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Next came the awards for the mission controllers, ‘outstanding performances’ by the Flight Dynamics Officer and the Guidance, Navigation and Control Officer and even the Public Affairs Officer. There were awards for the guys who planned the EVAs, the mission’s spacewalks – even though the EVAs, which Geena had been scheduled to take part in, had both got cancelled because of a loose screw that stuck the Shuttle orbiter’s hatch mechanism.
Then, to Geena’s embarrassment, she was called up again. She was given an EVA credit because – Maddicott said – she and her partner had got suited up and taken to vacuum, even though they never left the vehicle, and that counted for the record. Then the mission commander got up and gave the two of them a special award: the balky screw, smaller than her thumbnail, that had fouled up the hatch. It was wrapped up in a plastic bag, for them to saw in half and mount on wood, half each.
It was moments like this that made her realize what NASA was really all about: it was forty years old now, a well-entrenched piece of Government bureaucracy, where ceremonies like this were an essential part of motivation, the little plaques and medals and in-jokes a measure of the development of your career.
All the applauding NASA managers here seemed to be white males, it struck her, even though the astronauts, the showcase, were a reasonable mix of ethnicity, creed and sex. Many of the managers were of that sleek rotundity that comes to men of bulk and stature in such positions. Men of influence. She looked at Harry Maddicott, for instance. With his jowls grey and dragged down by gravity, it was difficult to remember that he had only been in his twenties during the era of flower power. How had he looked then? And yet now he had seamlessly become the kind of man who seemed to emerge from each generation to run the country, as long as Geena had been alive, and probably a lot longer before.
The inevitability of her own likely metamorphosis with age, into some female equivalent of Maddicott, depressed her. Well, Henry probably thinks I’m there already.
She tried to pay attention to the continuing presentations. There was a slide-and-video show of highlights of the mission. Images of the Mission Control Center here at JSC, guys sitting at their blue workstations with their jackets over the backs of their seats, scratching their bellies and working with mind-numbing slowness. The Shuttle’s docking with Station was more fun to watch, with intercuts between computer graphics of the converging spacecraft and the Station docking adapter making a slow geometric sense, the Shuttle flying up an invisible cone to its target, the black dots of the adapter’s Space Visioning System which helped the computers bring the huge spacecraft together. But this too proceeded with glacial slowness, the two huge machines converging at no more than an inch a second.
Now there were pictures from their stay in orbit on Station, usually of an astronaut – sometimes herself – struggling with some incomprehensible piece of equipment in a cluttered interior.
Here was Bonnie Jones, the other woman on the crew, floating around the Shuttle with her long greying hair loose and in a fan around her. As a crewmate, that had driven Geena quickly crazy. Of course the media outlets loved it; Henry told her there had been at least two daily occurrences of ‘bad hair day’ jokes. Later in the mission, Bonnie had tied her hair into a rope-like ponytail, which swung around behind her. The novelty of that wore off after the first crew member got a hairy slap in the face.
Geena was, of course, all for equal access to space. But she thought women like Bonnie ought to cut their damn Barbie-doll tresses to a crewcut for the duration; that wasn’t such a sacrifice.
The show limped on. The movement of objects in zero gravity, a milky-slow ballet, had some appeal. But the audience started getting restive, the kids and old people bored. The fact was, the novelty of watching nondescript people performing incomprehensible tasks soon palled, zero gravity or not.
There was a brief sequence of Arkady Berezovoy on board Station, using a Station power tool, floating upside down. He grinned out of the screen, it seemed directly at her. He spoke to camera in his thick, earthy, accented English: It was like a dream when Shuttle came floating up to Station. Last night I slept on the Shuttle for the first time. It was unusual. Station had become my whole universe. After 128 days in space, I couldn’t believe anything existed beyond its walls …
Arkady was still on orbit. Listening to his voice, Geena realized how much she missed him.
The most striking images, the ones that stunned the audience to silence, were those of the Earth: the visible evolution of the three-dimensional diorama of clouds and ocean and desert, filled with blue light, sliding past the orbiter’s dinged-up wing or tail. Here was a slide taken by Geena, the shimmering blues and greens of the coastline near the Bahamas.
And now here came images from the flight deck of the Shuttle’s reentry and landing. Geena’s favourite showed a view from the rear windows of the plasma trail stretching behind the orbiter, a pink road reaching all the way back to Mach 25 and orbit …
The time came for questions for the crew. Most of them came from the journalists, but given the nature of the event these were mostly harmless lobs.
Sixt, how do you feel about your career now? Do you want to fly again? Do you have any regrets?
Sixt Guth prepared his answer. He was an Apollo-era relic still flying at sixty-four, who seemed to be trying to defy age. It was incredible to think he was actually older than Harry Maddicott, she thought.
