Nils glanced up from packing when Milton entered the office.
“What’s the deal?” Asked Milton.
“I’m out.” Nils answered, still not believing the words he spoke. He felt forced to leave the space agency after ten years and three missions. He pulled open his desk drawers, looking for personal items and setting them aside to clean out his office. “This is a strange position to be in.”
“They can’t force you out without a formal inquiry. It’s not allowed.” Milton started off in the wrong direction, seeming to think Nils had been kicked out.
“That is not it,” Nils corrected. “I’m leaving because they’ve selected me for station flights–three of them.”
“–and nothing else.” Nils turned to continue cleaning out his desk.
“No,” Nils answered. “I still don’t believe it. They have excluded me from the lunar effort. I doubt I’ll get another shot at it.”
“There is the next cycle,” Milton commented.
“They’ve got me three station stints,” Nils commented, “They’ve got me paired with three rookies.”
“They need experience.”
“I get it.” Nils continued, “Mose is retiring, so I need to team with someone else after the first mission. I’m riding with two rookies. It’s good for them. They get experience, but I’m not teaming with them.”
“You should talk with Annie,” Milton referred to the current head of the Astronaut Office, Colonel Annie MacInturner.
“I have not been asked by Colonel MacInturner to form any teams.”
“You should be able to,” Milton insisted. “Annie said she’d be talking to everyone.”
“I think excludes me. I’m not considered senior.”
“But you have the flight you took with Mose.” Milton stated, sounding almost like a question.
“Oh yes,” Nils nodded. They had chosen him to do mission with Moses Crane. Fair enough. Moses was the most senior astronaut. He crewed one of the last space station missions before the Yellowstone eruption that shut down the old program. Nils felt it an honor flying with Crane, having flown with him on his last mission to the Moon.
“Sounds frustrating,” Milton continued. “Two more missions to the station is a good start, but without a guaranteed trip to the Moon, it breaks the cycle.”
“Yep,” Nils answered. “Milt –”
“Why do you think–” Milton started.
“Milt, I’ve had something to do with both of the problem missions to the Moon.”
“You can’t mean that, Nils. I was on the first mission, when you discovered the mortars. Annie was pissed at me for not finding them. If it weren’t for you, the lander could have been damaged, and I would have never made it home.”
“Milt,” Nils countered, “I was your backup for that mission. It was my responsibility to go over the mission plan with a fine-tooth comb.”
“Cy was Annie’s backup,” Milton answered, referring to Annie MacInturner’s husband and astronaut, Cy. “He would be responsible by your logic. He was backup mission commander.”
“It follows,” Nils grumbled. “Cy dumped me from his crew before his Moon mission. He already wanted me out of the way.”
“But you flew with Mose.”
“Moses Crane rescued me from being pushed out a year ago.
“Exactly,” Milton pressed. “Mose carries some weight around here. If he said you had nothing to do with the loss of ice samples, then you didn’t.”
“I know what the official report said.”
“Then you know you have a chance at an inquiry.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Nils shook his head. “The chief said they selected me for the station, and it was final.”
“You're still with the program,” Milton answered. “At least you can benefit–”
“It’s pointless,” Nils countered, grabbing his short hair and trying to drag it out by its roots. “If I don’t get back to the Moon...”
“Without going back, it’s over.”
“No,” Milton answered. “It is not over.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let's consider a moment.” Milton sat across from him, “If we look carefully, we can get back. There are plenty of private companies offering services to and from space. Right?”
“Yeah, we get supplies at the space station all the time.”
“Why couldn’t that work for the Moon?”
“Isn’t there supposed to be a program for that?”
“Yes,” Milton smiled. “I helped design it.”
“Lunar cargo services?”
“And you propose I go work for one of those?”
“Not exactly.” Milton smiled. “I think you should start a service.”
“I don’t have the resources.”
“It isn’t necessary.” Milton continued, “We can always scare up some investment.”
“We?” Nils glanced at his friend, “Milt, you don’t have to go off in this direction. I’m okay to deal with this alone. Besides, you can stay working for the agency.”
“I’m not interested in staying,” Milton paused moving to a chair. “I really don’t think I’ve much more to contribute here. I got on another lunar mission. We had the problem and Annie was so pissed off she barely speaks any more. I’m betting I’ll be kicked from her crew.”
