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Excerpt: The Return
by Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes

"He said he was bored stiff, he wanted to come home, and that kids everywhere in America should stop drinking milk, sass their parents, and take buckets of drugs."

The guy laughed out loud. "Serves me right." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Ken Elgin. USReport. I'll behave and save my questions for the press conference."

I thanked him. We went back out into the reception area and got sandwiches. He knew space issues well, so we ended up doing a little impromptu interview. Most of the other reporters were still busy eating, drinking, and watching the screens, but Nikki Earl came over and taped parts of what I said, too. I was just explaining how a "space hotel" -- basically a one-launch space station that was set up to cater to tourists -- could easily be a prototype for the living quarters of a ship that could go to Mars, when the room fell terribly silent.

Naomi ran forward and turned up the volume on FBN. Fred Gernsback was just saying, "We are guessing, from the last minute of radio traffic, that something has gone seriously wrong on the space shuttle Columbia." For half an hour afterwards, except for Gernsback booming through the TV monitor, there was nothing but silence as the terrible news poured in.

 

Sometimes I still have nightmares about it. Probably I always will. I went over the evidence and the recordings more times than I can count. I knew what the cockpit and crew area of Columbia looked like. I knew all the crew well. It's hard for me to remember that I wasn't actually there myself -- it feels like I was there and like I remember every moment.

The crew had gotten into coveralls and was settling into its normal work routine. The big payload bay doors were open, and the automated experiments in the bay were up and running. Billy Kingston called everyone to the mid deck, where they floated in a small group, hanging onto seats as needed. The commander read off the checklist of tasks.

Most astronauts, most of the time, are not only scientists and pilots, but also medical test animals. The environment of space is still new, and it's still customary to do a whole battery of medical tests on every member of every crew, building up a collection of data for space medicine. Usually one of the first jobs in orbit is to draw each other's blood samples and record vital signs.

Marc Clement and MJ went first, drawing each other's blood and taking each other's temperatures and blood pressures. Josh Pritkin and Damian Agustino were scheduled to go next, and sat waiting their turn and teasing the other two. Meanwhile, Billy Kingston was slated to be a test subject for some experiments Lorena Charette was running in the LBNP -- "lower body negative pressure," device, a gadget disliked by many astronauts, that reduces air pressure on the lower part of your body and thus redistributes blood and other fluids for some experiments on the effects of weightlessness.

The only person concerned directly with shuttle operations was Wes Packard, who, as primary pilot for the mission, had the first watch in the pilot's chair. Normally, on a shuttle mission, that job is dull -- while the shuttle is orbiting and not under power, there's very little "steering" or "flying" to do, and the pilot seat can be left unattended for minutes at a time. Wes sipped at a bulb of coffee and watched the Earth roll by underneath.

"Well, according to all this, we're both still alive, so I guess we have to keep working," Marc Clement said, swimming back forward with MJ behind him. "Your turn, guys. "

Pritkin and Agustino glanced at each other, shrugged, and began to take their own measurements.

MJ got the camera out of the locker, switched it on, and looked over the indicator lights. Everything was green. "Looks like we're ready for the pictures."

"Can you keep an eye on the pilot's chair while you're doing that, Marc?" Wes asked.

"Sure."

Wes unbuckled. "Then just a second, let me get past you. My coffee's coming through." Wes swam back to the head and closed the door.

"All clear," MJ said. "Okay, let me get in front of those plaques -- or I guess more to the side, I'm probably not supposed to hide any of them -- all right, show time."

He passed the camera in a gentle toss to Marc, who caught it easily.

Marc said positioned himself, bumping with his hands to get the right angle, before pointing the camera. "Hang on a second ... real good."

"Let me get stopped," MJ said. He was now slowly rotating. "I want this shot perfect."

He brought himself to a stop in the new position. Marc said, "Okay, your position is perfect and you're still. I've got all the plaques in the frame. Looking good. Give me your biggest smile."

"That'll be easy because -- "

A crack-boom! reverberated through the ship. Billy Kingston and Lorena Charette both said it sounded more like a small cannon than a big rifle; in the tiny confined space of the shuttle, it was deafening.

The klaxon for pressure loss was going off. Kingston pushed out of the LBNP and scrambled forward, bellowing "What's going on?" Charette followed. They arrived in the forward area as Wes came out of the toilet and bounced to the pilot's seat.

