The Martian Chronicles
Issue 6, July 2000

The Recluse
Chapter V: Vacuum
by Rich Reifsnyder

"Warning: depressurization. Air pressure at 68% of normal..."

Murphy’s Law states "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." Jason Blake was discovering that the hard way: though the odds against it happening on his voyage were several thousand to one, a meteoroid had breached the hull of his fragile capsule. He had less than thirty seconds to don his spacesuit before the reduced pressure would pull the air out of his lungs.

His first reaction was to hyperventilate, to saturate his blood with oxygen while he still could. It would be impossible to hold his breath in once the cabin was in vacuum. To the side of the cockpit seat was his spacesuit.

He grabbed the pants, and slapped the buckle of his safety belt to free himself from the seat. The suit was made of spandex, which provided skintight pressure and was safer than the balloon suits NASA used to hold in an atmosphere. He tugged hard on the suit; the legs of his sleepwear bunched up painfully around his shins.

He grabbed the upper garment, which for safekeeping had the helmet already latched in place, and as he slipped it on he found it more and more difficult to breathe. Finally he sucked in as much air as possible, held it for several seconds, and forced it out explosively. He could no longer breathe.

He prayed that the backpack with the two oxygen tanks was full. He couldn’t remember whether he had checked it after his last EVA. His throat was constricting; he couldn’t even gasp. He shut his eyes to prevent them from rupturing and fumbled around for the rigid tube that connected to the oxygen tank. He guided it into the valve over his neck.

The blast of cold oxygen burned his throat but soothed the pressure in his lungs. "Warning: depressurization. Air pressure at 7% of normal," chanted the computer over his suit radio. His task now was to find the leak in the hull and seal it.

He suddenly became aware of a new kind of pressure. He thought at first it was a heart attack, but then realized that, in the reduced pressure, the small amount of nitrogen in his blood was bubbling and vaporizing in his blood vessels. It was the bends.

He could barely move his fingers, and the pain was spreading to his chest, stomach, legs, and even his neck. With this sort of pain he would only have a few minutes to seal the leak before he blacked out, not the hours afforded him by the oxygen tanks.

He opened a closet and picked out one of his books. His fingers were on fire as he grabbed the pages of the books and ripped them out. He let them drift in midair and hoped they were large enough not to clog the air ventilators.

He found another spacesuit oxygen tank and opened the valve full blast. Then he held it toward the wall, so that the air would fill the room without whipping the pages around. As he watched, the paper flapped in the breeze, but several sheets were converging at a point near the hatch. They slapped into the hull, and then a hole a few centimeters in diameter was ripped in them.

Blake closed the oxygen valve, located the hull repair kit and drifted over to the leak with the kit and the oxygen tank. He pulled the paper away, and stuffed it through the hole, one page at a time, so he could be rid of them. He rummaged through the repair kit and found a single disc patch. It was an insulation-filled wheel of carbon fiber, ten centimeters in diameter and a centimeter thick. He sprayed epoxy in a ring on one surface of the patch using a squeeze tube, and a layer of binder in a ring around the little hole in the hull. He pressed the disk in place.

Then he opened the oxygen valve yet again to partially pressurize the cabin. The pressure, with any luck, would hold the disk in place. He sprayed epoxy around the edge of the patch and then a layer of insulation foam. He waited for two minutes, the pain in his joints throbbing.

He wasn’t sure if the epoxy was dry but couldn’t stand it any longer. He sailed through the ship turning the ventilators back on to flood the cabin with fresh oxygen and nitrogen. Soon he could hear the computer calling its notices from outside is helmet in addition to the suit radio: "Air pressure at 90% of normal. Air pressure at 95% of normal. Air pressure normal."

He took off his helmet and inhaled deeply. The pain in his joints had diminished to a dull ache. He inspected the patch, carefully prodded it to see if the epoxy had bonded.

He heard the radio chime; it was a call from Mission Control. "Jason, please report in! We’ve just received a broadcast that you’re losing atmosphere. Please report in so we can advise you on the solution."

Blake smiled, then broke out into raucous laughter. "Don’t worry about a thing, MC, the situation is under control." He had performed the first spacecraft repair without Earth ground support in human history.

With only one month to go in his interplanetary voyage, he knew he would enjoy smooth sailing.

To Be Concluded...