Spookymilk Play With The Prose — Playoff Challenge #1: Small Decision/Huge Consequences

Round 1 of the Play with the Prose playoffs, for which I qualified as one of the top six in the regular season — the challenge is to write a 500-word or fewer work in which a seemingly small decision results in huge consequences later on.

Sept. 23, 1999
Mars loomed large in front of the Mars Climate Orbiter as it sped towards its rendezvous. After gliding through space for 286 days, MCO had finally reached the critical point in its journey where the orbit insertion burn would occur. Unfortunately, the orbiter was 100 kilometers closer to Mars that it should have been, and its struggling engines overheated in the Martian atmosphere. Instead of slowing into an ever-decreasing parabolic orbit, it plowed across the thin atmosphere and escaped Mars’ gravity to be lost for good.

Jan. 13, 1997
Jeff Kehler, a software engineer with Lockheed Martin, relaxed in his Colorado home, a remote in his hand. He had scrolled through most of the cable channels when he stumbled upon a rerun of the first episode of Cosmos. He was pretty sure he hadn’t seen it since it first ran back when he was in college, so he settled down for a little guilty pleasure. When the episode ended, it was followed immediately by the second episode, and Jeff realized that it was a Cosmos marathon! After the seventh episode, Jeff changed and got into bed, and while he knew he had final integration testing tomorrow, he also knew that his VCR wasn’t working, so he continued to stay awake, finally shutting off the TV after the last episode, at almost 4AM.

Sept. 27, 1999
While internal mission analysis had already begun, an external “MCO Failure Board” was formally commissioned. When a $125 million project fails, fingers need to be pointed. The folks at JPL in Pasadena were convinced it was the navigation software from Lockheed Martin, while the Lockheed Martin engineers in Colorado were sure it was the operations of the JPL scientists that caused the error.

Jan. 14, 1997
Jeff Kehler snapped awake in his chair in the test lab, the integration testing already well underway. He quickly tried to remember at what point he was at when he fell asleep, but could not recall for sure. In any case, the other testers were at lunch, and with a couple quick calculations he could tell that the simulation was already showing a noticeable discrepancy, no doubt due to his failure to apply the expected mid-mission flight corrections. After waffling a bit, he quickly overrode test protocols and made a manual course correction before the others returned. He then decided he’d better pause the simulation to get some coffee. The remainder of the day’s simulation completed within test tolerances.

Nov. 10, 1999
MCO Failure Board released their phase 1 report describing the probable cause of the mission failure. It was determined that a systemic failure of communication between NASA’s JPL and Lockheed Martin, specifically the use of metric versus English measuring systems, was the root cause. Deeper in the report it faulted the integration testing for failing to identify the discrepancy prior to launch. What the report failed to ultimately uncover, though, was that the blame for the huge setback to the exploration of Mars fell directly upon the late Carl Sagan.

Will there be a “next week” or not? RESULTS

The judges’ comments:
K: I love this one all over. Yes, it’s a gimmicky structure that totally works as a storytelling device and yes, the science is interesting, but there’s more than that. This is a human story about an eager character with very important shortcomings, and how those flaws affect his life and career. So many sci-fi writers forget to ask their readers to connect with a character or with a real story; this writer – and we all know who it is – NEVER forgets to do that. GOLD

P: Heh, funny. I like the back and forth narration of this story, and the joke at the end is definitely good. The perils of staying up well past one’s supposed bedtime come through time and again, though rarely with such catastrophic results. This may be the best pure example of the challenge. BRONZE

  • I meant to preface this with Based on a true story, but forgot. For the most part, the portions not focused on Jeff are true.
  • I didn’t get this finished until late as it was. I didn’t have anything come to mind otherwise, and this one really sounds a bit clinical and documentary-like. The thought that Carl Sagan could be blamed for setting back space exploration though tickled me a bit. I really need to rewatch Cosmos sometime, though.
  • I intentionally interleaved the story because, really, this thing didn’t have anything else unusual going on with it.

I seriously did not expect to be moving on after this one, and now I have a busy week to have to work out a story for the semi-final round…wish me luck.

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