Being a Lady Astronaut means being twice as dedicated, and twice as good as everyone else. And sometimes, handling a test run that has turned deadly serious. Mary Robinette Kowal visits an off-stage incident in her The Calculating Stars series.
MOON COLONY EXPANDS TO 100 COLONISTS
Sep. 26, 1960 (AP) — The International Aerospace Coalition announced today that the lunar colony, established last year, is ready to expand to hold 100 colonists. This is the next step in preparing to colonize Mars, although many still question the necessity of such an endeavor…
Six thirty in the morning was a brutal time to start work even without a sprained ankle. Ruby Donaldson tried to tell herself that being sore and exhausted was good practice as an astronaut. Limping up to the third floor of the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, she gave thanks that no one else was in the stairwell so she could lean against the metal rail. It was hard enough balancing work and life without people questioning her choices.
All she wanted was to do the NBL training run and then collapse in bed, but somehow she’d agreed to another lindy-hop dance rehearsal tonight. It was just hard to disappoint a friend that you’d been dancing in competitions with since before the Meteor struck, and she didn’t have that many pieces of Before left in her life.
At least, the benefit of being a doctor was that she could diagnose and treat her own injuries. She didn’t have to risk getting grounded if she admitted to a flight surgeon that she’d twisted her ankle practicing a Charleston Flip. All they would have done was exactly what she did. Ice. Wrap. Analgesic.
As she came out on the pool level, the smell of chlorine met Ruby at the door. The massive football field–sized pool hummed with activity as dozens of divers and suit techs prepped for the run.
Wait— There were too many people here.
And there were four EVA suits on the bright yellow donning stands by the pool. There should only be two, because her run had been scheduled with just one other astronaut. All she and Eugene were supposed to be doing was a simulated spacewalk to work out the procedure for attaching cameras to the outside of the station.
Across the pool, Jason Tsao turned from where he was talking with one of the astronauts who had done a run yesterday and shouldn’t even be at the NBL today. His tie was undone and his cuffs were rolled up past his elbows. She had never seen the test conductor look even marginally rumpled.
What the hell was wrong?
He beckoned her over with his sheaf of papers. “Ruby, morning. Change of plans, as I’m sure you probably expected.”
She had missed something—a message left with her roommate, a briefing update, something—and whatever it was did not look good. She snapped into the sort of focus she felt in the operating room. “What sort of change?”
Jason’s shoulders tightened. “Sorry. I assumed you had seen the news.”
“I— I was out last night.” She had been dancing as if Before still existed.
He took a slow breath. “No one is dead. A ship returning from the moon had a retrorocket misfire while docking with Lunetta yesterday evening.”
“Oh God.” Scores of people worked on the Lunetta orbiting platform. People she knew. And Eugene Lindholm, her partner for today’s run—his wife would have been on the lunar rocket. Ruby played bridge with Myrtle and Eugene. She turned, looking for the tall black man among the people working by the pool. He was at the stainless steel bench, running through his checklist with tight, controlled motions. No one was dead, but if the Meteor had taught the world anything, death wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone. “How bad?”
Jason glanced up as if he could see past the tall roof of the NBL to the space station. “The pilot of the lunar rocket could see coming in that they had a problem, so Lunetta’s hangar crew evacuated and the rocket’s hull is intact. We’re incredibly lucky.”
Ruby wiped her hand over her face, still stunned. They needed the station as a transfer point to get people off Earth. Damage to it would throw the space program back years. At least the four EVA suits made sense now. “And so we’re working on coming up with a repair procedure today?”
Shaking his head, Jason handed her the paperwork for the day’s run, which was the only thing that seemed normal. “We’re using the NBL to figure out the rescue and recovery plan. The impact warped the airlock and coupling mechanism, so the rocket is locked to the station and the airlock is jammed. We’ve got a team up on the station working on getting it open but want all possible solutions, because the people on the lunar rocket don’t have EVA suits.”
Ruby sucked in a breath that suddenly felt like a luxury. She knew the margins on consumables for the moon run. They’d been trapped since yesterday evening, so had already been on the ship longer than the IAC budgeted for, even with redundancies. “How much air and—”
“We have sixteen hours to figure out how to get them out.”
