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The Flight of the HANS PFALL by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the Hans Pfall

by Stephen R. Wilk
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“If you make a big enough balloon out of this you get light pressure pushing on it, and some solar particle flow, too. Those push radially away from the sun, with a force that decreases with the inverse square of the distance from the sun, as if you had an anti-gravity device. You’ve effectively reduced the depth of the sun’s gravity well. But you haven’t changed the velocity of your system. Instead of a circular orbit, your spacecraft goes into an elliptical orbit. Pick the size of the balloon correctly, and it ends up back at the orbit of the Earth with exactly the same orbital velocity that it had when it started out, only now it’s sixty degrees ahead of or behind the Earth. Then you just let the gas out, and you land gently at the Lagrange point. No propellant, and very little energy.”

“Hmmm. It sounds as if you’re getting something for nothing, though.” The officer’s gaze shifted to a point at infinity for a couple of seconds. “Time. You’re trading off time. It’ll take something like fourteen months to reach the forward Lagrange point. And even longer for the other one.”

“Well, yes, that’s true. Fast thinking. But if you aren’t in a great hurry it’s a very safe and efficient way to get there. What do you think?”

“It’s… elegant. I love the idea behind it. And if it’s really residue-free the International Space Convention will certify you over any competitors. You’ll clean up, in the long run. But the payoff is long in coming. I’m sure you thought all of this out, since you’re already set to launch.”

“So. What would you do to make it more , well, exciting?”

“I don’t know, sir. You could use it for probes and such. But the slingshots and mass drivers and laser launchers will all be faster. And you’d lose the advantages you have in orbital transfer. There’s a lot of new construction on Luna. If you could jink things so that you could send things to lunar orbit you’d get more traffic. And it’s be quicker.”

“Yes, but the conditions that let us do orbital transfer around the sun won’t help us around the earth. There’s no light pressure from the earth. Even if we used your launch laser out there we’d only get short bursts once a day.”

“It’s still an elegant solution for slow orbit transfer, sir.”

“Yes…” Gold stared abstractedly out at the launch site, where nothing seemed to be happening. With no launch to watch, it was boring. You didn’t bring customers up here when nothing as going on. They quickly tired of the view. Exciting meant things were happening. Boring was a dead lightpad. Or a balloon coasting for over a year in slow orbit. There was an answer there, someplace.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Gold snapped out of his reverie. “Can I have that back, now? I have to show it to some people. Let me know if you think of anything, will you?” He pocketed the demo piece and walked briskly back toward the Lounge.

There was champagne all around and polite nods of approval in the Observation Room when Gold’s package finally launched without a hitch. The investors present had been shepherded into the room and their fears allayed. The broadcasts went out as planned, and, for the present everyone was on board again. The sight of the package—little more than a dot at this distance—singing its way into orbit on its invisible beam of light was an exhilarating treat for the Investors. Gold hardly spared it much thought. His eyes followed it up in an appraising way, noting the strobing flashes of light as the invisible laser ablated away whiffs of activated ice and pumped energy into the plasma. The situation board in the Observation Room gave only the most obvious indicators, but those were perfectly on-track.

After the toasts and the congratulations and the “how long until it reaches the handlers at the top?&” and the “where does it go from here?’ questions had been answered and re-answered, everyone finally gathered their things and prepared to leave.

Gold was the first to notice that something was wrong. If asked, he would not have been able to note precisely what it was, but the displays didn’t look right. The trajectory was slightly off. It wasn’t their package that was flailing, but the next one, which had just been launched. Gold turned and stared at the new speck that had appeared in the Observation window, trying to see what was wrong. A moment later there was bright flash from the rear of the frustrum. It was nothing extreme, but the flickering glow from the back of the unit was supposed to be uniform. The slight “crack” reached the room a few seconds later, as thunder follows lightning.

The flash and the noise attracted everyone’s attention. The Situation Board’s numbers switched to red, but otherwise there was no official notice that anything was amiss. People began asking questions. Gold took no notice. He was concentrating on the ailing package. Even though he hadn’t built this station, it nevertheless followed his designs, and he felt somehow responsible if things went wrong.

The craft, like the previous one, was too small and too far away to be distinctly visible, but Gold could tell what was going on, nonetheless. The intervals between flashes were clearly increasing. You could see the interval between shots. That meant that the capsule was wobbling, and they only dared shoot when they could illuminate the bottom, and do it properly. That they were continuing to prod the capsule was a good sign—the system was still trying to control the movement of the capsule. But it was a dead mission—with that instability and such infrequency of pulses there was no way the capsule would reach orbit. The controllers were fighting to bring the capsule down where they wanted it. That meant a splashdown in Lago Cristalino.

Gold had to admire the controllers. They were doing a first-class job in a losing situation. The capsule’s wobble had become a full-scale tumble by now, judging from the infrequency of shots, but the capsule’s base path had not deviated, at least as seen on the map on the Situation Board. What had caused the problem? An erratic pulse from the laser? More likely some unseen defect in the ice frustrum—a bubble or crack that greedily ate up the deposited laser energy and suddenly fractured, so that subsequent shots weren’t even. The capsules went through a battery of tests that were supposed to weed out defective ones, but even so….

Now he could see that the errant capsule was going to make it safely into the lake, the way a tennis pro can see that his serve will be “inside”, or an archer can tell that a loosed arrow will fall fair, even though it is still far from the target. The others in the room still could not see this. Most still weren’t even sure of what had happened. And in that moment a flood of ideas rushed upon Albert Gold, faster than he could act upon them. He flipped open his pocket unit and began to download information furiously.

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About the Author

Stephen R. Wilk

Stephen R. Wilk is a physicist and engineer, and has been a Contributing Editor for the Optical Society of America for the past decade. He has a number of articles—besides technical publications—on history, mythology, and pop culture, and have two books out, one on mythology and one on optics. He’s had a number of fiction pieces published recently, including one forthcoming in Analog.

Story Discussion

Stories by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the HANS PFALL by Stephen R. Wilk

The Flight of the Hans Pfall

“The Launch Site is five miles downrange,” explained the officer. “You can follow the liftoff in more detail in the monitor booth to the right, but most people just prefer to look through the observation window. The glass absorbs both the launch laser and the alignment laser wavelengths, so you don’t have to worry about stray reflections. Is this your first visit to Kantrowitz, Mr. Gold?”

“Yes,” said the older man, abstractedly, as he craned his neck to look around. “I’ve been to the complexes in Colorado and Nepal several times, but I haven’t had a chance to come down here until now.”

“Are you familiar with the Launch Process, then?”

“Well, why don’t you go over it for me.”

“Okay. You have a Payload in today’s pipeline, I understand. Do you remember your code number? Or… What’s the company name?”

“Gold Technologies—a very original name. I think the code is KL-55.”

The lieutenant quickly manipulated the touchmonitor. “That’s going up in just over two hours. By now your payload has been encapsulated in a Cone and set on its own Frustrum. It will be moving through the Pipe, waiting for its turn on the Pad. We use ordinary water ice for the Frustra, with a special mix of alkali salts and filaments to act as initiator sites for the Laser Sustained Detonation Wave. Before we switched to water ice we used plastics and gels, and we fielded a lot of complains about upper-air pollution from the U.N. and the Ecuadoran Ministeria.”

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