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Behind them, the puddle glowed softly in the wan Moonlight. Where it stirred, the rock flour rustled.
Towards the end of Geena’s eight-hour shift as capcom for Station, a problem came up with a seat liner for one of the Soyuz escape craft.
Because the seats in Soyuz were moulded to fit an individual astronaut or cosmonaut, liners had to be stored for every crew member on Station at any moment. But one of the Russian crew who had just been carried to Station, on board Space Shuttle Endeavour, was complaining that when she tried to install her seat liner into the Soyuz it didn’t fit her. So the ground controllers, in Moscow and Houston, had gotten into a wrangle about what the cosmonaut’s home vehicle was, and Geena found herself on the voice loops to Station trying to explain – in English and Russian – the home vehicle rules.
She read, ‘“The home vehicle for Shuttle-Station crew members is defined as follows. The home vehicle for Americans launched on the Shuttle is the Shuttle. The home vehicle for Americans on Station becomes the Shuttle immediately after the hatches are opened between Station and Shuttle. The home vehicle for cosmonauts launched on the Shuttle becomes the Soyuz, and becomes the Shuttle for cosmonauts on Station after – one – the seat liners are installed for the Station crew in the Soyuz, and – two – the Station crew are briefed on emergency procedures …”’
Traditionally, the Americans tried to use Russian, while the Russians replied in English. It was slow and painfully clumsy, but it did seem as if less mistakes got made that way.
The Russian Interface Officer, a heavy-set woman from New York, was at her side, checking the agreed English-Russian translations of technical terms and acronyms.
The Mission Control Center here at JSC hummed around her, rows of sleek black touch-screen workstations like Star Trek props, littered with coffee cups and yellow stickies and laptops and binders of mission rules. Beside her desk there was a huge recycling bin for soda cans. At the back of the room was a row of pot plants, their tubs littered with more soda cans. At the front of the room, the big screens carried computer-graphic images of the Station’s position and orientation in orbit, a view of the Earth from an external camera, and a shot of a science lab where a European astronaut was freezing saliva scrapings taken from the crew.
It was a familiar working place for Geena, so homely that coming in here was like taking an adrenaline antidote.
Bored to tears, she tried to focus on seat liners.
She’d spent the morning attending a press conference on the plans the boys from JPL were putting up for a fast probe to Venus. It had been exciting, energetic; in fact NASA as a whole had been energized by the Venus event, Geena thought. Whatever the ominous implications, the amount of attention space issues had received since then had been gratifying, and NASA’s speed and flexibility of response invigorating.
But even so, when you got to the coal face of manned spaceflight, it was still a crushing bureaucracy to work in.
The seat liner controversy went on and on.
The hardest thing about managing the Station project was not the technology or the work on orbit. Geena knew from experience that once on orbit, isolated in that collection of tin cans, people tended to drop their personal differences and work together. Integrating two forty-year-old management hierarchies on the ground had proven much more difficult.
Even the basic philosophy of operation of the two control centres differed. For instance, previous Russian space stations – Mir and the Salyuts – had been out of contact with their controllers for most of each day, because of a lack of ground stations around the globe. So the Russians had developed a shift system based on that fact, which differed from the American system. And they’d had to allow their cosmonauts more latitude in day-to-day operations and decision-making than American astronauts, checklisted to death, were generally permitted.
American and Russian mission controllers had worked together for some years now, on the Station assembly project and before that on the Shuttle-Mir docking missions, and had thrashed out a set of common procedures. NASA had given all its astronauts and controllers accelerated Russian language training, and had provided joint training and simulations, and so on.
But it was never going to be easy.
Day to day, they ticked along. But every time a real problem blew up, like this one, it seemed to go to the top of both hierarchies before resolution.
Gradually, the liner problem was eroded to bureaucratic smoothness. And, towards the end of the shift, she was able to snatch a little personal time on the loop with Arkady.
Of course, the whole of the MCC would listen in, as would TsUP, the Russian mission control at Korolyov; in fact a smart IBM computer somewhere would transcribe every word they spoke. But there was still room for a little intimacy. This was one area where the Americans had found they had had a lot to learn from the Russians; those guys seemed to have a better instinct for the internal needs of the people they thrust up there into orbit.
So, thanks to Russian mission rules, Geena and Arkady were allowed their air time.
She read him a poem Arkady’s mother said he had always liked, called Poltav Battle. And then they sang together, her own toneless grunts along with Arkady’s voice – more musical, but reduced to a scratch by the loop – an old Russian song called On the Porch Together. She got the odd stare from her fellow controllers, but she couldn’t care less about that.
When she was done, she had a warm feeling which persisted even after her shift broke up.
She left the MCC, and made her way out of Building 30. She’d been intending to go straight to her car and home.
But she hesitated.
It was late afternoon. Spring: the least offensive period in Houston’s calendar. There was blossom on the trees, and there were, she saw, birds nesting in the big air-conditioning grilles on the side of the faceless concrete block that was Building 30.
She walked to the central quadrangle of the campus, concrete paths criss-crossing the bristly grass between the buildings. No doubt, she thought, there would now be trails of ducklings quacking their way across the campus, if the ducks hadn’t been chased out of JSC twenty years ago for the noise and mess they made. We ain’t here for ducks.
