From Earth to Mercury Help (page 2)

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Sep 16, 2011

Down And Back

The landing shuttle is named Eagle , after the Apollo 11 lunar landing module, and that’s a good name for this contraption. The Mercury lander looks very much like the Apollo mission landing craft. “I know what you’re thinking,” says the captain as you get into the little chamber. “But if it worked in 1969, it will work now. The biggest difference is that this one can deal with greater temperature extremes. And the communications and navigation equipment are a lot better than they were in 1969.”

The first officer will be our guide for the landing mission. The captain must stay with the Valiant . The first officer also will serve as our teacher during long periods of interplanetary travel. “One hour of general astronomy and cosmology training every day will make cosmic gurus out of you by the time this journey is over,” he says.

As you break free of the main vessel, you get a feeling like that of a first free dive when learning SCUBA diving. It’s one thing to practice SCUBA diving in a swimming pool or a small pond; it is entirely another to dive in the open ocean, miles from land. If something goes wrong while you’re isolated in this little landing craft, only the skill of the first officer and a good measure of luck will stand between you and disaster.

As you near the crater, the mountains loom. “That looks like water ice,” you say, noticing a grayish sheen inside the crater. “It might be exactly that,” says the first officer with a hint of a smile. The craft slows; the landing lights come on. Then suddenly you are in pitch darkness. The Sun has dipped below the rim of the crater. Stars flash into view as the Sun no longer dominates the sky. Your eyes adjust to the darkness; the first officer scans the surface below with high-resolution submillimetric and infrared radar. You hover. The craft seems to move a little. The glint of the Sun-scorched peaks on the far side of the crater lends some perspective. “Hmm,” says the first officer. Then again, “Hmm.” His eyes are glued to the screen and to a group of lights and dials. “Is this good or bad?” you ask. “It depends,” says the first officer. “If you are worried about liftoff, it is good. If you are looking forward to touchdown, it is bad.”

You begin the ascent back up to the Valiant . You will not land.

“I couldn’t find a suitable spot,” apologizes the first officer. “We have limited fuel, and that means we have limited time. The captain didn’t get the Valiant into the orbit she had hoped for. The orbit is a little too high; we had to travel a little farther to get down here than I was expecting.”

“Is that good or bad?” you ask.

“It is not good,” says the first officer. “But it could be worse. If our orbit had been a few kilometers higher or slanted by another degree with respect to the poles, I would not have attempted this trip at all.”

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