It's lonely out in space
|“Do you want to see Daddy’s space station tonight?” |
Miranda Dawson was almost as excited as six-year-old Ricky Jr. Seeing the International Space Station pass overhead was as close as she would get to her husband for another two months. She hadn't wanted him to go, and she knew he would've turned it down if she'd pressed him. But Miranda also knew he wouldn't be the man she loved if he'd stayed behind and missed his shot at space.
“Do I get to stay up late?” Ricky asked hopefully.
“A little bit late,” Miranda smiled easily. “Daddy said he’ll be straight above us tonight at 8:44 pm. And guess what? Daddy’s going to call us to say hello while we’re watching.”
The ISS would make a good show in the early September sky, just an hour after sunset. Its orbit would approach the eastern Seattle suburbs from low in the northwest, reach a maximum elevation of 81 degrees, and then depart into the southeast. The visible portion of its transit would last for almost seven minutes. Mission Specialist Richard Dawson Sr. would be passing directly over his own house in the fourth week of his three-month assignment.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Command to Rick. Time to bring it in. Your suit power is running low. We can finish the installation on the next EVA.”
“Roger, Command, but not just yet. I finally got this thing figured out. The connectors on the new panel are rotated by about three degrees. I had to loosen the cable strain relief to change the angle, but it should be fine. There's still enough slack to accommodate thermal expansion. Both cables are in position, and I’m tightening the connectors now. Two more bolts and you’ll be back to full power.”
“Okay, Rick, keep us advised. And, by the way, you’ve got a slot to call your wife in an hour.”
“Roger. We're almost buttoned up out here, Cap. I’ll be back inside in a few minutes. No way I’m gonna miss that call.”
“Roger that Rick. Say hello to Miranda for me. Command out.”
Rick felt a small twinge of guilt as he secured the solar panel connections. Busy with the thousands of details of a space mission, he'd seldom thought of Miranda and Ricky during the past few weeks. He loved his family, but he'd been honest with Miranda from their first date. If she wanted to be with him, then she'd have to share him with the space program.
I'll make it up to them after I get back.
Rick grinned inside his helmet as a random image from an old Superbowl commercial popped into his head.
Rick Dawson, you've just returned from the Space Station, where are you going next?
I'm going to Disneyworld!
Rick pushed off cautiously and fired a quick burst from his suit’s mini-thruster to make his way back to the airlock. He was trailed by the external safety line that kept him tethered safely to the station structure. A long minute of awkward maneuvering brought him within reach of the airlock handhold. He had the door open in another minute, feeling satisfaction at successfully completing the panel installation and relief at the thought of getting back inside.
What the hell? What's happening?
The leak from his reserve oxygen cylinder acted much like a spacesuit mini-thruster. It was less powerful, of course, but there was enough thrust from the jet of compressed air to push a surprised Rick out of the open airlock. A tiny defect in the cylinder tubing had given way at the worst possible moment and at the worst possible angle.
Rick had just unclipped his external safety line after the grueling seven-hour extravehicular activity to replace a failed solar panel. The airlock door couldn’t be closed until the safety tether was detached and brought inside. He should have been secure inside the airlock as he stowed the tether and closed the door. Instead, the off-center thrust from the air leak spun Rick’s head gently away from the space station and the door was already out of reach as he completed his first rotation.
Critical seconds were lost as the fatigued astronaut struggled to understand his situation. He was six meters away before he regained focus. The cause of the slow, disorienting tumble wasn’t immediately obvious, but his first priority was to regain physical contact with the station. Highly trained, self-confident, and feeling slightly embarrassed, Rick decided to get himself back to the airlock before contacting station command. If he returned quickly enough, there would be no need to admit he’d ever been in danger. A brief burn from the mini-thruster should bring him back to the airlock in a few seconds.
Rick waited for his rotation to line up with the station and fired a half-second burn from the mini-thruster. His vector seemed accurate, at first, but the tired astronaut had forgotten to account for the continuing thrust of the oxygen leak. It pushed him just far enough off course to miss the open airlock door. He stretched as far as the clumsy spacesuit allowed, but his fingers were still separated from the closest handhold by an agonizing eight centimeters. He instinctively fired the mini-thruster again as he glided slowly past the airlock. It would be better to slam in hard than to drift on by. He held the burn for too long, however, and the desperate ploy failed.
Rick glanced off the station hull at an even higher velocity than before. Stunned by the impact, he traveled almost three hundred meters before the fog cleared. At first, all he could see were stars slowly rotating around him. Icy knives of panic slashed at his sanity as he fought to maintain control. Then the earth swam into view from overhead, and he suddenly regained a sense of his orientation. Desperation faded into a dull feeling of anger and self-recrimination.
Shit, shit, shit! I really screwed that up. Not enough line for them to reach me from the station now . . . have to fly myself back.
It took a couple of seconds for Rick to locate the space station against the bright glare of the planet below. It was moving steadily away from him, and already looked disturbingly small in the distance. Rick felt the panic rise again as he realized that his situation was growing worse. The only good news was that his tumble had slowed, making it easier to estimate relative velocities and take aim for his next attempt.
