REENTRY

Chapter 01.

The giant screen on the wall of the terminal lounge displays the last television show I'll see on Earth. At least for the next two weeks.

I wait impatiently for the news reporter to say something about our launch. But he doesn't. I can't believe it! This is NASA's first ever Students in Space mission, and all the reporter can talk about is the latest terrorist threat. As if we don't get at least one of those every day.

"Harvey, are you coming or not, mate?" Brad Farley calls from the door, where he waits with the other kids. He gestures me over as I glance his way. I nod my head, but keep watching the screen.

When the reporter starts talking about the upcoming twenty forty-four Summer Olympics, I finally turn away. Then taking a shaky breath, I pick my helmet and gloves up off the floor, and in my silvery, baggy space suit, shuffle awkwardly towards the door.

I can hardly believe that after months of astronaut training, endless studying, and regular seventh grade classwork on top of all that, the six of us are finally going. Our flight to the new International Space Station launches in less than an hour. My stomach churns as this reality hits me.

"We should stick together," says Brad, as I reach the group. "We'll be boarding the Christa McAuliffe soon."

"Excellent point, Bradley." Alexi Markoff's sarcastic grin displays a mouth full of crooked teeth. "Why, Harvey must have been all the way across the room just now."

"Can't you two give it a rest?" Juanita Perez lowers her thick, dark eyebrows, glaring at Brad and Alexi.

Beside Juanita, Marta Olsen rolls her eyes and tosses her head, forgetting that she cut her long blond hair short for the flight. Katsumi glances at me and blinks nervously.

I clench my jaws, wishing they wouldn't talk about me as if I'm not standing right here. Desperately I try to think of something smart and funny to say. But as always, my mind goes blank.

Then the door opens, and Major Borenka Rogov and Captain Ling Huan enter the lounge. Like us, they are dressed in shiny, smart fabric space suits. Unlike us, they look like they belong in theirs.

Major Rogov begins talking, but I listen with only half an ear. Most of my attention is on Captain Huan. Yeah, I know she was an ace fighter pilot in the Pacific Rim War. Luckily she was on our side in the Taiwanese Air Force. But right now I'm not thinking of her piloting creds. I'm too hung up at the way her space suit fits her. I mean wow!

I try not to stare, but it is only after zoning out for several seconds at the wowness of Ling Huan that I think to lift my gaze. Her bottomless black eyes stare back at me. She raises one eyebrow. Oops. My face grows hot.

Juanita's sharp, bony elbow jabs me in the ribs.

"Ow!!" I turn towards Juanita, who scowls at me as I rub my side.

"Pay attention," she hisses at me.

Unable to think of a good comeback, and wondering what I missed, I shift my gaze back to Major Rogov. But I glimpse Ling Huan covering her mouth with one hand. Her shoulders shake slightly, as if she is laughing. Probably at me. My insides squirm.

"Remember all safety procedures," says Rogov. "You all know seat assignments, yes?"

"Yes, sir," we say in unison.

"OK," he says. "Captain Huan is in charge on board the Christa McAuliffe. What she says, you do. Clear?"

"Yes, sir," we chorus.

We line up, exit the lounge, and march outside the terminal. Even in the few short steps to the van, the hot, dry Arizona air hits me like a blast from the open door of my mom's kiln. The dusty desert smell fills my nose. I climb into the van, grateful for its coolness. In our unpowered space suits, even the short walk to the Slingshot, NASA's maglev orbiter launch platform, will turn us into soggy, steaming slugs.

As the van nears the Slingshot launch building, my eyes are drawn to the maglev tube sticking out its side. It is a huge, round, concrete and steel gun barrel extending forever across the desert, until it curves upwards to vanish into the peak of a distant mountain.

The van stops at the glass doors to the launch building. We walk through them into its cavernous interior. The main room is empty except for the Christa McAuliffe orbiter, a sleek silver dart resting on its belly atop the man-high launch dock. The orbiter's nose points to the giant steel doors of the maglev tube airlock. My heart beats faster as I march towards the orbiter.

On the floor by the dock, several technicians wait for us with our life support packs, LSPs. Looking up at the observation window on the far wall, I have no problem picking out Mom and Grandpa Bernie from among all the people waving at us. I wave back at them, hopefully not for the last time.

"This will be just like in training," says Captain Huan. She smiles at us. Even me. "Juanita, Marta, are you ready?"

"Of course," says Juanita, as if insulted at the thought she might not be.

Marta just swallows and nods. Then the two girls carry their gear up the stairs to the Christa McAuliffe's hatch.

"Harvey, Katsumi, you are next," says Captain Huan.

Beside me, Katsumi's small round face is free of any expression. The knuckles of her hands, clutching her helmet, gloves, and LSP, are white. But then, so are mine.

We climb up the dock and step into the Christa McAuliffe. Inside are four pairs of acceleration couches, running the length of the cabin, leaving two narrow aisles along the walls. The front pilot and copilot couches have matching controls. Through the front windshield is the hatch to the Slingshot. Our science experiments, the ones that won us our spots in the SIS mission, are already loaded inside the Christa McAuliffe's cargo bay.

