21 June 2019

Working On A Starship

     In which I tell tales that are only a little bit fictionalized:

     It finally happened.  After years of budget-deferred maintenance and hard use, the old auxiliary stardrive on Billy How is starting to fail.

     That's the starship William Howard Taft to the likes of you.  It's a bulk hauler, United States Space Corps surplus like most of the NATO spacecraft on our side of the Hidden Frontier, with a long, distinguished and penny-pinching history.  Not that I blame the owners; the profit margin is tiny, especially competing against the newer containerized haulers.

     What she lacks in size and flexibility, Billy How makes up for with inadequate speed and inefficiency.  The aux 'drive is a good example.  Built early in the vague and clumsy War between the U.S. and the breakaway "Federation of Concerned Spacemen," her stardrive was built before our side had figured out how to "feather" the 'drive to reduce the effective realspace mass of a spacecraft.  The high-voltage power supplies, modulators and phantasmatron tubes in the 'drive finals were built to punch a hole in space fast and rough, and not to idle at low level for months at a time.  In a short pulse, the 'drives were as powerful as all but the very largest carriers, like Vulpine, Caprine and Lupine, but they were never meant for continuous duty.

     So when we learned how to copy 'drive-feathering from FCS starships, ships like Billy How with Gen 2 stardrives got "realspace auxiliary 'drives," low-powered, simplified, mass-produced "stardrives" that could shunt off mass to never-never land without ever tipping the vessel into Jump space. .  They're not as efficient as the FCS version, not even close, but it's still a huge saving in reaction mass.  And mostly they just sit there, off or on; you dial in the mass-correction and they just run, with none of the fiddling and finagling that it takes to get into and out of Jump space with the real stardrive.

     That unglamorous invisibility is part of the problem: nobody thinks about 'em.  The aux 'drive is a magic lump, out of sight and out of mind. The Captains all take the aux 'drive for granted; the owners balk at spending any money on them.  If you're in Engineering like me, you do your best to keep the spare parts stocked, keep the fine adjustments peaked up, change the air filters and argue for upgrades when the ship gets refitted.

     Billy How's aux 'drive got solid-state finals 23 years ago -- ooh, transistors, how 1990s! -- and there they stood.  I'd requested, budgeted, made reports, argued, shown the brass what was what, given them my best guess about how likely it was to go up in smoke, and they hadn't wanted to spend a dime  on it. When the old-school microcontroller that provided a nice touchscreen interface for control and monitoring conked out four years ago, the Captain had me reconnect the manual controls instead of spending eight thousand dollars on a replacement.  After all, there was a scheduled refit coming up before very long.  (How long is "before very long?"  Don't ask me; that's above my pay grade.)

     The touchscreen system used to gave us a pretty good look into the innards of the aux 'drive, monitoring and logging thousands of parameters.  The manual controls and meters provide a lot less detail.  So when one of the nifty transistorized, sealed power amplifier modules started to flake out a couple of days ago, it took a couple of shifts to figure out just what was going on.  The predrivers had become very fussy, needing more and more adjustment to keep them at maximum power but out of over-temperature or overcurrent failure, and at first the problem looked like more of that.

     It wasn't.  The power amplifier module -- all of a thousand Watts -- could be restored from the fault condition by a full, ten-minute cold reboot of the aux 'drive, at which point it would run for five minutes, flag a COM FAULT and shut down.  No other symptoms, no weird readings -- and no way short of irreversible action with a chisel to get a look at the inside of the thing.

     We didn't have a spare.  The last one of those went in six months back, off Blizzard, and when I'd put in a request for a replacement, it was bounced -- after all, that refit was going to happen!

     They scheduled the refit last month.  It's six months off.  With a dead final amplifier module in the aux, Billy How will run slow on the realspace leg of this trip and it looks like we'll be sitting at the space station until we can get a new amplifier.  What it's going to cost to expedite delivery of that -- assuming Beamathon even has any in stock -- you don't want to know.  What the module itself will cost, I don't want to know, cubed.

     Fix it before it breaks or pay the price later.  It never gets any cheaper, no matter how long you wait.