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Scramjet image Hyve

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited.
The copyright remains the property of the author

A huge black security guard escorted her to the outer office. “This is Miss Laura Kerr, I’ve checked her ID. She’s got an appointment with Mr Calder.”

Dean Calder’s blonde secretary turned on a false smile. “Sorry about the heavy security, Miss Kerr. You know what it’s like.” Laura nodded, hoping to appear worldly. She glanced at the poster on the wall behind the secretary’s desk – a large artist’s impression of the Hyve, in earth orbit and approaching the International Space Station with its main rocket motor blazing. There was going to be a pretty massive collision in about half a second. “He asked me to send you straight in,” the blonde added, in a tone of saccharin sweetness that Laura found unnerving.

Dean Calder was sitting casually behind his large untidy desk, a foot-long silver model of the Hyve pushed to one corner, his computer monitor perched precariously at the other. It was angled towards Calder but she could see the text file it was displaying. He looked smaller and more ordinary than she had imagined him: it was silly, Laura realised, but somehow she had assumed that an ex-astronaut would look like some kind of body-builder – Superman in his Clarke Kent outfit.

He offered a hand but didn’t get up. “Dean Calder. Good to see you. Take a seat. Would you like a Scotch?”

“No thanks, I don’t drink.”

“I couldn’t in my old job. Now I’m making up for lost time.” He poured himself a generous glass.

“So you’re from England, right?”

“Yes. Flight International magazine. It isn’t quite as international as it sounds. We’re UK-based.”

“I love the UK. I trained for eight months with the Red Arrows. Great guys. Even the US Air Force has a thing or two to learn from them. What’s your angle?”

“You mean, for my series? Well, I’ll try to cover most aspects of the Hyve, the retirement of the NASA Shuttles, how the project got started, the commercial slot it’s intended to fill, the design innovations, the two accidents of course – we can’t ignore those – but most of all, the human angle. That’s what people want to read about, even pilots and engineers. I’d like to include a bit about your background, your personal life…”

“Sorry Ma’am, a personal life is something I don’t have. Haven’t got the time to fit one in.”

“I’m sure that isn’t true…”

“I’m just letting you know, so you don’t waste your time. I’m an engineer and a businessman. My family are the five hundred other engineers and technicians in my team. My life is this,” he picked up the shiny model and set it down again. “It doesn’t leave me time for anything else. Can I tell you about it? Have you read the press handout?”

“Yes, of course, I’ve studied it very closely. It’s a wonderful project. Absolutely… inspiring.”

“We’re pretty proud of it. We’re further down the road than any other company in the commercial space shuttle race. Our design ticks ninety-five per cent of the boxes: it flies, it doesn’t need any cryogenics, it lands and takes off horizontally like a conventional aircraft, in principle it could operate from any large runway on earth. It’s smaller than the old NASA Shuttle, and it can’t put as big a payload into orbit, but the operating costs are about one fifteenth as much. Every single bit of it is reusable. No tanks or anything else are jettisoned. Compared to the shuttle, it’s simple, elegant and efficient. And it can easily be scaled up. What more can you ask for?”


“Two accidents. One of them on the ground, nobody hurt. The other one a failure of the main engine at the most critical moment in the flight. Okay, we lost the pilot and the ship, but that won’t happen again. Fourteen people died in the two Shuttle disasters. We’re still in the lead by thirteen. It’s a tragedy, and I’m not trying to minimise it, but this is a dangerous business. Even when you’ve done everything humanly possible to make it safe, things are always going to go wrong in the space flight game. You’ve got to learn from every incident, and make sure it can’t happen again. That’s all anybody can do.”

“And have you learned from what went wrong?”

“Of course we have. We’ve been studying the telemetry and the engineers’ reports solidly for three months now. It’s what I was doing when you came in.” He gestured towards the monitor screen and Laura read the heading: ‘Fatal Incident Report – Main Engine Failure Sim on Hyve 2, 6/11/14’. Beneath the heading were the words: “Security Rating 1”. As she glanced at it he touched something on his desk and the screen went blank.

“And have you worked out what caused the engine failure? And the airframe to break up?”

“Absolutely. It’s crystal clear. All we have to do is modify the transition procedure so that the same combination of circumstances can never happen again.”

“Would you like to explain?”

“I’m very sorry, Miss Kerr, but the exact details are commercially sensitive. I’m not at liberty to discuss them.”

“Even though a man got killed?”

“Test pilots and astronauts occasionally get killed. It’s very sad, and it’s one of the reasons I never had a family myself, if you really want to know, but it’s the way the world is. The way this business is. Our pilots have to sign a special disclaimer that releases us from the obligation to conduct public inquiries in the event of their accidental death. We have competitors who would kill for that information. We can’t go public. Sorry.”