‘I was recruited, in the 1960s, as a scientist-astronaut,’ Sixt said. ‘You have to understand I was actually recruited to go to Mars, maybe in the 1980s. That was what I expected, and so did everyone else, and it was the ultimate purpose of my job. But it didn’t pan out that way. At least I got as far as LEO, low Earth orbit, and I enjoyed my time there …’
Sixt had actually completed seven flights already and was hoping for more. He was an obsessive learner, having taken at least five degrees in with his two-year stretches of Shuttle training. He was undeniably old: he was totally bald, his head and face seemingly polished smooth. He moved with an odd gait, as if awkward in Earth’s gravity, and – like others of his generation – he was, Geena thought, rather clumsy and too brief in his public pronouncements, not so articulate and media-friendly and practised as the rest of them, even Geena. She wondered briefly how they must all look to outsiders: like younger, slimmer, ethnically mixed versions of the Center director maybe, sleek and rich-looking and confident and articulate. The epitome of space travel as a career move.
It was for the sake of this corporate cosiness, she thought with uneasy regret, that Henry’s mission had been broken.
Sixt fumbled with his lapel microphone. ‘You ask me about regrets. We weren’t ready to go to Mars, I understand that now. Spaceflight is not easy. I don’t know personally how I would have fared, psychologically, if, in some other universe, I had ever gotten to do that hundred-million-mile trip to Mars. Months of isolation from my family and home, not just days …’
Sixt, do you still think we should go to Mars?
‘Well, I guess so. But it remains a heck of a long way to go. I’ve come to think we should put our hearts into a return to the Moon. Sure, the Moon’s not an ideal destination. It’s a desert compared to Mars. It would be better if Mars was in orbit around the Earth, just three days away, but it isn’t, and we ought to make the best of what we got. But even on the Moon it might be possible to live off the land, if we’re smart enough.’
And then came the questions for Geena. The first couple were about her last flight but two, the first by an all-woman crew in US space history. It seemed to have aroused as much interest and curiosity as if NASA had appointed a team of chimpanzees to make the flight. But Geena had gotten used to handling those questions now.
After that, they got tougher.
Your husband thinks there’s an ocean on the Moon, doesn’t he?
‘Not an ocean.’
But enough to flood the Moon, if it was all melted. Is that right?
‘It’s a possibility.’ She smiled tightly. ‘I don’t pretend to understand the theory of how it got there. But it seems possible.’
Geena, do you think NASA should have brought the astronauts home from Station?
‘No. The evidence we have is that the radiation pulse from Venus was transient. The danger’s already over …’
Geena, I can’t help notice Dr Meacher isn’t here.
Sixt tried to help out. ‘Nor are my ex-wives. Attendance isn’t compulsory, thank God.’
That got a laugh. But the questioner, a journalist, was persistent. You didn’t back his Shoemaker proposal. We hear he’s leaving NASA over it. Is there any bitterness between you?
She was aware of a shift in the body language of the crew up here on the stage, the managers, the rest of the audience. Everyone was quietly waiting for her answer, as always fascinated by some other poor sap’s domestic difficulties.
‘There’s no bitterness. Henry and I have our separate careers. Even when we were married, that was so. And now our marriage is over, but the break-up had nothing to do with our differences over Agency policy. I hope that answers you.’
It was, at least, enough to shut him up. But she knew – and everybody else in the room seemed to know – that it wasn’t the truth.
The briefing broke up, and they were led out to an autograph session.
Later in the day, on impulse, she phoned Henry, at his hotel in Edinburgh.
‘I’ll help you,’ she said.
‘I’ll find out the context. Of your rock.’
He paused. She thought he was gathering his strength, as if he was about to come back with another put-down. But then he said, tenderly, You do that.
Tenderly. But, she saw clearly, without love.
Mike Dundas picked Henry up from the Balmoral.
It was a balmy Saturday evening, at the end of Henry’s first full week in Edinburgh, and Mike had asked Henry over for dinner. Henry had accepted uneasily. He still didn’t feel much like being sociable; and besides, he wondered what horrors of northern British cuisine he was going to be subjected to.
But he couldn’t see any way out of it, with grace. Mike seemed pathetically grateful to Henry for giving him the chance to work on the Moon rock. Maybe this would let the kid get that out of his system.
They drove south for a mile or so, and arrived at a small estate of identikit houses. Mike pulled up in front of one house, maybe 1960s vintage: a nondescript box, a small garden to front and back, like, Henry sensed, millions of similar suburban homes all over Britain. A little further away there were rows of tower blocks, the result of some misconceived housing policy of the recent past. Not a great place to live.
But it was redeemed by one hell of a view of Arthur’s Seat, to the east.
This was actually his father’s house, Mike said; his mother died a few years before.
‘So who’s cooking?’
‘Dad. With a little help from me.’
Mike laughed, and locked the car.
A plastic soccer ball hit Henry in the nose.
A kid came running around the side of the house: a boy maybe ten years old, all stringy muscle and energy, his elbows and ankles sticking out of his clothes. ‘Oh, bugger,’ he said.
Mike said, ‘Jack!’
‘Mister, I’m sorry.’
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