After reading +Neil Degrasse-Tyson's review of what the movie 'Gravity' got right (especially the tears in Sandra Bullock's eyes at the end) it reminded me of a chapter I wrote in my series of sci-fi books. This is from the second book which was written and published in 2011. The set-up is that a satellite accident has begun a Kessler Event, which is a catastrophic self-destruction of the satellites in LEO... And like most of the things I write about, it is a very real potential danger due to the overcrowded LEO bands. Enjoy :)
December 20, 2012 - 2:05 AM
International Space Station
“Commander, I wanted all of you out thirty minutes ago. We can’t move the station until the Soyuz capsules undock, and I want you as far away from the debris field as you can get when those two birds collide. You don’t need that much time to prep the two Soyuz for escape. Every minute you wait puts you that much more in danger on your trip down. What’s the holdup?”
Commander Frank Salvato knew he was in trouble now. Getting a call from the Director of NASA is the equivalent of getting called into the Principal’s office.
“Sir, they’re locking down the last of the equipment on the station now.” Frank was not going to waste time beating around the bush. “Sir, I think I should stay to oversee the station’s move to higher orbit. We’ve never tried to go this far—”
“Commander, we can handle it from down here. But we’re waiting on you. You need to get your crew and get off that station now. That’s an order.”
“Roger, order received. But Sir…” Frank was a military officer, and he knew not to start a sentence with ‘But Sir.’
He could see the expression on the face of the Director of NASA on the laptop screen, but Frank kept going anyway. “If we abandon the station, there are a dozen ways we could lose attitude control. If she starts to roll, we’ll never be able to board her again. Someone needs to stay here. Please, let me stay aboard. I’ll send everyone else down. I’m willing to take the chance.”
The Director started to say something but hesitated as he changed his expression.
“Commander.” Then he changed his tone too. “Frank… you’re married now. And your wife is up there with you. I took a big chance letting the two of you on the same mission, but I trusted that you were the best man to command the station during this tour because you are. And that’s why I’m not willing to lose you. Request denied. Now get your butt on that capsule and get off that station.”
Frank didn’t show it, but he was furious. Astronauts know the risks of their job. It’s always been dangerous career. But they also know the importance and the cost of what they do. Frank smiled as he nodded his head to his boss.
“Roger that, Sir. We’ll be launching the escape capsules in the next few minutes.”
Frank reached out and closed the laptop that was carrying the impromptu video conference from Washington DC to the International Space Station two hundred miles above the planet while it circled the globe every ninety-one minutes. Only then did he let his emotions take hold as he yelled across the empty cabin at no one.
From behind him, Frank heard a familiar voice, and he consciously forced himself to relax before he turned around.
“We don’t have time right now, darling. The stagecoach is ready to pull outta Dodge, and we’re all waiting on the Sheriff.” Captain Nikki Westland was in her blue jumpsuit with her hair in a tight bun. He couldn’t help himself and smiled at her. Then he pushed off the console he was floating in front of and cruised through the air toward his wife. She locked her feet into two stirrups just in time to catch him in her arms as they embraced and quickly pulled in for a deep kiss. When they stopped, Frank smiled genuinely at her before disengaging from the hug. Then he pushed through the hatch into the main tube while he spoke over his shoulder to his wife.
“Come on. I gotta talk to everybody one last time. Let’s go.” Then he grabbed a bulkhead beam and rapidly pulled himself up the tube leaving Nikki alone and watching him as he flew away like Superman in slow motion. She laughed and pulled herself out of the stirrups before she slid through the hatch and followed her flying husband up the main tube.
By the time they got to the other end of the station, Nikki had caught up to Frank and was right behind him. They flew into the room where the other three astronauts were waiting. Sergey and Mischa both had annoyed looks on their faces. But that’s pretty much how they looked all the time. Miroki, the astronaut from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, had his camera out and was documenting the abandoning of the station, presumably for posterity sake. He pointed the camera at them as they floated over to the group.
Nikki moved over with the other crew-members as Frank pulled himself into a set of stirrups in front of them.
“That was the Director of NASA. He’s ordered us to abandon ship now. Have you all finished locking down the experiments and equipment onboard?” Everyone nodded. “What about the escape capsules? Have you finished with the Soyuz checklist?” Another nod from the group.
