronaut would land on Mars, he might have said something like, "Oh, maybe the year 1984." (A serious overestimation in the short term.)
Yep. That magical year. 1984. That's the year my dad was born. They say it was also the year that Apple shipped the first Macintosh personal computer. Before the Macintosh hit the streets, the personal computer, or any computer at all, was usable by only a few hundred thousand people on the planet -- just too geeky, scary, and complicated for an average human being. Those early computer users fiddled with assembly language code, shifted registers, punched cards, built flow charts with a plastic template, swapped vacuum tubes, and had fretful nightmares about boolean operators and two's complement arithmetic. If there hadn't been a vision for a better way, we might still be typing commands on little tiny keyboards.
Just the thought of assembly language sends shivers down my spine.
I guess we've all forgotten how far we've come with personal computers in the long run and how it all got started. I know I tend to take my own touchpad for granted. Just think, since 1984, our personal computers have increased in speed and memory by over a factor of a million. Let's see... at that rate it would take one of those old Apple IIs my grandpa had over a year of CPU time just to process my lunch tab!
Mr. Barnes also told us about how, when the computer industry was just getting started, it seemed like an eternity between 1984 and 1995, the year Windows 95 shipped. (That was, he said, Microsoft's version of the MacOS that they stole from Apple.) At least, it seemed like an eternity to Microsoft. Yet, in hindsight, people in the 20th century really underestimated how fast GUI touchpads would be used by just about everyone on the planet to communicate with each other via video. Once we make a breakthrough in the human-machine interface, it really explodes faster than we can predict in the long run.
The Apple Macintosh in 1984 really was the computer that changed the world. (Mr. Barnes couldn't explain why it took Microsoft 11 years to come up with an inferior imitation. Maybe that's why they went out of business in 2008.)
It's easy to forget what Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, brought forth Today, we just point and touch, assuming that that's the way it always was. But it wasn't. Somewhere, sometime, someone had to have a vision that changed the world, propelled us forward, and made it look easy in the process.
Like my space dive.
Next time, I gotta remember to get that blonde's e-phone number.
Author note: Malcom "Scott" Carpenter, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, became infamous for getting too exuberant about his flight and didn't pay enough attention to starting his de-orbit sequence. As a result, he overshot his landing site by about 400 km. He was never asked to fly again. But he remains a hero of his time.
VentureStar and space port graphics courtesy Lockheed Martin, Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Space Shuttle photo of the Sacramento Valley courtesy of NASA.
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Copyright 1999 by John Martellaro. All rights reserved. Published with permission at The Mac Observer.