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Pls Check This ISS Scene for Authenticity
Old 05-07-2015, 08:06 AM   #1
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Pls Check This ISS Scene for Authenticity

Below is a scene from my upcoming short story prequel to Contact Us. I'd like to see if I've made any errors in how things work in the International Space Station. So, if you'd enjoy doing so, could you read through it and point out any errors?


Setup: A terrorist group has damaged the ISS with a pulsed-energy beam. The narrator, Jake Corby, while gathering intelligence, was captured and tortured and then rescued just before this scene begins.

Hallstrom is the director of the FBI, Charli is his assistant. McGraw is a scientist at NASA. This takes place in November of 2011.

President Obama has just summoned Hallstrom and McGraw to the Situation Room.

Hallstrom asked me to tag along. I was ready to collapse back into my hotel bed, and my stomach was rebelling against all the drugs the docs had given me, but how often does one get to go to the world-famous Situation Room?

Hallstrom, McGraw, Charli, and I piled into a black SUV as if heading off on a high-school field trip. McGraw closed his cell phone and brought us up to speed.

“It’s a bad situation. To orient you, there are six crewmembers on the international space station, the ISS. There are two Soyuz capsules docked to it, and each can carry three astronauts. Apparently a fire has cut off access to one of them. That’s all I know right now. This is due, we’re sure, to a strike from the terrorist’s power-pulse weapon.”

After passing through security, we were ushered down to the White House’s situation room, in the basement of the West Wing. The room had deep-blue carpeting and large leather chairs, half of which were occupied.

All eyes were glued to the monitors, and no one spoke. The tension felt like a room-filling plasma that induced shallow breathing and strained muscles.

The screens displayed the inside of the Johnson Space Center and several camera views within the space station. Secretary of State Clinton and the others pretty much ignored us, but President Obama stood and shook hands with Seth McGraw.

“I’m glad you’re here, Dr. McGraw,” he whispered. “You can translate the NASA jargon for us.”

Obama turned to me, and I saw that flash of shock I was getting used to. “Mr. Corby, welcome. Thank you for your—”

His appreciation was cut off by a transmission to the ISS. “Station, Houston for Catherine. We’re showing ventilation off and power off in node two, JEM, Destiny and MRM1. Can you confirm?”

“Affirm, Houston. Stand by.” When she spoke, hissing and snapping noises played out in the background.

One screen showed mostly smoke, and another displayed a strange ball of fire with sparks, like those you’d see on July Fourth sparklers. There was a lot of smoke, but I could make out an astronaut bracing himself against a wall sending bursts of foam at the fire. Amazingly, the voices sounded routine, as they do during spacewalks. Occasionally a voice would crack or go up in pitch, but in general, they sounded as if it were business as usual—just another day in space. I guess that’s what hours and hours of emergency training gets you.

An astronaut I recognized from a YouTube tour of the ISS floated past a camera. Catherine Pettit had been smiling and laughing during much of the tour. She especially enjoyed describing the mechanics of the lavatory. Her dark hair flowed out in all directions as if she were underwater. She was famous among space enthusiasts for running the Boston Marathon from the ISS on a treadmill.

There was no joking around now, of course, but also no panic in her voice. No indication that she was in imminent danger of dying a horrible death. Sometimes I’d catch a brief tightness, but then it was back to normal, calm astronaut talk.

“Station, Houston on two for Catherine. Can you adjust camera hotel-tango-four upwards so we can get eyes on the fire.”

Pettit replied, “Willco, Houston.” After a delay we saw the image in the monitor shift, and she asked, “Better?”

“That’s perfect, Catherine. Can you give me a general status report at this time?” Each transmission was punctuated with the characteristic NASA beep I’ve heard nowhere else.

“Copy. Yuri is behind me preparing the aft Soyuz for evacuation. His vision has improved, but he’s still almost blind. Ray is in Destiny fighting the fire in Node Two. It seems to be burning itself out. Marko is fighting the fire in MRM1 that’s cutting us off from Ray and preventing access to the Soyuz on MRM1. That one is worse. I’m in the Central Post. Satoshi is still—stand by.”

During the pause, McGraw stood and addressed the group. “We have two Soyuz craft docked at all times, ready for evacuation. Think of the habitable components of the ISS as a long tube of interconnected segments with offshoots at different places called nodes. At the aft end is one Soyuz, docked to a component called Zvezda. That’s the Central Post. Apparently that Soyuz is ready to go but—”

“Houston, Satoshi is still missing,” Catherine said.

The whole world knew Satoshi Takahasi. He’d been a YouTube sensation when he performed a funny rap video with his wife and seven-year-old daughter. His parts were performed in the ISS, and he was a good dancer, at least in microgravity. His round face and cherubic smile were so ill-suited to rap that the effect was hilarious.

“Houston, Shepard on two. The fire in node two is out, but it’s too hot to go through. Stand by … Satoshi! Satoshi! Damn!”

I’d never heard an astronaut swear during a transmission. After a few seconds Shepard’s deep breaths came to us via his headset.

“Station, Commander Shepard, say status. Do you copy?”

“Houston, go to Comm Seven, please.”

“Copy, station. Stand by.”

McGraw turned to the president. “Comm Seven shuts off public transmission, but we’ll still be able to—”

“Go ahead, Ray.”

“Houston, Satoshi is dead. I was able to look into the JEM for a brief instant in spite of the heat. I saw his body. He’d received severe burns on his upper body and head.”

