March 23, 2009

Chapter VII - A new bright star

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-"Barlow lens doubler and a H12mm?"
-"For starters." - Armando replied Nuno, while calibrating the telescope's position.
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After two reinvigorating hours reading the newspaper, always in his refuge room, came the relaxing two hour nap, never in the refuge but in his bedroom. Armando had already forgotten the watering plants' episode and had prepared everything to spend some time in the evening showing to young Nuno his sky watching proficiency.
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Dinner - served quite early as usual - had been awkward as Ms. Piedade was a in a bitter mood after seeing how upset her husband had returned from the basement that afternoon - the poor man only had two hands to carry the pair of watering cans, so obviously the newspaper couldn't have been delivered simultaneously!
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-"Do you think we'll be able to see it?" - an enthusiastic apprentice asked.
-"If the information I got is correct, I think we will do just fine." - assured the old man, not mentioning the successful rehearsal he had conducted the day before.
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The perfect cloudless sky had its match in the light free surroundings of the small village, while the stars and the planets wandered high above; Armando and Nuno millimetrically adjusted direction and focus, as the telescope had to follow their objects of interest.
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-"What are you trying to find right now?"
-"The International Space Station, or ISS as it was known" - said Armando, his voice in a lower tone than usual, as his senses got more tied to the task in hands.
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The ISS had great responsibility in what was about to happen on Mars the next few months, but not for the motives its creators could have imagined or desired. In fact, the old space station had a few more lines granted in history books and all of this well after its glory days.
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-"There it is!" - finger pointing to a bright dot in the dark sky - "Got to fine calibrate this" - almost diving to the long precision screw that enabled the small fractions of positioning in order to keep track of the moving object.
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Nuno anxiously waited for his turn to look upwards through the powerful set of lenses, and soon Armando was giving way to his pupil, cautioning him:
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-"Beware not to lose it, it moves very fast."
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The youngster already knew that what appeared to be slow by naked eye had a strangely energetic motion when viewed by a telescope.
Not moving his eye away from the ocular for a single second, keeping his fingers slowly rotating the precision screw, Nuno was curious about this sudden interest for a piece of space junk and questioned his mentor about it.
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-"I have two different reasons to be interested in that 'piece of space junk' as you put it" - started Armando, happy to offer the boy yet another demonstration of knowledge.
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-"The first one would be for historical reasons. I was never a great fan of the ISS, myself, as the only thing I saw in it was an enormous drain of money, money that should have been invested in missions way above low Earth orbit and even beyond the Moon's grip. Everything we have learn through its missions could have learn as well while travelling away from our earthly magnetic sheltering."
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And here he paused just to switch lenses, to a bigger magnifying one. Nuno was delighted with what he could now see.
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-"But one day, due to a terrible financial and political crisis the world had to put through, the Americans - that were struggling with an ever unreliable space program - decided to abandon their share in the ISS, even without having a decent substitute to their famous Space Shuttle. Russia stood as the only ISS member capable of putting people there." - he said, pointing to the moving bright spot way above them.
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An astonished Nuno was no longer watching the sky.
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-"You mean Russia was once a partner to the rest of the world? I thought it had always been a dictatorship!"
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A smile changed the rather stiff face of the telescope's owner:
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-"No, my young man, neither Russia was a dictatorship nor was it a partner with all of the world. I believe it was something in between... and that would be the critical element of this story. Europe, more precisely ESA, was having second thoughts after the American withdrawal from the space station project..."
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His speech overcome by Nuno's voice:
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-"What's ESA?"
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Armando looked coldly to the boy, not amused by the interruption.
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-"ESA stands for European Space Agency. As I was saying, Europe was having second thoughts, but had one ready-to-fly ATV and another one near completion, so it was stuck with two multimillion Euro headaches..."
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-"What's an ATV?" - asked again Nuno, already regretting his impulsive questioning.
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A throbbing vein in his forehead, the elderly amateur astronomer refrained himself and - as calmly as he could - explained that ATV stood for Automated Transfer Vehicle, an European spaceship targeted at resupplying the ISS and its permanent crew.
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And resuming the explanation, he then told how those were the days when things got worst, with Russia becoming a de facto dictatorship. As India was already preparing its first manned mission to the ISS, in a space program based in the Soyuz know-how, and taking advantage from the fact that the United States were both unwilling and incapable of reaching that space facility, the Kremlin immediately declared budget constraints that presumably limited security levels on the International Space Station, denying access to other spaceships besides their own Soyuz and Progress models.
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So Russia stood, in practical terms, the sole owner of the sole space station for almost ten years - until the Americans came back with their Apollo-like spirit and a new, strange, alliance was forged.
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But instead of becoming a total loss and setback to the international space community, these events were the seed of one of the most inspiring moments in the history of space exploration. In view of the situation, the Google company decided to take advantage of all the seemingly negative facts and created one bold competition.
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And so, the Google Mars Prize was born.
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-"You were just a little baby, back then." - the man stressed these words, knowing how impressed Nuno would be.
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The extraordinary vision of assembling a brilliant jigsaw puzzle from scattered pieces, this competition would be different right from the start as it didn't involve a money prize. The prize in itself was a technological and logistical push to those who would embrace the challenge.
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Offering Europe an exit to the two ATVs "all dressed up with nowhere to go", Google bought both spaceships along with their launch and management in space until the end of the competition; everything negotiated at specially low prices and payments in a long duration rental scheme. The final twist in the overall game: the ATVs, full with water, food, oxygen and several other items, would be separately parked in high orbits around Mars.
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And that would be the prize to the winners.
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By the time the explanation got this far, Nuno wasn't bold enough to ask what Soyuz was about...
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Nevertheless, seeing that Armando had stopped for a while, after such a long and eloquent dissertation, the youngster risked to speak:
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-"And what was the second reason for the interest about the ISS?"
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Contrary to what he expected, Armando wasn't mad at him, and while he smiled he pointed to the sky:
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-"As long as something stays in orbit, it clears its path of menacing space debris; the ISS is no exception, therefore if you can choose an orbit to park your own big spaceship..." - Armando didn't have to conclude, as Nuno was already looking upwards again, furiously seeking their evening's major goal.
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And there it was. A new bright star, majestically following the path of the ISS with a gap of 45 minutes, still under construction in orbit, another two weeks until receiving its crew, yet three weeks to leave Mars bound.
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The Namaste in its full glory.
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6 comments:

Femin Susan said...

great.....how do u manage time to write so lot....any way enjoyed it...
:)

Monsal Varga said...

Hi Susan :)

Even I am amazed, quite frankly :D

Stanis said...

nice chapter! in my mind's eye, everything is beginning to come together, sort off :)i look forward to the next twist in the tale!

Monsal Varga said...

Twist, Charleston and Tango!

You just wait and see ;)

Femin Susan said...

hey!!
i have a surprise for you at my blog..find that one out..
hee!!hee

Mo said...

Will catch up with this over the weekend