Marc Clement was tumbling end over end, his head wobbling at a sickening angle; his face was crushed as if he had been rammed into a wall at great speed. MJ floated against one wall, eyes and mouth wide open, blood drifting out of his mouth and a hole in his chest. His eyes were distended and bloodshot, sinking back to normal size even as they first saw him. Spheres of his blood bobbed around the cabin.

Kingston swam to him and felt his neck for a pulse; as he did, he saw there was a much larger hole between the big man's shoulder blades. Whatever had happened had killed him at once. Blood had splashed across the wall of plaques, and in the middle of the smear, sucking blood out into space, was a hole about a quarter inch in diameter. Kingston rammed his baseball cap into the hole, poking it in with a pen from his pocket until he could stuff it no further.

A moment later the klaxon turned off, and then the terrible silence was broken by Josh Pritkin saying, "Jesus, what happened?"

Lorena Charette snapped, "Over here, Josh, Damy. Marc's got a broken neck but he's alive. I'm trying to hold his spinal cord in line here. Josh, get me my kit. Damy, come here and help me support him."

Wes Packard said, "Pressure breach. We lost about three hundred pounds of air in less than two minutes, and we've still got a slow leak, with pressure dropping. We're yawing a little, no pitch or roll -- basically we're in a slow flat spin."

"Wait till I have Marc stabilized before you correct," Lorena said.

"Roger."

"I've got at least one leak here," Kingston said, "with my hat stuffed into it. How's cabin pressure?"

"About a third of an atmosphere," Packard said.

Charette grunted with irritation. "We've got to get that higher, soon. The only reason we don't have anybody passed out is that we're all hyperventilating."

"Everyone who isn't helping with Marc, get into pressure suits, ASAP," Kingston said. "Trade off as soon as you're suited up." He climbed up on the mid deck to get his own from the rack. A moment later, Packard and Pritkin were suiting up beside him. "Is there anything we can do for Marc? MJ is dead -- no pulse and something went right through him."

"Just a sec," Charette said. A moment later, Charette and Agustino were suiting up. "We've got Marc secured into a bunk with his head tied down to keep his neck straight. He's in a bad way but it's hard to tell how bad. I'll do a trake on him, right now, because his breathing isn't good and I think there's a crushing injury to the neck. Damy, you be nurse."

"Tie MJ down somewhere," Kingston said, quietly, to Pritkin, and then moved forward to the copilot's chair. "Okay, I'd better give them the bad news. Wes, get working on where we can do an emergency landing. No water ditch, and no rough country, even if we have to stay up a few extra minutes."

The shuttle doesn't float, and it lands too fast and hard to put down on water, or on any land that isn't a paved runway, without breaking up. Standard procedure for an emergency is for the crew to bail out once they are low and slow enough. With a crew member with a broken neck, they couldn't evacuate the shuttle; they would have to land it, somehow.

Packard pulled a laptop computer from its slot beside his chair, and began to work on the problem. Distantly, Kingston heard Lorena Charette saying "okay, here goes, get that suction in close." He took a deep breath, made sure he was on secure channel, and spoke into the radio. "Houston, we have an emergency situation here, hull breach, other unknown damage, one crew member dead, one severely injured. We're going for an emergency deorbit and a landing at the nearest emergency field -- "

"Easter Island," Packard whispered. "Start burn in nine minutes."

"Nearest emergency field is Easter Island. Request all the emergency help you can get there, ASAP. Injured crew member has spinal cord injury. We're starting de-orbit burn in -- " he looked at the laptop Wes held up -- "eight minutes ten seconds."

"Roger, Columbia, you are go. Be advised weather at Easter Island is clear. We're praying for you."

 

I had more chairs brought in. The caterer called out an emergency order of food and coffee. Our conference room had plenty of data links, and we allocated them to the reporters as evenly as we could. But after we made things as comfortable for the press and media as we could, we still could do nothing about what they needed most: some idea about what was going on.

Every news division had gone to live coverage at once. Since there was no information, they filled air time by reviewing everything every couple of minutes, and called every possible field reporter over and over to confirm that nothing was happening in the field as well. Television reporters at ShareSpace's now suddenly-somber press reception took turns staning in front of the ShareSpace corporate logo to recite, again, that no one here had any idea, sometimes adding that Scott Blackstone was right here and had promised to pass on information the moment he had it.

 

"His neck is broken, the front of his skull is crushed, and I don't see any way he can have missed spinal cord damage, but he's breathing on his own now that we have an oxygen tube going in through the tracheotomy," Lorena Charette said. "We have him immobilized as best we can, but even a perfect landing will probably kill him. You might as well start your maneuvers."

