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SEPTEMBER 24, 2020
The impact craters, mountain ridges, and plains intersected by canyons passed within the sight of the crew members in the rig pilot house as they guided the 25-story structure to its final path towards the mountain ranges surrounding the valley. In thirty minutes the rig would clear the mountain ridges. The monitors showed the green and reddish colors of the rig frame change as the friction increased from the Martian atmosphere
"Check the computer programs for our maneuvers to the mountain ridges and then into the valley." Leekin ordered to the pilot house crew.
"Ground shuttle to landing rig," The ground crew voice echoed over the open channel,"... shuttle craft are taking off to rendezvous with you at 10:20 hours as you approach fifty kilometers from the mean Martian surface. By the time they are in formation and giving you tracking details, you will then have descended to approximately forty kilometers from the valley surface.
"Acknowledge, ground station," Leekin answered. "We are commencing computer sequence to enter into the Martian space for our approach to the area of the mountain ridges.
"In ten minutes, we will be clearing and descending between the ridges into the valley." Leekin announced over the Viking command channel." Request weather verification and position confirmation."
O’Callihan, who had joined the rig crew for hands on review of the geological data for commencement of drilling had been intently listening and observing. He could see the evidence of the stark contrasts of Mars geology, even from high in orbit.
O’Callihan’s review was interrupted by the intercom announcement heard throughout the rig pilot house as transmitted from the orbiting Viking VII just minutes before Viking VII disappeared behind the curvature of Mars.
" This is Kollock. You have clear weather. No dust storms or pressure changes for at least three hours. Engineering has checked and verified your computer programs are accurate. Your position and trajectory are right on the money. Happy landing."
In the pilot house the computer reproduced the changing in shape of the mountains on the screen as the rig began its descent. The mountain ridges towered fifteen kilometers over the valley floor. As the rig descended toward the mountains, the heat shields below the cabin began to glow a faint reddish-yellow, as even the thin atmosphere created drag against the descending rig.
The crew members at the landing site looked into the monitors. With the video-telescopic scanners guided by radar and telemetry, the ground crew could see the rig. On the monitors it appeared as a strange apparition with its huge frame and glowing reddish-yellow heat shield descending between the mountain ranges.
The frame with its pilot house, presented an eerie image as it maneuvered towards the landing site. Soon, the 25 story behemoth would be clearly visible to the naked eye.
The rig’s altitude was 260 kilometers from the surface and with a distance of 370 kilometers from the landing site as it approached the point where it would maneuver to begin the descent leading it to the far edge of the immense mountain ridges.
From the video monitors the crew in the rig pilot-house glimpsed the breathtaking views of the carbon dioxide, water icecap over the edge of the Southern Polar region., and then a panoramic view of the cratered south leading to the Valles Marineris, then towards the channel tributaries surrounded by high cliffs and leading to the flat dessert like plains of the North. These were just some of the stark contrasts of the fascinating planet that had piqued the imagination of the peoples of the earth for centuries.
The images sharpened as the rig drew closer to the surface. The two shuttles from Mars base camp arched their approach to meet the rig assembly on each side and one slightly above and one to the side, as the huge craft approached an altitude of forty kilometers.
The rig began its descent below twenty-five kilometers and towards the mountain ridges surrounding the valley. The shuttles continued to shadow the rig, assisting in the final maneuvers.
Retrorockets and booster rockets began the final braking as the rig now cleared the highest points of the towering mountain ridges. The ground speed was reduced to 380 kilometers per hour.
"Check velocity," Leekin ordered as her crew labored in the rig cabin.
"Velocity at 340.5 kilometers per hour, "A crew member responded.
"Position and trajectory verification." Leekin continued.
" Position and trajectory are holding. We will be making a two degree turn North-Northeast in three minutes," Hank added.
"Ground crew, verify our altitude and distance." Leekin announced. "Over."
"Ground crew station acknowledges, a voice crackles over the open channel. "Your altitude is 6.5 kilometers mean altitude and 8.6 kilometers altitude from the level of the valley floor at touchdown location. You are now 280 kilometers from the landing site." (Edit 3-20-05)
The booster rockets and drag from the atmosphere continued to slow the rig's descent. Special shock absorbers in the junctures of the frame as well as a designed play in the rig construction would absorb the impact of landing. Damage at landing would be minimal and easily repaired.
In the Viking VII module, the engineering crew followed the descent path created by computer projection. The module had not emerged from the curvature of the planet to directly view the rig landing. The tension was evident to Stern and his officers. Nerves were on edge as a vehicle this size had never been guided to a landing on Mars.
The rig entered the area between the high cliff ridges. The booster rockets would reduce the speed on the rig to 250 kilometers per hour. The rig maneuvered for the final landing approach. This was the most intricate stage of navigation as the size of the rig precluded any further last-minute corrections.
The crew, excited by this experience, could not remain silent.
"There are definite weather patterns here. I wonder what Mars was like when this planet was young?" John Jameson pondered aloud.
He expressed amazement at the variety of plains, ridges, craters and volcanoes scattered over the surface. "Some places look as if they are billions of years old. Other valleys seem that they are from a different, younger planet as if they had been transplanted onto Mars."
Leekin reminded him: "This is why selection for the landing site is important for the search for life. We are sure portions of this planet supported abundant life, while other portions remained barren and hostile.
The crew focused on maneuvering to the final landing. The rig had slowed as it was reoriented using booster angle thrust and retrorockets towards a vertical landing position. The vibration of the booster rockets was felt inside the body of each crew member.
