Laura Ferno and snarky Donna and maternal Sandra and exuberant Lisa are at the pub this time and it is relatively early on a Friday evening, only just past ten o'clock. It is one of the generic enormous chain pubs which while serving admirably cheap food and drink, has nothing substantial in the way of character or atmosphere or good drink. It is not quite as artificial and mass-produced as a McDonald's (which, Donna swears, are inflated; they throw down a big flat pack of bricks and pull the string and wait three days and a franchise builds itself, or they chuck a programmable chunk of nanites into an empty office and watch the tasteful organic dark green and brown furniture and frontage to sprout like moss), but it is as close as you can get while still being nominally pubby.
Notice how certain colours call "organic, pleasant, environmentally sound, indie, earthy, recyclable, natural, safe" to mind? Look at a cereal packet. All bright red, white, green and yellow, like the McDonald'ses of yore. Now mentally replace the cereal box with brown cardboard (or just invert it). And modify the scheme to match. Doesn't that look tastier? Dark brown and dark green and hints of purple. How good for you! the packaging seems to say.
They have taken a table which happens to be under the big-screen television which is showing Sky Sports News. Laura is on her way back from the loo and almost at the table when an odd shiver washes over her from the feet upwards and she nearly loses her balance and falls over.
"Take care, there honey! Early days yet," admonishes Sandra, catching her and steering her back into her seat. Laura blinks for a long moment and wonders what's wrong with her head. That felt like a very... long-range thing. Like it happened a long way away. An earthquake? She glances at the engraved bangles and rings on her wrists and fingers, which she swears felt staticky for a moment there, like rubbing gloves made from artificial fibres, but the feeling is gone like déjà vu.
"Oh," she remembers, and reaches up to the manual controls on top of the television and flicking up and down through the channels until she finds a proper, non-sports news channel. "There was a Shuttle launch today! I mean, right now! I knew I meant to do something this weekend and I forgot. I knew I sat under the television for a reason. What time is it in Florida?"
"About five in the evening," says Donna.
Laura finds the BBC and spends a moment absorbing the picture of darkening blue sky with a handful of brightly-coloured fragments thrown across it. There hasn't been time for the tickers below to change yet. They still say "--uttle Constitution launches from Kennedy Space Centre on STS-208 carrying vita--"
The sound is off but the next thing Laura does is locate the volume control and turn it up. "Obviously..." says the official NASA commentator hesitantly, "...obviously a very serious malfunction."
"Oh my God," says Lisa. "How many people were on that? That's terrible!"
Laura Ferno's mind is already working overtime.
A note at this point. Just counting visible accoutrements, Laura Ferno is wearing more than a thousand pounds' worth of highly advanced thaumic tools and weaponry. This is not because she's a witch; she carries this equipment in the same way that an electrician's toolbox typically contains a highly refined and carefully-chosen array of such tools. All of this is useless to someone without training, much like an electron microscope would be, or a helicopter. In her day job, Laura is a research scientist. Her area of study is thaumic engineering. Like she believes any geek who reads around her subject should, she has a rough working knowledge of physics, a deep interest in spaceflight, a firm grasp of rocketry and some rudimentary qualifications in computer science. She has written several books. She has given lectures to very large and learned audiences. This isn't coming out of nowhere. Laura Ferno is a professional mage, probably one of the best-known in the world. Ten seconds have elapsed and she already has three ideas as to why Constitution just disintegrated and she hasn't even seen the footage of the accident, let alone the faintest conception of how the Shuttle actually works.
"I have to go," she announces, leaves the rest of her drink and makes for the door. Her phone has begun buzzing before she gets there and she answers it. "Yeah, I'm here. I'll get there as soon as I can."
You can't bring thaumically active equipment on an aeroplane these days any more than you can bring a loaded firearm, a syringe full of morphine or a canister of Geiger-crackling juicy-fresh plutonium. On the other hand, they're tools of the trade and she needs them to do the job. So she has to wrap them around her quote-broomstick-unquote (basically a steel rod that looks like it comes from a bar bell) and risk baggage.
She could still bring the aeroplane down with just the tattoo on her finger and the one behind her ear, but flight regulations are running to catch up with that kind of thing. A time may come when she's not permitted to fly without sedation. On the whole, she thinks it might be an improvement.
Twenty-four hours later she is on the ground at KSC, shattered and feeling as if she hasn't sat down in a week.
"This is nothing like Challenger and nothing like Columbia," explains Eric Whitehead, Mission Control Director. "Start with no preconceptions. Constitution was an ASTS Orbiter, Advanced Space Transportation System. Unlike the rest of the 'ships of the line' it was the first reusable spacecraft to be built with substantial use of thaumic engineering techniques. Polaris was the second."