Laura was beginning to feel a certain amount of tension and smiled in an attempt to break it. “I suppose I’ll just have to restrict myself to what’s in the press handout then.”

“On the engineering side, yes, I’m afraid you will. But you said you like to give a lot of attention to the human angle. Why don’t you talk to our chief test pilot, Tex Glenning? He was one of the Shuttle pilots, he’s been to the International Space Station many times, and he’s been married. Twice, in fact. I guess that means he must have a personal life, but he doesn’t talk to me about it. I think he’ll talk to you though.”

“Do you? Why do you think that?”

Calder looked embarrassed. “Well, Ma’am, I think you have some assets that he would appreciate. He’s a bit more swayed by a pretty face than the boring old bachelor you’re looking at.” He hunted amongst the debris on his desk and found an envelope bearing the company logo. He scribbled a number on the back. “This is Tex Glenning’s personal number. Please don’t give it out to anybody else. I’ll let him know you’re going to call him. You can arrange your own meeting. He’s a nice guy. Well, fairly nice, but you’re a big girl, right?”

“Right. Thanks, Mr Calder.” She folded the envelope in two and carefully stashed it in her handbag. “I’ll ask him out to dinner.”

“He’ll like that.”


“So you work for this Flight-what’s-it magazine?” He tried to pour her a glass of wine but she fended it off with the back of her hand.

“Flight International. Haven’t you seen it? I’m a freelance really, an overseas correspondent for that publication and a few others.”

“I think I’ve seen it. And Dean sent you to talk to me?”

“He thought you might be a good person to interview. And I think he’s too busy himself, to be honest.”

“Yeah, always busy is Dean. What did you think of him?”

“Polite… a bit secretive, maybe. He didn’t give very much away about himself.”

“He’s a lot smarter than you think when you first meet him. You won’t ever put one over on Dean, but he’ll put one over on you all right, if it suits his purpose.”

“Am I detecting that you don’t like him very much?”

“I’m wary of him. He’s totally focussed. Just one thing matters to him: the Hyve. Nothing else. He won’t let anything stand in his way. I guess you need to be like that to make a success of a big project.”

“Do you think he will make a success of it?”

“Yip. Even if he has to plant every team member and every rival six feet under to do it. If anybody can make it happen he can.”

“Do you admire men like that?”

He shrugged. “I’m not sure. I think there needs to be something more… some other concerns. Something else in your life. But he’s a type. A lot of the Shuttle pilots were like that.”

“But not you?”

“I hope not.” As he spoke, the starter arrived. “Florida Keys lobster,” he said. “Best in the world.”

She tried it and nodded. “He more or less said that he knew what went wrong when Watson died, but he couldn’t tell me for commercial reasons. Do you think he was telling me the truth? Do you think he really knows?”

A smile spread across Tex’s face. “You’re a smart girl. I think he’s got theories, but he’s not really sure. I could tell you a bit about it but he’d put a bullet in my head if anything commercially sensitive got out.”

“Okay. I won’t quote you. I’ll make it clear that it’s speculation on my own part.”

“I’m not sure how much I trust you. But I’ll give you a hint. As you know from your handout, the name ‘Hyve’ is made up of the first two letters of each word in ‘Hybrid Vehicle’. It’s got two kinds of motor, both running off the same hydrogen fuel. There’s an air-breathing SCRAMJET and a conventional rocket main motor that’s used at takeoff and to accelerate the vehicle to Mach 4.6. That's the speed the SCRAMJET needs to start working. The SCRAMJET takes it up to Mach 18 and 74 kilometres altitude. It’s very fuel efficient, and it gets its oxygen from the air, so we don’t need to use the on-board oxygen. That’s a massive weight saving. It cuts out when the air gets too thin, then the main rocket engine cuts in again and handles the final insertion into orbit. The transition from one engine to the other is the tricky bit. On Watson’s flight the SCRAMJET cut out but the main motor failed to cut in. Now in theory that shouldn’t present a problem. You just lower the nose, come down in a gentle arc, and go into the normal re-entry sequence. But for some reason Watson couldn’t get the nose down. The ship remained in the nose-up attitude and started to fall flat into the atmosphere. The temperature built up and the stresses on the airframe exceeded the limit. She broke up like a meteorite and came down as a dozen fireballs, straight into the Atlantic. Now the question is, why couldn’t Watson get the nose to come down? The control surfaces don’t work at those altitudes, and vectored thrust couldn’t be used, because with both engines dead there’s no thrust to vector. But the positional jets on the fuselage should work normally. The attitude in space is controlled by four small rocket thrusters. Up, down, right, left. Couldn’t be simpler. They work perfectly well in vacuum, so why wouldn’t they work in low-density air? The answer is, we don’t know. We encountered some kind of weird effect that we’ve never seen before. Something the computer model didn’t predict. No doubt it’s got to do with laminar and turbulent flow over the surfaces, but exactly what the mechanism is we don’t know. My guess is that Dean still doesn’t know, and if he says he does he’s bluffing.”