The Lower Torso Assembly, aka space pants, lay on a cloth pad, ready for her. Astronauts did not, in fact, put their pants on like everyone else. It took two trained professionals and an astronaut wiggling across the floor to squirm into the LTA’s tight legs. Around the pool, three other astronauts were getting ready to do the same awkward floor dance. Eugene sat on the other side of the donning stand from her, his brown skin ashen above the white mesh of his Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment, but he’d insisted that he was okay to do the run.
She’d do right by him and Myrtle. Ruby sat on her rump in her own mesh LCVG, with its lines of tubing wrapping around her body and no modesty. She grabbed the hard aluminum ring at the waist and slid her feet into the top of the legs.
And knew she had a problem.
A different problem than the fact that a score of her friends and colleagues were trapped in a tin can 254 miles above her. The tacky rubber that lined the suit grabbed hold of the fabric of her cooling garment. Ruby’s ankle twinged with a warning. She evaluated it. A mild sprain. She could work through that. It was swollen, but not enough to make the suit not fit. It would just be…uncomfortable. Ruby shoved her feet into the tight layers of rubber, and pain radiated white lines to her knee, sending flashes across her vision.
Ruby stopped, holding the suit and her breath for a moment. All right. The sprain was worse than she thought.
At best, it would eat twelve of the sixteen hours to swap her out for another crew member. Almost everything about the EVA suits was customizable and swapped around to fit the crew members who were using them. The tech suit staff must have worked all night to reset the two other suits for this development run. Dev runs were hard enough when mission control had enough time to build a procedure. Today there would be more winging it than anyone would like.
And if she couldn’t suit up? Since she was the shortest member of the astronaut corps, they couldn’t just plunk someone else into her suit. If they could have, they would have put in someone other than “the pint-sized Astronette” for this run. She’d been an astronaut for two years, with only one moon trip under her belt. Sure, she’d been top of her class, because at her height being the best had been her only option, but if they could have gotten a real astronaut like Elma York in here, they would have.
Heck, the only astronauts they could add on this short a notice had just finished a run yesterday so their suits were already customized. Those two had to be exhausted after six hours fighting suits pressurized to 4.3 psi under thirty feet of water, but Paul Charvet and Serge Broom had shown up with faces as grim and determined as everyone else’s.
The suit tech on her right glanced at her. “Everything okay?”
This was going to hurt, but once she was in, the simulated spacewalk wouldn’t use her feet. Much. She just had to get into the suit.
“Yep. Just getting my toes lined up.” Gritting her teeth, Ruby tried to keep her face placid as she worked her foot through the leg of the suit. The swelling in her ankle made it feel as if the rubber bladder was grabbing her deliberately. Flares shot up from the protesting muscles as if warning her to back away. She tried to breathe through the pain, and kept wriggling past the folds of fabric and rubber while the two techs braced the legs.
A fishhook seemed to embed itself in between the talus and tibia bones of her ankle and dug in deeper as she worked her foot down through the leg. The moment when her foot popped into the boot at the end made her gasp with relief.
She couldn’t speak so she gave a thumbs-up and held out her hands for the men to help hoist her to her feet. Thank God standard procedure meant that they braced her because she wasn’t putting any weight on her right foot until she had to. All she needed to do now was walk five feet, wiggle into the hard torso of the EVA suit where it hung suspended on the donning stand, and that would be the last time she’d have to put significant weight on her ankle until the run was finished.
At least that was one good thing about her lindy-hop training—she knew how to smile through pain. Under the best of conditions, you were sore at the end of an NBL run. This was just different pain.
It also helped that everyone expected astronauts to grimace as they forced themselves into the hard upper torso assembly. But once inside the HUT assembly, she could let the donning stand support her weight and lean against the frame while the suit techs put the rest of the suit on. It wasn’t that it was comfortable, because the o-ring joints at the shoulders of the suit pushed her arms forward a little and dug into her armpits, but at least the donning stand took her weight.
As much as she wanted to tell everyone to hurry, the old aphorism “slow is fast” applied here, too. They wouldn’t help the crew on the station who would have to do the actual spacewalk if they started making mistakes by rushing.
