HALF of the unmanned launches have finished when they usher the crew out of the room. These are my last minutes on Earth, and they go by in a blur.
Handlers slip me into a suit. They check it once, twice, three times before walking me out into the mid-morning air and loading me onto a bus. It powers across the complex, toward the launch site that towers in the distance like a skyscraper on a prairie, utterly out of place in the beauty of the flat Florida coast.
The feeling is so surreal, I can’t even process it. Can barely pay attention to what they’re telling me.
At the launch site, we take the elevator up, ninety feet into the air. There’s a bathroom door with a printed sign that reads, “Last Toilet on Earth.” I’m a mix of adrenaline and nerves, and I can’t help but laugh. I’m shaking as I empty my bladder.
Once we’re in space, the ships will be powered by NASA’s new X1 engine, but we still have to use rockets to get up there. The launch procedures are pretty similar to what they were at the dawn of the space program, though they’re much safer now. Or so they’ve assured me.
Inside the capsule, my handlers strap me in, lean in close, and once again go over everything that’s going to happen. I guess they figure it’ll make me feel more comfortable. It’s not working.
Finally, they secure my helmet and seal the hatch, and I’m alone, save for the voices in my headset and the video and scrolling text and data on the bank of screens in front of me.
The capsule is cylindrical, maybe eighteen feet long and ten feet in diameter. I feel like a bug inside a soda can, one packed with electronics
and white padding on the walls.
On the middle screen, I watch Dan Hampstead’s launch. Smoke billows from the base as the rocket shakes in place, slowly levitates, then blasts upward. My mouth runs dry. I can’t tear my eyes away from the screen. My mind wanders to what I know: science. The white smoke around the rocket. It wasn’t covered in the briefing, but I figure the fuel is liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Liquid hydrogen is the second coldest liquid on Earth. In the tank, it’s minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. Ready to burn. And the white exhaust isn’t smoke at all. It’s water vapor—a by-product of the hydrogen and oxygen combining. It’s just science. Nothing to be worried about. Science is repeatable, predictable. They’ve been doing this for a long time. What could go wrong?
Dan’s rocket barrels into the air and slips into the clouds, like a needle into a pillow.
A minute later, the screen shows the exterior cameras on Hampstead’s capsule. It’s floating free of the rocket, looking down on Earth. Ground control calls to him, and he replies in his Texas accent, “I copy, Goddard. Still in one piece. Heck of a view up here.”
Cheers go up. The screen rotates through the cameras in each capsule— I suppose showing the rest of us what to expect, or that all is well up there. There are dozens of floating capsules now, white barrels against a black backdrop, with a few stars twinkling beyond.
Harry Andrews launches next, and I feel even more nervous for him.
I’ve only known him a few hours, but I feel as though it’s been years.
It’s like déjà vu, watching the rocket launch and disappear from ground view. Then Harry’s voice comes over the comm. “I’m okay. Feel like a pancake. But a one-piece pancake.”
I’m laughing at that when ground control says, “Pad 39C, you are go for launch.”
A countdown starts. Thirty minutes. Then ten. One minute. “Dr. Sinclair, prepare for liftoff.”
My body tingles, my palms begin to sweat, and I’m looking around the capsule in a daze.
“I copy.” A second passes. “I’m ready.” Ready as I’ll ever be.
The rocket creaks, metal groaning like a robot waking up from hibernation.
The countdown voice sounds far away.
I don’t hear six at all—the capsule shakes like a condo in an earthquake. And then boom, the rocket is moving, and moving fast. The beginning looked so slow on the screens, but right now it feels as if I’m on an amusement park ride that has gone off the rails. It’s exciting for about two seconds, and then I can hardly breathe, the weight of an elephant on my
chest, grinding me into the seat. I can’t think, can barely see.
All that cramming of launch training before? Useless. I couldn’t bail out of this thing if I wanted to. Forget an emergency landing.
It doesn’t matter. The view out the porthole turns to white. I’m in the atmosphere.
Seven minutes later, I’m in orbit. The chaos and noise of the launch turns to silence. I unstrap myself. The elephant on my chest is gone. I’m as light as a feather.
I hear what sounds like two soft gunshots near the back of the capsule.
The rocket detaching.
“Dr. Sinclair, do you copy?”
I want to say something clever, for the sake of my crewmates—and Andy Watts, who’s the last American still waiting to launch. But I can’t. I just stare out the round porthole, down at Earth, feeling smaller than I ever have before, more inconsequential. I have truly left the world, probably for the last time. A sense of calm comes over me, and with it, focus.
“I’m here. Just enjoying the view.”
Cheers sound in my earpiece. I barely hear them. Right now, all I can think about is all I’ve left behind. A mess of a life. Some hard decisions. One I regret, that cost me everything.
None of it matters up here. Only the mission. Everything in my life has led to this moment. Though the weight of the launch acceleration is off my chest, I feel the weight of what I must do up here, the pressure not to fail.
They’re all depending on me. Alex and his wife and children. Fowler. Everyone I’ve ever known.