The crew members of the rig engaged in a 3-way communication with the module which had now circled Mars to the point where the transmissions relayed from the antenna-dishes on Mars could be received.
"Maneuver .06 degrees southeast," ground crew announced to Leekin.
"Ground station confirms you are coming in a little fast. Increase booster thrust to maximum braking", the radio voice demanded.
"Rate of descent fifty meters per second", Ground station transmitted.
"Linear rate, 150 kilometers per hour ground speed."
"Ninety-two kilometers from the landing site," ground station announced.
The ground station crew continued to announce the numbers.
The two shuttles from base camp shadowed the rig, monitoring closely the condition and position of the rig.
"Maintain consistence path of descent and avoid any wobble in your approach." Base camp demanded. "Reduce rate of descent to 40 meters per second."
The drilling rig began final maneuvers and braking before vertical landing position. The booster rockets continued at full force with the retrorockets working to establish and maintain a stable vertical descent.
"Give me my rate of descent, "Leekin voiced from the pilot house over the open base camp channel. "What is my touchdown time?"
"Rate of descent is now 34 meters per second. Reduce rate of descent to 30 meters per second." Base camp responded.
"I need time of touchdown. Booster rockets are already at full force." Leekin exclaimed.
"You're coming in too fast". Base camp continued. "At a distance of sixty kilometers and an altitude of 3.2 kilometers, with your ground speed and rate of descent you will be achieving absolute vertical descent within twenty-five minutes.
The rig, with its housing and specialized frame appeared as a huge invading mechanical alien to the ground crew.
The sounds of the rockets were carried in strange pitches and whines in the rarified Martian atmosphere.
"2100 Meters altitude, rate of descent 24 meters per second," ground crew announced. "Reduce rate of descent. You are now entering vertical position."
"Fuel mixture is opened wide on booster rockets," a member of the rig pilot crew exclaimed. "We are using hyper pressure for maximum braking thrust."
“1200 meters from landing pad touchdown, rate of descent is 15 meters per second," The ground crew continued to announce.
The vibration of the pilot house from the booster rockets made it difficult to speak over the channels.
The mottled, jangled voice of Leekin sputtered over the channels to her crew members.
"Check computer configuration and numbers for our alignment. We are less than five minutes to touchdown."
James checked the figures, bringing the configuration onto the computer screen. "Computer program is maintaining accurate retrorocket angle and booster thrust for vertical descent." James responded.
Ground crew broke in. "You have 3.6 minutes to touchdown and you're still coming in too fast, rate of descent 13.5 meters per second...
"594 meters from touchdown.."
"Increase fuel hyper pressure on boosters!", Leekin yelled over the channel to her crew engineer."
"Increase is eight per cent. I've exceeded design specs on hyper-pressure on fuel for the boosters and the warning code for engine failure has come on..." Hank Natyu warned.
"360 meters from touchdown..." ground crew announced.
"Rate of descent 11.5 meters per second..."
"We are now within engineering specifications for touchdown velocity." Leekin shouted over the Vibration.
"Valve failure in number three booster-there's too much pressure," Hank's garbled voice strained against the noise and vibration.
"Two Hundred meters until touchdown.." ground crew's voice was barely audible.
"One hundred, fifty meters until touchdown..."
"Booster rocket will explode-we must shut down, Hank screamed..."
"We can't”, Leekin shouted as her barely audible voice chastised Natyu in the din of the vibration of the rig and roar of the booster rockets. "We will loose stabilization and crash."
"We're losing power in boosters numbers two and three-we've gone too far beyond the design limits!" Natyu moaned.
The other rig crew members forced themselves to maintain their stations and feed information in the last few seconds as the rig shuddered towards whatever fate was waiting. They had secured themselves in their consoles. All objects inside the rig had been secured for a rough touchdown.
"One hundred meters to touchdown, 10.5 meters per second descent velocity...," ground crew exclaimed...
"Fifty meters to touchdown..."
The ground crew saw the fumes coming from the booster rockets and the rig visibly begin to increase its vibration.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven...two, one meter...The huge rig assembly struck the surface with the strange high-pitched sound of metal grinding into the landing pad in the thin Mars atmosphere, scattering small rocks and dust in all directions as the Martian surface was met by its invader.
"Immediate shutdown of all booster rockets..." Leekin shouted. The sound of valves closing-of screeches, groans and sudden vibrations of booster rockets starved of fuel filled the pilot house as if a dying monster had finally been put to rest.
As the dust settled, the booster rockets stood silent. The ground crew raced to the shuttle, with explosion suppressant equipment and emergency medical supplies, anticipating the worst.
The ground crew and rig personnel first quickly verified stability of the fuel and life support systems. Some of the ground crew members rode the rig elevator to the rig pilot house to assist their visitors to make the final checks and to secure the rig.
Jameson, Leekin, and crew completed the initial checks and securing of the rig. Rig crew members rode the elevator to the surface of the landing site for medical check-ups, followed by the ground crew members.
The pilot- house crew and ground crew together looked up at the unforgiving, towering rig with its huge frame and energy plant, which would serve its role as the drilling rig for the deep hole exploration.
For members of the crew as they stared, awed by the stark scenery and giant rig questions entered their minds. ‘Will this great mystery of Mars unfold as the twenty-five-story steel invader of planet Mars begins to slice through the planet's layer of soil, rock and mantel? Will the Viking VII mission uncover the secret of life on that now dead red planet-perhaps only, then to reveal the dreaded prophecy for the future of life on earth?’
By Frederic R. Kass, co 1985-1990-1995
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