They’d done things right this morning, taking the time to do the pre-run briefing so everyone knew what their jobs were. Broadly, their job was to work out safe procedures in the relatively benign environment of a 6.3-million-gallon pool of water so that when her colleagues in orbit went into the lethal environment of space, they didn’t have to take any unnecessary chances.
Specifically, she and Eugene were going to see if a life raft was possible while EV3 and 4 attempted a maneuver to see if it was possible to run air and power to the lunar rocket. To buy time. Ultimately, if they couldn’t get the hatch open, the rocket’s crew would still need a life raft to transfer safely inside the station.
So Ruby forced herself to relax, conserving energy for the run itself, while the techs checked the cooling system and on so she would have comms in her suit. The helmet followed after that and slid a barrier between her and the world.
This was what things would sound like for the folks trapped in the ship. Even without a breach, they’d have their emergency pressure suits on, which would protect them from a vacuum but not the temperature extremes outside the ship. All their communication would be filtered by comms, which were distancing and intimate all at the same time.
In her ears, the comforting litany of mission control almost made it sound like people weren’t in danger.
And then the litany broke. “We can’t get a good seal on EV1.”
Eugene’s voice followed from where he stood behind her on the donning stand. “It’s probably just a gauge.”
“You know we can’t risk that.”
Ruby opened her eyes. There was nothing she could do, strapped to the donning stand, but if they couldn’t seal Eugene’s suit it would take on water in the pool. Myrtle was up there. “Eugene— There will be three of us in the pool. They can add you as soon as they get a good seal.”
His breath hissed in her ears, but she could hear his fighter pilot training. He was heartbreakingly calm when he spoke. “Copy.”
Jason’s voice joined the mix. “We’ll start the run with EV2, 3, and 4 and add him as soon as you get a good seal.”
With Myrtle up there, it had to be killing him to be pulled at this point.
“I’ve got this.”
His breath caught for just a second. “Copy. I’ll be with you on comm until they get me in the pool.”
As she glanced at the clock on the wall, her stomach twisted. Fourteen hours remaining for the crew on the lunar rocket.
Underwater, everything was blue. The big cylinders that made up the mockup Lunetta were punctured with even round holes to allow water to flow through. Cables snarled in ungainly swirls around the outside of the mock space station and the water pushed against Ruby’s suit, creating a resistance that she didn’t experience in space. Around her, support divers floated with bubbles drifting up from them, ready to help her compensate for the drag of water.
And she needed help. This was her third attempt to attach a spare expansion module of Lunetta to the aft end of the lunar rocket. In theory, with an oxygen pack and a CO2 scrubber, it would serve as a sort of “life raft” for the crew inside the ship. Assuming she could find a path to get it there without getting snarled in cables.
“All right, EV2…” Eugene’s voice was steady on the comm, as if he were in the pool with her. “Look for handrail 1175.”
She had no idea where handrail 1175 was on the lunar rocket. If she’d stayed in last night, instead of going to the rehearsal, then she would have gotten Jason Tsao’s phone call and been able to prep for the change of plans. Or to at least familiarize herself with the lunar rocket in more detail. Grimacing, Ruby peered around the ship.
“Can you give me a big picture of where that is?” She hated to ask for help navigating but the distortions from her helmet and the water made reading numbers a little dicey. Myrtle was not going to die because Ruby had gone to a dance practice last night.
“Oh sorry. We’d need you to go to just aft of the starboard external payload facility.” Eugene’s voice was steady as he guided her in, because he’d done his homework. “Past the grapple fixture, down the gap-spanner…It should be sandwiched between two WIFs.”
When she’d started with the IAC, the jargon had been daunting. Now it wasn’t much different from “over the river and through the woods.” She hauled herself forward, looking through the distortion that her helmet caused in the water. Behind her, the tether for the “life raft” trailed through the water.
A pair of support divers steadied it to compensate for Eugene’s absence. In the real spacewalk, another astronaut would be back there with tethers to hold it steady while she moved forward. If EV3 and 4 weren’t tied up trying to simulate running air and power to the rocket, they might have helped. But it was on her and a faux EV1.
Finally, she found the handrail label sandwiched, as advertised, between two of the sockets that peppered the rocket’s skin. “Got it.” Ruby secured her safety tether, making sure that the black lines on the latch lined up. “EV2’s anchor tether hook is on handrail 1175. Slider locked, black on black.”
