Author : Adam Zabell and Patricia Stewart, Staff Writer
Fifteen days after we landed on Io, Jupiter’s innermost Galilean moon, a faulty weld on the ascent module’s fuel tank ruptured, venting all of our liquid hydrogen into space. Janice O’Connor was able to repair the tank, but if we couldn’t replenish the hydrogen, we’d never be able to reach the Return Module orbiting Callisto.
Command and Control tried to help, but the 90 minute round trip conference calls to Earth were quite literally killing us. Janice died while removing a flow regulator that C&C told us to replace “ASAP”. Thirty minutes later, a message arrived warning us of a potential explosion. That’s when I decided to take Earth out of the loop. After all, I had a ship full of scientists; surely they could come up with a solution on their own. I asked Kristoff Heise to head the Hydrogen Replenishment Team. Kristoff is the brightest we have up here. Marooned on a deserted island, he’s the guy who could build a hovercraft from a dead car battery, some palm leaves, and six coconuts. Of course, he’s also the guy that would die of starvation because it wouldn’t occur to him to eat the coconuts. Short leash, specific goals; that’s what it takes to keep him focused.
Reading the summary from his preliminary report made my eyes crossed. If I understood correctly, and that’s debatable, Kristoff devised a way to turn Io into an electric generator. “…The orbit of Io lies well within the intense Jovian radiation belt. This bathes the moon in highly energized electrons, protons, and heavier ions. A coarse calculation (see Equation 9, Section 3.2.14) indicates an electric potential of 175.9 volts per radial mile. Therefore, if we construct a modified magnetic reconnection antenna (see Figures 12 thru 17) there are hundreds of amperes of electric current available (Equation 11, ibid). By establishing a…” Ahh, whatever. When I brought him into my office he simplified it. “If we tap into the electric potential of Io, we can power an enormous electrolysis cell, separate gaseous hydrogen from the disassociation of melted Ionian ice, compress the hydrogen into a liquid, and refill the tank.” Why didn’t he just say that in the first place!
After hours of listening to his scientific babbling, I snapped. “Kristoff,” I yelled, “just appropriate whatever you needed to do the job, and stop bothering me.” In hindsight, I probably should have worded it better. The next thing I knew, he had the entire science team postulating, designing, planning, and whatever else those brainiacs do. They removed the heating coils from the life support system, the tanks from the water recycling system, and the compressor from the carbon dioxide scrubbers. I tried to explain the biological ramifications of dismantling equipment that kept us warm and allowed us to pee and breathe, but they were in the middle of an egghead feeding frenzy over heat transfer coefficients. “Besides,” they constantly reassured me, “we’ll put everything back together once the fuel tank gets filled.” Yea… that makes me feel soooo much better.
Two days later, our cargo hold looked like a farcical blend of MC Escher and Rube Goldberg. However, I have to give those nerds credit – the hydrogen tank is 50% full and climbing. On the other hand, I’m wearing a parka, sitting with my legs crossed, and trying to learn how to breathe carbon dioxide. Lately, my oxygen deprived brain has been reflecting back on my life, trying to figure out which cosmic deity I piss off enough to make me the captain of this ship of savants.
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