Time to go, the alarm indicated. Jacob Conner dreaded the announcement, regarding it as a horrible turn of events. It meant he needed to get to Houston to support the space station for NASA. As a lead Astronaut, it was his job, forcing him to make the commutes from his home in Dallas.
I hate this drive to Houston, thought Jacob.
The trip from Dallas to Houston had always been difficult, but now, in the falling ash of Yellowstone, it neared impossible. The ash was everywhere since the explosion. Nothing escaped it. Ash wreaked havoc on cars, clogging up windshields, air vents, radiators and even causing overheating. Anyone who drove carried a broom, brush, or compressed air hose to clear the ash from key points in the car–especially the radiator. Now that the ash was falling, Jacob realized he would spend more time clearing the ash from his car than driving to Houston.
However, he realized he had no choice. He needed to be at mission control to support abandoning the space station. NASA was shutting down. In fact, everything not related to producing food without the benefit of sunlight was being shut down. The country had undertaken a massive effort to move all farming inside. People were building warehouses covering acres, installing millions of wide spectrum lights, collecting tons of coal, oil, and natural gas, and constructing power plants — all to convert energy to food. They intended to keep as many people alive as possible. The government ended all activities that were not related to that effort. The government shut down space stations and military bases to focus on converting energy to food for survival. They ignored other issues.
Jacob grabbed his cooler, filled with individually wrapped sandwiches, ice, and bottled water for the trip. He knew the ice would be a mushy mix of volcanic ash before lunch, but he knew it would keep the water and food cold.
Jacob arrived in building 10 at the space center with continued darkness enveloping the Houston skyline. Jacob could only tell it was morning by looking at the clock as he arrived at building 10 in the space center, enveloped by the darkness of the Houston skyline. Upon arriving at the conference room, Jacob quickly sat down with William Ackers, Sarah James, and Kyle Yarrow. Ackers had recently taken over as the head of the astronaut office because of several departures. As Roskosmos coordinator for the astronaut office, Jacob had recently become the default ISS coordinator.
“Have they checked in yet?” asked Jacob, glancing at the blank feed on the screen at the end of the table.
“TDRS is switching over at the moment,” answered Sarah. “We should have them back momentarily.”
“Good,” Jacob nodded, “Anything new?”
“We’ve still been trying to figure out the planned descent.” Kyle answered, “The Russians are still talking about keeping their half and just boosting it to as high of orbit as possible.”
“Can they do that?”
“Assuming they can launch the progress.” Kyle stated.
“So that means we’re going to delay departure?”
“Yes,” Kyle answered meekly.
“Program Director is going to have a fit with that one,” said William, annoyed with the outcome.
“Can we help it?” Jacob asked, then continued to answer his own question. “We must support our mission partners. There is no way to know how soon we will need them. I would rather push back by deferring to the engineering judgment of our mission partners.”
“Jacob,” said William. “You can’t be serious.”
“I am,” Jacob said defiantly. “With Yellowstone exploding, we could be extinct. If we survive, we’ll need to move the program far faster than we have imagined.”
“Not the colony idea again,” said William.
“Isn’t it obvious, William? If we survive, we’ll need that off world population as insurance.”
“Jacob is right,” said Sarah. “We’ve been a danger to ourselves for such a long time, we’ve forgotten that nature can do it to us too. Yellowstone blew up on its own schedule. We didn’t have a doomsday clock letting us know when we were getting close.”
“Shouldn’t we just try to survive this disaster before planning for the next?” William countered.
“I think it’s prudent to salvage at least part of the station. There is a lot of benefit for minimal added risk.”
“So what are we talking about?” William asked, after waving a sign of surrender.
“They’re talking about jettisoning everything except the Zvezda and Zarya. They would love to hold on to Node 1, but the solar arrays add too much drag.” Kyle said. “They are looking at a de-orbit burn for the stack, then jettisoning, and then burning to boost the orbit of the two modules.”
“How about our folks?” Jacob asked. “Have they run the numbers themselves?”
“It looks like it’s barely within the safety margin.” Kyle answered. “First, undock Soyuz and de-orbit, then remotely fire Progress, detach the cargo block, and finally start burning on the Russian section.”
“Meanwhile, the rest of the station burns up.” William stated. He tapped his fingers on the table for a moment. “I guess I can convince the Program Director that this is the way to go.”
“You might point out we would have a destination for Shuttle,” Sarah added.
“Good point. We can meet post Columbia restrictions.” Kyle said. “Then fly the shuttle as soon as we are ready.”
“Yes,” Jacob answered. “We have two major sections we can bring up and take to a destination once we are operational again.”
“You really think that will happen?” asked William.
“I’m making it my mission to see that it does.”
“Look Jacob,” said Neil, Director of the ISS program. “I’ve kept you out of the firing line so far, but the Administrator wasn’t happy about telling the President that our people would not be coming home yesterday.”
“I hope you told him it was an astronaut office decision.”
“I did,” Neil shook his head. “He understands. But you know the associate administrator. She isn’t likely to take kindly to the astronauts not following their office’s recommendations.”
“She can go to hell.”
“Jacob,” Neil warned.
“I’m serious.” Jacob countered. “We have astronauts that still want to fly. They want to have a space program to come back to. It’s not a decision for the bureaucrats. It’s for the program and the astronauts.”
