Mr. Hannah’s Rocket

That’s one giant step for Texas, one small step for mankind.

November 1982By Comments

Hannahs Rocket

David Hannah, Jr., believed it was God’s will that he should build a rocket. He meant this somewhat literally. It was not as if the clouds had suddenly opened one day and he had been handed an aerodynamic spec sheet, but the direc­tive was clear enough. Hannah believed that the challenge he felt—to build and launch the world’s first privately financed commercial space vehicle—came from the best part of himself, and that the Creator was therefore manifest in that challenge.

“There’s no question in my mind that I’m doing what the Lord wants me to do,” Hannah said “What I don’t know is whether He wants me to be successful.”

It was Labor Day, September 6, T minus two days and—with a watchful eye on the weather—counting. On September 8, the rocket Hannah had named Cones­toga I was scheduled to take off from its launch pad on Matagorda Island and climb in a matter of seconds into the veil of the ionosphere to a point 192 miles above the earth, well past the 50-mile-high frontier that the National Aeronau­tics and Space Administration generally regarded as the beginning of space. There it would go through a dress rehearsal of all the procedures that would be necessary for what scientists termed orbital injec­tion. But the Conestoga I was a test rock­et, and it was not designed to actually go into orbit. It would instead fall the earth, in stages, into a plotted point in the Gulf of Mexico that was known as the reentry footprint.

By current NASA standards it was a primitive scenario: an unmanned, subor­bital test rocket in the age of the space shuttle seemed, on the face of it, rather droll. But Space Services, Inc., of America was not NASA, and the purpose of the Conestoga I was not to advance the state of the art but to claim outer space for private enterprise. God willing.

American space exploration had taken place, essentially, in one stupendous burst brought on by the panicky reaction to Sputnik in 1957 and climaxing in the land­ing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969. But by then the public, distracted by more pressing events on earth and a little hostile toward technology in general, had shrunk back from the void. Most of NASA’s di­minished budget now went to the space shuttle, which was more a utilitarian vehi­cle than a research tool anyway. The shut­tle symbolized the pragmatic focus of space travel. Most of the rockets that took off from our planet in the future would not be on voyages of discovery but on voy­ages of profit.

The flight of the Conestoga I was, in a way, fairly humdrum. There was nothing new about it, except for the momentous fact that it was being paid for by business­men instead of by the United States gov­ernment. But the further one looked into the future the more lyrical the role of companies like SSI began to seem. Once somebody made a buck in space, some of the great daydreams—of orbiting colo­nies, or boundless reserves of precious ores—might just start to come true.

David Hannah and his wife, Catherine, were driving south that morning on their way to Rockport, a touristy fishing com­munity across Aransas Bay from Mata­gorda. SSI personnel had been based in Rockport, in varying numbers, for much of the summer, commuting in crew boats or single-engine airplanes to the island and then sitting down at night in Rockport to yet another mound of fried seafood at the Big Fisherman or the Duck Inn.

Hannah himself had spent most of the last few months the way the chairman of the board of a more conventional com­pany might have: meeting with lawyers, investors, potential clients, and the bu­reaucrats who are sown like dragon’s teeth in the path of free enterprise. But now that the launch was near he was ready to settle in and wait for his rocket to climb into the clouds.

The Hannahs had spent the night at a friend’s ranch near Hempstead. The friend was one of 57 people, most of whom had put up at least $25,000 apiece to invest in SSI, taking advantage of a short-term tax deduction for research and development costs while thinking ahead to the time when their grandchildren might be getting royalty checks from an L5 asteroid mine. Most of the investors could comfortably afford to take such a flyer. Among them were familiar blue-chip names like Toddie Lee Wynne and Walter Mischer, as well as a host of other mover-and-shaker types. Most of them knew Hannah well; they traveled in the same business and social circles and served on the same prestigious boards. Some of the investors, members of a lifelong coterie they had formed with David and Catherine Hannah when they were all students together at Rice, had known him for over forty years. They were excited about SSI, but one sensed there was a certain novelty factor about the enterprise that kept them amused. They were clearly investing in Hannah. Even though he was about to shoot off a rocket, they regarded him as a man who was not harebrained.

He was sixty years old, a millionaire real estate developer, a member of the Houston business aristocracy. He was a friend of George Bush’s, a trustee on the board of the Hermann Hospital estate, an elder emeritus in the First Presbyterian Church, a devoted grandfather who took his grandchildren on white-water rafting expeditions and trips to the Smithsonian. In short, David Hannah was entirely in or­der. But he had this visionary twitch. In aerospace terms, there was a minimal but significant deflection in his trajectory.

Under the blue atmosphere, over the loamy coastal plain, Hannah drove and mused on the ineffable while his wife sat in the passenger seat doing needlepoint, occasionally interrupting when his rumi­nations became too sloppy for her taste.

“If this rocket fails,” Hannah was say­ing, “I’ll never know whether the Lord didn’t want it to come off or whether someone just dropped the ball. But it doesn’t matter, if you’ve been consistent. The Creator is saying to each of us, ‘I’ve got something for you to do. I hope you’ll do it, but if you don’t I’ll restructure my thinking about what it is I want you to do.’ ”

“Puddin’,” his wife said, looking up from her needlework, “God does not re­structure His thinking.”

There followed a bracing theological debate in which Hannah expounded freely in ways that tested the elasticity of the Presbyterian faith. He seemed to believe in a mild, rather self-effacing God who had exacting standards for His creatures but was not above cutting them a little slack. Hannah said he did not believe in hell, but he believed in heaven, and in the community of saints, and in some off-brand version of reincarnation.

Hannah’s natural shyness began to evaporate as he talked. He had a long, vague, limpid face that was always either flushed or sunburned, and the more fer­vent he became the more its color rose.

Near Victoria they stopped talking about God and began to eat the lunch Mrs. Hannah had packed that morning. She handed her husband a paper plate with a honey-baked-ham sandwich and potato salad, and he ate as he drove. His bean­pole body-slender from exercise and a fuel-efficient metabolism—seemed a size too large for the scaled-down Oldsmobile sedan he was driving.

Ahead of them the weather was still ac­ceptable, but there was a faint haziness on the horizon where the blueness of the sky seemed to have washed out. The weather was crucial. The Federal Aviation Agen­cy required that there be less than 50 per cent cloud cover and at least five miles of visibility for the launch of the Conestoga I to be legal.

The agency had granted SSI a two-day “launch window,” on September 8 and 9, but any postponements beyond that would have to be negotiated. It was already close enough to the unsettled weather of hurri­cane season, and with more than four hun­dred people—press, investors, customers—planning to come down for the launch, Hannah desperately needed to make the window.

