Copyright© 2004 by Jennifer Ann
When someone dies, an angel is there to meet them at the gates of Heaven to let them know that their life has just begun.
Floating upside down in space Jacques St. Pierre tilted his head backward and looked up at the Earth floating below him. For a brief moment, he was lost in its beauty. Then quickly, he began the task for which he had left the relative safety of the space station for the cold hard vacuum of space.
At the moment, his safety and that of his companion on the Europa - the European Union's answer to the American and Chinese space stations - were tenuous. Something had gone wrong in one of the fuel cells that powered the electrical systems. The fuel cell was registering dangerous overpressure and temperature. If the fuel exploded, it could severely damage the space station and possibly kill the two crew members. Jacques was attempting manual activation of the relief valve, which had failed to operate normally. In order to reach the valve he first needed to open one of the panels accessible only from outside the station.
Strapped to the sleeve of his pressure suit by a lanyard was a battery powered torque wrench. The wrench was about eighteen inches long about three inches thick at its widest point and down to two inches at the handle. The handle then tapered down to about one-half of an inch where the lanyard was attached.
Using the wrench, he quickly backed-out the bolts holding the panel in place. The panel then swung open on its hinges, allowing Jacques access to the emergency valve's handle.
The bulkiness of the pressurized space suit made it difficult to reach the handle. However, this was something he had practiced in training He knew where the handle was and how to reach inside and turn it, allowing the pent up pressure to escape through the vent line into space.
His gloved hand was inches from the handle when the line split open. Very high pressure and hot gas escaping from the split line formed a cutting torch, which cut through the tough layered fabric of the space suit burning his wrist and forearm.
Quickly the small split grew wider and the metal gave way with an explosive decompression. The resulting explosion flung him backward from the station into the solar panel array behind him, shattering many of the solar panels and severely damaging it. Quickly bladders in the space suit expanded, effectively sealing the suit just above his elbow. It could do nothing for his arm, which was open to the cold vacuum of space. Nor did it stop the bleeding of his badly torn arm.
For a moment he was stunned and shocked; however, quickly his training took over. Using his attached safety line, he pulled himself toward the open air lock, ignoring the frantic radio calls from his crewmate.
Hannu Heinonen, his crewmate was waiting for him when the air lock opened. Quickly he helped Jacques get out of the damaged suit and applied first aid. Things then went from bad to worse. The explosion had caused massive damage to two or three of the other fuel cells and they were starting to heat up dangerously. Destruction of the solar panel array meant that the space station was on battery power and would soon be with limited power. Mission control was fearful of more explosions and decided to abandon the station.
With efficiency and speed the station was powered down and the two crewmembers crawled into the escape capsule and departed for Earth. Surprisingly, it turned out the station did not suffer any more explosions. However, it was decided by the directors of the EU's space program not to attempt salvaging the station, but, instead to bring it back to Earth. Engineers on the ground fired the rocket motors to slow the station down. And so it departed its orbit and reentered the Earth's atmosphere.
In all the confusion and haste to save the crewmembers no one realized that Jacques St Pierre's torque wrench had become detached from his suit in the initial explosion and was still floating in space, where the space station had been.
Because, it was not affected by the firing of the station's motors, it continued orbiting the Earth. Nevertheless, ever so slowly, the pull of gravity caused it to slow down. Now, some eleven years, seven months and two days later, it too was about to make the fiery plunge to Earth.
"Welcome back to CNN's on-going coverage of the US Mars mission. In a little over three hours the Carl Sagan is expected to return to Earth after its eighteen-month journey to Mars and back. We have been speaking with members of the four-person crew.
"Now, we will speak with the junior member of the crew. Maj. Julie Myers is the pilot and at 29 she is the youngest member of the crew. She attended the US Air Force Academy where she finished 3rd in her class and received her degree in Engineering. Maj. Myers was first in her pilot training class and did tours of duty in the F-16 and F-22 fighter aircraft.
Later the Air Force sent her to MIT where she received her Master's..."
Finally, the last interview was over, the cameras were shut down and, the last item was stowed in its proper place. The crew went to their seats and prepared to start the final checklists.
"Nine out of twelve satellites locked on."
"Less that two meters."
"Shut down astrogator."
"INS functioning and updated."
The checklists were meticulously completed and checked. At the proper time, the descent capsule with the four crewmembers separated from the rest of Carl Sagan, fired its braking rockets to slow down and started its descent back into the Earth's atmosphere.
The crewmembers were now passengers. Sitting there, monitoring the computers which were now in control. If something were to happen, there wasn't much they could do anyway. With time on her hands, Julie Myers started thinking about returning home.
It felt strange. It was wonderful to be returning home. Yet, she would miss the Carl Sagan and its crewmembers. They had become like family. Now, after debriefing and public appearances they would go their separate ways.
For the last three and one half years all she had thought of was the mission. It was a great privilege to have been selected for this mission. Yet, it was the payback for all the years of study, work and denial of a personal life. She had put any personal life on hold by focusing on the upcoming mission. Everything else had been secondary. Actually, if she was honest with herself, she had been putting tasks and goals ahead for many years. Ever since her Dad died and she promised herself to make him proud of her, she had always wanted to be first in everything she did.
Now what would she do with her life? She knew that there would be weeks of debriefing. Then there would probably be a nearly endless number of TV interviews and talk shows. She would be invited to parades as the grand marshal. The public would be clamoring to see and meet her. She was now a public figure. No longer entitled to a private life.
Would she ever have a personal life? Would she ever have privacy, a husband, children? Would she ever have family of her own? Would she ever be able to take her children to school and birthday parties, to shop and buy clothes for them?
Julie suddenly felt sad and sorry for herself. Sad for the life she had given up to embrace this life. She was almost thirty and practically still a virgin. Oh, she had slept with two men. Big deal! The first was just so she could tell herself she was no longer a virgin, to remove the stigma. The second guy? Well, he had happened along the one time she let her discipline slip. Neither was good, neither was love. Were the fame and her place in history books going to be worth what she had to give up? At this moment, she didn't know.
Jacques St Pierre's lost torque wrench had entered the atmosphere. As it impacted the air molecules in the upper atmosphere it began to heat up. The first thing to go was the still attached lanyard. It could not withstand the quickly rising temperature and so it burnt quickly. With the lost of the lanyard, the wrench now became less stable. Not designed to fly and without the trailing lanyard acting as a rudder, the uneven air pressures on its surfaces caused it to start tumbling slowly. The wrench was made of a titanium alloy so it could withstand much higher temperatures before it vaporized.
The small size of the wrench made it impossible for radar or optical tracking devices to detect its presence. Besides, if NASA had detected it, there was nothing anyone could have done. Both the wrench and the returning capsule were committed to meet.
The capsule, traveling at a much faster speed than the wrench, had to come in at a much steeper angle, in order to bleed off its excess kinetic energy. In fact, it was traveling about three thousand miles per hour faster. The wrench was lazily turning end over end and picking up speed as gravity pulled it toward the Earth. As fate would have it, it was just when the small one half inch end of the wrench pointed directly at the approaching capsule the two met.
.... There is more of this story ...