“There isn’t a program anymore.”
“I have hardware and I have people. Once we get the dollars again, we’ll have a program.”
“Mose,” said Jacob, looking at the astronaut floating on the screen.
“Jacob,” answered Moses Crane. “What have you got for me?”
“A bunch of bureaucrats that aren’t comfortable with the Russian plan,” Jacob answered. “Though the office and engineering seem convinced that the plan has merit.”
“I’m surprised engineering is on board.”
“Oh, they are uncomfortable. They dislike the bureaucratic assumption that the Yellowstone eruption is the end of the world more than anything.”
“Roger that,” Mose nodded. “Announcement of the end was premature.”
“How about you? Does the plan make sense?”
“It looks good to me,” Mose answered. “I think we’ll need to gut the Zvezda and Zarya with everything we can remove and put into the lab. Lucia thinks we can get most of the non-essential equipment moved by the end of the day.”
“I’ll let you go then,” said Jacob. “I buy you a beer once you get back.”
“Buy me several.”
“Dammit,” Jacob said, hearing the feed from control room one. He picked up the phone. “Stan?”
“What’s the word?”
“According to the Russian controllers in Kazakhstan, Soyuz was off target.”
“How about the crew?”
“No word.” Stan continued, “They have announced that the station reached a higher orbit.”
“Good news, but unimportant. We need confirmation on the crew.”
“Jacob,” said William, the new administrator on the television screen. “We need you to head the operations division of the new space agency.”
“So, I’m being fired?” Jacob looked sour.
“Promoted,” said William.
“Regardless, I almost lost that crew.”
“Jacob,” William shook his head. “Mose and Lucia knew the risk, and they took it.”
“On my recommendation. It could have killed them.”
“It took eighteen months, Conner. Our people knew what they were doing and survived, even though the retrieval choppers crashed into each other, and the region collapsed into chaos. But Mose and Lucia figured out how to survive and get home. Though I am surprised that they got out of the Soyuz on their own and didn’t break a dozen bones as they crawled out.”
“Sorry, I can’t take the job William,” Jacob shook his head. “You can’t have me pushing my agenda every time I get a burr up my ass about something.”
“Look, we assumed that Mose and Lucia were dead. We were wrong. Some people blamed you. They were wrong.”
“Sorry,” Jacob said.
“Enough. You don’t need to fall on your sword. I need someone that foresaw we would restart the program in less than two years. Someone that can rebuild the station and get us back up there. That person is you.”
“But there are better people in–”
“Conner, I need an astronaut in charge of operations. I need you here in Houston.”
“You know, I hate the drive to Houston.”
Chris and Doug smiled happily as I held on to them for the picture. I tried my best to smile too, but I had found that my smile frightens most people, so I always tone it down for pictures. Doug’s mom snapped the photo with her phone, then Doug ran off to the left. In an instant, Chris followed. I eyed Doug’s mom for a moment before I turned in time to hear.
“Hurry Sammy,” Doug yelled.
“Yeah!” yelled Chris.
“Here I come,” I yelled, running fast enough to catch up with Chris, who ran a few meters behind Doug.
“I’m going to win,” screamed Doug.
“You’re a cheat,” answered Chris.
“Where are we racing to?” I asked as I easily followed.
“It’s a secret,” Doug gasped as he slowed.
“You’re still a cheat,” Chris stated as he caught up and stopped just as Doug stopped. I followed suit.
“I win,” gasped Doug.
“You did not,” said Chris. “You just gave up before I could pass you.”
“Yeah,” I added, knowing that Doug had stopped just as Chris neared passing him.
“Says you, slowpoke,” Doug snapped back. “Sammy the slowpoke.”
“Awe,” I feigned a slightly hurt tone.
“He can’t help it,” Chris answered. “He’s supposed to play fair with us.”
“Yeah,” I said, knowing that I could out race any human by better than twice as fast.
“I’ll say it one more time. Johnson and Carmike are not coming back!” the Director said. “They left the space agency. It’s over. Why are we even having this conversation about them? I can’t believe I will spend my Saturday making a case for us to try luring back two malcontents that have no desire to be part of our mission. What conceivable use do we have for them?”
The Assistant Director said, “They have flight experience and are qualified. They’ve both been to the Moon and done all the things we asked of them.”
“The decision is out of our hands. They left.”
“We need to get them back.”
“I don’t see how,” said the Director.
“Yeah, I know it’s impossible.”
“How does that impact us?”
“To get the crews ready after Mission 7, we must slow down our pace.”
“How slow?” The Director asked.
“We must extend our schedule for Mission 7 by a year.”
“That’s not possible. We must keep flying.”
“I have a solution.”
“What?” asked the Director.
“Change Mission 7 to the Tycho crater, with Jellison and Conner.”
“What about the next mission at the Lunar south pole?”
“We have Annie and Cy MacInturner fly it,” said the Assistant Director.
“You’re suggesting that we put a husband-and-wife team as crew for a Lunar mission?”
“Yeah. They’re the only ones with the experience needed to handle that tough mission.”
“The Assistant Secretary will kill us,” the Director said.
“Then we need Johnson and Carmike back.”
“They’re not coming back.”