The closer they got to Rockport the more evanescent the gloomy weather be­came, and when they passed the turnoff for the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and continued south to the humpbacked Copano Bay causeway the sky was clear ahead. Due west, through a series of shallow bays, was Matagorda, the barrier island where the Conestoga I was at that moment undergoing its final assembly. The entire southern half of Matagorda Is­land was controlled by the octogenarian tycoon Toddie Lee Wynne, the founder and chairman of the American Liberty Oil Company and the former owner, with the Murchison family, of one third of the city of New Orleans. Wynne used Matagorda as a cattle ranch and reckoned its size not in acreage but in linear miles. Allowing for tidal erosions and silt deposits, the ranch was 26 miles long.

Wynne, who had served with Hannah on the board of Austin College in Sher­man, had the distinction of being SSI’s first investor. (“Honey,” he had told Catherine Hannah at the time, “I’m not bettin’ on the horse, I’m bettin’ on the jockey.”) He lived in Dallas but frequent­ly shuttled over to the island to fish or to hunt quail or simply to hole up and play dominoes in his sprawling ranch head­quarters, which was so heavily ringed by palm trees that from the water it looked like a fairy-tale oasis.

Crossing the causeway, the Hannahs drove into Rockport. The town lay nestled in a forest of live oaks that had been twisted to leeward by the wind and salt air, and they gave the place a haunted, evocative feeling that overcame the anon­ymous resort architecture that fronted its pretty but dispirited shoreline.

In the parking lot of a new shopping center stood a signboard that said, “Good luck. Space Services Sept. 8 with Cones­toga I.”

“Oh, David, turn around. I want to get a picture.”

Hannah did as his wife asked. The sign was a good omen. And the weather was clear, the clock still running. T minus two days and counting. Hannah felt the ten­sion in his stomach. It was impossible to come back to Rockport and not think about the Percheron, last summer’s rocket, and its disastrous fate. But if Han­nah was tense this year, it was from ex­pectation rather than dread. He felt like a boy on Christmas Eve. This time he was pretty sure they were going to do it right.

Not exactly Cape Canaveral: the launch control headquarters and adjacent cow pasture.

Not exactly Cape Canaveral: the launch control headquarters and adjacent cow pasture.

THE WORKHORSE THROWS A SHOE

In February 1976 David Hannah picked up a copy of Smithsonian magazine during an airplane flight and began reading an ar­ticle about Gerard K. O’Neill, a Princeton physicist who had recently advanced the concept of immense self-supporting space colonies that would remain in perpetual orbit between the earth and the moon. O’Neill’s vision was a utopian prospectus for a world free of material want, a world where minerals came from asteroids and power came from the sun and crops were grown from enriched moon dust. With the article appeared illustrations that have become part of futurist folklore: vast sylvan terrariums filled with villages and shops, complex cloud formations in the artificial atmosphere, and bridges as large as the Golden Gate spanning huge man­made lakes.

The article changed Hannah’s life. He knew from that moment on, at the age of 54, that he wanted to be in the space business. It was not exactly the logical next step for a real estate developer, and Hannah would not have struck a casual observer as a man who was likely to be throwing his weight around in outer space. It was true he had made a great deal of money in real estate, but he did not have the boom-town flourish and swagger people expected from a Houston magnate. He was, instead, bashful. His idea of an expletive was “Oh, my goodness gra­cious!” But he had the plodding, question­ing, restless mind that is the mark of the superior layman.

“When I read that article,” he recalled, “I realized we weren’t going to be able to take care of our people the way we were going. We needed an expansionist con­cept. We’re still thinking in terms of limit­ing, of living with what we’ve got. I think man’s got to expand, and he’s got to ex­pand in new areas. The only thing that kept this nation going in the sixties was the space program. We had an eye to the future—we had that hope. At the same time we were tearing our cities apart we were sending men to the moon.”

So Hannah set himself the errand of reviving the nation’s interest in space. He talked to Jimmy Carter while he was run­ning for president, and Carter seemed en­thusiastic, but after the election he was never heard from on the issue again. Han­nah dallied with the government for a few more years until he decided that the future of American space exploration belonged in the hands of free enterprise. In 1979 he became the first president of the Space Foundation, a nonprofit corporation set up by a consortium of businessmen and scien­tists who, like Hannah, had space on their agendas. The purpose of the foundation was primarily to fund the sort of pure re­search into space problems that had dwin­dled lately under the precipitous NASA budget cuts. The foundation planned to give grants and awards and to act as a sort of matchmaker for prospective space en­trepreneurs and the investors who might be willing to provide them with seed money.

To do all this the foundation needed donors. In December 1979 it threw a ban­quet at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston for various people of means. The audience was lectured on the ways money could be made in space and discreetly informed that contributions to the foun­dation would be gratefully accepted. Al­though the Brown and Hershey founda­tions, among others, eventually came for­ward with donations, that first banquet was something of a dud.

Nevertheless, the affair had fateful con­sequences, for it was in planning it that Hannah met Gary C. Hudson. Hudson at the time was 29 years old, a thin, intense man with a small but impeccably trimmed moustache. Hudson had been hired by the foundation to make a film about the com­mercial applications of space and present it at the banquet. It was a subject dear to his heart, a subject about which he consid­ered himself to have been “a voice crying in the wilderness for the last ten years.” He had attended college for a while at the University of Minnesota, but degrees in his chosen field, commercial space transportation, were unavailable, so he had dropped out to assume the role of maverick genius and gadfly.

Hudson worked at the fringes of the aerospace industry, consulting, lecturing, testifying, writing, goading. He looked upon NASA, that bureaucratic bog, with abhorrence. His own libertarian politics were laboratory pure. The automobile, the railroads, the airplane, even the rocket—if you looked back to the time when the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Foundation subsidized Robert God­dard’s early rocket experiments—all were the fruits of free enterprise.

Hudson’s overriding obsession was to get into space for real. He was looking for a grubstake in the cosmos, and David Hannah, though he had no technical back­ground and was a little gaga about Gerard O’Neill, was one of the few men in the world who might be willing to risk giving it to him.

Hudson’s manner was dry and precise, and when it was at its driest and most pre­cise it approached the level of magnetism. Hannah thought he was a brilliant crea­ture, and the more he listened to him the more intrigued he became.

Instead of trying to lure other com­panies into the space business, Hudson suggested, Hannah should start his own, a no-frills satellite delivery system that could low-ball NASA’s space shuttle. Hudson had in mind as his customers the sort of middle-range companies that might want a satellite beeping around the earth but would be content with putting it in a low orbit rather than sending it up 22,000 miles into a geosynchronous orbit, where it would revolve with the same velocity as the earth and, essentially, stay overhead in one place. Geosync was the province of communications satellites and other spacecraft whose positions needed to be more or less constant to function correct­ly. But you could send a five-hundred-pound satellite up 500 miles into a low polar or equatorial orbit, and you could get perfectly good data from it every twelve hours or so.

