- Author: John Berryman
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This etext was produced from Analog Science Fact & Fiction June 1963. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.
THE TROUBLE WITH TELSTAR
The real trouble with communications satellites is
the enormous difficulty of repairing
even the simplest little trouble.
You need such a loooong screwdriver.
by JOHN BERRYMAN
ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN SCHOENHERR
oc Stone made sure I wouldn't give him the "too busy" routine. He sent Millie to get me.
"Okay, Millie," I said to Stone's secretary. "I'll be right with you." I cleared the restricted notes and plans from my desk and locked them in the file cabinet, per regulations, and walked beside Millie to Stone's office.
"It's a reflex mechanism, Mike," Dr. Stone said as Millie showed me in. "Every type knows how to fight for survival." He took one thoughtful puff on his pipe. "The old fud," he added.
"The solenoid again, Doc?" I asked.
"What else, Mike?" he said, raising his pale eyebrows. "It's Paul Cleary's baby, and after all these years with the company, he doesn't figure to go down without a fight."
So I was in the middle of it. I had no business to be there, either. The design of that solenoid certainly hadn't been mine. All I had ever done was find out how to destroy it. And after all, that's part of what my lab does, and what I do, for a living.
"Quit staring out the window, Mike," Doc said behind me. "Here, sit down."
I took the chair beside the desk and watched him go through the business of unloading his pipe, taking the carefully air-tight top off the humidor we had machined for him down in the lab, and loading up with the cheapest Burley you can buy. So much for air-tight containers. Doc got it going, which took two wooden matches, because the stuff was wringing wet—thanks again to an air-tight container.
"I just left Cleary's office, Mike," he explained. "He won't admit that there's any significance to the failures you have introduced in his solenoid. He insists that your test procedures affected performance more than design did, and he wants to talk with you."
"Great," I said glumly. "Can I count on you to give me a good recommendation for my next employer?"
"Cut it out, Mike," he said, coming as near to a snap as his careful voice could manage. He blew smoke out around the stem of his pipe. I think sometimes it's a part of his act, like the slightly-out-of-press sports jacket and flannel trousers. It says he is a sure enough Ph.D. If you ask me, he's a comer. You can't rate him for lack of brains. He knows an awful lot about solid-state physics, and for a physicist, he sure learned enough about micro-assemblies of electronic components. I guess that's why he was in charge of final assembly of the Telstar satellites for COMCORP.
"Don't worry about what Paul Cleary can do to you, Mike," he suggested. "Think a little bit more about what Fred Stone can do for you. Cleary is only a year or so from retirement, and you know it."
"He could make that an awful tough year, Doc." I said. "You told me he won't hear of design bugs in that solenoid. He'll insist something went wrong in assembly."
Doc Stone smiled thinly at me and brushed at his blond crew cut. "It is a tough spot, Mike," he agreed. "Because I won't hear any talk of faulty assembly. You'll have to choose, I guess. If you think you can make your bed by playing footsie with an old fud who has only a year to go, try it. Just remember that I've got another thirty years to go, and I'll breathe down your neck every minute of them if you let me down!"
"Sure," I said. "When do I see him?"
Doc Stone got someone named Sylvia on the phone and then told me to go right up. After I got there, I had to sit and wait in Cleary's outer office.
I shared it with a small, intense girl named Sylvia Shouff, if you believed the little plastic sign on her desk. There was barely room for it in the welter of paper, files, notebooks, phones, calendars and other junk she had squirreled. She was much too busy banging at a typewriter and handling the phone to pay any attention to me. Her pert, lively manner said she hadn't taken any wooden nickels lately.
But I had. The last series of tests in my lab had put me in the middle of a hell of a scrap. It had all started a couple years back, when the final design had been approved for a whole sky-full of communications satellites. Well, eighteen, to be exact. One of the parts in the design had been a solenoid, part No. M1537, which handled a switching operation too potent for a solid-state switch. That solenoid was one of the few moving parts in the Telstars, and it had been designed for skeighty-eight million cycles before it got sloppy or quit.
In practice, out in space, the switching operation simply hadn't worked. After about a hundred hours of use in Telstar One, it failed. Unfortunately, this had not been discovered until the first six satellites had been launched. Further launchings were postponed while they ran accelerated switching tests on satellites Two through Six out in space. The same kind of failure took place on each bird.
There were two schools of thought on licking the bug. Doc Stone, of course, insisted that solenoid M1537 had failed, which was one possible interpretation of the telemetry. And Paul Cleary, who had been in charge of design, insisted that faulty assembly was to blame. Well, somebody would make up his mind pretty soon, and my evidence would have a lot to do with it. I had done the appraisal tests of the circuit in the test lab once the bug had been detected, and now Cleary was going to smoke it out of me.
"Mr. Seaman," Sylvia Shouff said to me, kind of waking me up. "Mr. Cleary will see you now. Have you ever met?" she added, as I came toward her desk.
I shook my head. "I'm a working stiff," I said, "I never get to meet the brass."
