It’s hard to eat cereal when the milk won’t stay in the bowl. I mean, you never think about it, but you really take for granted that it just stays put. The whole process is automatic. Spoon goes down, spoon goes up, swallow, repeat. You might have to think a little when it’s almost gone and you have to chase down the last clump of cereal, but that’s about it. So when the milk decides it’s not satisfied with a cardboard-carton-and-white-crockery life, when it decides to float up out of the bowl and see what’s going on in the world, well, it puts a whole new spin on breakfast.
Of course, NASA doesn’t let us spend every morning chasing down rogue milk blobs with our spoons. We’re much too valuable. So we have special cereal eating contraptions, sort of like upside-down ice cream cones with a straw at the top. I took one apart once, to see what was inside, and the straw flares out at the bottom so it covers a good chunk of the bowl. I’m not sure how that helps, but they work most of the time so I don’t worry about it. Still, they aren’t very well sealed, so every now and then a few drops of milk will leap to freedom and then we have to break out the Dust Devil. I imagine the lucky droplets yelling back to their brothers and sisters still inside, trying to tell them as much as they can about life on the outside before they’re sucked into the black oblivion of the vacuum.
I’m not feeling particularly poetic this morning, though. Mostly I’m just hungry. I hear a clang on the other side of the porthole and look up from my cereal to see Ed float into the dining room. We call it the banquet hall. It’s about the farthest you can get from a real banquet hall, but 200 miles above the earth’s surface, as the joke goes, it’s luxury cuisine. The banquet hall itself is cramped. It fits three people comfortably in the eating area, and only one in the kitchen proper, where the stove and microwave and refrigerator are. There, everything you need to cook food is in a pouch somewhere among the metal security handles and squares of velcro.
“‘Morning,” he says.
“‘Morning,” I reply.
“What’d you have?” He glances at my cereal machine.
“Granola. We’re out of Frosted Flakes,” I reply. He smiles knowingly. Two floors below us, in the vast warehouse of storage area C, there’s enough food to feed the four of us for years. Decades maybe. No one looks forward to going down there when something runs out, though, so we keep a shopping list under a magnet on the fridge.
“Didn’t seem worth it,” I say. “It’s only a few more days.”
“Ah, ah, but have you ever thought about how long a few days really is? I mean, look at the mayfly. Its lifespan is, what, three days? If we were mayflies, it’d be a lifetime before we had to go back. We’d have our whole lives ahead of us.”
I groan. Ed pulls himself over to the kitchen and grabs the Froot Loops from a pouch below the microwave. Sara and Jenn emerge from the porthole. Jenn’s hair is wild, and Sara rubs sleep from her eyes. We mumble our greetings. Jenn makes a beeline for the cereal pouch as Ed floats out of the kitchen.
“Where are the Frosted Flakes?” Her tone is accusatory. I grin.
“We finished them yesterday,” I say. “Unless you want to do the shopping?”
“No,” she grumbles. She puts a Pop Tart in the toaster and searches for a box of Cheerios for Sara. Minutes later, we’re eating our breakfast in silence.
We’ve been busy the last few days, finishing experiments and packing up equipment. Our shuttle, the USS Vanguard, has been in orbit for nearly four months now. Topside, the desk geeks call it. Sara is the chemist and geologist. She analyzes the samples our rover brings back from the moon. Jenn is the aeronautics and astronautics engineer. We call her R.S., for rocket scientist. Ed’s the mechanic. He’s also the class clown. He’s heard all the jokes about the clumsy mechanic, but he still laughs at them. Jenn calls him Kramer, after the character on Seinfeld. Me, I’m just a guy who got lucky. I was a paper pusher in the navigation department, a desk geek. It took me ten years to sack up and get myself into decent shape so I could try out for flight crew. This is my first real mission, and now it’s almost over.
Jenn finishes her breakfast first. She drops her wrapper in the trash chute and disappears into the porthole. Moments later, we hear rhythmic grunts and short, fleshy thumps from down below.
“She’s at it again,” Sara says. She grimaces and glances at Ed. “Hey, is that a good idea? I mean, what’s it like, being back on the ground after this much time in zero G’s?”
“It kicks your ass.” Ed smiles. “All your muscles atrophy up here. Most people can’t even walk their first day back, so they stick you on crutches, or in a wheelchair if you’ve got it really bad. You never see it on the news because by the time you see the flight crew, they’ve got their land legs again.”
