REENTRY

Chapter 01.

The giant video 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 the first Students in Space project, and all he 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 waves me over as I glance his way.

I turn away from the screen as the scrolling text at the bottom announces the next story: the twenty forty two Summer Olympics. I take a shaky breath, pick my helmet and gloves up off the floor, and shuffle awkwardly to the door in my silvery, baggy space suit.

There are six of us in the SIS project. We are all the same age, about to start the eighth grade this fall. Assuming we survive our trip to the new International Space Station.

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

"Excellent point, Bradley," says Alexi. His 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?" asks Marta. She rolls her eyes and tosses her head, forgetting that her long blond hair has been cut short for the flight.

I clench my jaws, wishing they wouldn't talk about me as if I'm not standing right here. Juanita cracks her knuckles. Katsumi blinks her eyes nervously.

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. She was an ace fighter pilot in the Pacific Rim War. Luckily she was on our side, in the Taiwanese Air Force. But more important, is the way her space suit fits her. I mean wow!

It is only after spending several seconds thinking of the wowness of Ling Huan's space suit, that I lift my gaze about nine inches and meet her bottomless black eyes staring at me with one raised eyebrow. Oops.

Juanita's sharp elbow jabs me in the ribs.

"Ow!!" I turn towards Juanita, who scowls at me as I rub my side. Her bony elbow should be declared a deadly weapon.

"Pay attention," she hisses at me.

Unable to think of a good response, and wondering what I missed, I shift my gaze back to Major Rogov, but can't help noticing Ling Huan out of the corner of my eye. Her face is blank. But her shoulders are shaking ever so slightly. Is she laughing at me? My insides squirming, I focus all my attention on Rogov.

"Remember all safety procedures," he says. "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 an open oven door. The dusty desert smell fills my nose. Gratefully I climb into the van. It is not that much of a walk to the Slingshot, NASA's maglev orbiter launching facility. But walking there in unpowered space suits would turn us into soggy, steaming slugs.

As the van approaches the Slingshot's entrance, my eyes are drawn to the maglev tube sticking out the building's side. It is a huge, round, steel snake extending forever across the desert, until it soars upwards to vanish into the peak of a distant mountain.

At the loading facility we each carry our helmet and life support pack, LSP, over to the orbiter. The Christa McAuliffe is a sleek silver dart, resting on the six foot high super-conductive loading bed. A ramp leads up to its open hatch.

"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 climb the ramp up to the hatch, carrying their gear.

"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 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.

Juanita and Marta are settling into the two rear seats, stowing their helmets, gloves and LSPs in cabinets beside them. Katsumi and I take 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.

Alexi just makes a sour face. We all know the seating assignments.

"I've actually 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.

Everyone except Brad laughs. Even me. Katsumi lets out a nervous giggle. Her face has grown pale. Her eyes are open way too wide, showing whites all around.

"I am glad you are all having a good time," says Captain Huan, as she climbs into the pilot's seat. Major Rogov climbs in 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 harnesses," says Captain Huan.

Katsumi reaches over and tugs at my straps. When it's my turn, I grab hold of her chest strap, just like in training. Except I've never done this with one of the girls. My face heats up, but I still give it a good yank.

"Katsumi secure," I report. I'm thankful there is no crotch strap, or I'd die of embarrassment. Twice.

There is a click. Suddenly chatter from Houston mission control comes over the cabin speakers.

"Houston to orbiter Christa McAuliffe, T minus Five minutes," says a voice over the background chatter. "Declare status. Over."

"Houston, all personnel and systems green. Over," says Captain Huan.

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 Houston.

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.

"Ten seconds," says the voice from Houston.

"Nine," say the other kids.

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

"Seven. Six. Five."

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.

There is nothing to see. Nothing to show how fast we shoot through the total vacuum within the maglev tube. The gee force goes on, and on, and on. I remember my training. I try to take deep, slow breaths. I remind myself it will last less than five minutes. And still the gee force squeezes me. The pressure is endless. How long has it been? And still it doesn't stop. My vision goes gray around the edges. Black spots appear in front of my eyes.

One slow second creeps past another until suddenly I slam forward against my harness. I bounce back into my seat. The giant on my chest is gone. I inhale deep gulps of air. My vision clears.

"We are now in zero gravity," announces Captain Huan. "Use your sick bag if you need to. Anyone who makes a mess in my orbiter will clean it up with a straw."

I grab my sick bag. Five seconds later I use it.

So do Alexi and Marta.

"This did not happen in the Vomit Comet," says Alexi.

I consider pointing out the obvious difference between the few seconds of zero gee in the Vomit Comet compared to now. But I decide to say nothing. It's hard to go wrong saying nothing.

"This is so gross," says Marta. "Did I get anything on my face?"

"You're fine," says Juanita. "Just be glad you didn't get any in the cabin. I think Captain Huan means what she says about the straws."

"Don't worry, mates," says Brad, in a condescending voice. "If you're still peaky when we get to the station, they have space sickness pills."

I briefly fantasize about emptying my bag over his head, but all I do is sit still and feel miserable.

"How are you doing, Harvey?" asks Katsumi.

As usual, my brain freezes up. I try to think how to reply as Katsumi looks at me expectantly. Think. Think. Think. What do I say? I am terrible at talking to girls. Okay, I'm terrible at talking to anyone. But I can't just ignore her, and I doubt if she wants a detailed description of my intestinal discomfort.

"Not too bad," I say at last. Then I recall mom's coaching. I should ask Katsumi the same question.

Before I can form the words, a shutter over the front windshield slides open. Ahead is the blue sky. It grows darker, briefly turns purple, then becomes a star studded black. It is beyond spectacular. The bright stars are like New York City seen from a jet plane at night. Then Captain Huan rolls the Christa McAuliffe, and the Earth swings into view. Suddenly it is hard to breathe again. The blue, tan, and white beach ball is a mind paralyzing wonder. Long shadows of mountains stretch across the desert, already slipping away below us. I cannot tear my eyes away. My corneas burn from not blinking. It is wow squared and cubed.

 

 

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