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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2273710
Moving out into space to look back [Short Shots entry for 05/2022].
More Bang for the buck



Samuel Mariota couldn't believe his luck. The project manager—Dan Husband himself, distantly related to Rick Husband, commander on the ill-fated Columbia mission from so long ago—had selected him to be the day-shift controller for the Roddenberry Vision Project. A follow-on project to the James Webb Space Telescope, it had been in development over fifteen years at a cost of nearly US $25B. If they'd all been federal dollars, it almost certainly never would have happened. Fortunately, several nations, as well as a number of scientific consortia and science-based, multinational corporations were active participants in the program, gladly sharing the financial burden of the cosmic venture. Nicknamed Time Machine 2.0, Roddenberry was designed to orbit exponentially farther from Earth than Webb. Its destination was the L5 Lagrange Point, 1 AU distant from Earth, and its goal was to "see" back to within 50 million years of the Big Bang, maybe even further. Exciting stuff indeed.

His mom and dad had been understandably proud of him when he'd joined the U.S. Army, although it wasn't exactly an unexpected career choice considering American Samoa's reputation as the number one recruiting station among the nearly 900 Army recruiting stations and centers. They'd been very excited when he'd landed a job at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and were ecstatic when he'd made the transfer to NASA itself.

"You know how many boys from Pago Pago have a job with the Space Program, son?" his dad had asked. "I'll bet it's just one - you!"

"That may be true now, Dad," he'd replied, "but don't forget the first Samoans to ever work in the program: Lusa and Isa Naea. They blazed the trail for the rest of us, working with the Space Shuttle Program and all."

He wondered what they'd say when he called tonight with the news. The project had been in the news for years, off and on, but almost weekly in the last few months. Naturally, Sam had been talking it up in every phone call and letter, since he was a core member of the project team. Still, they'd probably be speechless, even though they were getting used to the steady advances in his chosen career. He marveled again at how his training as a 13-Mike - High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Crewman had literally sparked his interest in rocket science, eventually leading to this moment. He'd gotten his Bachelor Degree in Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle's Prescott, Arizona campus, then pursued his Master's at Cal Tech. The veterans education benefits he'd accrued while on active duty had helped keep costs under control, to the point that he'd been able to pay off his last student loan much sooner than would otherwise have been the case.

Once again thankful for the Kacific satellite network that enabled crystal clear conversations between his apartment in Greenbelt, Maryland and his parents' modest home outside Pago Pago, more than 7000 miles away, Sam pulled out his cellphone and hit speed dial one.

"Hello?"

"Greetings from the Goddard Space Flight Center, Dad!"

"Hey, son! How's it going out there?"

"Funny you should ask..."

Sam explained the reason for the call and then marveled at how clearly he could hear his dad's breathing speed up as the news sunk in.

"Shouldn't...shouldn't you be at your desk or something, son?"

"We're still a couple of months away from launch, Dad, but I should be getting to bed. Things are gonna start crankin' up now. Love you!"

"Love you, too, son! A Samoan running the program. Who'd have thought?"

"Yeah, it's pretty cool. G'night, dad."

* * *

Sam finished his shower, roughly toweling his dark, short, thick hair. He knew it would still look damp when he was done, and as sleek as any seal's. Ah, well - genetics at work. His dad's was the same way. He wrapped the towel around his middle and headed to the gym's locker area. A couple of the other patrons commented on the intricate tattoos wrapping around his lower back, and he thanked them. When they asked where he got the inspiration for such cool designs, he told them they were old familial patterns, a piece of his Samoan heritage. Their jaws dropped at this last bit, a touch of skepticism creeping into their eyes as they took in his tall, slim build and unblemished face. Sam just shrugged and moved on.

He considered the men's reaction as he finished dressing. It never ceased to amaze him that people assumed all Samoan males had facial tattoos (a la Umaga) or weighed as much as a small car (a la Yokozuna), completely overlooking the likes of wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson and American football Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu. Although neither Dwayne nor Troy was a shrinking violet, they didn't fit those old Samoan stereotypes, either. Maybe they're just too young to remember those guys, he sighed. Dark eyes checked a watch and widened slightly. Uh-oh! Better get a move on, Sam. It's never a good day to be late for work, but especially not today! Five minutes later, he was in his car and headed for the Beltway and the mercifully short stretch to the Greenbelt Road exit, pitying those stuck with longer commutes on the chronically jammed loop around the nation's capital.

* * *

"So, Sam, you figure that eight minute response delay earned you a little extra sack time this morning?" another controller asked with a small smile.

"Nah, just an extra knucklehead on the Beltway. I got my workout in and I'm ready to go! Oh, and just for the record, it's more like an eight and one-third minute delay - each way, of course."

"Of course; you know I'm just pulling your chain. No one's more excited about Roddenberry's final orbit insertion than you are, Sam."

"It's been a long time coming, and that's a fact!" Sam replied. "It takes quite a while to travel eighty-three million miles, you know."

It was true. Roddenberry had been en route for nearly three months, its plasma engine having first accelerated, then decelerated the incredibly complex scientific instrument package. The fairings protecting Roddenberry from space dust during the voyage, to say nothing of the ion stream caused by the deceleration process, had been jettisoned. At long last, after weeks of testing and calibration, orbital insertion was scheduled for early afternoon. Never a dull place, the project's work space was really buzzing in anticipation.

Two hours later, Sam keyed his microphone.

"Alright, everyone. This is it. Maneuvering, confirm thruster attitude and readiness."

"Maneuvering thrusters set at thirty degrees; telemetry confirms ready status."

"Copy. Send the programmed burn instructions."

"Copy, Sam. Transmitting program now."

The second hand on the analog clock, a good luck talisman dating from the days of the Apollo missions, seemed to take an eternity to complete seventeen trips around the clock's face.

Finally, Sam asked, "Flight Ops, how's it look?"

"Telemetry says the trajectory's adjusting per programmed guidance. Looking real good, so far."

There were cheers and a lot of clapping, but Sam brought them back into focus.

"That's great, Ops," he said, and then to the room in general, "but let's not get ahead of ourselves everyone. Roddenberry still has to insert."

Thirty minutes later, it was official.

"Telemetry confirms Roddenberry is in the programmed orbit!"

The room erupted in cheers, and Sam let them go this time. They'd all worked hard for this moment.

"Great job, Sam!" said a voice behind him. He turned and found himself face to face with NASA's Director and Dan Husband. "You and the team did a great job. You can all be proud of the work you've done."

"Thank you, sir; we are. Now all the fun starts, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what Roddenberry is seeing...so far away, so far back in time."


Author's Note

[WC: 1359, per Word Count]
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