His smile broadens. “And besides, they gotta keep up the astronaut image, right? Crew cuts and ponytails and white teeth and American flags. That’s why I became an astronaut, anyway. Ah! We’re living the American Dream!”
“Yeah,” Sara says, half paying attention. “Bob, you’ve known Jenn longer than I have. Was she always like that?”
“Like what?” I ask. I know what she means.
“Like…you know. A gym rat. A hardbody.”
“Oh. Yeah, probably.” Jenn is in terrific shape, I think to myself. “Before she applied to NASA flight training, she was in bodybuilding competitions. Crazy diets, steroids, the whole nine yards. She showed me pictures from one of the competitions, but she’s softened a lot since then.”
“Wow,” Sara gapes. “That’s crazy. I have trouble getting myself to the gym at all, and I can’t stand working out here. She must love it.”
Exercise in zero gravity is a funny thing. We have to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, but we can’t run or bike or lift weights or anything. There’s no gravity to work against. So we have to improvise. Our gym consists of five elastic bands, a few contraptions mounted on giant springs, and a sort of stair-climber one of the NASA robot designers threw together in his spare time. It’s a life saver, actually, since most of our requirements measure overall fitness and not strength.
“Yeah,” I reply. “I think her personality is part of it. I mean, she’s not a militant feminist or anything. She doesn’t even like feminists. But she’s always been really aware of expectations and everything. I think that’s part of why she tried out for flight training.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Sara chews her cereal slowly. “Geez, I haven’t done anything like that. I’m so boring.”
I look down and consider my cereal. “But you have a family,” I say. “That’s more than she can say.”
“Yeah,” she sighs, “but everyone does that. Most people, anyway.”
“Hey, look out the window,” Ed says. “That little blue ball way out there is the earth. How many people you think get to see that? Ah! Ah, ah. I could count them on two hands. Well, maybe four. Um, that makes…oh, shit. Let me see your hands, Bob.”
I laugh and move my hands behind my back. Ed glides over to the kitchen and dumps his empty cereal machine into the sanitizer. He launches off the stove and down through the porthole, spinning slowly. Sara and I munch on our cereal in silence. The day has just begun, and already we’re thinking it. Touchdown in T-minus 53 hours.
Sara grabs the cereal out of my hands and throws both of our cereal machines into the sanitizer. She grabs my hand and pulls me toward the porthole. I laugh. We sink down the main shaft and through the bowels of the shuttle, past the airlock, the bunks, the lab, and the machine room where our air and water is purified. Near the bottom, we reach a door labeled “STORAGE/C.” We slip through and Sara pushes it closed behind us until she hears the latch click shut. She winks at me and pulls her shirt over her head.
Sex in zero gravity is fantastic.
Not that I’m spoiled or anything. Sex on earth is great, too. But more than anything else, sex in zero G’s has made me realize how much of an effect gravity has on my body. The human body is an amazing thing. It copes with this burden all the time, this interminable force pulling down on every piece of bone and tissue, and yet it manages to get up and walk around and even go to the market once in a while. It’s really a marvelous piece of machinery. So in zero G’s, when that burden is lifted from your shoulders, well, it’s the most liberating feeling in the world and then some. I don’t know the right word to describe it.
I’ll never forget the launch. After we left the atmosphere and earth’s gentle tug began to lose its grasp on us, when the big jets stopped and the blast tanks fell away and the invisible giant lifted his hand from my chest, I felt free. Completely, utterly free. Free like I’ve never felt before. I’m not talking First Amendment, right-to-bear-arms free here, I’m talking head-spinning, out-of-body-experience free. Faster-than-a-speeding-bullet, reach-out-and-touch-the-stars, look-ma-I-can-fly free. Everything became oddly beautiful. The instrument panels gleamed and the stars twinkled through the windows and I couldn’t stop smiling for days. The sensation took a long time to fade away.
I’m accustomed to zero G’s now. I can move around easily, and I don’t feel like I’m upside down all the time. But when I’m with Sara, when I’m inside her and I feel her tense up and the waves crash down and she takes me over the edge, I turn inside out. For a moment, I escape the flimsy container of my body and fly through the shuttle and escape out the airlock into the endless night of space, and the universe isn’t big enough to hold me so I tear it open and fly into the void beyond, and I’m laughing. I feel like I could laugh forever and it wouldn’t be enough. I’m electric. For a second, for a brief eternity, I feel what I felt during that first launch. I feel free.
