Chapter IV: Bullet
by Rich Reifsnyder
His daily routine was simple, but monotonous. Each night he strapped himself into his couch in the cockpit and slept. Each morning he woke up and was forced to run through a systems checklist lasting almost an hour before he could even have breakfast. He ate breakfast -- sticky, gummy oatmeal, stuff that wouldn’t float off the plate -- after he sent the checklist report to MC, and Cynthia, the Mission Control engineer, invariably complained that Blake had missed something.
Then he set up the treadmill and exercised for 2 hours. He knew his muscles were getting weak - he could no longer carry his own weight on Earth, but he was determined to carry his own weight on Mars. He wanted to be able to walk off the ship on his first day.
Then he "showered" with a sponge to rub the sweat off. Then he went back to the cockpit and ran another checklist. Then two more hours of exercise, and another sponge shower, and another checklist. Then lunch.
After lunch he would play videogames for one hour. Then yet another checklist. After all, in the Space Shuttle there was someone at the cockpit at all times.
After that checklist he would spend two hours studying engineering diagrams. He had been lucky so far, as every failed piece of equipment had an identical, modular backup that could be swapped out. But he didn’t always know how to fix the damage that would render the useless equipment as good as new, and Mission Control couldn’t talk him through it anymore because the two-way time lag in radio communications was nearly ten minutes.
Occasionally there was a hardware failure on the outside of the ship that forced Blake to run another EVA. He had gotten used to working in space by now -- in fact, rather than perceiving the cabin as a protective womb shielding him from the infinity of space, Blake now saw it as a suffocating cage which he would gladly leave at every opportunity. He loved looking up at the stars and imagining it was a night sky on Earth. The illusion worked pretty well, if he didn’t look down and see that there was no ground beneath him.
After a fifth checklist, he sat down at the computer and wrote something. Sometimes it was part of a novel -- he had been writing several uncompleted novels simultaneously -- or a short story, or a poem, or even a free-writing exercise to clear his mind. His psychiatrist back on Earth had often said that he could relieve stress by writing his thoughts down in a journal, but Blake hadn’t really believed that -- until this voyage. Cooped up in a van-sized vehicle for four months, Blake needed all the stress relief he could get.
After two hours of writing, he completed one final checklist and then went to bed. Dr. Palmer, the flight surgeon, insisted on eight hours of sleep every night, although Mission Director Stratton always worried that something would go wrong in those eight hours.
On Day 131, as Blake lay sleeping, something did go wrong.
Blake’s ship had two hulls. On the inside was a thick hull to provide structural support and hold in the atmosphere. Separated from it by layers of insulation was a much thinner outer hull known as the "Whipple shield," named for an Apollo engineer named Fred Whipple. It was designed as a barrier against meteoroids.
Small meteoroids don’t slice through spacecraft hulls as most people think; they explode on impact, converting their kinetic energy into heat and vaporizing a tiny crater-shaped portion of the hull. The Whipple shield was a sacrificial hull layer designed to absorb the impact, leaving the inner hull intact. Every few days Blake would hear a tiny ‘ping’ as a meteoroid the size of a sand grain would gouge a tiny hole in the Whipple shield.
But on the 131st night of his voyage, a meteoroid the size of an apple seed hit the hull with a ‘thunk’. The heat and vibrations drilled through the outer hull and the insulation straight to the inner hull.
Blake had become a very heavy sleeper on this voyage. The whirr and rattle of the air conditioners failed to wake him up during the night. On this particular night, he might also have slept through the unusual high-pitched whine that sounded like a tea kettle.
What finally woke him up was the blaring automatic alarm and flashing red lights. "Warning," chanted the computer, "Rapid depressurization. Air pressure at 91 percent. Warning. Rapid depressurization. Air pressure at 84 percent. Warning. Rapid depressurization. Air pressure at 75 percent..."