Chapter III: Horizons
by Rich Reifsnyder
Blake grabbed one of the many metal handholds bolted to the ship and hoisted himself out of his seat.
"No luck, Blake," said Cynthia Morgan, his flight engineer. "There are no automated diagnostic systems for that particular piece of hardware. But the most likely cause is either an improperly welded hinge or a bad electrical connection in the servos. If it’s the latter it should be easy to fix: just swap out the servo electronics module with one of the onboard spares."
Even with his suit already on, the EVA checklist took an hour and a half. Blake had to check the gauges on his oxygen bottles (which had been filled up days ago), warm up the water cooling systems in advance to get them at full capacity, and check every seal, of which there were over a dozen. At his belt were several loops to which he could latch various items. He hooked a "fannypack" toolkit at two points and bungee cords at two other points. He grabbed a servo wiring module and stuffed it into his toolkit. Then he depressurized the cabin.
Depressurization took several hours, because the nitrogen wasn’t out of the air yet. Lowering the air pressure too rapidly would cause nitrogen bubbles to form in Blake’s blood -- the painful scuba diver affliction known as the bends.
Blake hooked the other end of his bungee cord to a handhold by the side of the hatch. Then he opened the hatch.
The universe flooded his brain.
The stars are, for all practical purposes, an infinite distance away. The human mind is used to seeing objects within arm’s reach, within walking distance, on the horizon, etc. But seeing the stars all around is unfathomable. Just standing on Earth and looking straight up at the sky can cause you to lose your balance. But for Blake, the sky was all around him.
The last few wisps of air in the cabin swirled around him and dragged him very slowly to the hatch. He went out head first -- and made a desperate snatch at the door frame, which was impossible with his bulky gloves. He screamed into his radio and closed his eyes.
"Blake, you’re hyperventilating. Your pulse is rising," said Dr. Palmer.
"Jason, listen to me," said Andrew Stratton, mission director. "You’re still tethered safely to the ship. The bungee cord is right by your belt, right? Grab onto it."
Whimpering, his eyes still closed, Jason clawed at his belt like a skydiver who couldn’t find the ripcord. But as the cord snapped taut, his left hand touched it loosely.
Gingerly he felt along it with both hands. He could already feel it slackening again as the elastic fibers snapped him back toward the ship.
His helmet rapped against bare metal. "Jason, open your eyes now. Look directly at the ship and find a handhold." There were several handholds molded into the outer hull. He grabbed one, already dizzy. He had rolled at a 45-degree angle and for a minute couldn’t tell which way was up. After a few seconds he had located the nosecone of the ship above him. He preferred an up-down mentality, even in zero-g.
The faulty solar panel was a few meters below, stuck in an accordion position. Its position was controlled by multiple thin, hinged, hydraulic arms. When Blake finally worked his way down the ladder of handholds to the servos controlling those arms, he touched the servo module panel and could detect the vibration of a fussy electric motor.
He hooked his left hand around a handhold and wrapped his feet around one of the retracted landing legs immediately beneath him. With his right hand he unzipped the toolkit, found a power screwdriver, and ripped it off the Velcro strip holding it in place. He tightened his grip on the hull, pushed the tool onto the screw, and pressed the trigger.
The screws were in tight, but he got all four of them off. The cylindrical servo module drifted out of its enclosure. His left hand let go of the ship and slowly reached over to catch the module. He put it in his pouch, took out the new module, and pushed it in. He screwed it into place, unhooked his feet, and began to climb up into the hatch.
The problem was indeed the servos, because when he flipped the panel switch again the second solar panel deployed and the ship’s lights got a little brighter. He gave himself a break for a few hours, resolving to open up the damaged module tomorrow and inspect the wiring connections that made the system go bad.
He looked outside. The entire Earth was now small enough to fit in the window. He closed one eye and looked away, focusing on that vast infinity that had so terrified him before. He knew he would have to conquer his fear if he had any chance of survival in the voyage ahead.
But at least, with operations like these, he wouldn’t get bored.