Today, we’re in the storage area. The bunks are usually good enough, and the velcro helps a lot, but sometimes we like to be unattached. We stash our clothes near the door, push off a metal shelf, and soar. We spin around each other, out of control. We laugh. We feel the way eagles would feel if they could mate in the air. Who knows, maybe they can.
After the tide has come and gone, I let out a sigh. I look down at Sara. Her head is pressed against my chest, and her hair floats in a misty halo. I stare, unabashed.
“You’re beautiful,” I say.
“Hey, stop that. We said this was just for fun, right? No strings attached. What did you call it, our first time? The Hundred Mile High Club?”
“No, no, it was purely research,” I grin. “I swear, scout’s honor. Part of an experiment I’m doing on the effects of sex in zero G’s. I’ve got the official papers and everything, they’re in my bag.”
She swats me on the cheek. “Riiight. Maybe I should dump your pants down the trash chute. We could do an experiment on the effects of you without clothes in zero G’s.”
I laugh. Her voice softens. “Thank you. I appreciate it, I really do. God, I can’t believe we’ll be back on the ground in two days. I could be eating In-N-Out in less than 48 hours, you realize that?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Thank god for that. I won’t miss the food topside, that’s for sure. It’s so far away, though, it’s tough to imagine. You looking forward to it?”
She pauses. Her eyes are unfocused, and she presses her mouth into a straight line. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, yes, of course I am. Aren’t you?”
“Sure,” I say. “It feels like we’ve been up here forever. It’ll be great to see everyone again, right?”
I realize my mistake immediately. Shit, I think. She looks away.
“I’m sorry, Sara. I didn’t mean it like that. It’ll be good to see everyone else, though. Won’t it?”
She closes her eyes and swallows, hard. “Yeah, of course. God, I still can’t believe it. A month before our first launch date. I mean, he was acting a little strange, but whenever I asked, he just chalked it up to mid-life crisis. I did too, until I came home to an empty garage and a note taped to the front door. Hell of a mid-life crisis.”
She breaks off. Her breath comes in shudders. After a moment, she continues.
“It’s not just that, either. Janey starts school…um, the 19th, I think. So she’ll be out of the house a few weeks from now. And Amanda will be there when we land, but she’s staying at A&M for the summer. The house is going to be so empty.”
She buries her head under my chin. I rub her back in slow circles.
“Relax, hon. It’ll be ok. It’s not like Janey’s leaving forever. I mean, it’s only fifty miles or so. You can see her on the weekends, and besides, you and Amanda talk every day, right?”
“Listen, when she starts school, we’ll throw you a party. I’ll get everyone in flight crew to come. It’ll be great. I’ll get a cake that says, `Congratulations! You Finally Got the Kids Out of the House!'”
She smiles faintly. I brush a stray wisp of hair from her face and tuck it behind her ear. I’m trying to think of something else to say, something to cheer her up, when we hear the intercom buzz. It’s the incoming buzz, which means ground control has sent us a fax. There are no telephones in the shuttle because the roundtrip time for a radio signal is eight minutes. So they fax us. It’s actually a sophisticated communication protocol NASA uses, but it looks a lot like a fax when it’s printed out.
We wait for a few seconds until we reach the ceiling. I push off, hard, and we careen toward our clothing stash. When we arrive, Sara grabs hold of the metal railing on the wall to stop us. I pull our clothes out from under the bottom shelf. We hurry into our pants, and we’re doing the buttons on our shirts when the door slides open and Ed pokes his head in.
“Oh, there you are. We’ve been looking for you. What – ah…” He breaks into a sudden smile. “Don’t you two have work to do? How many times is that in the last week, anyway?”
Sara laughs. “Shut up.”
“Ah, never mind.” Ed grins. He bounces from one side of the door to the other, barely able to contain himself. “Guess what? They say we have to go outside once more. Ah! Ah! Hooray for outside!”
I’m surprised. “Are you sure? We don’t have a walk scheduled. What do they want us to do?”