Laura was fascinated and had stopped eating. “But that’s very serious. Surely they can’t go on with test flights until they know what it is?”

“He’s got other groups snapping at his heels. People like Dean can do whatever they want. He’s got full NASA backing, the White House wants an all-American replacement for the Shuttle, the military are slavering for Hyve technology, the commercial world is keen to invest – he can barge ahead if he wants to, and he wants to. The lazy solution is to change the procedure at transition: lower the nose while the air-breather is still running and go into level flight temporarily, perform the transition to rocket power, then bring the nose up again with vectored thrust and continue into orbit. There’s a price to pay, a little bit more fuel so a little bit less payload, but it should be safe. You don’t get stuck in the nose-up attitude without control authority. Maybe that’s all we can do anyway, even if we understand the phenomenon.”

“What if there’s still no control – even with the nose down?”

Tex shrugged. “Doesn’t bear thinking about. But somebody’s going to have to try it out and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“And I suppose that somebody is you?”

He shrugged again. “Wouldn’t be too surprised.”

She toyed with her food, thinking about what he had said. “You’re calmly telling me that you’re willing to put your life on the line… to save Calder the expense and delay of a proper investigation?”

It was Tex’s turn to pause and consider. “To be a test pilot you need to have an irrational faith in your own abilities. You need to believe that no matter what kind of fix you get yourself into, you’re going to find a way out. If you didn’t believe that you couldn’t do the job. If the controls refuse to respond, I’ll find a way to make them respond. Or I’ll get one or other of the engines back on line. Or something. I’ll find an answer. That’s what I’m paid to do.”

“How can anything pay a man to do a job like that?”

“You sound like my wife now.”

“Which one?”



Laura pulled the duvet up, partly for warmth and partly because she felt vulnerable, and even a little embarrassed. “You know, I didn’t expect to end up here tonight. That’s the truth.”

“I didn’t expect you to either. In my job, the unexpected often happens. You’ve always got to be ready for it.” He lifted her hand and kissed it. “I hope it’s going to happen again though.”

“I hope so too.” She held her fingers against his lips a little longer.

“Doesn’t it frighten you? What you do for a living? I mean, that could just as easily have been you in Hyve 2, couldn’t it?”

“Could have been. And I may be wrong, but I think I might have acted just a few seconds quicker and got myself out of it. I mean he was climbing at a steep angle at Mach 18. He had given the command to shut down the air-breather. But there was still air outside the ship. I’ve done the sums, and for at least eight to ten seconds the SCRAMJET could have been re-started. Then he could have regained control with vectored thrust.”

“Eight to ten seconds? You think you would have worked out what was wrong in eight to ten seconds?”

“In this game it’s got to be instinctive. A good pilot has done the right thing before he’s consciously considered the problem. As soon as he had the tiniest doubt about the responsiveness of the controls, that’s what he should have done. If something didn’t feel right, if something didn’t smell right, that’s what he should have done.”

“God, I wish you were out of this game. Life and death shouldn’t be balanced as finely as that.”

“I won’t stay in it after the Hyve project. I know I’m slowing down. Just a tiny bit. Nobody else knows it, but I do.”

“I don’t believe you. I don’t think you’ll ever stop. Not until… something happens.”

“Relax. Nothing’s going to happen.”

She cuddled-up closer. “Please, Tex. Don’t leave it too long.”

There was a pause while he seemed to gather courage for what he said next. “Will you hang around for a while? Let me think about things? Maybe give me something to stop for?”

“What do you think?”


Laura was wearing her blue dressing gown when she peeked out of the bedroom at the top of the stairs. “When are you coming to bed, Tex?”

“Sorry, sweetheart. A new message came in from Dean. I just need to read it. I’ll be right up – give me ten minutes.”

She continued down the stairs and stood behind him, gently massaging his shoulders. “I can feel a bit of tension tonight. I suppose it’s because the big day is so near.”

“It’s not that big a day. Just a routine flight. We’re not doing any sims.”

“What’s a ‘sim’?”

“Simulation. Where you simulate some kind of problem and go through an emergency procedure.”

“Really? That’s what ‘sim’ means?”

He put his hand over one of hers and patted it gently. “That’s right. Why do you ask?”

“Well – you’re probably going to tell me I’m wrong – but when I met Dean Calder there was a report on his computer screen. I didn’t see very much of it, just the title and the security code. It was called: ‘Fatal Incident Report – Main Engine Failure Sim on Hyve 2, 6/11/14’. Doesn’t that mean the engine failure on Hyve 2 was a sim? A simulation?”