A wide spectrum of businesses might find such a satellite cost-efficient—an oil company, for example, that had a well somewhere in the Amazonian jungle whose production had to be checked every week or so by a man in a jeep. Why not just install a transmitter on the wellhead and get a readout whenever the satellite cruised overhead? Truck leasing compa­nies could use satellites to keep track of their stock, overnight letter companies could transmit messages electronically from one side of the earth to the other, the Navy or the Coast Guard could use satel­lites for search-and-rescue operations.

Such satellites could he put into orbit by the space shuttle, of course. NASA had a Byzantine pricing system for that service, beginning with the “getaway special” that could place a tiny satellite above the earth for as little as $10,000. More realistically, however, a company would be looking at multiple millions of dollars, and to use the shuttle it would have to wait for a slot (probably in the mid-eighties at the ear­liest) and make sure that the orbit it wanted its satellite placed in was the orbit that particular flight was headed for. Hannah’s company, in contrast, would promise a firm delivery date, take only one payload at a time, and deliver it to the orbit of the customer’s choice, all at a price competitive with the shuttle’s. It would be like taking a taxi instead of a city bus. And once a company got that kind of foothold, the field would be un­limited: moon mining, orbiting biological laboratories, cosmic real estate develop­ments like O’Neill’s space colonies.

The idea, coupled with Hudson’s obvi­ous talent and fervor, made sense to Han­nah. He wrote Hudson a check and told him to develop a prototype of the sort of launch vehicle that such a company would need. A few months later, after a false start or two, Hudson came up with his design for the Percheron, a reusable liquid-fuel rocket named after the inde­fatigable draft horses from the Perche region of France. On the strength of the design, Hannah was able to attract his first two investors, Toddie Lee Wynne and Houston contractor Walter D. Murphy, one of the old Rice crowd.

So here was Hudson with a check for $200,000, the first of many installments that would reach a total of $1.2 million, and a dream commission: to go out and build a rocket. The fact that he had never built a rocket before did not cause him to miss a beat. He promptly leased 20,000 square feet of warehouse space in Sun­nyvale, California, bought machine tools, and hired twenty people, most of them aerospace prodigies who were either fresh out of the universities or had a few years of experience in the real world of rocket design. In seven months, from scratch, they had a rocket.

The Percheron was not meant to be glamorous, but the principles of aerody­namics demand that a rocket be beautiful, that it be sleek and symmetrical. A year after the Percheron blew up on the pad, that was what people remembered most about it: how pretty it was. It was 55 feet long, with a mock payload stage that resembled a steeple. The rest of the rocket housed the liquid oxygen and kerosene tanks and the engine that converted their combustion into thrust.

Gary Hudson had come out of the womb believing in the efficacy of liquid fuel. When kerosene and liquid oxygen, or LOX, were ignited in the proper pro­portions, you got a steady, powerful burn. Liquid fuel was the big-league propellant: the Delta used it, the external fuel tank of the space shuttle used it, and so had the magnificent Saturn V booster that had sent men to the moon.

A rocketeer’s other option was solid fuel, but Hudson never seriously con­sidered this. Solids were known in the business as “dumb” rockets, because once ignited they simply traveled upward until all their fuel was exhausted. In essence, they were little more sophisticated than oversized bottle rockets. It was true they were fairly reliable and had few working parts, but they were heavy, expensive, usually not reusable, difficult to transport, and so weak that to get a payload into high earth orbit you would have to cluster so many boosters together that the rocket would look like a gigantic bundle of dynamite.

On a July day in 1981 the Percheron, its tanks empty for its overland journey, was loaded onto the back of a truck and sent rolling eastward toward the launching pad on Matagorda Island that had been pre­pared earlier in the summer. The rocket was a curious sight, and the driver of the truck answered inquiries from gawking motorists by telling them it was a giant water heater. The trucker was stopped by the highway patrol in New Mexico because he was carrying insufficient doc­umentation for a load the size of the Percheron, but while the authorities were assessing the situation, he sneaked off with the truck and managed, by traveling on back roads, to elude an all-points bulletin all the way to Rockport. When the rocket arrived by barge at his island Tod­die Lee Wynne broke a bottle of Dom Perignon over its aluminum hide.

David Hannah stayed on the island in Wynne’s house while the crew assembled the Percheron and tested its components. The launch had been originally scheduled to take place in July, but the inevitable delays pushed it back to mid-August. Hudson’s team was far removed from the crew-cut-and-clipboard stereotype that still lingered in the public imagination. These were whiz kids, more or less, with exquisite theoretical know-how but limit­ed practical experience in readying a rock­et for launch on a remote barrier island where there was no drinkable water, much less a hardware store. The pace got a little frenetic, and when the crew had worked up enough nervous energy they were likely to break into song:

We are the rocketeers.
We are the pioneers.
We are the engineers.
The biggest bunch of crazies
Who ever lifted beers.

David Hannah paced through this genial chaos, watching with trepidation as members of the Rockport civic choir filled sandbags to protect the launch headquar­ters from the rocket blast, or as brilliant engineers tossed raw chickens into a cool­ing pond in an effort to take the edge off the appetite of an alligator (named Ralph) who lived there. But bit by bit things fell into place, and when the Percheron finally stood on its launching stool it looked stately and elegant. More than that, it looked like it would fly.

The flight procedure itself was rela­tively simple. Just before takeoff, valves would open in the LOX and kerosene tanks, and when the two fuels were in cor­rect proportion they would be ignited, directing a controlled explosion through the rocket’s single nozzle. Once it was on its way, the Percheron had to go in the right direction, not only up but out over the Gulf. Hudson and his crew could not afford a sophisticated guidance system to make it do this, so they devised an auda­cious alternative. A set of cables was at­tached to the rocket in such a way that on takeoff, as the Percheron began to climb, it would suddenly be jerked in the ap­propriate direction. Their job done, the cables would then detach from the rocket by means of explosive charges.

A test of the engine, a “mini-burn” while the rocket was bolted to its launch­ing stool, was scheduled for late in July, but on the appointed day a problem developed in the igniter system and the test was postponed, leaving a disgruntled media horde who had been ferried over from the mainland to watch. Hudson felt like he was working in a fishbowl, under scrutiny not only from the press and from David Hannah but also from government agencies like the FAA and the State Department, which wanted to be satisfied that the rocket would not hit an airplane or land on Cuba. Hudson did not share these worries. The chances of hitting an aircraft with a rocket were roughly the same as shooting a BB gun into the air and hitting a fly, and his rocket would have only enough fuel to carry it a maximum of five miles downrange, where it would land harmlessly in the Gulf.