“I didn’t read that far,” he shrugs, “but it shouldn’t be a big deal. Probably just shut some of the sensors and scientific stuff off. Anyway, you should get suited up. We need to start soon.”
Ed shoots out of the storage area. We hear him singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song before the door slides shut. He gets about half of the notes right, and makes up lyrics when he doesn’t remember them. “The mate was a mighty physics geek, the mechanic brave and sure / Our funding might get slashed this year, we’ll all be very poor…”
I finish buttoning my shirt and we head upstairs. When we reach the airlock, Sara settles down in front of the observation window, holding the metal handles on either side. She doesn’t usually go outside with us. She’s more of a scientist than an astronaut, so Jenn, Ed and I take care of the technical stuff.
Jenn and Ed are already in their full-body space suits. I rap on their visors with my knuckles. They flash me a thumbs-up and I struggle into my suit. I fasten my helmet and flip the power switch, and I hear the spark of the heating coils and the hum of the fan behind my head. A blast of air hits my chin as the oxygen valve opens.
“You ready in there, cowboy?” The radio crackles and Ed’s voice fills my ears. I flash him a thumbs-up in return.
Jenn turns to look at Ed. The movement is exaggerated. Her entire upper body twists, compensating for the bulk of the suit. “What’s the plan?”
“Ah…” He pauses, thinking. “The antenna needs to be adjusted so ground control can set our descent path. The crane needs to be disassembled and packed up. And…oh, that’s right. We need to open the thruster pods so we can steer if we need to.”
He turns to me. “Bob, you want to do the antenna?” He gives me a sly, sideways look. “I can hear it calling your name. But then again, I’m fluent in radio wave.”
I grin. The antenna is definitely the easiest job. Ed must be giving me a break. He and Jenn know a lot more about the mechanical stuff than me, and they have more walk time under their belts.
I press the radio button. “Sure,” I say.
“The crane should take the longest time,” he says. “I’ve got the tools, so I might as well do it. You know how to open the thrusters, Jenn?”
“Sure. Let’s go!” Jenn sounds confident, impatient. She pulls open the door to the airlock. We file in and I push it shut, sealing the chamber. Jenn punches a button and the air hisses as it leaks out of the room. Within minutes, the chamber is depressurized. She spins the lock on the outer door until we hear it click. It swings open, slowly.
Short of walking on the moon, doing a space walk is the most romanticized part of being an astronaut. Whenever you see space shuttles or astronauts on TV, they’re always in their spacesuits, working away outside the ship, with a harness cable trailing behind them. Bullwhips, we call them. The only time I ever saw a clip of astronauts inside the space shuttle – besides at the office, of course – was a commercial for Freeze-Dried Astronaut Space Food. Even then, it was just a shot of them eating, and the rest was space suits and lunar landers.
Sadly, it doesn’t live up to the hype. It’s a rush the first few times, when you realize there’s nothing between you and the emptiness of space except a few layers of rayon and fiberglass and a thin metal cable to keep you from floating away. Spend enough time outside and that suit gets to feel pretty flimsy, let me tell you. But after five months of walks, you get desensitized.
We hook our cables to the post outside the door and head our separate ways. Just like inside, the outside of the ship is covered with metal handles so we can get to the equipment we need to work on. I pull myself hand over hand underneath the shuttle until I reach the main antenna. It’s impossibly thin, and it extends about ten feet below the belly of the ship at a slight angle. There are a few other antennae in the wings and the tail of the shuttle that bounce comm signals off satellites, but this is the only one that receives flight data from ground control.
I tug on a rail and spin myself around so I can see the earth. The thrill of space walks may have worn off, but that big blue and green ball never ceases to amaze me. Even from this far up, its sheer size is incredible. We take picture after picture while we’re topside, but they don’t do it justice.
“You know what?” Jenn’s voice fills my helmet, followed by a burst of static. “I’m going to miss this place.”
“What?” I laugh. “Was that a sniffle, R.S.? I thought they managed to beat all the emotion out of you in flight training.”
“Aw, shove it,” she retorts. She tries to be serious, but a chuckle slips out.
“You’re right, though,” I say. “I love it up here. It’s hard to convince myself I probably won’t make it topside again. At least you have more flights ahead of you.”
“Yeah. It’s also that…I don’t know. It’s nice to get away from all the recruits and the desk geeks and the suits.”