Tex’s hand stopped moving. He seemed to become rigid in his chair. “You don’t think you could be mistaken about that, do you?”

“How could I? I’d never seen the term ‘sim’ before. I couldn’t have made it up. And I noticed that as soon as he realised what was on the screen, he turned the monitor off. It was definitely something I wasn’t supposed to see. I’m certain of it. What was it, Tex? What does it mean?”

He turned around and Laura saw that the colour had drained from his face. “It means the main engine didn’t fail. It was a simulation. It was switched off. Holy shit! No wonder Watson couldn’t start the motors. He wasn’t meant to. It was all set up by Dean to test the aborted transition procedure. It was a way to telescope half a dozen different tests into one. He was absolutely confident the procedure would work, and he’d never have to go back to that part of the test programme. He took a chance and it didn’t come off. Bastard!”

“He took a chance with somebody else’s life? Is that the kind of man you’re working for?”

“Was working for. He can’t treat his pilots like that. The fucking bastard! I can’t believe it! Well, that’s not true, I can believe it. He ought to go to jail for that, Laura. That’s the worst stunt he’s ever pulled – at least the worst one I know about.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to do what you and everybody that’s ever cared for me told me to do. Get out. Do something else for a living. Fly airliners. Train pilots. Work for one of the rival space engineering companies. There’s lots of things I can do – and stay alive.”

She embraced him and stooped down to kiss him on the cheek. “Do it now, Tex. Before you change your mind. He won’t be in bed, will he? He’ll be in that office of his, figuring out what ‘sims’ to do on your flight.”

“Wait here, sweetheart. I won’t be very long.”


“Tex? What are you doing here at this time of night?”

“The game’s up, Dean. I quit. I ought to ram that stupid model up your ass too, in memory of Watson, but I won’t.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Find yourself some other mug. Laura saw that report on your screen. ‘Main Engine Failure Sim’. The cat’s out of the bag, Dean. And I’m going to be telling the rest of the team. I may not be able to prove anything, but just wait and see which of us they believe.”

“You’re stressed, Tex. Sit down. Let’s talk.”

“Don’t tell me I’m stressed. I’ve come to my senses, that’s all. We’ve got nothing more to talk about. The Hyve project is finished. Nobody’s going to touch it when this gets out.”

“So you want to walk out, do you? Cuddle up in your love nest with that little English hooker? Take me down with you? Holy shit, Tex, you know we have to cut corners from time to time in this business. You of all people know that. Some times we get it wrong. What are you, some kind of kid from Sunday School? Grow up, Tex.”

“What do you mean, English hooker?”

“Well who the fuck do you think she is? She’s no Flight Magazine reporter. Call them, ask them if they’ve ever heard of her. Did you see her with the envelope I gave her, the one with your phone number on the back? What do you think was inside that envelope when I gave it to her? Do you think I would let an aviation reporter see that stuff on my screen?”

Tex became completely still and a shadow seemed to pass over his face.

“Are you telling me that you set me up. That Laura was paid…”

“She’s a high class hooker from Miami. Nothing wrong with that, a girl’s got to earn a living. I hired her because you needed cheering up. A depressed chief test pilot is no use to me. But if you think she loves you, if you think you’ve found Miss Right… well, think again, buster. She’s high maintenance. You’d better find yourself a job that pays real good if you want to keep Laura around.”

“You’re lying to me.” He spoke very quietly. “That’s a lie. Laura isn’t a hooker…”

“What’s the matter? You having some kind of righteousness attack? You got something against hookers?”

Tex sat down heavily. Dean went on talking.

“I don’t pretend to be a man of the world, but let me ask you something. Have you ever been with a woman who didn’t lie to you? Have you ever been totally up-front with them, for that matter? It’s all a game, Tex. Everything is public relations, making the right impression, feeding the right fantasy. But the Hyve isn’t a fantasy. The Hyve is reality. It works. It’s the next step on the way to the stars. It’s a dream that’s worth living for. You’ve got a chance to do something worthwhile with your life. Something that really counts. Don’t throw that away, Tex. You’ll never forgive yourself if you do.”

Tex said nothing.

“Keep Laura if you want to. I’ll put her down as expenses. Keep your job. This interview never happened. What do you say?”

Tex and Dean met each other’s eyes. At last Tex spoke. “You can take her off the payroll. I’ll find my own hooker if I need one.”

Dean reached across and took Tex’s hand. “Six o’clock Monday morning then, as planned. You’d better go home and get some rest. What are you going to tell her?”

“I guess I’ll tell her that I never had her down as a hooker. That they’re usually better than that in bed.”