Feb. 5th, 2015

Tiles

Feb. 5th, 2015 05:13 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
You remember the television broadcast, remember the world collectively holding its breath, remember the words as every person remembers them:

"Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

They are perhaps not the better known words, said a few minutes later, about steps and mankind, but these ones, the first spoken by humans from a world that they were not born from, you keep with you forever.

-

Just another job, just another contract. Tiles for heat shielding, the contract described, with a possibility of use in aerospace. A few different types — tetrasilicide and borosilicate cured glass tiles, mostly, with a requirement that it stand up to 1500˚C, but also be quite light, measuring no more than five inches thick.

"Spaceflight? Some new rocket, maybe? They've been working on some sort of reusable jet, haven't they?" you ask the project manager, who shrugs at you, clearly not as invested as you are.

"Just another subcontracting job we have to do? Gotta pay the bills and all that. The contractor didn't tell us what it's for, certainly. They don't tell us shit. It could be for some Lockheed skunkworks project, for all we know," he finishes, rolling his eyes.

You shrug back at him — it's true, that no one tells the sub-sub-contractors anything. You do, in fact, need to pay the bills, and your curiosity is set aside for the moment.

-

Decades later, you will also remember these words:

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

And you will think to yourself, what could I have done instead? What was it my job to do? What could I have known?
-

A few months after the contract, you've sent some prototypes to the contractor, who's passed them on to the client — or maybe another contractor, you think — and they've been approved. The only suggestion that comes back is a hastily scrawled note: Could you make it a bit lighter? We can go down to 1200˚C, if that makes it doable, and after some consultation with the other engineers, you think, yes, you can make it lighter, and you tweak the composition a bit, densifying it with some other silicate that someone suggests.

You send this new process back to them, and, naturally, they send it back, asking now if you can waterproof it. After another week or two, one of the other members of the team mentions injecting dimethylethoxysilane and, voilà, you've met all the specs.

Now they ask you to make twenty thousand, five hundred and forty eight of them, and the next few months go by in a very big hurry. The quality control is there — each tile is up to snuff, is just a gram lighter than what they asked for, and can handle about 1300˚C. You're still curious what it's going to be used for, but no one gives you a straight answer, so you content yourself with thinking that, maybe, you'll see it on TV one day.
-

When STS-1, the orbiter Columbia launches on April 12, 1981, you know, finally, what your tiles are being used for, and you burst into the office and shout at them to turn on their TVs, now, now, now, and you point at that beautiful, beautiful spaceship, sailing into space, on the back of two gigantic engines that fall away so gracefully.

You remember this moment in the decades to come, even when — especially when — successes seem few and far in between.

-

The tiles work well for years, and eventually decades, for Columbia, for Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. As missions and flights go off successfully one after another, as they descend upon an easy glide back to Earth, you watch each and every one.

And then Challenger happens, and you hear Reagan give the speech, and for a while the office is mute, and silent — brothers and sisters that you've never met but feel inherently connected to have paid the ultimate price. But as the reports come out, as the investigations are conducted, you nod to your coworkers — it was the O-rings, you say confidently, they should've caught that.

And eventually, when Discovery flew again with STS-26, you gave a sigh of relief. It was a true "Return to Flight", and you were ready for it to happen. The next fifteen years pass without much incident — a change of presidents, but a steady future for the space program — for your space program.
-

You turn on the news that morning, in 2003, right before you go to work, and you hear someone say "it's the top of the hour, nine in the morning, and we've received eyewitness reports that the Space Shuttle Columbia has encountered issues on its descent—" and the rest, well, the rest is history, scattered across the Texan desert.

In the months that follow, you put a plaque up on the wall, a plaque that holds words from one of the greatest men ever to run the space program. It reads as follows:

"When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write Tough and Competent on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room, these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control."

This time, you worry that it was your fault, and you and everyone you work with scramble through every single log that you have, look at every single tile, try and piece together data that exists only in the logs of those computers that never made it back to Earth.

Eventually — months, though to you it feels like as long as since you started working in the first place — NASA clears you. Congress clears you. You did nothing wrong — you couldn't have prepared for a circumstance that you were never taught about.

It's a relief, certainly.

But it's also not closure, and you notice it when you notice many of your coworkers leaving for other jobs, though there was still more than enough work here. It's just too much like returning to the scene of a crime, one of them says. I think of those that should've lived, every day.
-

You feel the same way too, sometimes. Enough that, one morning, you put in for a few days off, and drive the long, twelve hour drive from Alabama to Texas, to where the majority of the debris from Columbia fell.

You have a plaque with you, one that you got carved by an expert metalsmith, and for a moment, you simply stand in the field, where the scars left by the fiery pieces of metal have since healed, where there are only dirt and weeds remaining, and you watch the wind blow.

And then you set the plaque down, nestle it down where it won't easily be moved.

Ad astra per aspera, it reads, and you whisper the words to yourself: "It is a long, hard road to the stars," and you're greeted with only the sounds of the wind through the tall grass.

And then you turn, ready to start the long drive back to work. Orion, Constellation, and other projects await. And they — those who gave their lives to bring humanity forward to the stars — would not choose to walk another road just because they paid the greatest price.

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