“Hey now,” Ed chimes in. “Desk geeks like Bob I can understand, ah, but we were all recruits once, remember!”
I stab the button. “Yeah, but at least I wasn’t a grease monkey. Which one would you rather go out with on a Saturday night, Jenn?”
“Neither of you, that’s for sure!” She gives up trying to contain her laughter. “Seriously, topside always makes me realize how much shit I take for being female flight crew. I mean, Sara’s a scientist, she’s just along for the ride, so she doesn’t have to deal with much of it. But some of the guys down there just don’t let up.”
“C’mon, R.S.,” I say. “Not all of us are like that. And even the guys who are, they don’t mean anything by it.”
“I don’t know,” she replies. “Even the nice ones, I know they’re thinking it. A few of `em, anyway. I can see it in their eyes.”
“Yeah, but it’ll change. I mean, they’ve been sending up men in those shuttles for decades. Angie was the first woman, and she just went through flight training, what, five years ago? Give the guys a break.”
“You better not be saying it’s ok that they’re assholes about it.”
“No, that came out wrong. Um…I’m just saying, give them some time to adjust.”
“Whatever,” she sighs. “I’m still not looking forward to it.”
“You both got it all wrong,” Ed interrupts. “It doesn’t matter if it’s girls or guys up here. What happened to the chimps, ah? That Russian launch with the monkey in ’61, someone was off their rocker, and they pulled it off! But now it’s all humans, just so NASA can get photo ops and good publicity. Ah! Where’s the adventure in that?”
We laugh. He continues, “Anyway, I’m about done. The crane’s snug as a bug in a rug. What about you two?”
I know Ed’s a good mechanic, but I’m still surprised. I must have been staring at the earth for longer than I thought.
“Finished,” Jenn replies. “I’m heading in.”
“Almost done,” I say. I search for a minute to find the Americas, and then the general area where Texas is. Funny how we think Texas is so big, but from up here you can’t even see it. Even the good old U. S. of A. looks a little anemic from two hundred miles away. I make an awkward gloved fist around the base of the antenna, above the radar dish, and point it toward the Lone Star state. I let go and the servomechanical motors kick in, moving the antenna to pinpoint the massive radio towers at ground control.
I haul myself out from under the ship and move along the side until I reach the outer airlock door. Jenn and Ed are already inside. I pull my cable in behind me and unhook it from the outside post. Jenn reaches to pull the door closed.
“Wait,” Ed says. “I forgot to close the bay door. I’ll be right back.”
He hooks his cable to the post and slips out the door. Jenn and I look at each other and shrug. After a minute, we hear his voice over the radio.
“Got it. Back in a sec.”
The words are still echoing in our helmets when he appears at the door. We can see him grinning through his visor. He closes the door and spins the lock shut. Jenn hits the pressure button and we wait for the chamber to fill with air. When the light on the panel turns green, I push the inner door open. I unfasten my helmet and turn the power off. I squirm out of my suit and head back to the kitchen, Jenn and Ed following behind me.
Sara meets us in the banquet hall. “How’d it go?”
“Fine,” Ed replies. His eyes are shining. “Nothing to it. We should all be proud.”
I launch myself into the kitchen and reach for a box of crackers. Jenn opens the fridge and pulls out a bag of soda. Out of the corner of my eye, I see something move outside the window. Ed’s eyes widen and his mouth opens in excitement. Jenn’s jaw drops. Her soda drifts out of her hand, forgotten. A few drops escape from the bag and glide through the kitchen, serenely, as if they had the entire shuttle to themselves. On the other side of the glass, less than five feet from us, a line splits the window. We watch, frozen, as it floats upward. An object on the end comes into view. It’s the radar dish, still attached to the antenna. Ed grins.
Sara’s hand finds mine and squeezes, hard. “How are we going to-“
“Shh…,” I say. I squeeze back. We watch the antenna float away in silence. It is proud, stately, epic, grand. It is all of these and more. The word escapes me. I watch it turn end over end, slowly, and I imagine it calling back to the other gadgets on the shuttle. It describes the white of the moon, the blue of the earth, the blinding yellow of the sun. It sings the glory of the stars it can see and the glory of the stars yet to come. It says, in a whisper almost too soft to hear, that it is free.