Gotta stay calm . . . I can do this . . . just need to get close and call for help.
Higher velocity and greater distance complicated the problem. Rick couldn’t aim directly at the airlock from this far away. He and the station were both moving, so he had to aim for where the station would be, rather than where it was now. In addition, Rick would have to account for his continuing slow rotation. The mystery thrust was gone, but he’d have to start his burn as he rotated toward the optimum angle, and then hold it for an equal amount of time after. The average thrust should send him directly toward the station. He might need a couple of course corrections, but it was definitely doable. It had to be doable. He wouldn’t allow himself to consider the alternative.
Okay, let’s make this good.
Spatial reasoning is as necessary as courage for an astronaut, and Rick had a good supply of both. He was calm and clear-headed as he considered the multiple factors, determined the necessary vector, and settled on a six second burn. He hit his mark with precision, but the mini-thruster shut down after only four seconds. The extra-long EVA had used up a lot of fuel, and the gauge in his helmet display showed zero.
No! Not yet dammit!
Rick fought back panic yet again. Clammy sweat and nausea accompanied the background thump of his racing heart. The station was slowly growing larger in his faceplate, but it was already clear that he wasn’t going to reach his target. The interrupted burn had put him on the wrong vector. His current course would pass behind the space station at a distance of 50 meters or more. Rick forced himself to breathe and went through a mental inventory of equipment and options.
Okay, how can I create some thrust? Toss tools away? Reaction force should push me toward the station . . .
Rick unclipped a wrench and took a couple of practice swings as he rotated toward the optimum angle. The bulky spacesuit limited the velocity of his throw, but he was sure his vector was better aligned with the station after the wrench flew off in the opposite direction.
This just might work!
His tools disappeared into the void one by one as Rick continued a slow tumble. He had to wait to line up each toss, and some were more effective than others. His vector continued to improve, but in a surprisingly short time there was nothing left to throw. A disappointed Rick found himself out of options and still not on a vector that would intercept the station.
I might get close enough, though. Guess it’s time to call Cap and talk it through. Maybe he’ll have an idea.
With the mini-thruster empty and every loose object gone, Rick knew there was nothing further he could do. It was time to own up to his predicament and call for help. Station command would ask for a volunteer, and Rick knew they’d all step forward. Just as he would if their positions were reversed. It’d be dangerous, of course, but he knew this crew.
“Rick to Command. I’ve got a situation out here.”
Rick saw the main oxygen pressure flash red as he thumbed the radio button, but he wasn’t going to panic now. The reserve cylinder would last long enough for his return to the station. He froze in horror as the reserve pressure also flashed red. His final minutes came with a razor-sharp clarity. The empty reserve cylinder explained the mystery thrust, but the knowledge came too late to do him any good.
“What’s going on out there, Rick? You should’ve been in the airlock ten minutes ago.”
My God, it’s only been ten minutes?
Rick felt at least ten years older. The air in his suit was already going stale, or was that just his imagination? It would take at least ten minutes for someone to get suited up and out of the airlock. How much longer would it take to catch up to him and tow him back to the station? And there’d be two bodies in orbit if anything went wrong.
I don’t have enough air. That’s the end of it. Nothing else matters. Cap might retrieve my body, but is it worth the risk?
“Rick? Are you okay? Do you need help?”
“Cap, I ran into some real bad luck. I’m not in the airlock. Something threw me for a loop after I released the tether. I think the reserve oxygen sprung a leak. It’s . . . nobody’s fault really, but I’m not gonna make it home. Tell Miranda I love her. Ask her to say goodbye to Ricky for me.”
Rick cut the radio. There was no point in a rescue attempt. He’d be unconscious from lack of oxygen by the time he drifted past the station.
“What the hell, Rick? What’s going on out there? What do you mean you’re not going to make it home?”
“Rick, are you there? Do you read me?”
“Dammit, Dawson, talk to me!”
Rick couldn’t think of anything else to say. The suit batteries would die in an hour or so, and he’d circle the earth in frozen isolation until his orbit decayed. His blazing re-entry would make an exceptionally bright shooting star, perfect for wishing. It seemed a fitting end, somehow, for a career astronaut.
* * * * * * * * * *
“Look, see that bright dot moving across the sky?”
Miranda knelt down behind Ricky so he could follow her pointing finger. They’d driven to a nearby park, and then walked by flashlight to an open hilltop with a clear view of the night sky. Ricky was excited to stay up late and even more so to be outdoors in the darkness.
“Is Daddy up there?” he asked doubtfully.
“That’s his space station,” Miranda explained. “It’s very high up in the sky, so high that it looks like a little dot. But the sun is still shining on it. That’s why it’s so bright. Daddy is inside the space station doing important work. Maybe you’ll go into space too, someday.”
The tune from Rocket Man sounded loud in the still evening air as Miranda’s cellphone lit up with an incoming call.
. . . I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife . . .
“That’s your Daddy now,” Miranda exclaimed happily as she dug the phone out of her pocket.
“Hello, Rick? I miss you so much darling!”
“Miranda? This is Cap. I’m sorry, but Rick isn’t here . . .”
Author's note: ▼ 2140 words