“That's true,”Annie smiled. “We allocated 100 grams for luxury items. There are some handwritten letters from Mark's family, a note from the President, and a USB drive filled with music from all ages.”
“Any disco?” someone asked.
“No disco,” Annie said, as chuckles cascaded through the room.
CNN's Cathy Warner spoke up “If this launch fails, is there any recourse for Watney?”
“There are risks to any launch,” Annie said, “but we don't anticipate problems. The weather at the Cape is clear with warm temperatures. Conditions couldn't be better.”
“Is there any spending limit to this rescue operation?” another reporter asked. “Some people are beginning to ask how much is too much.”
“It's not about the bottom line,” Annie said, prepared for the question. “It's about a human life in immediate danger. But if you want to look at it financially, consider the value of Mark Watney's extended mission. His prolonged mission and fight for survival is giving us more knowledge about Mars than the rest of the Ares program combined.”
“Do you believe in God, Venkat?” Mitch asked.
“Sure, lots of 'em,” Venkat said. “I'm Hindu.”
“Ask 'em all for help with this launch.”
Mitch stepped forward to his station in the large control room. He glanced at the many screens on the far wall, and the dozens of people at their stations.
He put his headset on and said. “This is the Flight Director. Begin Launch Status Check.”
“Roger that, Houston,” came the reply from the Launch Control Director in Florida. “CLCDR checking all stations are manned and systems ready,” he broadcast, “Give me a go/no-go for launch. Talker?”
“Go.” came the response.
“Go,” Came another voice.
Resting his chin on his hands, Mitch stared at the center screen. It showed the Pad video feed. The booster, amid cloudy water vapor from the cooling process, still had EagleEye3 stenciled on the side.
Venkat leaned against the back wall. An administrator, his job was done. He could only watch and hope. His gaze fixated on the far wall's displays. In his mind he saw the numbers, the shift juggling, the outright lies and borderline crimes he'd committed to put this mission together. It would all be worthwhile if it worked.
Teddy sat in the VIP observation room behind mission control. His authority afforded him the very best seat: front-row center. His briefcase lay at his feet and he held a blue folder in his hands.
Annie Montrose paced in her private office next to the press room. Nine televisions mounted to the wall were each tuned to a different network; each network showed the launch pad. A glance at her computer showed foreign networks doing the same. The world was holding its breath.
Bruce Ng sat in the JPL cafeteria along with hundreds of engineers who had given everything they had to Iris. They watched the large TV with rapt attention. It was 6:13am in Pasadena, yet every single employee was present.
Millions of kilometers away, the crew of Hermes listened as they crowded around Johanssen's station. The 2-minute transmission time didn't matter. They had no way to help; there was no need to interact. Johanssen stared intently at her screen, which displayed only the audio signal strength. Beck wrung his hands. Vogel stood motionless, his eyes fixed on the floor. Martinez prayed silently at first, then saw no reason to hide it. Commander Lewis stood apart, her arms folded across her chest.
“Launch Vehicle Director.”
“Houston, this is Launch Control, we are go for launch.”
“Roger,” Mitch said checking the countdown. “This is Flight, we are go for launch on schedule.”
“Roger that Houston,” Launch Control said, “Launch on schedule.”
Once the clock reached -00:00:15, the television networks got what they were waiting for. The Timer Controller began the verbal countdown. “15,” She said. “14... 13... 12... 11...”
Thousands had gathered at Cape Canaveral; the largest crowd ever to watch an unmanned launch. They listened to the Timer Controller's voice as it echoed across the grandstands.
“10... 9... 8... 7...”
Rich Purnell, entrenched in his orbital calculations, had lost track of time. He didn't notice when his coworkers migrated to the large meeting room where a TV had been set up. In the back of his mind, he thought the office was unusually quiet, but he gave it no further thought.
“6... 5... 4...”
“Ignition sequence start.”
“3... 2... 1...”
Clamps released; the booster rose amid a plume of smoke and fire, slowly at first, then racing ever faster. The assembled crowd cheered it on its way.
“...and liftoff of the Iris Supply Probe,” the Timer Controller said.
As the booster soared, Mitch had no time to watch the spectacle on the main screen. “Trim?” He called out.
“Trim's good, Flight.” came the immediate response.
“Course?” He asked.
“Altitude 1000 meters,” someone said.
“We've reached safe-abort,” another person called out, indicating that the ship could crash harmlessly into the Atlantic Ocean if necessary.
“Altitude 1500 meters.”
“Pitch and roll maneuver commencing.”
“Getting a little shimmy, flight.”
Mitch looked over to the Ascent Flight Director. “Say again?”
“A slight shimmy. On-board guidance is handling it.”
“Keep an eye on it,” Mitch said.
“Altitude 2500 meters.”
“Pitch and roll complete, 22 seconds till staging.”
The quick yet thorough design of Iris accounted for catastrophic landing failure. Rather than normal meal kits, most of the food was cubed protein bar material. Even if Iris failed to deploy its tumble balloons and impacted at hundreds of kph, the protein cubes would still be edible.