Houston to Yuma — Part I

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A young astronaut is left behind. Meet the man responsible for her fate.

My name is Jackson Hall, and I am the most hated man in the world.

I’m the one who left Maria behind.

If you were to pick up a paper today, the headlines would still rage: NASA ABANDONS ASTRONAUT ALIVE.  They’ll be harping on this until her body cools and the memorials are set in stone.  And probably after I’m dead-and-gone.  I’ve never felt so hollow, so drained.  Every day I wake up after restless nights to the sound of hungry reporters, the flashing of lights.  I haven’t touched my wife in weeks.  I’m afraid I’ll leave something distasteful on her skin.  She’s fragile.  I’m worried about her.

“Abandon” is a harsh word.  It’s not the word I’d use, even if it’s true.  But only in some respect.  It’s not as if we didn’t spend every agonizing moment of those 7 minutes and 37 seconds killing ourselves over the decision.  But we knew how it would end all along.

I knew.

It was the only way.  And 7 minutes, 37 seconds is not a lot of time, not in the grand scheme of things.  Not when you are acutely aware of just how “relative” time can be.  But in the chaos of several millions of miles, when every borrowed minute of crisis is felt like lead in the blood…each second counts.

We were lucky, we were damned.

We had uninterrupted contact with Lewis throughout The Event.

PR has explained to me that I should call it ‘The Event’ because ‘Perhaps One of the Greatest Tragedies in the History of Space Exploration’ was not media friendly.  I told PR to fuck-off, but I have to agree.

We had uninterrupted contact, which meant we had uninterrupted front-row-seats to the disaster of the Yuma Mission.  But while we could hear everything, see everything, say anything, we could do nothing.  Mission Control was ultimately helpless despite flawless communications and that was what made it all the more painful.  We stood, safe on Earth, and watched a violent and devastating meteor shower tear a million gaping holes in all our hopes and dreams.

And right through the lives of our astronauts.

The shower had been in the shadow of an iron-rich asteroid and we didn’t see anything until it was on top of them.  It was small enough that had Yuma been just half a kilometer out of the way, no one would have gotten hurt.  No one would have gotten left behind.  But the stars aligned at 04:32 CST and Yuma was rocked with over ten million fragments of space rock that hurtled through the universe at breakneck speed.  It was the perfect storm.  No one could have stopped it.

I try to tell myself that.  But for some reason, it doesn’t help.

A piece of rock the size of a man’s head, so we estimate, blasted through one of the four engines, rendering it useless.  Our Intercept Module, Lewis, can fly on just two if need be, but smaller, more devilish meteors turned the remaining engines into Swiss cheese.  Scientifically speaking.  Lewis had only about 42% functional power within three minutes.  That number would drop.  They needed, at the very least, 27% to take off.

By the time everyone was onboard, almost unscathed I need to mention, Lewis was at 26%.  This was 4 minutes and 12 seconds in.  The next 205 seconds will reverberate through the rest of all our lives.

That is a very, very long time.

Commander Wilkinson is 22 years younger and a decade worth of modern training more capable that I am.  He was the one to make it known that at 24% and falling they were just too heavy for take off.  Being a steely old dinosaur, but with the experience of several comet-rendezvous missions under my own belt, I already had the answer to his statement that he allowed a mere 4 seconds pause not to say.

Someone was going to have to stay.

And that someone was going to be Maria Lauziere, our 27-year-old mission geologist.

Weight speaking, it didn’t make sense.  She was petite, tiny, but she was also the least valuable crew member and that out of everything is what it boiled down to.  Wilkinson is the most experienced pilot and mission commander.  He was indispensable to the safety of the other three crew members.  Berger is the mission navigator.  He was indispensable to the safe flight of the Lewis, guidance systems compromised in the meteor shower, and therefore the safety of the crew.  Weng is the mission surgeon.  She ws indispensable to the safety of the crew who had sustained medical injury, namely Berger, who’s suit was breached on the upper thigh.

Maria, sweet Maria, is our lowly geologist, trained with minimal flight experience, minimal navigation experience, and minimal medical experience.  She was the last resort of a botched mission.  She was only as useful to us as her samples, the majority of which Wilkinson purged from the cargo hold within the first 25 seconds of realizing they did not have enough power to take off.

But the rocks were not enough.

“22% thruster capacity,” I can still here Berger report through gritted teeth as the searing pain of severe frostbite from exposure moved up his leg and into his hip.  He lost most of the muscle mass to Weng’s scalpel 6 hours later when they were safely aboard the Sacagawea.  They took the rest of the leg back on Earth.

“You have to get rid of a body,” I announced before Wilkinson could.

Before he could take the blame.

“What?”

“Lauziere, you’ll have to stay behind.”

“We’re not leaving anyone behind!”

Strangely enough, when I think back to all the terrible things Weng managed to call me within those last few seconds, I do not recall Maria saying a single word.

If I recall correctly, which I know I do, because that moment is seared into me…Maria looked right at the bridge camera, gave us all back on Earth a little nod, and undid her harness.  Before Weng could launch herself out of her chair, before Berger could start shouting, before Wilkinson had even speak, Maria, youngest, smallest, and quietest of them all, was already climbing down into Lewis’  belly and into the air lock.

She sealed herself inside and all but flew out onto the cold, grey comet with a violent purge at half-pressure.  I was scared for a single heartbeat that Lewis’ thrusters would cook her alive beneath them, but she managed to get clear in time.  There is some vague footage Fox News and CNN will play a thousand times from the starboard camera that shows a blue metallic blue flying away from a flare of bright white flame.  It was the elbow of Lauziere’s EMU, I think, and a bit of her boot heel.  She got tossed pretty hard.  I wince to think about it.