Hudson, though he believed at heart that what the feds didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them, grudgingly complied with their most obvious guidelines. Hannah, how­ever, eagerly plunged into the morass. He wanted to make sure that when SSI became a viable commercial operation it had run all the bureaucratic traps and was operating within the law. An SSI employ­ee in Washington named Charlie Chafer had managed to negotiate a waiver from the FAA. But the waiver allowed the Percheron to fly to a maximum of only 14,500 feet, a much lower ceiling than originally planned. With that kind of re­striction, the flight would be little more than a “chip shot” into the upper atmo­sphere, reaching an apogee that could be topped by the Concorde.

No matter. The launch of the Percheron was to test its engine, not to set a height record. If the engine worked, all you had to do was fill it up and the rocket would go nearly as high as you cared to send it.

As the rescheduled test date ap­proached, David Hannah, with $400,000 of his own money and his reputation as a sane Presbyterian businessman riding on this rocket, began to be perceived as a nuisance by the crew. It was suggested to him that he leave the island for the test and save his worry for the actual launch about a week later. That was how he missed the explosion.

Gary Hudson was outside the control van, six hundred feet from the pad, when it happened. At T minus twenty seconds he had gone out to shoot a warning flare, and up until T minus zero everything was, in the parlance, “nominal.”

In the control booth Eric Laursen, the test engineer, pushed a button to open the LOX valve. Then he did the same for the kerosene valve. Pushing those two but­tons was supposed to start the engine. Laursen had no direct view of the Per­cheron, but there was a TV monitor in the control van, and when he saw the burn coming out from under the nozzle he didn’t like the look of it. It was a thin, yellow flame, a kerosene flame. Where was the oxygen? He thought, “Shit,” and reached for the button that would have shut the whole thing down. But in that in­stant he noticed that the rocket had disap­peared from the screen. In its place was a great fireball. Then there came a shock wave that made Laursen feel as if the whole world had suddenly contracted and expanded. He was relieved to see the top of the rocket falling back down into the monitor’s frame. That meant, at least, that it would not land on the control van.

The Percheron, still bolted to its launch stool, had blown up, had “gone high order.” The upper part of the rocket had reached apogee at 250 feet. What the crew had to contend with now was the resulting grass fire. They grabbed blankets and soaked them in the cooling pond, where Ralph the alligator swam about as if everything were still nominal, and then ran toward the pad to beat out the flames and the smoldering cow pies.

David Hannah was sitting in the office of his real estate company in Houston when he got the phone call telling him that the Lord had decided to pass on the Percheron.

“It was kind of disappointing,” Hannah recalled later. “It really was.”

Slayton explaining the glitch to the press: "It's obviously fixable sooner or later."
Slayton explaining the glitch to the press: “It’s obviously fixable sooner or later.”

PREPPING THE BIRD

The people who built the Conestoga I usually referred to it as the vehicle, but the more it took form on the pad, stacked piece by piece until it stood stark and whole against its institutional green gan­try, the more they were inclined to call it the bird.

It was eighteen feet shorter than the Percheron had been, but it was a more sophisticated rocket, packed with telem­etry sensors, gyro platforms, staging mechanisms, a command-destruct system that could instantly blow the rocket up if it veered in the wrong direction or threat­ened to land on an oil platform or a ship in the Gulf. There was even a dummy sat­ellite, filled with forty gallons of water that would be released at apogee, leaving a trail of ice crystals that could theoreti­cally be seen from earth.

By the time the Hannahs reached Rockport, at T minus two days, the rocket stood fully assembled on its pad just behind the dunes. A field of sunflowers surrounded the pad, and swallows flew peacefully around the rocket as if inspect­ing it. The Conestoga I was white from nozzle to nose cone—you could smell the fresh paint. For purely aesthetic reasons, its four stabilizing fins, which were at­tached to the body of the rocket by 248 screws, were blue. Someone had affixed a Conestoga I decal to the booster stage. It showed a horse-drawn covered wagon traveling through outer space, like Santa’s sleigh, with the rim of the earth and a few twinkling stars in the background.

Rocket crews like decals, or T-shirts, or group pictures, any sort of commemora­tive token to remind them of the months of intensive labor they have spent in some­times exotic locations in order to launch a rocket whose entire flight sequence may be—as in the case of the Conestoga I—only ten minutes.

Gary Hudson and David Hannah had parted ways after the Percheron, and the crew Hannah had assembled for that sum­mer’s launch was markedly more ex­perienced. It consisted of forty people from three different firms who were act­ing as subcontractors to SSI. The launch itself was in the hands of a California company called Space Vector, which nor­mally launched suborbital sounding rock­ets for various branches of the government. A Clear Lake City company, Eagle Engineering, which was made up largely of retired NASA people, had an overall supervisory role. The telemetry and radar had been assigned to a West German company called Deutsche Forschungsund Versuchsanstalt fur Luftund Raumfahrt. The Germans, most of whom could speak English, encouraged everyone to call their firm DFVLR.

Among them, these men had an impres­sive collection of memorabilia, and it was clear not only from the decals plastered on their briefing books but from their calm, meticulous manner that they were profes­sionals. This might be the world’s first free enterprise rocket, but technologically it was a routine piece of business, and it was going to succeed.

The Percheron, of course, had been anything but routine, and its failure had excited public sympathy and curiosity about SSI. Even NASA, out of the good­ness of its heart, sent a man down to pick through the pieces and offer his theory of what had gone wrong. He confirmed what Hudson and his crew had already suspect­ed. The night before the test had been humid, and water had condensed on the LOX valve. Since LOX has a temperature of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the valve had promptly frozen shut. When Laursen turned it on, nothing came out. Meanwhile the kerosene, which had come out, was burning in the chamber, and the flames had thawed the valve and worked their way into the pure oxygen above, which reacted accordingly and blew the rocket to pieces.

So the Percheron, which had come into, being out of so much genius and persis­tence and remarkable gumption, had been destroyed by dew.

Hannah meant to go on. His investors, who were the sort known in the risk-capital world as patient money, loyally agreed to stay aboard, and he was buoyed by the press coverage of the disaster, which had been far-flung and kindly. The immediate goal was clear: go out and do it again, and make sure this time that it works.

The NASA people advised Hannah to think about solid fuel. It was true that it was more expensive and less powerful and that a solid-fuel booster was not reusable, but the propellant had one qual­ity his company needed critically: it was reliable.