Frank was proud of his team of astronauts. He had only been aboard and commanding the station for two months out of a six month tour, but he already knew them all like brothers. And then, of course, there was his wife, Captain Nikki Westland; formerly of the Air Force and now a full-fledged astronaut. They were all looking at him with anticipation on their faces. Always willing to take the lead, Frank naturally had a knack for being in front. But this time, he had a different plan.
“Okay, Sergey and Mischa… you two each take command of one of the capsules. I’ll coordinate the undocking from—”
Nikki interrupted him. “What? You’re not staying here. You’re leaving with the rest of us.”
This caused the others to begin questioning him, but everyone was speaking at once. Frank held up both his hands, and the group quieted down. Frank looked directly at Nikki, but spoke in a tone that was meant for everyone to hear.
“I don’t believe we can leave the station unattended. All of you know there needs to be daily maintenance and repair on this ship, or she can lose attitude stability. If that happens, we can’t get back onboard. Not to mention the problems that could occur during the orbital lift burn of the engines. Somebody needs to stay here. I’m the commander, I’m staying behind. The rest of you… abandon ship. That’s an order.”
In all his years of dreaming about being the commander of the Space Station, Frank never dreamed he would ever have to give the order to abandon ship. But as he looked at the other four astronauts floating in the room in front of him, Frank thought he might have to give the order again. Because nobody was moving anywhere. All four of his fellow astronauts were just staring at him. But then the three men looked over at Nikki as if on cue. Frank followed their gazes and found Nikki with a combination of anger and pain written plainly across her California girl face.
“You can’t stay here alone.”
“Someone has to keep watch during the transfer to higher orbit. We’ve never gone up as far as they’re planning.”
“You can’t stay here alone.”
“We don’t know what will happen when we leave the upper orbit limit. If one of a hundred things go wrong, they can’t fix it from the ground."
“You can’t stay here alone.”
Frank was getting frustrated, and he was out of time. “I’m staying, and that’s it.”
Nikki was getting frustrated too. “Fine… but for the last time… you can’t stay here alone.”
She stopped and remained quiet for a moment longer. It took Frank a second to register what she was telling him. Then he got angry instead of frustrated.
“Oh no. Don’t even think about it. You’re not stay—”
“Everything you just mentioned is a two-man job.” She turned and pointed to the other three, who were watching them like a quarrel between two lovers on television. “If you don’t believe me, ask any of these guys. They’ll tell you the same thing. The station needs at least two people to operate almost any of the major systems onboard in an emergency.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Frank stopped and pulled his feet out of the stirrups before pushing off toward her a few feet away. He swung his body around where she was floating and reached out gracefully with his left arm to stop himself at her side with the other three astronauts in the background behind her. He needed her to focus on him and not be distracted by the others. “Nikki, it’s going to be dangerous. I don’t wanna lose you.”
“So what the hell? It’s okay if I lose you? You gotta get off this macho cowboy bullshit, Commander.” Nikki was not going for the sweet talking routine. “Do the math, Einstein. The Soyuz capsules only hold three people each. If all four of us leave, we’ll have to take both escape capsules.”
“That was my plan. Get all of you off of here and down to safety.”
“That’s a stupid plan… Sir. If one of us stays with you, then you have enough manpower to actually do some good here, and you still have an escape option if you need to leave.”
Frank looked past his wife and saw the others were now looking at him again. Frank surveyed their faces, and to a man, he could tell they agreed with her. He looked back at Nikki.
“Fine… but why does it have to be you?”
Nikki cocked her hand back to swing at him. She wasn’t sure what would happen if she punched him hard enough to knock him out in micro-gravity. But she was willing to find out. Before her fist got to his face, Frank’s right hand shot out from his side like a laser and grabbed her wrist. His other hand was still holding the bulkhead, which was how he was able to move so fast. But the momentum of her punch colliding with his hand in a terminal grip caused them to tumble backward and away, pulling Nikki’s feet out of her stirrups. They both rotated upside down as they fell away but twisted into each other before slamming into the bulkhead in a heap. After they impacted the wall, they grabbed each other quickly and looked into their eyes with concern that was evident on both of their faces.
“Are you okay?” they said almost in unison.
From behind them, Miroki interrupted. “Commander, we have to get going if we’re going. I think you should both come with us. But if you’re staying, then Nikki’s right. You need someone else to help. And it’s the only move that’s not a suicide mission ‘cuz you get to keep the Soyuz.” Miroki smiled when Frank and Nikki turned to look at him. “So kiss your wife and make up your mind. We gotta go.”