She remembered her promise to figure out the context for Henry’s precious Moon rock. She hesitated. Maybe the spring air was making her mellow.
She walked over to Building 2, Public Affairs, to find out how she could get hold of Jays Malone. It turned out he was coming in the next day, for a lecture and a tour of the lunar colony studies going on here at JSC. She talked her way into an invitation to join the party.
The next day, Geena made her way to the back of a lecture room in the PAO building, while Jays Malone fielded questions about his work from the scattered handful of journalists.
Jays Malone turned out to be a big man, still muscular, slim and supple for his age, which was – Geena knew from the biographies – about 70. He was crisply tanned, right to the crown of his head, which was totally free of hair, polished to a billiard-ball shine. He looked a little dwarfed by the giant show cards his fiction publisher had sent over – Rocky Worlds – A Vision of the Future by a Man Who’s Been There …
Geena had never met Jays before. He had retired before she had even joined NASA. She’d seen him on Apollo retrospectives and the like, but he was a few generations too remote from her astronaut class to have made any difference to her career here.
Jays stood up to speak. He propped his leg up on a chair, leaned on his knee, held a mike with one hand, and when he spoke, his free hand fluttered around his head like a bird, as if out of conscious control.
So, Colonel Malone, why ‘Jays’?
‘It was my sister. When she was a kid she couldn’t say “James” right. It came out “Jays”. It stuck as a nickname.’
Is it true you changed your name by deed poll to Jays?
‘No. And it’s not true I trademarked it, either …’
Laughter. The journos were friendly enough, Geena realized, rows of faces turned to Jays like miniature moons.
Why the title?
‘Something that occurred to me on the Moon,’ he said. ‘Maybe Earth is unique. But the Moon isn’t, even in our Solar System. The Galaxy has got to be full of small, rocky, airless worlds like the Moon, Mercury. Right? I was only a quarter million miles from Earth, but if I looked away from Tom and the LM, away from the Earth, if I shielded my eyes so I could see some stars, I could have been anywhere in the Galaxy – hell, anywhere in the universe …’
The audience shifted, subtly, showing he had hit the wonder nerve. With the younger ones anyhow.
But Geena knew he was cheating a little. There could have been no time for such reflection during those busy three days on the Moon; such insights had come from polishing those memories in his head, over thirty years, like jewels, until he probably couldn’t tell any more what was raw observation on the Moon, or the maundering of an old man.
Your books are full of geology. But you weren’t trained in geology for your Apollo flight …
‘That’s not quite true,’ Jays said, and he expanded.
The Apollo guys had some training from geologists attached to the project – they’d be taken to Meteor Crater, Arizona, or some such place, and taught to look – they had to try to be geologists, at least by proxy, in a wilderness no true scientist had ever trodden before them. But in the end Jays had spent three days bouncing across the Moon, wisecracking and whistling and cussing; for the point of the journey was not the science of the Moon, of course, nor even the political stuff that pushed them so far, but simply to get through the flight with a completed checklist and without a screw-up, so you were in line for another.
But for Jays, there never had been another. After returning home he was caught up in the PR hoopla, stuff he’d evidently hated, stuff that led him to drink a lot more than he should. And by the time he’d come out of that he found himself without a wife and out of NASA, and too old to go back to the Air Force.
Jays talked about all this now. ‘It was a time,’ he said with a smile, ‘I still think of as my Dark Age.’
The audience was silent.
‘But I kept in touch with the studies of the Moon rocks we brought back. I showed up at lunar and planetary science conferences. And that got me interested in geology. I took a couple of night classes, even made a few field trips, over the years. For a while it was just a way to fill up time between Amex commercials and daytime talk shows. But I soon came to know a lot more about the Earth than I ever did about the Moon.’
And, he said, gradually, the geology stuff had hooked his imagination.
Death Valley, for instance: one of the most famous geological showpieces in America. But if you managed to look beyond the tourist stuff about bauxite miners and mule trains, what you had there was a freshwater lake, teeming with wildlife and flora, that had gotten cut off from the sea. Over twenty thousand years the lake had dwindled and become more and more saline; the trees and bushes died off and the topsoil washed away, exposing the bedrock, and the lake’s inhabitants were forced to adapt to the salt or die …
His first piece of fiction, a short story, was slight, a tale of a human tribe struggling to survive on the edge of such a lake.
Nods, from the sf enthusiasts in the audience. The Drying. It had won a prize.
The story sold for a couple hundred bucks to one of the science fiction magazines, Jays said he suspected for curiosity over his name alone. A novel, painfully tapped into a primitive word processor, followed soon after. He hadn’t read sf since he was a kid, but now he rediscovered that sense of time and space as a huge, pitiless landscape that had impelled him towards space in the first place.
Are you arguing for a return to space, in your books?
‘I guess so. I think we need to be out there. You don’t need to know much geology to see that … On Earth, in a few thousand years the ice will be back, scraping the whole damn place down to the bedrock again, and I don’t know how we’re proposing to cope with that. And then there are other hazards, further out …’
The next big rock. The dinosaur killer.
‘It’s on its way, maybe wandering in from the Belt right now, with all our names written on it … Or maybe there is some other hazard, waiting out there to bite us. But I’m not propagandizing here. This is just fiction, right? I want your beer money, not your vote.’
Of course, propagandizing was exactly what Jays was doing.
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