"Do it," Kingston said.

Without a word, or a glance at his crewmates, Wes Packard set his hands on the controls and applied the reaction control thrusters to stop the yaw and bring the shuttle into position for deorbit burn, with its tail pointed in the direction they were orbiting. "Burn starts in seven minutes. Get the payload doors closed and get strapped into those seats quick, people."

Everyone hurried to strap in. Pritkin and Agustino stopped going over the plaque wall, where they had been gathering up and bagging the blood droplets, stray bits of metal and flesh, and other shattered objects in the compartment, and started the automated sequence to shut down the experiments and close the big doors.

"What's our damage situation?" Kingston asked, over his shoulder.

"We were still working on it," Agustino said, "but it looks like damage was just that hole in the hull, the camera, and two crew members. It's lucky the hole is over the wing, not on the underside. We'd be in a real mess if we'd had a big hole in the tiles."

Kingston grunted. "I hate the idea of Easter Island but the next place after it would be most of an hour, and it's just an old bomber runway in Western Siberia -- we know that one hasn't been maintained, and there'd be nobody there to meet us or help Marc. At least people say they've maintained the strip on Easter Island."

An orbiting shuttle doesn't have much choice about where it goes. The enormous load of fuel that it takes off with is almost entirely burned in getting to orbit, and, for safety, what remains is jettisoned shortly after. Because the shuttle orbit is tipped at an angle to Earth's equator, in addition to going around the Earth it swings north and south of the equator by hundreds or thousands of miles. During the time it takes to make an orbit, the Earth turns through anywhere from 20 to 30 degrees of longitude, so that every orbit shifts to the west of the one that preceded it, drawing a kind of giant sine wave across the map of the Earth. A shuttle that passes over Chattanooga on this orbit will pass over Albuquerque on the next orbit, and won't pass over Chattanooga again for twenty-four hours. The Orbital Maneuvering System thrusters are small, and the Reaction Control System thrusters are even smaller. The shuttle can alter its trajectory only very slightly, and so it can land only on fields that are very close to its orbital path. Furthermore, since the shuttle lands as a glider, without thrust for a go-around, everything has to work right the first time.

There is a system of landing fields for the shuttle all around the world, in case of emergency, but not all are equally good. The main landing fields at Edwards Air Force Base in California and KSC in Florida are well-maintained and their crews are experienced. The field at Zaragosa, Spain, is nearly as good. But those were all out of reach.

Easter Island is something else again: a small dot on the map of the South Pacific, owned by Chile, one of the few Pacific islands on a regular flight path with room enough for a long, wide runway, but without much else. It was hardly the ideal place to come down with a damaged ship and a badly injured crewman.

"What do you think it was?" Damian asked. He was strapping into his seat; there were still seventy-five seconds left till time to begin the burn.

Packard shrugged. "Looks like the classic profile for a micrometeoroid, doesn't it? All the damage is in a straight line, and whatever it was hit with enough force to pass through the hull, right through MJ's chest, into the camera, and drive the last bits of the camera into Marc's head so hard it broke his neck. That looks like a very high velocity impact to me."

"Micrometeoroid or space junk," Pritkin added, as he rechecked his suit.

ASU Mission Control called then to ask for definitive information before making a press announcement, and Billy Kingston relayed their speculation about what had hit them, along with the news that Michael James was dead and Marc Clement very seriously injured.

 

Within a couple of minutes, an ASU executive was talking to the James family, and ASU had notified me privately. Ten minutes later, the whole planet knew, and world phone traffic set new records. I stood in front of the reporters and had to keep saying, "All I know is what Mission Control tells me, and what they are telling me is that Michael James was killed in an accident, Marc Clement was seriously injured and his survival remains in doubt, the shuttle was damaged, and they are going to try to land on the emergency field on Easter Island. That's all they've told me. ShareSpace is not in the chain of command for the mission, and this is all need-to-know information. I'll share everything they give me, but right now they are not giving me any more than that."

Nikki Earl waved a hand. "The crew is speculating that it may have been a micrometeoroid or a piece of space debris. For our listeners, could you just explain what those are and how they might be dangerous?"

It was a relief to have the chance to say something other than what I had been repeating for several minutes. "Micrometeoroids are meteors too small for radar to see -- anywhere from the size of a pea down to the size of grain of sand. They're moving at very high velocities -- twenty or more times the speed of a bullet -- and so they hit with tremendous force. There aren't very many of them relative to all the empty space, and there's never been a known accident caused by one, but sooner or later something was bound to be hit.