Frank looked back at Nikki, but he wasn’t smiling. “This is not a democracy. I’m in command, and I say you go. It’s—”
“Screw you Commander. I heard the NASA Administrator. You’re disobeying a direct order by staying here. Well, so am I. The question is, whaddya gonna do about it? Are you gonna let me help you coordinate the undocking of the escape capsule, so these guys can get the hell outta here… or does this get ugly?”
Frank and Nikki were both still holding each other, and their faces were only a foot apart. Frank could see the determination in his wife’s eyes. Hell, that was one of the reasons he married her in the first place. Because she wouldn’t put up with his shit. He made a quick command decision right there.
“Okay. Let’s get rolling.” He turned toward the others. “You guys are late getting the hell off my station. Move it.” Then he looked back at Nikki and grabbed her head with both hands. As his body floated away from the bulkhead, he laid a long kiss on her. Then he pulled away and smiled. “Get moving, Captain. I’m still in command, and I need your help getting the Soyuz undocked.” Then he kicked his leg out and shoved himself toward the hatch with his foot.
Sergey and Mischa looked at each other for a second and then they embraced in a bear hug. Sergey pulled away, and his eyes were misty.
“Come Mischa, come Miroki. We must leave before I cry like a baby.” Then he shoved himself off the bulkhead and toward the hatch to the escape capsule.
Mischa and Miroki smiled before slipping out of their stirrups and pushing off after him.
Nikki watched them all leave before taking a long look around. Only after everyone was gone did her face betray her true feelings. For all of her bravado and tough talking just a few minutes ago, Nikki had to admit that she was worried. ‘And more than a little bit frightened,’
she thought to herself as she pushed off the wall and quickly floated across the large room to the hatch on the other side.
She caught up to everyone at the hatchway into the Soyuz. Sergey and Mischa were helping each other into their spacesuits that they would wear during the de-orbit and landing. Frank was quickly getting Miroki into his suit while Nikki grabbed the task-list clipboard and began double checking all the preflight markers. Before they put on their helmets, Sergey and Mischa floated over to where Frank was finishing up with Miroki. Mischa stopped himself beside Frank and waited for him to look up.
“Commander, it has been an honor to serve with you.” He looked around at the station one last time before continuing. “I hope she holds together for you.” Then he reached out and grabbed Frank’s arm. They looked at each other for a second, and then Mischa let go.
Sergey floated over to Frank next. “Commander, you must know this. The other Soyuz may be launched and operated by only two people. If you cannot save the station, you must leave.” Then he reached out and took the Commander’s arm, holding his hand and forearm in both his hands and looking deeply into Frank’s eyes. “Be safe, my friend.” Then he floated over to join Mischa next to Nikki.
Miroki watched Sergey go and then looked at Frank himself.
“I still don’t think you should stay. But I understand why you’re doing it. Sergey’s right. Don’t be stupid. If it gets hairy up here, take the Soyuz and leave.” Miroki stopped and looked hard at Frank one last time. Then he smiled and pushed off toward the hatch where Nikki was saying her goodbyes to the Russians. Frank watched him as he floated across the small space in his bloated space suit. Then he chuckled nervously to himself and pushed over to join the others.
Sergey was kissing Nikki on both cheeks as he hugged her in a free floating embrace against the bulky spacesuit. “My California Nikita… now you will be able to set up a proper home for you and your husband, no?” Then he let out a belly laugh that rumbled across the small space and seemed to vibrate the whole station. He smiled with his entire face and then pushed himself through the hatch into the escape capsule. Mischa grabbed her next and smiled devilishly at her.
“I left you my supply of ‘Russian medicine’
in my locker.” He winked at her and kissed both her cheeks before pushing off and gliding through the Soyuz hatch, like a torpedo in a tube.
Then Miroki floated up in his bloated spacesuit to look Nikki in the face.
“You two don’t get too comfortable up here. I still got four months left on my tour, and I intend to finish it.” He chuckled at himself and then looked past her to Frank. “I guess you won’t have to make up for not giving her a honeymoon any more… Huh Commander?” Then he laughed again and slid into the Soyuz hatchway.
Frank floated over to Nikki in front of the entrance to the escape capsule. The three astronauts onboard the Soyuz were fitting on their helmets and strapping into their seats.
As Frank looked over to see his wife, she blinked her eyes and a set of teardrops floated away from her face and drifted up into the cabin, flickering in the light like airborne specks of crystal.