She secured a local tether as well, trying to stabilize herself in relation to the rocket. Once she was steady, she snapped the crewlock bag onto the handrail so that it was ready for her.
The final tether was the long one that trailed back to the life raft. “Transferring life raft tether to handrail 1175.”
“Suggestion.” Eugene’s voice cut in. “Use the aft starboard stanchion. Otherwise, the tether might trap your safety line when you pull the life raft forward.”
“Good note.” Ruby kept her voice relaxed as his. She should have spotted that. Carefully, she unhooked the life raft tether from her suit and transferred it to the stanchion. Turning carefully, she worked back along the length of the ship to face the life raft. Pretending that Eugene was in the pool, she said, “Life raft tether secured. New path looks good. Ready to leapfrog the life raft forward.”
“Copy, EV2. Releasing RET and moving toward you.” He wasn’t. A diver was mimicking his actions in ways that they would never do in a real dev run. But this was the best they could do. The suit techs still couldn’t get a good seal on his suit.
Hand over hand, she pulled the bulky rubber toward her, just as if Eugene were really on the other side of it to guide it down the length of the rocket. The action caused her to drift a little away from the handrail, until her tethers stopped her, just as they were designed to do. In space it would be more pronounced. “They might consider two local tethers to control drift.”
“Good note.” Jason’s voice was calm and cool in her ears. “Thank you, EV2.”
As the life raft drifted to her, Ruby felt a flush of triumph. With one stiff glove, she reached out to stop it next to her. “I have the life raft.” With her free hand, she secured a retractable equipment tether to the bracket on the side of the life raft’s grapple mechanism and unspooled the tether to snap it into place on the space ship. On the other side, the diver mimicked her.
“EV2…We’ll need you to place all the tethers to make sure that the positions are achievable in a suit.” Jason sounded almost apologetic.
“Copy.” The plan was to place four tethers to stabilize the life raft and then cinch it down to contact the side of the lunar rocket and engage the grapple mechanism. It made sense that they would need someone in an EVA suit, with its limited range of movement, to place all four. Looking down, she couldn’t even see the bottom tether. All things considered, she’d start with the hard one first while she still had some energy. “Working on the nadir tether attachment first.”
Ruby released the local tether, leaving her safety tether in place, and worked her way down to the bottom of the handrail. At the bottom end, she tried to snag the tether hook but the body position was bad. She had to twist her arm in ways that the suit really wouldn’t let her. The suits really didn’t want you to raise your arms over your head. Being upside down might work though…Grabbing the handrail, she rotated so that she hung head-down in the water. Better.
Kind of. The suits were neutrally buoyant, but inside them, she was dealing with 1-G. As blood pooled in Ruby’s head, she figured that at least her ankle was elevated.
Over the comm, Jason said, “Looks like you’re heads-down, we’ll do a check at five minutes and pull you at ten.”
The life raft had drifted down in the pool so the grapple mechanism was masking the anchor point on the lunar rocket. Maybe she should have done the top tether first. Ruby tried pushing the life raft up in the pool, but the water resistance and gravity pushed down on it. In space, this would be easy, but in the NBL her muscles burned.
“Five minutes, EV2.”
“I’m fine.” Standard procedure be damned. Her sinuses were full and her head pounded from being upside down, but she could manage the discomfort. The body position was better for placing the tether, but the tube itself was fighting her in ways that it wouldn’t in space.
Ruby was so used to not complaining, because she was short. Because she was a woman. Anything she said would be seen as a failure on her part. But the resistance was an NBLism and not a problem the actual spacewalker would face, and people’s lives were on the line. Ruby sighed as quietly as she could on a live mic. “I could use a diver assist to support the tube.”
Like magic, one of the three support divers following her floated up and guided the end of the bag so that it floated in the water more or less the way it would in space. She stretched her arm toward the newly revealed anchor point, fingers aching as she fought the pressurized suit.
“That’s ten minutes, EV2.”
“Almost there.” The motion made her rotate a little. Damn it. She should have put the additional local tether in place to control her own motion. Grimacing, she tried to snap the tether hook in place and just missed. It slipped out of her clumsy grasp and floated away from her in the water. She held her curses inside.