"Space debris is stuff that got left up there from past space missions -- bits and pieces of everything, broken-off bolts and screws and chips of paint, tools that escaped from building ISS, dead rocket upper stages, lots of other things. It's not usually moving as fast as a micrometeoroid, but it's still several times bullet speed, and most of it's bigger, and there's more of it. People have talked for decades about the need to clear that out, but no one's ever really done much more than think about the problem. Anyway, if the Columbia ran into either a micrometeoroid or a piece of debris, it probably went right through the skin of the ship -- and anything else in its path -- and that could certainly kill someone and damage the ship. Billy Kingston and his crew are there, and I'm not, and if their guess is that it's an impact accident, then that's probably the best guess that we're going to have for a while."

Nikki nodded and gestured to indicate that she had something coming in through her earpiece.

A couple of the cable networks kept asking me how I felt, and all I could do was keep telling them that like everyone else on Earth I felt overwhelming grief at the loss of Michael James, but having known him for several months as a friend, that it was hard to believe he was gone, and that I would miss him terribly. By making me repeat it, they got me more and more bothered, so that after a while I was blinking back tears. Perhaps that's what they really wanted, anyway.

The long minutes crawled by; finally it was time for the landing on Easter Island. Luckily for the American networks, a Chilean TV crew was there on another story, and they'd hurried to the emergency landing field and patched into satellite feed.

Easter Island is on Pacific Coast Time, minus a half hour, so it was about an hour after sunset when Columbia made her attempt. The runway was bright from the landing lights, the sky pitch black above it. The TV camera watched from near the end of the runway, where the shuttle would come to rest if the landing succeeded. We had managed to patch into their audio, but since I didn't speak Spanish, I had no idea what they were talking about.

For a moment it looked like the other shuttle night landings -- a flash of white as the shuttle slid into the lights, a graceful suspended instant as it glided in and touched down. The ship leveled off and began to roll down the runway.

The nose wheel slammed into a pothole on top of a soft pocket, and the landing gear twisted sideways and collapsed. Still moving forward at a hundred miles an hour, the shuttle nosed down, the broken landing gear tipping it to one side. Then the nose bit into the crumbling pavement, and her tail bucked far up into the air as she slid down the runway, sparks flying and trailing tiles and bits of fuselage. The tail slammed back down, lifting the nose for a moment, and the shuttle skidded sideways out of control before the right side landing gear buckled. Columbia slumped sideways, spinning another quarter turn before coming to a rest on the crumpled mess that had been the nose, with one wing broken against the ground, and one badly bent landing gear holding up the other side. Sirens wailed in the background as we watched the image of the shattered Columbia bounce around and grow larger; the Chilean camera crew, on the back of a pickup truck, was driving toward it.

The hatch on the side fell open. Slowly, painfully, the five survivors climbed out, pulling off their helmets. They just stood there, a few feet from the wreckage, staring at their smashed and battered spacecraft.

A minute later, medics rushed into the shuttle, and shortly afterwards they confirmed that Marc Clement had died during the re-entry or the crash.

The networks endlessly reran that crash, between reporters talking in front of an image of poor, broken Columbia lying in the glare of the sodium lights. I spent the next hour expressing my regrets and saying that the whole thing was terrible, so many times that I was afraid I would slur or rush it or sound like I didn't mean it. Finally the reporters left, and the caterer's staff were allowed to clean the place up. As we half-stumbled out, I noticed that Naomi's face was red from crying.

I had nowhere else to go, so I just drove back to the drab, lonely house that I had gotten after the divorce. All the art and the newer furniture had stayed at the house with Thalia and Amos. I had a scattered collection of used furniture between bare white walls. It had never looked more empty.

I poured a diet Coke, sat down on my couch, and pulled out a video called MJ! Grace Flies High! -- a collection of clips of his amazing ball handling and shooting. I watched him, the way he would laugh and smile when another one went in, the way he flowed through opposing players to get at the ball, "the most physically sublime athlete of our age," as Jorge Wimme had called him in a famous essay. Tears ran down my face. I didn't bother to brush them off.

At 2:30 or so I took a shower, as hot as it would go, and went to bed. I fell right asleep, but when the alarm went off and I sat up in the gray pre-dawn, I felt like I hadn't slept at all.


From The Return, by Buzz Aldrin & John Barnes. © 2000 To be published this month by Tom Doherty Associates.


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