Fowler’s voice sounds in my earpiece. “James.”
Something in his tone tells me this is a private channel. A glance at the closest screen confirms it.
“I read you.”
“Your capsule is in close proximity to Commander Matthews.” He doesn’t ask. Doesn’t need to.
“Good. I’m ready.” I drift back to the harness and strap myself in.
“We’re going to drain the atmosphere in the capsule slowly. Her capsule is depressurized. That will prevent unexpected complications when you dock.”
The capsule lurches. The environmental screen shows the atmospheric pressure dropping. A critical alert is silenced.
The ground control tech’s name is Martinez, I think. His tone is more business-like than Fowler’s. “Status, Dr. Sinclair?”
“Nominal. Suit is good.”
“Stand by for docking in sixty seconds.”
Through the porthole, another capsule comes into view. It’s white and cylinder-shaped like mine, but with black marks dotting it, a Dalmatian print. I realize the dark marks are the stains of debris impacts. I lean forward, trying to catch a glimpse of Matthews through the other porthole. Nothing.
“Brace for impact, Dr. Sinclair.”
The words no astronaut wants to hear. Ever. The impact, as it turns out, is a soft bump.
Even through the suit, I can hear the clumps of the airlocks meeting and joining.
“You’re clear, Dr. Sinclair. Good luck.”
I unsnap myself from the harness and push off hard toward the hatch. I turn the handle quickly, sensing that time is of the essence. If a debris field collides with us now, I figure we’re both finished.
My heart races, the sound thumping in my ears. I feel like a man digging up a grave where someone has been buried alive.
The hatch swings open, revealing the exterior of Matthews’s capsule, black pockmarks and all. This is where it gets dicey. I float out and grab the
wheel of the other hatch. If it doesn’t turn, that’s it: no getting Emma Matthews out of this airless grave in the vacuum of space.
I pull, but it doesn’t budge. I try again, and it still won’t move. The hatch must have been hit by debris.
I’m panting now. “Call back later.” I strain again.
“James.” Fowler’s voice stops me. I pant and listen. “Is it the hatch?”
I glance back at the cameras. They said they were going to disable them because the data moving between the capsules and the ground could put us at risk like the ISS. Fowler must have guessed.
“Yeah. It’s jammed.”
“There’s a tool that could help. Find the case marked ‘Supply 1A.’ You’ll know the tool when you see it.”
I drift back into my capsule, throw open the case, and see it immediately. It’s like a tire tool for space capsules, angled to lock on to the hatch wheel. It has a long handle with a wide plate for my feet. There’s no instruction manual, but I don’t need one. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. One of the strongest, too—responsible for hip extension, which occurs every time we run, jump, or climb stairs. The average person can leg press a great deal more than they can bench press or curl.
I return to the hatch, hook the tool to the wheel, and plant my shoulders against the wall and my feet on the plate, trying to optimize my position for maximum thrust. I push.
“I found the tool. Working on it.” “Understood.”
I wait to catch my breath, then push with all my might. My glutes burn.
Legs shake. And slowly, metal groans.
The hatch gives, my legs fly off the plate, and I spin. I panic for a moment, afraid I’ve ripped my suit in my depressurized capsule. But there’s no rush of air. Nevertheless, I do a quick inspection. The suit’s okay.
That was close. I need to be more careful.
When I catch my breath again, I try to calm my voice. “Got movement on the hatch.”
I can turn it with my hands now, though there’s a hard part with each rotation.
I stand clear as it swings open, but no atmosphere escapes.
I peer inside. Two bodies. Neither moving. Or acknowledging me. They didn’t tell me there were two of them. Only about Matthews.
“Entering other capsule.” I pause. “I see two suits. Neither has responded to the hatch opening.”
“Understood, Dr. Sinclair. We’ve been unable to communicate with Commander Matthews for ninety minutes. The other crewmember died during the ISS catastrophe.”
Fowler saves me from asking. “No, James. You’ll have to leave him.
Space constraints.” “Copy that.”
I study the two suits. It’s clear now: one is sunken in places, like a deflated balloon.
I grab Matthews and turn her toward me. Her suit looks fine. Through the clear glass, I see her face, eyes closed, blond hair framing her face. Even seemingly frozen in place, she has an irresistible aura, one that draws you in.
I push her ahead of me, through the connected airlocks. I close the one to my capsule behind me.
“We’re back. Matthews is still unresponsive. Suit is pressurized. What should I do?”
“Stand by, Doctor. We’re undocking you and re-pressurizing your capsule.”
I pop open the med kit. My mind rifles through what could be going on with her. Suit has pressure. She hasn’t asphyxiated—unless there was a malfunction. How long has it been since she last ate? Too long, probably.
I take stock of the kit. As usual, they’ve thought of it all.
“Capsule pressure is nominal, Dr. Sinclair. Remove her helmet and commence first aid.”
As soon as I get her helmet off, I hold two fingers to her neck. My heart sinks when I feel how cold her skin is.