Solid fuel is a mixture of chemicals held together by a binder, so that the actual propellant has the consistency of a pencil eraser. Solids are extremely volatile at the factory when they are poured into the booster shell of the rocket, but once they have set they are considered class two ex­plosives, which require a fairly specific procedure to be ignited. You could, for instance, run over a lump of solid fuel with a car, and chances are it would not explode. Once it is burning, however, it can provide the thrust to get a rocket high enough into space so that when it is jetti­soned, another “kick” stage will be able to place a payload into orbit.

It might be possible, Hannah was told, to acquire a surplus solid-fuel booster from the government. Both the Air Force and NASA had in their inventories a num­ber of second-stage Minuteman I missiles, the ICBMs that had been phased out in the mid-sixties. These second stages made ideal first-stage boosters for sounding rockets, and the government had been us­ing them for years to conduct scientific experiments. But now a group of them were shelved at Wallops Island, Virginia, and it seemed only logical that if the government didn’t want them anymore it might be eager to sell them to private industry.

Gary Hudson had been out of the equa­tion ever since the talk turned to solids—he had no desire at all to work with the devil’s own propellant—and this talk of buying equipment from the government shattered his illusions about SSI’s commit­ment to a free enterprise space launch. He moved back to his canalside condominium near San Francisco where, surrounded by his sci-fi fantasy paintings, star charts, and deluxe editions of Tolkien, he began to liquidate the assets of the company he had formed to build the Percheron. He found that the whole episode gave him a slight boost on the lecture circuit and a modest amount of local fame. “Aren’t you the Gary Hudson,” he was once asked by a waiter who recognized the name on his American Express card, “who blew up that rocket down in Texas?”

Hannah, in the meantime, got his law­yers and his political liaison in Washing­ton, Charlie Chafer, on the track of a surplus booster. Chafer shared certain traits with Hudson. He was about the same age, and he too had grown up as a space freak, believing that the most important duty he could perform was to “get mankind off the planet.” He was entranced by the great bauble of infinite resources that hung just out of reach in space. But in other ways he was Hudson’s opposite number. He was blond, a little hefty, and was far from being an anti-government curmudgeon. He was an inside man, with a talent for making the tumblers of the bureaucracy roll.

The Air Force balked at the idea of turning ballistic missiles over to private enterprise, but NASA was more accom­modating. There was speculation among a few conspiracy-minded observers that NASA was willing to make the boosters available to SSI so that the company would be committed, with such low-power sys­tems, to lower earth orbits that would not compete with the shuttle. More likely NASA was just being a good sport, since it was officially within its purview to encourage private industry in space.

In the end NASA agreed to provide SSI with a Minuteman booster for $340,000, the price the Air Force had paid for it twenty years earlier. Anyone could see it was a spectacular deal. A comparable off-the-shelf booster from a commercial aero­space firm would have cost SSI about $400,000. If you adjusted that $340,000 for inflation, and then figured in the re­search and development costs that had made the Minuteman possible, it was clear that SSI, in its lonely role as the champion of free enterprise, was getting a bit of a free ride from the American taxpayer.

The booster was only the bottom stage of a rocket that had not yet been built. Hannah hired Space Vector, which had launched 22 Minuteman boosters for the government, 20 of them successfully, to design and produce the whole package. Space Vector was located in Northridge, California, in a rambling red brick build­ing next door to a statue factory. There, in a warren of back rooms, engineers began drafting the design of the Conestoga I, and soon enough the rocket itself began to take shape, its components assembled in sterile rooms by white-garbed tech­nicians, its fiberglass shroud molded in a workshop, its steel retaining rings smoothed by great milling machines.

Mr Hannahs Rocket - 0004

The booster arrived at Rockport one July day in a truck that was rated to carry “special commodities,” which meant explo­sives, radioactive waste, and M-X missiles. Lying in the truck, the booster looked benign and rather small. It was painted green, and its four exhaust nozzles were held in place by silver tape.

The booster was transported to the island on Toddie Lee Wynne’s cattle barge and taken to the launch control head­quarters, a half-mile away from the pad where the spidery gantry still lay on its side. There was only one permanent building at the headquarters; it was called the VAB, for vehicle assembly building and that was where the booster was stored until the Space Vector crew came down from California with the rest of the parts. Besides the VAB there was a trailer and a Skid-o-Kan. From the air the whole site looked about as interesting as a cattle feeding station.

But it was from here, arguably, that the real business of space exploration would begin, and the SSI staff had done its best to lend the site significance. Gary Gart­ner, who at 34 had quit his own construc­tion business to become David Hannah’s chief factotum, was proud to quote the number of tons of shell it had taken to build the road and the amount of concrete that had been poured to build the pad. But he was most pleased with the palm trees he and Toddie Lee Wynne had planted along one side of the headquarters. The trees were high and thin, with cropped foliage at the tops, but they gave the place a suggestion of permanence.

Gartner was clearly having the time of his life. He had developed a deep affec­tion for Wynne, but like many of the other people who worked for SSI, he was almost evangelical in his admiration of Hannah.

“That man,” he would say, shaking his head in wonder and scratching a neat beard that was as closely cropped as a scouring pad, “that man is so positive, so bright, so simplistically bright, it’s . . . well, it’s just staggering.”

It was an infectious attitude, and be­cause Hannah’s sincerity and enthusiasm seemed so genuine, those who were around him most began to think of the launch of the Conestoga I in very large terms indeed. It was a mission, a critical mission that would be one of the first steps in the salvation of the race. The fact that it would make a handful of already rich men richer seemed a mere by-product, almost an awkward consequence, of its success.

The Germans arrived late in August, ready for what they termed their cam­paign. They brought what looked like four gigantic footlockers, each about the size of a trailer, that were filled with banks of equipment that would receive and decode the data from the telemetry and radar, which were vital to determining the posi­tion and attitude of the rocket once it was launched.

The Germans, together with the Space Vector personnel, typically began their working day by assembling at the dock of the Sea Gun Resort in Rockport at seven and boarding a crew boat for the trip to the island. The Germans carried black briefcases with Lufthansa tags and decals commemorating launches they had stage-managed in Kiruna or Bolivia. Some of them wore T-shirts—much coveted by certain SSI employees—that said, “Mobil Raketenbasis” (“Mobile Rocket Base”).

“Here’s some Tennessee chawin’ tobacca,” the boat pilot might offer when the Germans stepped aboard. “It’ll kill all your worms.”

Nein, nein,” they would say, and de­scend into the cabin.

The Space Vector people tended to ride outside on deck, wearing their Space Vec­tor caps. They were a studious group of rocketeers, most of them in their forties or older, and their arcane know-how in the practical applications of electronics or physics made them seem elegantly composed.