Juanita and Marta are settling into the two rear seats, stowing their gear in bulkhead cabinets. Katsumi and I stop at the two couches just in front of them. Brad and Alexi come in behind us.

"I get the left seat, just behind Captain Huan," says Brad.

"We know the seating assignments, Bradley," says Alexi, making a sour face.

"I've done a little research on how they assign launch seating," says Brad. "They want the most experienced crew closest to the controls in case a pilot is incapacitated."

Behind me, Juanita snorts softly.

"What are you talking about?" asks Marta. "Nothing is going to happen to our pilots."

"And if it does," says Alexi. "Your four hours flying an ultra light will not help us."

"It's forty hours," says Brad.

"Oh, well, then we are all saved," says Alexi.

Marta and Juanita laugh. Katsumi lets out a nervous giggle. Her face is pale. Her eyes are open way too wide, showing whites all around her dark pupils.

"I am glad you are all having a good time," says Captain Huan, as she slips into the pilot's seat. Major Rogov climbs into the copilot's seat beside her, and closes and seals the hatch.

Despite the air conditioning, I begin to sweat inside my space suit. Up front, Captain Huan and Rogov begin the pre-launch checklist.

"Check your harnesses," says Captain Huan.

Katsumi reaches over and tugs at my straps.

"Payload Specialist Leventhal is secure," she says formally.

When it's her turn, I grab hold of her chest strap, just like in training. Except I've never done this with Katsumi. My face heats up, but I still give her harness a good yank.

"Payload Specialist Hayashi secure," I report. I'm thankful there is no crotch strap. I'd die of embarrassment. Twice.

We finish our checks, then with a sudden click, voices from Slingshot Launch control flood out of the cabin speakers.

"Christa McAuliffe, you are go at T minus Five minutes," says a voice over the background chatter. "Confirm status."

"Slingshot, all personnel and systems are go," says Captain Huan.

Through the Christa McAuliffe's windshield I watch the shiny steel doors to the Slingshot's airlock slide apart. Slowly we roll inside. On the display screen above the windshield, the doors clamp shut behind us. The air whooshes out. Ahead of us, the next set of doors yawn open, and we pass into the vacuum filled throat of the maglev tube. It's an endless tunnel, lit by rectangular LED panels that shrink to a distant point.

Am I ready? Is it too late to change my mind? I consider this for a millionth of a second. Then I kick that thought down the disposal chute.

"T minus three minutes," says the Slingshot Launch Director.

My hands grip the arm rests of my acceleration couch. Something clamps down on my wrist. It is Katsumi's hand. She is cutting off the blood supply to my fingers.

I think of telling her to let go. But then I look at her face. Her lips are parted, her eyes staring, her breathing rapid. I decide to keep quiet. Besides, my throat is too dry to speak. On impulse, I turn my wrist over, and grab her hand in mine. What am I doing?

"T minus one minute."

"Remember," says Captain Huan. "Relax your bodies. Do not tense up."

"Twenty seconds."

I try to relax. This is difficult while Katsumi and I keep a death grip on each other's hands. Mine are growing sweaty.

A low humming fills the cabin. There's a tiny tremor, as the Christa McAuliffe rises on its magnetic lifters above the launch dock.

"Ten seconds," says the voice from the Slingshot.

"Nine," say the other kids.

"Eight." This time I join the chorus, one beat late as usual.

"Seven. Six."

I sink back in my seat. Finally I go limp, and let my hand relax. Katsumi lets go of my hand, and settles her arms onto her couch. Without turning my head, I look at her out of the corner of my eyes, and catch her looking at me. We both snap our eyes forward.

"Four. Three. Two."

I wonder how it will feel.

Wham! A huge hammer slams into my back. Acceleration presses me into the couch. A giant is sitting on my chest.

The maglev tube lights become a single solid streak as we shoot through the total vacuum within it. The G-force goes on, and on, and on. I remember my training. I try to take deep, slow breaths. I know it will last less than five minutes. But the G-force squeezes my chest forever. The pressure is endless. How long has it been? And still it doesn't stop. My vision goes gray around the edges. Faster. And faster still. And then the huge steel doors at the end of the tube are there. Swelling. Shiny. Closed.

Crack!

The doors vanish. The windshield fills with the blue light of the sky. I slam forward against my harness as we shoot out of the maglev tube. A screaming, roaring shriek nearly deafens me as the Christa McAuliffe rips its way through the atmosphere. Our windshield is covered with glowing streaks of orange plasma as our atmospheric repulsors create a vacuum around the orbiter.

Then the sky darkens, the howling diminishes, and the plasma glow fades as the air thins. Through the windshield, the dark blue sky briefly turns purple, then a star studded black.

At last I bounce back into my seat. The giant on my chest is gone. I inhale deep gulps of air. My vision clears. I can't look away from the windshield. The bright stars are like New York City seen from a hypersonic ramjet at night.

"Congratulations," says Captain Huan. "We are now officially in space."

 

 

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