The Last Second
TIME TO LAUNCH: T-MINUS 00:03:01:23
The Guiana Space Centre (CSG) is a French and European spaceport to the northwest of Kourou in French Guiana. Operational since 1968, it is particularly suitable as a location for a spaceport as it is near the equator, so that less energy is required to maneuver a spacecraft into an equatorial, geostationary orbit, and it has open sea to the east, so that lower stages of rockets and debris from launch failures cannot fall on human habitations.
Launch of the Galactus 5 Rocket
July 14, 2018
Dr. Nevaeh Patel was always nervous at a countdown, but this wasn’t an ordinary launch. She’d taken great care to ensure
no one on the ground had any idea how very important this payload was to her. All they saw was the same calm, cool, collected CEO and president they always saw, an omnipresent figure during launches, a well-liked, hands-on manager, intelligent—a woman to admire. After all, she’d spent almost six months aboard the International Space Station, one of the few female astronauts to achieve the honor in the new millennium, and was spoken of with awe by many of the aerospace experts who spent their days and nights sending rockets to space. Many. Not all.
She tapped a pencil against the computer station, listening to her launch commander run through the countdown checklist. She looked from screen to screen, focused, assessing. The forty-foot wall was broken into five massive squares—the large center screen showing the Galactus 5 rocket on the launchpad, flanked by two more screens on either side. Top left, the launch sequence; bottom left, the orbital planes surrounding Earth; top right, the elliptical they selected for the satellite insertion; bottom right, the interior specs of the rocket itself, laid out in a 3-D rendering from engines to fairing, running systems checks of each component. Above was a smaller horizontal screen running the computer programming codes now taking over from human flight control.
She watched every screen with the intensity of a hawk. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing. Even the smallest anomaly would scrub the launch. And she prayed.
Her launch commander spoke in her ear: “This is Flight. Everything looks good. We are all go for launch. Repeat, all go for launch. T-minus two minutes.”
The rocket’s computers took over, and all she could do now
was watch and wait as the team leads ran the various preflight tests and reported back. She heard the magic word in her ear over and over.
“Flight systems nominal.”
“Oxygen burn nominal.”
“Launch processing system nominal.”
“Payload test conductor nominal.”
Nominal was the only word she ever wanted to hear during a launch. It meant everything was going according to plan, the launch sequence wasn’t meeting with any problems. Nominal meant more than normal in space talk. It meant everything was performing perfectly. With as many moving parts as it took to send a rocket into space, nominal represented the triumph of human achievement.
There had been a time when she was the one strapped into a tiny capsule and hurtled into orbit, the powerful thrust of the rocket taking her from zero to seventeen thousand miles per hour in less than eight minutes. But those days were past, and now Nevaeh ran Galactus Space Industries, a low-cost private provider to the European space arena. Launching telecommunications satellites into orbit was their bread and butter. She was responsible for eight launches a month, mostly sending European telecom satellites into a geostationary orbit, where they would boost signal strengths to increase cellular and Wi-Fi coverage for whichever company was sending up the satellite. With the success of Galactus, these nominal moments had become ordinary. Almost. But this time nominal was all she wanted to hear.
“This is Flight. T-minus one minute.”
Nevaeh couldn’t help it, she always held her breath. So much could happen in a single instant, so many things could go wrong.
In her ear, “T-minus ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five—”
The engines, already running in preflight mode, roared to life, billowing steam and fire, and lifted the rocket into the sky, making the ground shake. Nevaeh’s heart pumped hard as she watched the rocket—her special rocket—her focus now on the launch commander running through his postlaunch checklist. Cheers nearly drowned out his voice, but she listened carefully as he ticked off each benchmark.
Less than a minute later, the rocket was supersonic; another minute and the booster engines throttled back and separated from the main capsule that contained the twelve-foot-wide comms satellite.
Eight minutes after launch, the capsule was in orbit, and the fairing—the protective shield above the satellite—opened. The satellite was propelled into space, where it would take its place among the more than two thousand other satellites sending radio signals back down to Earth.
When the final stage broke away, there were cheers from the engineers in the flight center. Relief coursed through her. They’d done it. She looked down, saw that sometime during the launch she’d broken her pencil in two.
She grinned at the launch commander and rose and raised her fist to the rest of the room. She gave them a small bow and some applause of her own.
She called out, “Success. A beautiful launch. Thank you all for your hard work.” She gave them all a thumbs-up and added, “Merci beaucoup.”
Nevaeh walked from the command center to her small office. Her primary office was, of course, at the Galactus headquarters in Lyon, France, but she maintained space in French Guiana when she was able to be here for launch supervision.
It now fell to her team of engineers to activate the satellite and triangulate it into its final position.
She smiled. Not one of the engineers, not one of the technicians, no one except Kiera Byrne, her bodyguard and companion, knew she’d altered the computer code to put this particular satellite into a spot selected by her—not the company who’d paid for it to be launched. There was a special payload on this run-of-the-mill satellite, and only she and Kiera knew. No one else needed to know what was in the lead-lined box. Not until she was ready.
In two weeks’ time, her nuclear bomb hidden aboard the satellite was going to set off an electromagnetic pulse that would change the world, and Nevaeh would remake it in her own image.