It was all over brutally quick.  Lewis launched with Weng spitting every last cuss she knew in English and Cantonese, Wilkinson deathly quiet.  They got through the worst of the shower, but barely cleared the comet.  The thrusters blew themselves apart only a few seconds off-surface, sending Lewis into a nasty forward spin.

Wilkinson and Berger got accommodations for righting the spin on minimal power, and still managing to dock safely with Sacagawea.  Last I heard Wilkinson had thrown his into the Potomac.  Berger never formally accepted his.

We lost Lewis in the ascent.  Everything, cameras, comms, everything went LOS after the thrusters blew.  We thought we had lost them all.  We locked the doors.  I have never heard Mission Control so quiet as it was then when the sound of static came over the speakers, hissing and spitting like the Devil himself.

39 minutes and 46 seconds later, Wilkinson regained radio.  He opted not for camera.  I didn’t argue.  He explained that they were, the three of them, alive, back on Sacagawea, that Lewis was lost, and that Lauziere was still alive on Yuma, back inside the TSS.  The Temporary Surface Station they’d lovingly nicknamed “The Canoe” could talk to Mission Control, but Lauziere had made no attempts to call us, or Sacagawea.  We spent 3 hours trying to raise her before Yuma disappeared behind the iron asteroid that had fucked it all up.

During those next 2 hours, PR tore me apart.

That was nothing compared to what the rest of the planet would do in the ensuing weeks.

I saw the meteor shower that killed Lauziere.  It hit earth a few days later.  There were a couple flurries in the night sky.  That was it.  Soundless, utterly insignificant.  Somewhere, a child wished on those falling stars.  Elsewhere, riding a falling start that would only take her deeper and deeper into the black, Maria wished too.

Sacagawea reached earth 2 weeks and 3 days after The Event.  Weng had to be sedated after she almost attacked Wilkinson, trying to make him go after Lauziere.  With Berger incapacitated and Weng confined to the crew quarters, Wilkinson had a lonely voyage home.  Yuma passed relatively close to Earth.  That was what made the mission so easy in the first place.  It was only meant to be 16 days.  16 days on the surface of the comet, riding it through space collecting invaluable data, and then just a few more months until they were home again.

The storm hit on the second day of the mission.  Which meant Lauziere had enough food, water, and oxygen for 4 people for 2 weeks in a fully-functional Canoe.  Unfortunately, fully-functional was not what she had.  The shower had ripped through The Canoe’s canvas and although she was able to patch it, she lost too much air.  Her time was cut nearly by half, even though she was physically sound.  All alone, she had about 23 days, maybe more if she sat still, remained calm, and took shallow breaths.

But really, it didn’t matter.

No one was coming to get her.

I’ve tried to explain this, time and time again.  The Yuma Mission was a part of the Lewis and Clark Missions.  Yuma was meant to gather data on the possible origins of comets that have been passing closer and closer to Earth over the past few decades.  We are trying to learn where they’re coming from.  We are trying to use the precious data missions like Lewis and Clark would have collected to accurately predict whether or not a extinction-level comet is on its way.

But Congress isn’t that worried about a few space rocks that fly past the Moon every handful of years.  Lewis and Clark does not have enough funding for the second stage of investigative probing.  The Clark Module will remain unfinished for the next 2 years, the next comet not due for another 5.  NASA as a whole does not have enough funding to be running manned missions one after the other.  Lewis and Clark was only cleared because Yuma was predicted to come so close.  I guess when you scare a bunch of bloated politicians, they’re willing to hand over a few measly millions.

The bottom line is this: NASA did not have anything that could return to Yuma to get Lauziere before she suffocated.  Lewis was the only Intercept-Module, designed to make a controlled splash-down once the glorified satellite Sacagawea was back in Earth orbit.  This means the crew had to jettison in the lifeboat Louisiana when they docked again with ISS.  Louisiana was the best we could come up with as a budget back-up plan to get the crew home if anything went wrong with Lewis.  Louisiana had enough only power to crash-land in the Southern Pacific.  It cannot launch on its own.

And as I have explained to the world, over and over again, the next shuttle the ISS will not be ready to launch for another 8 months, well past the window of survival that is rapidly closing on Maria.  The shuttle that brought the relief ISS crew and our Lewis and Clark crew returned to Earth with main computer issues when it brought the last ISS crew home.  The current crew will have to stay an extra sixty days on ISS.  But they’re fine.  No one is talking about them.

It’s a moot point.  Even if we had launched a rescue shuttle, with a faulty computer, it would never reach Maria in time.  The comet is moving too quickly to line up an intercept course within her window of survival.  And it’s not as if space exploration is a bustling enterprise these days.  War and economic instability means the world has turned inwards on itself.  NASA is the best in the world, and even we are hanging ourselves on shoe-string budgets.  No one else has a shuttle we can even fantasize about borrowing.

People don’t understand.  They consider our work to be pointless.  They consider our carless expense of human life to be without purpose.  They think Maria died for nothing.  They’re wrong.  Maria was…is a diligent, brilliant scientist.  Although we lost her samples, we did not lose her carefully catalogued data.  We think we may know where the comets are coming from.  But that sort of science noise gets lost in the media.

Every night after, I go outside.  I look up.  I speak with Maria, because NASA got me out of Mission Control as fast as they possibly could.  The stars are still silent and cold, regardless of how loudly I scream.  They keep Maria jealously from us.

I don’t know a lot of people that look up anymore.

Even I’m finding it hard to do...

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