Blackberry Targeted Content

Sweet Tyranny of the Rocket Equation

A clear early autumn sun shone above the deep forests of the Île-de-France region. Five centuries before there had been sprawling wheat fields covering these plains: for a moment after the collapse, the region had even briefly become Europe’s granary. Now, as the Low Age was in its death throes, the region had returned to a quasi-prehistorical state of things as far as geography was concerned. Intensive agriculture had been, replaced by forests while the ruins of Paris and its suburbs had never truly been replaced by anything. Urbanization had been scattered in myriads of small communes all across the region. Faraway to the horizon gleamed tall windmills and the odd tokamak fusion reactor.

About five hundred and thirty years before, in the 1970s, someone in the French government had had the weird idea of experimenting with the idea of jet-powered hovertrains. The Aérotrain project had crashed and burnt in the 1973 oil crisis but it had left a trace in the landscape, under the shape of a kilometre-long suspended test track in the forest of Orléans. The very name of Aérotrain had disappeared and the test track itself had collapsed but for hundreds of years, this strange aerial railway built in the middle of the forest had remained in the minds of the Abbesses of Orléans. The original abbey itself had joined the aerial track among the ruins of the Orléans forest but the fascination for speed and aerodynamics was still there. The Abbey of Orléans had ceased to follow Christianity somewhere in the 23rd century. On the white and black tunics of the Abbesses, the cross had been replaced by the moon and arrow. By the early 2400s, the Abbeys of Orléans had become the intellectual center of the Northern Branch of the Outer Church, carrying with them the legacy of what had once been the European Space Agency.

In the Outer Church, there was no devil and there was no otherworldly God. There was the sacred desire of humankind to reach for the stars and there was the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation — the inescapable truth that a ship was either powerful or fuel-efficient, and the simple reality that the first steps were always the hardest. There was a brute-force method to break free from the Earth’s merciless gravity well — launchers surging through the atmosphere like oversized candles containing more fuel than payload. The Abbesses had always thought there were more elegant solutions.

And on this morning of June 4th, 2578, the Abbess of Orléans contemplated the fruit of three centuries of work. A Concorde-O single stage to orbit spaceplane, resting on an Aérotrain-inspired Maglev launch track. White delta wings gleaming under the sun, black streamlined engine pods waiting in the warm wind — above the stars were slowly dying as the sun was taking over.

Suddenly there was a spark running all along the five kilometers long Maglev track and the Concorde started taking up speed. The Abbess watched as the spaceplane endured a five gees acceleration while sliding alongside the inclined track. Thirty seconds later it left the track at several hundred meters per second, howling in the sunrise when its air-breathing engines immediately ignited. The Abbess felt a sudden warmth surge through her spine when she heard the sonic boom accompanied by a deep, powerful howl coming from the engines. To her, it was the song of the divine. The Concorde kept accelerating above the forests, leaving a wishbone-shaped shadow on the trees. The Concorde was now evolving at hypersonic speeds, using helium coolant to prevent its engine from melting itself as it climbed higher and higher. When the Concorde-O reached six times the speed of the sound and twenty-five kilometers above sea level, the engines switched to their closed-cycle configuration, morphing from classical jet engines to rocket drives. Now freed from the constraints of airplane designs the Concorde continued its ascent. Its ever-growing speed quickly brought it to the edge of space, one hundred and fifty kilometers above the surface of the Earth. The Concorde performed one last full-power burn to circularize its orbit — and it was in space.

A five kilometers long maglev ramp for the initial velocity. Engines that could seamlessly transition between jets and rocket drives. The long-forgotten shape of a 20th century supersonic airliner. The three solutions the Outer Church used to counter the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation weren’t always efficient, but they were elegant.

And for the Outer Church, elegance was half the way to salvation.

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