Drive to Houston: A New Story by Torn MacAlester

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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”



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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.

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“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.”

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