“It was your flight plan after all,” Nils answered, remembering the mission from nearly five years prior.
“She blames me for the failure,” Milton answered.
“What the mortar?” Nils remembered the Apollo era mortar that remained armed after over six decades.
“Yeah,” Milton sounded slightly sarcastic, “the active seismic experiment.”
“How’s the mortar your fault?” Nils asked.
“She blames me for overlooking it in the mission plan–”
“She blames us both,” Nils interjected. “It’s probably one reason Cy dumped me from his crew.”
“But didn’t you find the mortar?”
“Yeah,” Nils answered. “Cy lost it when I told him. We got on the horn with the flight controller and he made the call to shut down comms and get you home.”
“Yeah,” Milton nodded. “That is about it. We shut down all comms and walked back to the lander.”
“So, I don’t see how you will be dumped for that.” Nils remarked.
“You didn’t hear the ass chewing I got on the way home.” Milton continued, “Annie was pissed. She wanted to know everything I knew about the Apollo 14 mission. She especially grilled me on the alsep.”
“What did you tell her?” Nils asked.
“Everything I knew,” Milton answered. “But she was not convinced. She thought I knew they had not fired the mortar and was still live.”
“Yeah,” Nils nodded. “If she thought that, I doubt she wants you on her crew.”
“That is what I think,” Milton said. “I don’t want to hang around for another year only to find out she drops me from the mission.”
“Whatever you want,” Nils answered. “Don’t make your decision based upon me.”
“Let’s go over to the Hilton across the street,” Milton said at length. “I’d like to get a drink.”
“Aren’t they closed?”
“No, they just completed their renovations.”
The renovations had completed. In fact, they had just completed that afternoon. The bartender had just reported back after a two-week vacation, ready to work the new bar. Technically, the grand opening was to be Saturday, but they opened for business with only two customers.
“It seems ridiculous,” Milton said. “But space station has proved commercial space flight. They’ve supplied almost everything we could need. They’re even sending their own astronauts.”
“I think we knew it was coming,” Nils commented, looking out over the bay. The gray hazy sky looked a hint of blue. Was that an illusion? Could the atmosphere be recovering?
“What do you mean?” Milton asked.
“I mean the private sector stepped right in with ballistic flights after Yellowstone to restore international travel. They had cargo operations to the station not long after. They were bound to develop to crew capable systems.”
“Yes, the agency is not the only game in town. John Block left recently for K-Systems. Sam Melman left almost a decade ago to fly for Orbitdyne. So, we won't be the first.”
“How does that help us?” Nils asked.
Milton sipped his drink.
“How will that get us to the Moon?” Nils pressed then waved at the bartender to set up a couple more beers for them. “A Moon rocket is a different class of vehicle.” Nils thought of the models of the early NASA vehicles. The Apollo-Saturn vehicle, to go to the moon, dwarfed the Gemini-Titan by a factor of three, to go to Earth orbit. He knew that going to deep space required a huge rocket by comparison to going to orbit. The agency had built a monster rocket for the purpose. It was big, expensive, and inefficient.
Lunar Cargo Services, the mission service Milton helped design, was a paradigm shift. The intention would be for the commercial vendors to fly cargo to the Moon. In principle, it would allow them to deliver cargo to a new Moon base freeing up the space agency rockets to fly the modules for the base. Their rockets would be useful for small cargo deliveries, perhaps not much else because of their size.
“They’re hoping to get to the lunar south pole, right?” Milton scribbled on some paper. “But it leaves them with a cargo delivery. It has little else. What we need is a vehicle that can make it there and leave with some return mass.”
“You are thinking ice?” Nils asked, smiling as the new beers arrived.
“Yeah,” then Milton drew an ‘x’ on the napkin. “But it will not work.”
“I was thinking we could get the ice off the Moon and we could set-up refueling. It works in principle, but it supposes that someone will need refueling. All existing designs are expendable. A business plan would have to coordinate someone’s intention of building a spacecraft capable of refueling in space.”
“Why don’t we just build a supply depot?” Nils suggested. “Let whoever arrives at the location buy the supplies we put there. That way all we need is a way of storing the supplies. Our customers could pay for what they need and then take it.”
“It sounds stupid enough that it might work.”