“Divers, set EV2 upright.”
Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Ruby tried to relax when the divers gently pulled her back and rotated her upright so the blood could drain from her head. As they did, she slipped inside her suit and suddenly all of her weight was on her feet. Ruby closed her eyes, breathing through her teeth.
“Anything wrong, Ruby?” Jason Tsao’s voice snapped her eyes open.
“Nope.” In front of her, the support diver in charge of filming had his camera aimed at her face. Ruby smiled at him, so that everyone in the mission control room would be able to see that she was fine. They wouldn’t pull her out of the pool, not with lives on the line, but they would sure as heck note any struggles for future missions. “Just thinking through next steps. I’m ready to start up again when you are.”
On attempt number four, Ruby had figured out a process that got the tube lined up, but still wrestled with snugging the life raft up against the ship enough to get a good seal. The grapple mechanism had been designed to be activated by pressure from docking. Attempting to exert that pressure manually was…challenging.
Biting the inside of her lip, Ruby fumbled with the thick straps while holding on to a handrail with one hand. Her own tethers stabilized her a little, but not enough.
Eugene crackled onto the comm. “Do you think an APFR would give you better leverage?”
Articulated Portable Foot Restraint. She stopped what she was doing and stared at the ship. The handrail she was using was between two sockets built into the skin of the lunar shuttle. She’d been using the solution as just a navigation point. All she had to do was use one of those two sockets to attach a foot restraint and free both hands.
And she’d been avoiding using a foot restraint because she’d been unconsciously avoiding pain. To get her feet into the APFR, she’d have to twist her ankle in and out of the restraint. Normally the MC trusted the astronaut on decisions like that during a dev run, to figure out what worked best for them. Ruby had been screwing things up because she’d gone dancing.
“Good call.” The silver lining to the number of runs they’d done was that she knew where the nearest APFR was stored. She’d passed by it at least twice during this run, which made it all the worse that she hadn’t thought of it. “Translating back over the river and through the woods.”
“If you’re reversing course, shouldn’t that be through the woods and over the river?”
“Pretty sure there are woods on both sides of the river.” Ruby pulled herself hand over hand to the port sensor array, which was, thankfully, within reach of her safety tether. Even so, fighting the water resistance made her arms burn with effort. In the back of her head, time ticked away. “I could have collected this on my previous pass, which would buy some time.”
Jason Tsao responded. “Good note, EV2. I’ll pass that up to station.”
He didn’t say “if this works” but the question hung in the water with her. Ruby attached a Retractible Equipment Tether to the foot restraint. Once the RET was secure, she pulled the foot restraint off the WIF by turning the collar and depressing the “petals” at the base of the post. The bayonet slid out of the socket. It was a ridiculous thing to feel triumph about, but at the moment she would take even small victories.
Turning to reverse course, Ruby swung her body through the water so that her feet trailed behind her The water resistance grabbed her feet and seemed to slowly twist her ankle. Ruby locked her jaw and breathed through her nose. This was an acceptable level of pain but the translation back to the work site seemed twice as long. She didn’t have the energy for banter.
When she got back to the handrail, she snapped her local tether back into place. “Slider locked, black on black.”
Closing her stiff fingers around the foot restraint, she plugged its into the nearest socket. The litany of locking things in place continued. “Collar locked, black on black.” She wrapped her hands round the APFR to make sure it was seated correctly. “Good twist and pull test”
Ruby retrieved the RET and restowed it. The last thing she needed was to get snarled in something she’d forgotten to put away.
Adjusting her tethers to allow her to “stand up” perpendicular to the lunar rocket, Ruby put her feet next to the foot restraint. She slid the toes of her left foot under the restraint and twisted her foot to slide the heel ridge into the restraining slot.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she slid her right foot under the restraint and twisted it. It felt as if her boot was filled with broken glass. It wasn’t. She was pretty sure she wasn’t doing permanent damage to the ankle. Slowing down recovery time, yes, but even if it was permanent damage, at the end of the day it just meant she wouldn’t be able to dance.
But she’d still be able to play bridge with Myrtle and Eugene.
