Chapter 317 To Space
The elevator continued to rise on Launch Umbilical Tower, and the three astronauts got further and further away from the ground. Zhang Heng raised his head and looked toward the distant sky, where the crimson sun rose over the coastline. Light and dark perfectly intertwined at this moment, as if captured in time and frozen on film.
“I hope we’ll get to enjoy such a beautiful sight again,” Collins whispered from the side. Although the astonishing height of Saturn V gave an illusion that the elevator would never reach the top, it eventually stopped in front of the bridge. The NASA technician opened the elevator door for them and nodded. At the same time, engineers had also completed the final inspections before the launch. The three of them walked across the bridge linking rocket and tower and ingressed into the narrow command module.
Zhang Heng tried his best to keep his spacesuit away from the complicated instruments and cables around him. At the same time, he found his seat, and the door of the command module slowly closed behind him. Only the three of them were left in the spacecraft, where Armstrong and Collins were both weathered and experienced NASA astronauts. They had completed space missions before; hence the two were very calm. But compared to Armstrong’s unchanged looks, there was a slight hint of nervousness on Collins’ face.
After all, a series of unfortunate events had just happened at NASA. The mysterious infectious diseases, and the crazy attrition of the training camp… all these seemed to only confirm the widely spread rumor of God didn’t want humans landing on the moon.’ Even with Collins’ steady-as-a-rock mental state, it was difficult for him to completely ignore these external interferences. But when the mission started, he quickly devoted himself to it.
Like the original Apollo 11 mission recorded in history, NASA still arranged for Armstrong to be the commander and Collins as the command and service module pilot. As for Zhang Heng, he replaced Buzz Aldrin as the lunar module pilot. Collins was also the only person who did not set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission because one crew needed to be in the command module when the lunar module separated. If Armstrong and Zhang Heng could not return to Earth, Collins would then fly the command module back to Earth alone.
His situation was the best amongst the three, almost having guaranteed that he would come home, provided the machinery did not fail. But he had to pay a price for that safety, and that was him not getting on the moon for the first time. In terms of mission priority, he had a higher position than Zhang Heng, the lunar module pilot. After talking a little more during the quarantine period, Zhang Heng had become more familiar with Armstrong and Collins. Because the experienced duo returned to the team relatively late, the three did not get the opportunity to train together. This once made NASA’s executives worried about the chemistry between the three. Unfortunately, they had no better solutions, and could only create an environment that coaxed them to familiarize themselves with each other during the quarantine period. Thanks to that, Zhang Heng got to confirm something that he was unsure of before.
Whatever happened in the parallel quest wasn’t co-related with the normal quest, and Armstrong had no memory of his time working with Zhang Heng at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory 14 years ago. This could be seen from Armstrong’s expressions when the two met again later. Armstrong seemed as if he was looking at a stranger.
Zhang Heng was sad as he thought about it, knowing that this would happen when he returned to the main quest. Fourteen years had passed, and Zhang Heng’s appearance hadn’t changed one bit. He hadn’t aged too. Nobody would have thought this possible to happen to anybody, and besides, how would one coin up a convincing explanation to explain this phenomenon? Regarding what happened after the two were separated, Zhang Heng had more or less read up about it on the internet and books.
Armstrong married college sweetheart Janet Elizabeth Shearon in 1956, and the couple had three children together. Karen, his daughter, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor and lost the ability to speak and walk. Not too long after that, Karen tragically passed away on Armstrong and Janet’s wedding anniversary. The incident greatly affected Armstrong, which was why Zhang Heng was quieter when he saw him for the second time. Armstrong was one tough cookie. Through his tribulations, he never once grieved in front of anyone.
He later applied to NASA to be an astronaut. In addition to his passion for flying, he wanted to escape reality, and perhaps only through high-intensity training and work could he temporarily forget the pain of losing his daughter. Subsequently, his marriage did not end well too.
In 1989, Janet left a note for Armstrong at the dinner table, requesting an end to their 38-year marriage. In Armstrong’s words:
“Our marriage is like a failed flight. It collapses silently… If possible, I still want to say, I love my wife, I am sorry…” But at this moment, as Armstrong sat in the cabin, he did not think about all these things. He focussed all his thoughts and energy on this mission, a reason why NASA identified him as a stable and reliable leader. In a sense, although Armstrong and Zhang Heng lived at different times, they had many similarities and could see each others’ shadows from the other.
There was a tacit understanding between the two at the Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory, and they returned to the Apollo training camp 14 years later. Although this version of Armstrong didn’t remember what happened before, the subtle sense of understanding between the two hadn’t completely disappeared. Armstrong could feel it as well. He and Zhang Heng were seeing each other for the first time, but it felt like a reunion between old friends, and Zhang Heng seemed to know his family situation and his background information very well.
Mission control in Houston initialized a two-minute countdown before the launch of the Saturn V. Everyone within the radius had all evacuated to safety. Today, over a million people had come from all over the country just to witness the historic launch. Other than that, dozens of TV cameras were rolling, broadcasting the whole process to the entire world. Zhang Heng tugged on his seatbelts for the last time to make sure that he was secure.
The countdown was now down to the last 15 seconds, and internal guidance was activated… Then with 9 seconds left, the ground trembled as five F1 engines of the first stage ignited with a thunderous roar. They were soon at full thrust. Approximately 12,000 kg of rocket-grade kerosene was injected into the engines and burned every second, enough fuel to fill up 15 fighter jets. The fiery inferno at the bottom of the rocket ejected with a cloud of smoke that could be seen from miles away. Then, the ungodly thrust they generated lifted the behemoth Saturn V slowly off the ground.