The crew boat’s twin diesel engines were so loud that conversation on the deck was impossible, so the passengers would just stand there with their arms folded as the pilot took the boat out into the shallow waters of Aransas Bay, peering over his wheel to spot the haphazard channel markers that would keep his boat off the mud flats and oyster reefs. In the cool early morning there were frigate birds and brown pelicans. Roseate spoonbills noodled in the mud for breakfast. After an hour or so the pilot would make a sharp right turn out of the intracoastal and into Mesquite Bay, where Toddie Lee Wynne’s ranch headquarters was faintly visible as a hazy fringe of palms on the horizon.

Occasionally Wynne would ask a few crew members up to that house, where in its big dining room they would be served hefty portions of ranch food by white-jacketed waiters. But mostly the crew ate sandwiches from a Rockport delicatessen and returned home late in the evening for a dinner in town.

Day by day the launch site grew less forlorn, more crowded with people. The gantry was up, the wiring was in, and soon parts of the rocket itself were being taxied down to the pad in the back of a pickup truck.

In the week before the launch the mis­sion director began to show up on the island regularly. He flew over in a one-engine Beech Musketeer, banking in from windward and buzzing the launch control headquarters.

“There’s Deke,” someone would say as the plane’s landing gear skimmed just above the tops of the palm trees. “No one else flies that low.”

Now that he was no longer an astronaut, flying low was one of Deke Slayton’s hob­bies. He had an experimental midget airplane that he hauled around the country and entered in races. The races involved as many as seven other pilots, all of them flying at fifty feet off the ground and try­ing to lap each other as they sped around pylons.

It was not difficult to imagine him in such an aircraft, or in the Apollo capsule in which, after twelve years of waiting, he had finally flown into orbit. Driving into the launch headquarters from the airfield, Slayton projected a terse competence that bordered on grimness. He was 58, but he looked a decade younger in his polo shirts and Sportif cargo shorts, and he had retained his wiry test-pilot body.

As mission director, Slayton’s job was to call the shots on the launch. He would decide when to postpone and when to pro­ceed, and if it was necessary to destroy the rocket in flight, he would be the one who would have to make that instanta­neous decision and press the button.

The Conestoga I, he observed, was not much smaller than the Mercury Redstone rocket he had once been scheduled, as one of the original seven astronauts, to fly into space. But before that flight Slayton had been grounded because of a minor irregu­larity in his heartbeat. He made the best of that misfortune, working his way up on the ground and becoming an administra­tive force at NASA, assigning astronaut crews and helping to decide such mo­mentous matters as who would be the first man to walk on the moon. But all the while, he was campaigning to be rein­stated. Finally, he was able to find a doc­tor who would go to bat for him, and in 1975 he was in earth orbit on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, exchanging handshakes with Russian cosmonauts and eating borscht out of a tube.

Slayton was retired from NASA now, and as a man who had been blasted into space atop a Saturn IB, he was forgivably matter-of-fact about the present task of sending an unmanned vehicle a mere 192 miles above the earth. He had his facts and figures down, he knew the company sales pitch, but he did not seem to have been visited by the Paraclete. He liked Hannah, however. “David’s the kind of guy who does business on the shake of a hand,” he said. “He doesn’t go out and write four thousand pages of contracts and specs.”

In the week before the launch a series of test rockets was fired for the purpose of calibrating the Germans’ radar equipment. The DFVLR crew would beam a radio signal to the rocket, retrieve it when it bounced back, and plot the location of the rocket based on the time it took to receive the signal. The rockets were German military surplus, about seven feet high and five or six inches in diameter. They had caused Charlie Chafer in Washington a last-minute headache. After bombarding the FAA for months with range safety reports and program overviews so the agency would grant an exemption for the launch of the Conestoga I, after lobbying the Department of Defense and the State Department for an export license that would make sending the rocket out over international waters legal, after all this Chafer discovered that to get the test rockets he needed a gun dealer’s license!

Some sort of license was in order, for the small rockets looked lethal. Before each one was launched Deke Slayton would stand on the top of one of the Ger­man containers, his reading glasses hang­ing from a silver chain on his heck, and scan the sky with binoculars, looking for aircraft that had not heeded the FAA advisory to stay out of the area. The countdown came over the loudspeaker in heavily accented German until the rocket, with an incomprehensible, vicious swift­ness, disappeared into the blue vault of the sky before the brain could register that it had left the ground at all.

The swallows that had been flying around the rocket before it was launched teetered on the wing and shrieked when it was gone. Though the Conestoga I was much heavier and, comparatively speak­ing, would lumber into space, it was im­possible not to think about how fleeting its moment would be.

 

GLITCH

 

Mr Hannahs Rocket - 0007

The launch of the Conestoga I had reached a flash point with the media. They descended on Rockport in Action News helicopters, in vans with a radio sta­tion’s call numbers painted three feet high. The journalists wore battery packs like bandoliers and baseball caps that read, “NBC News-El Salvador.” The Big Fisherman and the Duck Inn buzzed with bureau gossip instead of rocket jargon.

Here was a stunning amount of free publicity. Walt Pennino, the former direc­tor of NASA public information who was now working for Hannah, had accredited more than two hundred media represen­tatives. Each of them was given a press kit with a complimentary Conestoga I patch. Broad-beamed fishing boats had been chartered to ferry them over to the island, and once they got there air-conditioned buses would be waiting to transport them to the launch site.

Over on Matagorda, while the launch crew ran their tests on nozzle control units and attitude control systems, SSI opera­tives were busy sprucing up the grounds. Along the shell road leading to the site they put signs that read, “Conestoga Trail.” They picked up garbage and pitched a big revival tent for shade and installed phone hookups for the wire services.

“Now I want you to keep something in mind,” an SSI supervisor told a teenage employee as they were driving along the island road. “By this time tomorrow we’re going to have four hundred outsiders here. I want you to check the dashboards on these vehicles. Make sure they’re clean and free of dust.”

The worker nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, you know, I’ve been thinking. All these press people might not notice how clean everything is right away. But at the end of the day, when they’re sitting in their motel rooms typing, maybe they’ll think, ‘Hey, that place was really clean,’ and then maybe they’ll put a sentence in their story about it.”

The press and the VIPs arrived the next morning after a two-hour boat ride, and they were shuttled to the big tent where a buffet of fruit and boiled shrimp had been laid out for them. The group included a sizable number of investors, most of whom seemed to be Presbyterians. There was also a reporter from Model Rocketry, a Marine fighter pilot who conducted home study courses in how to become an astronaut, and a young Houston remod­eling contractor named Keith Webster who wanted to get into the space construction business so badly that he had al­ready designed a logo for his company, which he called KWI, for Keith Webster Intergalactic.

