The engineer sat on the edge of his bed, elbows on his knees, face in his hands, staring from between his fingers at the carpet.  Only one thought dominated his consciousness.

     He's going to kill me!

     He lifted his head slightly and glanced through his eyebrows at the oversized flat panel screen on the far wall.  Despite its incredible resolution, all it showed was a gray fog thicker than mud.  A few darker blotches implied the existence of a structure of some sort, but absent any context it could have been anything from a LOX tank to a launch tower.  A timer at the lower left corner of the screen read 5:49.  A moment ago it had been dutifully counting off the seconds, but for the last several minutes it hadn't changed.

     He's going to kill me!

     There was no doubt in the engineer's mind.  He knew for certain his career was over.  It wouldn't take a whole lot of analysis to reach the root cause of the test flight's failure, even though all the forensic evidence had been engulfed in a huge fireball unseen in the thick fog.  But physical evidence was not necessary.  The testimony of the ascent video taken in the engine bay was more than damning enough to convict him.  It didn't require a high definition flat screen or a slow playback from one of the high-frame-rate cameras; the source of the eruption would have been obvious to all, even on a flip phone.  The flickering flame had materialized in a place it had no right to be: in the middle of the subsystem the engineer had personally designed.

     He's going to kill me!

     He fumbled for the remote, mercifully silencing the bewildered chatter from the rookie launch correspondents.  He stood for a moment, sat back down, then stood again, uncertain of what to do with himself.  But he was certain what would come next—and true to form, his phone rang.  The caller ID showed the expected name of his team leader.

     Here it comes... The engineer steeled himself as he activated the device.  Dispensing with preliminaries, he cooperated with the inevitable.  "Yeah, I saw it."

     "Did you see the ascent video?"

     "Yeah, I saw it," he repeated.

     "Did you see—" the team leader began, but the engineer cut him off.

     "I said I saw it!" he repeated yet again, tears of anger coloring his voice.  "I can recognize my own handiwork, dammit!"

     "Any idea how it failed?  The Boss is going to want to know pronto."

     The engineer sighed shakily.  He knew how it failed, except he didn't.  The same failure mode had occurred only once, in an early test of the rocket motor, but it had happened in concert with several other failures, any of which may or may not have contributed to the fiery fault at hand.  But the failure never appeared again in the dozens of tests that followed, so the engineer assumed it was a byproduct of the other issues and no longer a problem.  But the feeling of déjà vu was undeniable as he observed the exact same failure mode reassert itself at the worst possible moment.  "Maybe," he finally admitted.

     "Well, you'd better get yourself to the test stand.  I just got word the Boss is already on his way, and he asked for you specifically to be there."

     Ice water ran down the engineer's spine.  His phone began to slide from his suddenly-numb grip.  He sat down on the bed with a plop, but somehow managed to retain a precarious hold on the phone.  "What sort of mood is he in?"

     "Beats me.  But I bet we can both make a good guess."

     Thunderstruck, the engineer tossed off a shaky, "I'm on my way," and hung up.  But in defiance of that assertion, he did not move from the bed, could not move.  He could only stare at the blank flat panel on the wall, reliving the career-ending disaster and seeing it with a level of detail available only to the subsystem's designer.  Finally, he stood on weak knees, reached for his car fob sitting on the night stand, and headed out to meet his fate.

     He's going to kill me!

          *     *     *

     The engineer's attention swiveled repeatedly from his monitor screen to the rocket motor on the test stand and back to the monitor.  He knew hours ago while sitting on his bed exactly which junction failed, but now that he had the physical and digital artifacts squarely in front of him, for the life of him he could not fathom how it could possibly have failed.  He let out a resigned sigh.  Stymied, his attention wandered away from the troublesome subsystem to the rest of the massive motor, marveling for a moment at its compact complexity.  It was at that distracted instant that the Boss suddenly appeared alongside him.

     "So what happened?"

     The engineer pointed to the failed component.  "This joint went bad, and I have no idea why."

     "Why is there a joint there?  You designed this, didn't you?"

     The engineer did not immediately respond, but his brain kicked into high gear.  Why IS there a joint there? he asked himself, and the answer was ready at hand.  Because it connects two separately-manufactured assemblies!  With that one thought, the answer became obvious.  Without missing a beat, he turned to the Boss.  "It joins two assemblies," he explained.  "The easy solution is to build them as one assembly and eliminate the need for the joint."

     The Boss nodded.  "No part is the best part."  He paused, looked at the failed subsystem a moment longer, then added, "Yeah."  He turned to go.

     The engineer was thrown into a befuddled state of confusion.  To the Boss' departing back, he called out in perplexed incredulity, "You're not going to fire me?"

     The Boss turned to face him.  "Why would I do that?  I've always said that failure is an option here, and looking for failures like today's IS why we test.  You learned a valuable lesson the hard way today—and you have a fix for the issue.  That makes you a lot more valuable to me today than you were yesterday."  He smiled mischievously and added, "You should be asking for a raise."  With that, he turned and left, leaving behind a stunned, more-valuable engineer.


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Ken Krawchuk

Background Marscape courtesy of NASA & JPL-Caltech
(C) 2021 Amendment Sixteen Limited