Silence at 200km

Ever since the first days of humanity, we have been fascinated by the stars. By the blinking lights in the sky at night, by the massive light that rises in the morning and sets in the evening. We mythologised the ones that moved, assigning them the status of gods like Mercury, Jupiter, Mars. We grouped them into constellations, seeing patterns among the random scattering. As we stared, we learned more about them. As we stared, we learned more about the universe, from their motions and from their light. We moved from calling them gods to calling them lumps of rock, or balls of gas. Our understanding grew. And as our fascination grew, we dreamed. We dreamed of the day we’d send probes up there. Maybe even men.

In 1957, we launched Sputnik 1. It was meant to be the first probe to orbit the earth at a height 215km. Except as it hit 200km above sea level, it vanished. The signals stopped. The Russians assumed it had been lost for some reason. An engineering defect perhaps, after all nothing had gone that high before. No debris was reported or found.

The near success of Sputnik 1 started the space race.

Sputnik 2 rapidly followed, with the engineers having tweaked the designs in the hope it was simply a manufacturing defect. It too, disappeared. The US tried too, and again at 200km it also disappeared.

This caused the scientific and engineering communities great concern. Nothing in the theories or models predicted anything that could destroy a probe at 200km. Probe after probe was tried, and they all failed. No signals were received after a probe reached 200km. Religious communities seized on this failure of modern science, trying to portray it as a sign that science was wrong, that it didn’t know everything.

The Space Race ended, inevitably, when both sides agreed that the 200km phenomena needed cooperation to resolve. And so that lead to today, where we’ve worked together to engineer a rocket capable of reaching almost, but not quite 200km, and capable of sustaining life for a time so we can report back what can be found, as our probes are evidently incapable of detecting anything.

As we launch, I’m in constant contact with mission control, as is my one crew mate. We both know the risks, that we might not see our loved ones again. As the rocket lifts us up we keep looking ahead, straight out of the window to see what, if anything we can see. The altimeter in the corner of my vision is counting upwards. 50, 60, 80, 100, 150. The rockets cut out, momentum should be enough to take us to our desired height now, at which point we’ll just maintain altitude. As we hit 199km we can just see space. It’s beautiful. It’s exactly as we’ve always seen. Below there are clouds, and in some places ocean and land. It is beautiful.

We know what we need to do. Our sensors, and senses, report nothing unusual. Looking at each other, and with a silent nod, we tell mission control that, against orders, we’re going higher. Silence in response.

We go higher, and higher….. the altimeter ticks over to 200.

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