"If the problem was mechanical or electrical there's a limit to what I can tell you," Ferno explains. "If you gave me a million years I could learn everything, but as for right now I know mainly thaumics. What's our clock?"
"Here's the other problem. STS-208 was carrying the Tertiary Kinematic Module but that wasn't the main point: it an already-long-overdue resupply mission to the International Space Station. Right now the main concern is oxygen. The ISS has approximately twenty days of air supply remaining. That's a red number. Green would be ninety, yellow would be forty. We've had poor weather conditions for the last two intended launch windows and before that there was a structural fault in the concrete underneath the launch pad which had to be repaired, that took eleven days and required a roll-back-roll-out.
"We do have a contingency plan. Polaris has been on its pad for the last four days as a hypothetical recovery mission, STS-708. We are now going to have to launch Polaris. But it's the same basic design as Constitution and if it has the same accident as Constitution then in addition to the four Constitution crew we lose the three Polaris crew and, most likely, the eight ISS crew. In addition, the ISS has been experiencing intermittent electrical problems since the accident.
"We can mourn when this is concluded. And American spaceflight will continue. But we need to make it safe to launch Polaris. We don't have time to prepare another orbiter. It's Polaris or bust. So you tell me what went wrong."
"I need data," replies Laura. "You've got a project underway to recover as much of the debris from the accident as possible, but having watched the footage I doubt there's much recoverable that's worth recovering other than the left SRB. I need to make a split-second-by-split-second timeline of the breakup. Every telemetry data point in microsecond order if you can manage it."
"That'll be done."
The whole launch stack has shrunk and thinned since thaumics became well-understood enough to put to work in serious engineering. An ASTS Orbiter looks much like an STS Orbiter except for the heat shielding, which is now constructed from bronze-coloured hexagonal iridium/platinum plates bearing interlocking engraved designs. The designs are worked out uniquely for every single one of the 2300 or so plates, such that when primed before re-entry each casts the correct repulsive field, for the best possible deceleration profile and to protect the orbiter as much as possible from the superheated air. The main engines (Rocketdyne RS-90s) incorporate both physical and thaumic confinement systems to route the liquid hydrogen and oxygen and a single tantalum/yttrium steel magic ring to angle the nozzle. Fine-tuned manoeuvring in space is accomplished using direct kinetic energy delivery through platinum zeta-lock ring systems instead of conventional attitude jets which previously required their own fuel supply.
Magic runes inscribed in atom-thick graphene layers on the exterior shell of the external fuel tank augment the structural integrity of the tank (this doesn't work so well on the SRBs, because they're made of a different alloy and graphene-effect thaumics have a different effect on the alloy, driving them to rotate instead of bind, the Korolov rotator effect). The combined rotation side-effect has to be accounted for with a new set of (conventional, physical) struts to keep the SRBs from rotating beyond specified limits.
Magic heats the cockpit, on flights where a qualified thaumic engineer is present to tune the thing. Rings need maintenance, some need charging, others need monitoring for inscription degradation. Some persist for very long periods, others have to be completely destroyed after twenty minutes of continuous use. Case in point: binding locks which mate the orbiter to the external tank, which are enacted, closed and activated remotely by a mage at Mission Control at T-3:30 and become inoperative at T+16:01 give or take a few seconds, at which point, usually, they have been disconnected manually.
Magic interacts with other nearby magic. Magic has been retrofitted to the Shuttle system because it was a valid way forward to improve the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of the STS, to explore the material limits and capabilities of the new technology, and because, frankly, almost nobody else in the world has the cash resources and rare earths needed to produce a device which practically harnesses the power on sale here.
Magic costs a fortune and needs electron-microscope-scale equipment to manufacture in a serious way, or the right brain to drive it, or both. There is no pure magic space vehicle yet. Spaceflight is its only realistic application right now. There are no cheap, consumer options.
Laura Ferno watches the whole footage again, on ninety cameras simultaneously, one frame at a time, from launch to disintegration.
"Do you see that?"
She goes back and points. She flips through the big screen of telemetry and pulls together the data feeds from six different monitors: two EFT internal temperature feeds, one monitor attached to the primary binding ring which keeps the EFT and the orbiter attached together, one from the range safety system, and two from the EFT graphene shell.
Frame. Frame. Frame. Frame.
"Do you see that?"
There are eighteen other people in the room. And they all see what she's pointing at. There's one frame where a light is visible between the orange tank and the white and bronze orbiter. There's a spike in all of the six graphs (and others too, not visible) - in some places the spike is higher or delayed or early. And then the light vanishes.
A full ten seconds elapse before the right SRB's lower connector (a different connector, this one completely physical) fails and the SRB swings out, driving its nose into the side of the external tank and even into the orbiter cockpit itself. That's when it goes up like a firecracker. Five people are killed almost instantly. The debris starts falling.
But the light ten seconds ago is the clue.