“We’re in good shape right now,” Deke Slayton said during a press conference under the tent. “The only thing we might have trouble with is the weather and the air traffic. The hardware we don’t expect to have trouble with because we expect to fix it.”

Slayton answered the reporters’ ques­tions with a slight, tight-lipped bemuse­ment. He projected the image of a tech­nocrat who could not understand what all the fuss was about. It was the quintes­sential cool reserve of the astronaut, and the press responded to it warmly. They called him by his first name, as they would a football player, and they were unfailingly deferential toward David Han­nah, who stood next to Slayton wearing a tennis cap with an SSI logo that had been embroidered by his daughter. The two men were an unlikely pair on the surface, Slayton looking like the hero of a spa­ghetti western and Hannah like a high school biology teacher on a field trip. The weather was good when the visitors boarded their boats for the trip back to the mainland, and it looked like it would hold. At launch headquarters the crew continued to run smoothly through the countdown, confident that the launch would take place as scheduled at ten the next morning.

That night the Hannahs drove over to Corpus Christi, where they hosted a din­ner for representatives of various local companies that might have use for the services that SSI planned to provide.

“We hope that the launch will go smoothly tomorrow,” he told them, “and that we’ll be on schedule. If it doesn’t we won’t be the first to have a delayed launch. It doesn’t feel good, but it isn’t fatal.”

The guests were to be chauffeured from the hotel at seven in the morning to the airport, where they would board Toddie Lee Wynne’s Convair for the flight over to the island. The dinner was over by ten so that everyone could get some sleep, but a half-hour later the word was out that tomorrow’s launch had been scrubbed.

The problem was first thought to be two dead cells in the payload battery, which powered the guidance platform, but after having worked most of the night to replace the dead cells, the crew realized the problem was either in the guidance platform itself or in the wiring.

“It’s obviously mechanical,” Deke Slay­ton told the press in the morning. “And it’s obviously fixable sooner or later.”

But the mood was not optimistic. The weather overhead was, as Slayton termed it, garbage. It was cloudy enough to have prevented the launch by itself, leaving aside the mechanical problems. The weather forecasts for the next three or four days left some hope, but they were generally ominous. There was a low-pressure system sitting in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, and it was only a matter of time before the sky would become solidly overcast for days.

Slayton flew over to the island, and dur­ing the day he reported back by speaker­phone to the motel pool where the re­porters were gathered.

“Fire away, Deke,” Walt Pennino said to the phone.

“Uh, hello there,” returned Slayton. “You still there?”

“We are indeed.”

“Hmmmmm. Hello there. Anybody there?”

“Hello, Deke. Go ahead, Deke.”

“Well, uh, assuming that the new gyro package works, we’re gonna hard-mount it, charge up the battery, pick up the count, and fly at ten.”

“What about the weather, Deke?”

“Okaaay, the weather. Well, the weather is supposedly isolated thunder­storms. One weatherman says well have bad weather Friday through Sunday. Another says well have it from Thursday to Saturday. So we’ll ignore both of them.”

When Slayton flew back to the main­land that night, the gyro platform was working, the clock was running again. But anyone who bothered to look up at the overcast night sky knew it would be a toss-up.

Mr Hannahs Rocket - 0008

T MINUS ZERO

David Hannah was awake at 3:45 the next morning. He put on a bathing suit and shirt and then went outside to take a walk. The sky was clear, and the stars and the waning moon were plainly visible. It was going to happen today.

The atmosphere was still, laden with a damp salt smell. The leaves on the twisted limbs of the live oaks formed a dark cas­cading bank against the night sky. All of it seemed infused with the will of the Creator. He was holding that low-pressure system at bay. He was in a go mode for the launch.

Walking along the vacant highway, Hannah felt confident and pragmatic. The postponement of the launch yesterday had been a disappointment, but he was lucky that the mechanical problems had coin­cided with the bad weather. Now the clock was running for real, and in a few hours his $2.6 million rocket would burst into the sky.

But when he returned to the condomin­ium where he and his wife were staying, Hannah had a piece of hard news waiting for him: Toddie Lee Wynne was dead.

It had happened several hours earlier. Wynne had suffered a heart attack on the island and died on board his Convair on the way to a Dallas hospital.

The Hannahs drove over to Walt Pen­nine’s motel room to give him the news, and when he saw the tears in their eyes he had a moment of panic. “Oh, God,” he thought, “the rocket’s blown up!”

Later that morning, the press and the VIPs arrived at the viewing area in front of the revival tent. A half-mile away at the launch headquarters, the American and Texas flags flew at half-mast.

The mood was rueful but not somber. The death of SSI’s first and most en­thusiastic investor only hours before the company’s maiden rocket voyage was a rich irony. It made the impending flight of the Conestoga I seem significant and worthy. Standing in the dune flats with its gantry rolled back, the rocket at that moment seemed to be not so much a tool for commercial exploitation as a kind of probe, a way to gauge the texture of the spirit fabric overhead.

“This is Conestoga Launch Control at T minus thirty-seven minutes and count­ing,” said a firm female voice over the loudspeaker. “The crew has dedicated this launch to Mr. Wynne and would like to request a moment of silence in his honor.”

The voice belonged to Sallie Chafer, who was married to Charlie Chafer and worked with him in the Washington office. She was broadcasting from the blockhouse, a trailer filled with count­down timers and telemetry transmitters and dominated by a piece of equipment called the launch console, which in the final seconds of the countdown would automatically set into motion the final ig­nition sequence that would send the rocket off its pad.

Nearby, in one of the German con­tainers—a cramped, windowless room with ferocious air conditioning—Deke Slayton, the mission director, stood at his own bank of instruments. As the count­down progressed, the men responsible for each of the launch systems reported their status to Slayton. If the status was go, one of seven green lights on the launch con­sole in the blockhouse would come on. When all of the lights were green, the rocket would be ready to go and the automatic sequencer would take over.

Slayton had a manual override he could use that would stop the procedure up to two seconds before takeoff. On the desk in front of him were three plotters that continually sketched the path of the rocket on graph paper. One plotter showed its trajectory, another indicated its azimuth, or compass direction, and the third, the instantaneous impact projection, showed where the rocket pieces would fall at any instant that Slayton found it necessary to push the command-destruct button.

One by one, as the countdown progressed, the green lights showed up on the launch console. At about T minus ninety minutes the rocket had been armed, mean­ing that Hal Geise, who bore the title of pad chief, had climbed up to the first plat­form of the gantry, opened a little door in the side of the booster, and turned a switch that had the same effect as taking the safety off a gun. Geise was one of the last people to leave the pad. Before doing so he took out a felt marker and wrote on the outside of the booster, “God bless Toddie Lee Wynne.”