“Copy, Ray, is there any chance—”

“No, Houston, he’s definitely gone. I’m going to work on the Unity fire now.”

“Ray, we’re all very sorry to hear that. I have a question.”

Shepard said, “Go ahead, CAPCOM.”

“What is your current prognosis? Will you need to evacuate?”

“Ah, at this point, I don’t think we can save the station. We may get the fire under control, but without attitude control, the remaining solar arrays can’t give us enough power.”

The smoke was getting worse, and the fire was mostly just a glow.

McGraw walked over to one of the monitors and pointed. “You can see the fire right by the bulkhead here. Fire looks quite different in microgravity. I think I saw some molten metal in an earlier shot. If this wall were to be breached, there would be a decompression of the ISS. It’s a real possibility. Also, if the ISS and its solar panels aren’t properly oriented in relation to the sun, it can’t generate enough power to operate.”

Hallstrom asked, “If they evacuate, will we lose the ISS? Will it just burn up in the atmosphere?”

McGraw shook his head. “Not for a while. It can be controlled remotely. But if there’s too much damage—”

“Station. Houston on two for Catherine.”

“Go ahead, Houston.”

“We’ve made a decision on the evac. Yuri, Marko, and Sasha are to begin pre-evac immediately.”

We all turned to the screen showing an astronaut, presumably Marko, shaking his head vigorously. He wore a full mask.

Catherine said, “Houston, ah, we’d like you to reconsider that decision.”

“Understood, Catherine. We’ve been discussing it. We don’t have any choice.”

“Houston, the general feeling here is everyone goes or no one goes.”

Difficult decision. I rubbed the back of my neck. Who would want to be known as the astronaut who left his comrades to die? Or worse, to abandon ship only to have it saved. “I was just following orders” would not be enough to fix a tarnished legacy.

Marko Randova appeared and disappeared in the smoke like a full moon behind passing clouds. Catherine floated into view bringing him a fire extinguisher, presumably retrieved from another module.

“The Russians use water-and-foam extinguishers,” McGraw explained. “Shepard is on the other side of the fire, using American carbon dioxide units. If they— whoa!”

On the monitor, Marko’s head snapped back. He somersaulted and bounced off a hull wall like a rag doll before disappearing from view. The extinguisher he’d been holding floated slowly toward camera then hit it, causing the image to shake.

“Houston, Marko has been injured. Stand by.”

“Copy, Catherine.”

There was a long delay. The president leaned toward one of the monitors.

Clinton said, “That didn’t look good.”

“Houston, Marko has … stand by, please … Marko has been injured.” Catherine drifted into view pushing Marko against a wall with a medical kit open. A red globule the size of a grapefruit ballooned out from his head but didn’t detach. The strange fire glowed behind them, still sending out sparks. Catherine, the mission’s medical officer, was hunched over the cosmonaut’s head, working furiously, occasionally grabbing instruments or gauze from the med kit.

She spoke faster now. Her voice had a pleading tone. “Houston. Marko Randova has sustained a traumatic head injury. Something in the fire exploded, and shrapnel hit him. He is unconscious, and his right pupil is unresponsive. His situation is critical. I’ve slowed the bleeding, but I can do nothing more for him here. He won’t survive this without a hospital.”

“We copy.”

I rubbed the stitches on my forehead. At least that resolved the issue of heroics. Marko had to evac, so two others had no choice but to go with him.

English with a heavy Russian accent filled the room. “Pre-evac complete. Starting emergency evac.”

“Copy, Yuri. Station, say status of fire.”

Shepard’s deep voice boomed from the speakers. “Houston, the fire is out. Stand by.”

After only ten minutes, rapid Russian speech came out of the speakers, overlaid with simultaneous translation in a woman’s voice. “We have physical separation. Undocking confirmed.”

The reply from Soyuz One was slower, in accented English. “We have eyes on Soyuz Two. Is heavily damaged. Instrumentation module has melted and descent module is … It cannot be—”

I blinked my eyes, and I was being strapped into a gurney. What?

President Obama was leaning over me. He wore a small, friendly grin. “Mr. Corby, I would consider it a personal favor if you would be the government’s guest at Walter Reed until they feel you are ready to be released.”

What is going on? What is happening? I rasped out, “Thank you, Mr. President.” I had a terrible taste in my mouth.

The president turned away as I was wheeled out. “And don’t worry. The FBI will cover the dry-cleaning bill.” From his tone, it sounded a little like a joke, but I had no idea what he meant.

Charli Keller had been watching from the hall. She and a doctorish fellow, possibly the president’s personal physician, walked beside the gurney. The ceiling rolled by and the passing faces of the West Wing employees held curious expressions.

“Charli, what just happened?”

“You don’t want to know.” She had a small grin on her face.

“I do want to know. Come on. What’s going on?”

“You just unconsciously supplied some comic relief to a tense situation.”

“Spill it.”

“You passed out and upchucked on the leader of the free world.” She laughed.

“The president?”

“No, Einstein, the other leader of the free world.”

“What are you saying?” I asked. “I wasn’t sitting anywhere near him.”

She seemed to be trying to keep her laughter under control. An astronaut had been killed, after all. However, tears ran down her cheeks. She looked me in the eye as I was being loaded into the ambulance. “Two words, Jake. Projectile vomiting.”

No! Please make this a dream.
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