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JAPANESE MODULE (JPM)
Kimberly Hadid-Robinson floated upside down in the International Space Station’s Japanese module—or JPM, as she and the other astronauts called it.
Her wiry dark hair was frizzed out to the size of a football helmet, but that didn’t matter, she thought. Normally she’d tie it back into a ponytail if there was even the slightest chance that she’d appear on TV. And it didn’t matter if the live broadcast was being streamed down only to the Johnson Space Center, because invariably some PR genius at NASA Headquarters would decide to shoot a portion of the feed to the national news outlets. They loved to show the public that a female astronaut was serving as the senior ranking American on board the ISS—for the same reason that Public Affairs was using one of their up-and-coming women on the ground to narrate today’s docking. The “Voice of NASA” was usually some over-the-hill bureaucrat who should have retired years ago; Kimberly welcomed the young Hispanic addition, a minority like herself.
Kimberly was a slim, slight sylph of a woman with skin the color of burnt almonds, a little snub of a nose, big dark eyes, and a smile that could light up a room. She wasn’t smiling at the moment.
Much as she’d like to be on hand to meet the new arrivals, the experiments running in the JPM demanded Kimberly’s attention far more than greeting the crewmen coming on board.
The JPM was the farthest module from the docking port in the MRM-2, the Russian airlock, where the newbies were arriving. It was only a hundred yards away from the JPM, but she knew she couldn’t leave the module for more than a minute; it wasn’t worth the trouble—or the headache, for that matter—if she left the experiments just to be there to glad-hand the new arrivals.
After all, she reasoned to herself, support for the work we’re doing here on the ISS doesn’t really come from congressional funding: it comes from the public’s interest in what we’re doing, and that means completing the experiments that even high school kids had thought up. They’d won awards to fly their ideas on the ISS without worrying about the PR benefits of greeting another few space travelers who’re about to make a six-month stay on the station. She’d meet them soon enough.
And it wasn’t as if the incoming cosmonaut was a total stranger to the ISS. Kimberly knew that Farid Hazood was a retread, a Kazakhstani who’d flown aboard the station three years ago: one of those foreigners whom the Soviets … er, Russians … periodically granted a berth in the ISS. For the Kazakhstanis, it was a sort of repayment for allowing the Russian Soyuz and Vostok launchers to continue to lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
It also served a double purpose: the Russians retained a semi-free launch pad that took only thirty days to refurbish after one of their launches, and the Kazakhstanis maintained international stature as a space-faring nation—a pretty exclusive club numbering only 40 of 196 nations worldwide—well worth the payment and cost for both sides.
She’d never met Farid Hazood, and she knew he’d aced his first mission, so it was no surprise he was chosen to fly again. But even with Farid’s experience, Kimberly thought it was a little strange to have the Kazakhstani coming up with a total newbie. It had been three years since Farid had last flown, and a paying space tourist was accompanying him in the approaching Soyuz capsule; the station’s normal crew of six was being augmented for a nine-day period with this “taxi” crew carrying the tourist. At least the Soyuz’s pilot and commander, Colonel Yuri Zel’dovich, was a seasoned longtimer. This would be his fourth flight to the space station, so Farid and the tourist had some solid experience flying them.
But Russians were Russians, and as eagerly learning capitalists they were happy to accept cash from just about anybody. It cost tourists over sixty million dollars a pop for training, launching, and spending a week on board the ISS, where they were exempt from any responsibilities except to sightsee—and spend the rest of their lives back on Earth bragging about the experience.
The Russians were so hungry for cash they’d even flown up three dozen multimission radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, for the U.S. on the last Progress resupply mission; they’d temporarily placed them in MRM-1, at the Russian side of the station, until they could be moved outside the ISS during an extravehicular activity, or EVA, and stored at the end of a boom for safety.
The U.S. would never have been able to launch the plutonium RTGs to the ISS, as any mention of radioactivity ignited hysteria—even though the compact nuclear power sources were absolutely necessary for powering the sensors, rovers, and living areas needed for exploring Mars and beyond, where solar panels are impractical. But the Russians didn’t have environmental activists or an independent press to publicize a risky launch; they just didn’t tell anyone, and took NASA’s money without fanfare. So Kimberly had to admit, compared to the sexy role RTGs had in ISS’s next phase in the space program, some of her efforts at advancing humankind’s knowledge had more to do with the public relations side of NASA, looking after zero-gee ant farms, growing larger-than-life asparagus, and measuring the viscosity of weightless Jell-O.
But she kept that gripe to herself. The money they made from launching the RTGs and tourism was of particular interest to the Russians, especially since the U.S. would soon stop paying $82 million apiece for every American astronaut launched in a Russian Soyuz capsule to the ISS. The U.S. hadn’t had a human-rated spacecraft since the Space Shuttle retired, but thank goodness several newly licensed capsules—Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon—were just coming into service. Kimberly grimaced as she thought of her last return flight in the Soyuz: a horrific four-gee descent that squeezed your guts and usually hit the ground at some isolated farmland in the Kazakhstani wilderness.
If you were lucky.
She never complained about the landings, knowing that one of her more famous fellow astronauts had come down smack in the middle of the Iraq war zone some twenty years earlier.
So while she regretted not being present to meet Farid Hazood and the Qatari tourist, Adama Bakhet, at the docking port, Kimberly told herself she’d make it up soon enough after they’d entered the ISS and started integrating with the crew. Besides, two of the Russians and the other Americans aboard the station couldn’t make the docking, either; Al was manning the control center and Robert was with the Russians, who had just borrowed three of the four JPM laptops and were now readying a pair of EVA suits in the Joint Airlock.
So Kimberly kept one eye on the experiments percolating along, and the other on the webcast video she’d put on her laptop as the basketball-shaped Soyuz slowly approached the Russian MRM-2 docking compartment, or DC. The capsule floated gently toward the ISS, no faster than one foot per second as the new female “Voice of NASA” spoke quietly over the comm link.
She could see in the background of her laptop’s monitor stars moving slowly, silently across the black infinity of space. Even though she had witnessed dozens of dockings, the scene still made a heart-stopping view: mating with the million-pound ISS while it and the Soyuz capsule both hurtled through space at 17,500 miles per hour brought a lump to her throat. It was an incredible human achievement, accomplished some 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.
Copyright © 2020 by Ben Bova and Thunderwell Productions, LLC