As the clock ran, the excitement was elemental. At the press viewing area the photographers had set up a picket line of cameras with telephoto lenses, and they paced eagerly up and down this line as the print reporters and VIPs began to move out from under the big tent and walk to the edge of the cleared field.

“I think we’re gonna launch a rocket today,” Gary Gartner said.

Standing next to him, Charlie Chafer fidgeted on the balls of his feet and almost giggled with excitement.

T minus eleven minutes. “Gyros are on,” said Sallie Chafer. “Radar signals are on. Telemetry power is on.”

“Is this thing going to be loud?” Gartner asked Chafer.

“Naw, we put a muffler on it.”

David and Catherine Hannah were sit­ting on a bench outside launch head­quarters, along with Rich Rasmussen, the president of Space Vector, and his wife, Barbara. Hannah sat there calmly, chat­ting with Rasmussen about other Space Vector launches, but at about T minus one minute he tensed up a little and folded his arms across his chest, waiting.

At T minus sixteen seconds a pair of clamps that held the two gyros in the guid­ance platform stationary were released, and that action turned on the last green light on the launch control panel.

Sallie Chafer began the ten-second countdown with a slight catch in her voice, and by the time she reached five she sounded nearly overcome. In the blockhouse the engineers were counting with her. There were buzzards soaring near the rocket.

The firing of the Conestoga I was referred to on the countdown sheet as the ignition event. This event began, of course, at T minus zero, when an explo­sive squib at the top of the booster was detonated, sending a shower of tiny burn­ing pellets into the hollow, star-shaped core of the rocket motor. The pellets created a gas, and the gas reacted so swiftly and so furiously with the solid fuel surrounding it that the Conestoga I began to move upward into the air.

The sun struck the flame coming out from the bottom of the rocket with such intensity that the flame had a metallic gleam and seemed to be all of a piece with the vehicle it was thrusting upward.

“We have ignition,” Sallie Chafer said, a little calmer now. “The Conestoga I, the world’s first free enterprise rocket, is on its way.”

The rocket was well above the horizon before the rumble of its passage was audi­ble. It left a white contrail that seemed to veer and twist crazily on the ceiling of the sky. The rocket itself was visible for about thirty seconds, then it melted im­perceptibly into the atmosphere, and that was the last anybody ever saw of it.

“The Conestoga I,” Saille Chafer an­nounced, “is now in . . .”

“. . . in space!” Gary Gartner and Charlie Chafer yelled simultaneously.

Far above them, far out of sight, in per­fect silence, the rocket was traveling. The NASA booster had burned for sixty sec­onds, and in the very first seconds of its flight the two gyros, spinning on two dif­ferent axes that steadied the rocket in in­ertial space, began to receive prepro­grammed electrical impulses that caused them in turn to send a signal to two of the movable nozzles at the bottom of the rocket, causing the vehicle to pitch south­east toward the Gulf. As the rocket climbed, the gyros continued to steady it, correcting for every gust of wind, every anomaly in the burn. As it flew radar signals were being bounced off its sur­face, and the telemetry sensors mounted within it sent a constant bit-stream down to the Germans’ equipment, which decod­ed and taped it and plotted the position of the rocket. The Conestoga I traveled in an invisible web of radio impulses. A con­stant signal was being beamed to the command-destruct igniter, and if Deke Slayton decided it was necessary to ter­minate the flight, the frequency of that signal would be changed, and like a poison poured into an intravenous tube, it would find its way to the heart of the rocket and destroy it.

But as Slayton looked at his plotters he saw that the Conestoga I was performing flawlessly and that there was nothing in its way.

When all the fuel in the booster had been burned, the rocket was thirty miles high. It coasted upward for another twen­ty, and then the shroud covering the payload, no longer needed at those altitudes where there was no real atmosphere to impede the vehicle’s progress, was blown away. Soon after that the empty booster was jettisoned and the payload stage, still with its guidance package, climbed toward apogee.

While people on the ground were hug­ging each other and opening bottles of champagne, two little compressed-gas jets at the bottom of the payload stage began to expel their contents in opposite direc­tions, spinning the payload like a rifle bullet in a barrel. This kept the remaining part of the vehicle from “coning,” or wob­bling, and it was in this stabilized condi­tion that it reached apogee at 192 miles after 309 seconds of flight. The payload was parallel with the surface of the earth. Had this been an orbital flight, another motor would have now kicked in, sending the payload forward until it began to fall perpetually around the circumference of the earth.

But this was the end of the ride for the Conestoga I. There was one last program, one last signal for the vehicle to receive. This signal ignited an explosive charge that tore the casing of the payload apart, unleashing the forty gallons of water and leaving, in the mute, earth-lit environ­ment of space, a long swath of ice crystals.

No one on earth, or at least on Mata­gorda Island, saw this display. The sun was too high. But no one was really disap­pointed at having missed it. There was a party going on. Deke Slayton and David Hannah were each in the center of a tight knot of TV cameras, and under the press tent Charlie Chafer was offering a toast.

“Long live free enterprise!”

Mr Hannahs Rocket - 0009

ALL SYSTEMS NOMINAL

It was T plus two hours. The big, ungainly party boats pulled away from the dock, leaving behind the launching pad and the air-conditioned buses and the late Toddie Lee Wynne’s cattle empire.

David Hannah rode in the stern, look­ing back at the island and the murky water. His face was bright red. He was holding in his hand a souvenir, a “safe plug” that had been removed from the rocket just before it had been armed.

He felt good. He had guessed right about the Lord’s will. He had been meant to shoot off this rocket after all.

A single-engine plane flew out from the island, so close to the bay that it riled the surface. When it was alongside the boat it gave a slight tip of the wings in salute.

“That’s Deke,” Hannah said. “That’s the way he flies.”

When Slayton’s plane was out of sight, Hannah sat down again and reviewed his plans for the future. He wanted an orbital flight by 1984, and by 1986 he wanted to be launching twelve satellites a year into lower earth orbit from Hawaii. He was working on leasing an Atlas-Centaur base in Florida from the Air Force so that he could use those big liquid-fuel rockets to send payloads into geosynchronous orbit. He had some serious nibbles from a few potential customers already, and if the market was as fertile as he thought it was, who knew where SSI would be in twenty or thirty years? Maybe someday SSI robots would be mining asteroids, and Hannah’s heirs, remembering that he had made his first fortune in the real estate business, would be selling choice lakeside lots in one of the better space colonies.

Such was the world that awaited the gravity-bound inhabitants of the earth, a world that would be brought into being courtesy of the free enterprise system. Why not believe it? Suddenly it all seemed possible, now that the bird had flown.

Related Content