"You are also somewhat insolent," she said tartly. "Better wash out your mouth before you try that on Paul Cleary. He eats wise young laboratory technicians for breakfast."
"Yes, mam!" I said, feeling my ears burn. She led me to the door, opened it, and introduced me to Paul Cleary. He lumbered out around his desk and shook my hand with his rather gnarled and boney paw.
"Hello, Seaman. I'm glad to meet you, young man. Come in. We have a lot to talk about," he said.
Considering that Cleary was a wheel, and had thirty years of service with Western Electric behind him, his office wasn't especially large. Maybe that's because Communications Corporation is owned half by the government and half by AT&T. The government half makes us watch our pennies.
"Have a seat, Mike," Cleary said, going around to lower himself carefully into a tall swivel chair. He learned back and rocked slowly, like an old woman on the front porch of a resort hotel. His pipe was still smoking in a rather large ashtray. He picked it up, showing it to be a curve-stemmed old-man's style, and puffed contentedly at it. On him it didn't look like an act.
"Well," he said, pulling big shaggy eyebrows down so they shaded his pale blue eyes. "You've become something of a celebrity around here, Mike."
This was an unexpected approach. "Nobody told me," I complained. "Does this kind of fame show up in the paycheck?"
"Not always," Cleary said, scowling a little. "I just meant that your name gets bandied about. Every time I talk to Fred Stone he says, 'Dr. Seaman says this,' or 'Dr. Seaman says that.' I just had to see what this doctor looked like."
"You can forget the doctor part," I said uncomfortably. I had heard that Cleary was sensitive about having no advanced degree. When he went to work for the Western, college was plenty. You did your post-graduate work on the job. He sure had—and he had a string of patents as long as your arm to prove it.
"That's good," he said. "I'd hate to think I was competing with you in the field of knowledge where you are the world's specialist."
I grinned at him a little sickly. "COMCORP has never made any use of my specialty," I conceded. "You already had about ten guys around here who had learned twice as much as I had simply by doing it every day for a living. They could have written rings around my thesis."
"Sure," he said contentedly, puffing more smoke. "So we made a testing engineer out of you. And you may amount to something, to hear Fred Stone tell it."
"Thanks," I said.
"Now let me hear what you've been doing for Fred," Cleary suggested, in a sort of avuncular tone. "I'd like to measure you myself."
"You mean the tests I ran on the switching gate?" I asked.
"Why, yes, we can start there," he nodded, squinting his blue eyes more and blowing a real screen up between us.
"When Telstar One packed up, they sent me down the whole gate from that sector," I said. "Dr. Stone asked me to run destruct tests on the whole assembly, which I did. The only failures I have induced so far are failures in M1537, the solenoid that all the shouting is about."
"What kind of failures did you get?"
"Armature froze on the field," I said. "I guess the bearings really went. When there was enough load on them, they couldn't maintain concentricity."
"What kind of loads?" he growled, sinking down lower in his chair. He put his elbows on the arm and laced hairy-backed fingers together under his chin.
"I put the whole gate on the centrifuge and swung it up to twelve gees" I said. "Switching was normal there for the twenty thousand cycles I gave the gate. But when I added undamped vibration at twelve thousand to fifteen thousand cycles per second, I could induce failure pretty quickly. Say an hour or so."
"You had to apply the vibration throughout the whole test period to get these failures?"
"Yes, Mr. Cleary."
"Then how do you explain how vibration during no more than six or eight minutes of blast-off and launch could have the same effect on the actual installation on M1537 in a satellite, Mr. Seaman?" Smoke poured from the curve-stem.
"I don't have to explain it," I said, beginning to get a little hot. "All I have done is find a way to make one part quit. I haven't said it did quit in use, or that it could be made to quit in use."
"Then what the hell are you good for?" Cleary growled.
I didn't have any answer for that.
He repeated his question, blue eyes glittering. "I asked you what the hell you were good for, Seaman!" he said, much more loudly.
"For putting in the middle," I snapped back.
"That's how you interpret this affair, then?"
"All right," Cleary said, straightening up. "We'll stop talking about your work as if it were scientific study and talk about it as a play in office politics. Is that what you want?"
"I don't want any part of it," I said, hoping I wasn't plaintive. "I work under orders. The director of assembly asked me to test the part to destruction. I tested it. I'm sorry that it wasn't a soldered joint that failed. It wasn't. It was a solenoid. What has that got to do with me?"
"Nothing, maybe," Cleary conceded, pushing himself up out of his chair. He went to his window to stare out at the parking lot. "You can be a test engineer all your life, if that's what you want."
"And what do you want, Mike?" he said, turning back to face me.
"Your job," I said. "In time."
He nodded. "Well said," he decided. "But if you want it, you'll have to learn that business is about ninety per cent people and about ten per cent operations. You know, as you have clearly shown, that Fred Stone is pushing to get me out of here a little before my time, and pushing to make sure that he gets this spot, for which there