Ruby reached for the tether and yanked on it with both hands. Something in her ankle went pfft and snapped.
A small cry escaped. Ruby bit down hard. She would live, and so would the people on that ship if she had anything to say about it. Grimacing, she hauled on the tether until the tube snuggled up against the mockup station and the grapple clicked into place.
Tears streaked across her cheeks, and for once the 1-G was a benefit because the moisture didn’t build up in watery balls over her eyes. Ruby nodded for the camera. “Thanks, Eugene. The answer is APFR. With that, I can pitch back. I can grab the bag. Anchor it. I can maneuver my body and not have to pitch or roll with the handrail. Sorry it took so long to work out.” Her ankle throbbed with each beat of her heart. “What’s next?”
She hung in the water, listening to the sound of her own fans. Around her, support divers slowly turned the water with their fins while they all waited. Her ankle consumed the rest of her attention.
The line crackled as Jason came back on the line. “Let’s get you out of the pool.”
“I’m fine to continue.”
“Thank you, but we’re transmitting this part of the procedure up to Lunetta. We’ll let Paul and Serge dev the process of getting the tube back to the other end of the ship. It’s comparatively straightforward.”
“It’s not a problem.”
“Ruby.” Eugene’s voice cut in. “I’ve played bridge with you. I know your tells.”
She opened her mouth, staring at the camera in front of her. “Right. See you topside.”
Her support divers swam up around her and pulled her away from the ship. In space, right now, someone on Lunetta was suiting up to go out and do this as a real spacewalk, not as a development run in a pool. Or heck, maybe they were all ready to go and had just been waiting for a viable solution.
All the mistakes that Ruby had made were ones that the real rescue team wouldn’t have to. The pool was hard. Space would kill you.
Ruby let herself go limp in her suit, watching the bubbles of her support divers stream past like flecks of snow. In her ears, the conversation with the other team continued as they kept working to try to mate an umbilical to the lunar rocket. She realized that she had no idea how long she’d been down.
When the divers got her attached to the donning stand and the crane hauled her above the pool, Eugene was waiting poolside. He still wore his Snoopy cap, with the comm unit in place so he could stay in the loop. His lower lip had a raw spot as if he’d been biting it constantly while she was under the water.
He could hear her if she spoke, but she waited until her suit was depressurized and her suit tech had her helmet off. She flexed her hands against the ache in the joints and met Eugene’s gaze as the tech pulled her Snoopy cap off.
Eugene took his own off and stepped forward. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell them to pull you earlier.”
“That was the right choice.” She shifted her weight to her left foot as her tech released the hard aluminum ring connecting her pants to the suit. “How long do they have?”
“Six hours.” He glanced across the room at the clock on the wall. “It’s enough.”
Ruby nodded and squirmed down, with a tech on either side to catch her. It was standard practice, but Eugene stepping forward, hands out, wasn’t. For the first time since she’d gone under, Ruby put weight on her right foot. Her head was still in the suit and the fiberglass interior seemed to light up like a meteor striking the Earth.
Hands caught her and the next thing she knew, she was seated in a chair, still blinking back tears. Swallowing, Ruby shook her head. “I’m fine—GAH!” The sound ripped out of her as the techs tried to pull the spacesuit pants down. Her ankle was so swollen that it caught in the boot.
Gripping the side of the chair, she panted until the spots faded from her vision.
The nearest suit tech toggled on his mic. “We need medical for EV2.”
She winced, but calling a medic was inevitable. “Not urgent. I aggravated a previous injury, that’s all.”
“Aggravated?” Eugene shook his head. “You’re going to aggravate me if you keep lying.”
“I’m not— Okay. I am. I’ve likely torn a ligament in my ankle. But y’all are going to pull these goddamn pants off of me because if the medic gets here first, she’s going to try cutting it off.”
The tech looked up, appalled. “Oh hell, no.”
“Right?” Ruby stuck out her hurt leg. “You are Go for removal.”
He looked up at Eugene, who grimaced and then nodded. Eugene stepped behind her and braced Ruby with his hands on her shoulders. Putting a hand on either side of the boot, the tech hauled back. Ruby managed not to scream, but if Eugene weren’t bracing her, she probably would have fallen out of the chair.