Space is not a void. The distant stars glitter in the black like jewels in ink, all the distant fierce, fiery giants and the promise of planets, whole other worlds spinning just like ours. The moon is a luminescent pearl when we catch a glimpse of it. The sun burns ravenously brilliant outside of the layers of atmosphere. But Earth is the true gem. I should be doing my tasks, since we are just hours away from docking at the International Space Station. But I can’t stop staring out the window at Earth. She is still so close, taking up the entire view out of the left windows. Land and water and clouds become art from this distance. Farmlands and country dance around each other, orderly squares meeting sprawling green. Clouds become giant, frothy swirls. The ocean changes from deep blue to gold where sunlight glints off its rippling surface. All the places I’ve ever known and most of the people I’ve ever known are all there, wrapped in soft layers of atmosphere.
“Astrid, we need you in control. We have a light blinking here.”
I push myself away from the window, still giddy over the weightlessness. Even after all the years of training and education, I still can’t believe that I am here and all this is real. Launch day, just yesterday, was both exhilarating and terrifying. I can still feel the shaking of the spacecraft around us, the gravity like an anvil pressing me back into my seat, the roar of the engines. And then the silence as the boosters dropped away, and weightlessness as we left Earth’s atmosphere. I will admit that my first reaction was mostly nausea, and the wonder followed later.
I propel myself through the spacecraft into the flight deck. The other crewmembers were gathered around the control panels, muttering amongst themselves.
“This is not a good sign,” I say, half-joking. Francis, her short hair disheveled around her face, glanced back at me.
“We’re getting some kind of error message…” she said, frowning.
And at that moment, all the lights in the flight deck flickered. We all froze and looked up. The four of us held our breath for a moment.
And then it all went dark. The lights in the cabin, the blinking panels, even the flashing alert button. And in the absence of power, all was silent. No hum of working electronics. No buzz of electricity running through wires. The glow of the sun in the far off western windows and the earthglow in the western windows illuminated the interior of the spacecraft.
A bright bead of panic fizzled along my spine.
“Alright,” George said in a quiet voice. “Suit up. You know the drill.”
“Work the problem,” we repeated back in hushed voices.
No one spoke as we helped each other into the clunky space suits, securing our helmets over our heads. It would make movement more difficult, but if the pressure should fail, or the oxygen finally run out...or any other number of systems, they would save our lives.
Alex took flight deck, nodding at us as he went about trying to reboot the system. Francis headed to the booster room. George and I, we had outside duty.
“No communication with Mission Control?” I asked, my voice thin and staticky over the comm lines.
George shook his head. So. Radio silence, and drifting powerless through space. I swallowed, mouth dry. But I knew that playing among the stars was a dangerous game. Any wrong move up here and it could be our last day. For a moment, before we headed out into the vastness of space just outside our little tin can of a ship, I closed my eyes. I remembered the violent shaking of the ship around me, my life bound to the workings of a machine, a missile. I had woken up that morning knowing that it could be the day I die--launches were risky. And in that moment, I had felt both the sheer thrill of hurtling through the air, into the universe and the terror of being completely powerless.
People always marveled at the mathematics and science we have to learn as astronauts, or at how we run our bodies through the wringer, on the ground, to prepare for the strain space will put on it. But the truth of it is that courage is the greatest asset of the astronaut. To feel the fear, to face the danger, and work the problem.
I open my eyes. Maybe today will be the day I die, but not until I have used every ounce of training and knowledge I have to keep it at bay. In the end, death isn’t the real foe. The real foe is fear.
“Not today, fear,” I whisper, and unlock the seal of the spacecraft door. George and I drift out into space, our only connection to the spaceship a cord, a thin thread tethering us to our lifeline.
Space is not a void, and it also isn’t languous. Out here, as we make our way around the outside of the ship to check if one of the panels is damaged, the speed is breathtaking. The Earth blurs by, miles disappearing in a blink. It may as well be a blue smear underneath my dangling feet. Do the stars above me whirl by just as fast? I don’t look.
We pull ourselves along the edge of the ship, handhold by handhold, checking for damage. Nothing seems to be amiss. And yet, we drift powerless through space.
“We don’t even know what the problem is!” I say. I can hear the frustration in my own voice.
“We work the problem till the end,” George says.
We pull ourselves back inside the spacecraft.
“Found it!” It’s Alex, in the flight deck. “Panel with a whole mess of loose wires. Maybe they got shaken loose in the launch.”
We all gather in the flight deck again. Put our heads together. Sort through the wires. In the end, the lights return.