Mike Bebe's first job on the International Space Station was the beginning of the end of his astronaut career. Microgravity made him clumsy; floating in a training pool added resistance to motion that was absent on the ISS. While he set up a Croatian highschool's crocus experiment in a biolab science unit, he overcompensated when he moved and broke the plastic covering the little golden flowers. He fixed it with duct tape. But as he stowed the tape in the spare parts bin, he gave himself too much spin and rotated toward the Destiny Lab module's unshuttered view window. Through the optically perfect window, he saw the blue curve of the Earth and a tiny crescent moon; the stark contrast between his fragile blue world and the barren cold moon brought a tear.
He wiped away the tear with a sleeve, clamped down on his emotions and went back to work.
Even after a month on the ISS, the first thing Mike had to do when he woke in his sleeping station was to remind himself that he wasn't lying flat in a gravity well. A photo of his wife, Nancy, taped to the door, helped him to remember which way was "nadir." But seeing her wonderful smile first thing caught him off guard. He felt the tears in his eyes. For the third morning in a row he grabbed a tissue and blotted them away. "Damn," he whispered.
He was crying at every little thing: views of Earth, fresh apples, the plants growing in the Destiny's biolab. It was like he was a scrawny over-sensitive fifth-grader again. But he'd worked hard back then, using self-discipline to hit the gym and hit the books and look at him now: he was on top of the world serving on Expedition 38 to the ISS.
He reached out from his sleep sack and snagged a pen from the wall. Then he eased Nancy's photo from the door. "Sorry, Nance." He peeled the tape off of the back, placed Nancy's face against the door, and re-taped the photo. He drew an arrow and wrote THIS WAY UP on it.
Coffee. A really strong cup of coffee would wake him up enough to be able to control his emotions.
He floated out of his sleep sack and got dressed. Today was Sunday, so he put on a blue T-shirt and pulled on his flight suit. Some astronauts, like Colonel Potter, went through the day in shorts. Not Mike; pulling the zipper of his flight suit closed was part of his wake-up routine: a reminder of all the hard work he'd done to reach the ISS and of the responsibilities of pushing the edges of mankind's abilities. And the flight suit had a leg pocket where he kept a packet of tissues.
Fully dressed, he took a steadying breath and faced the door. He undid one of the pieces of tape on Nancy's overturned photo and hinged it open. His self-control were working this time; his eyes stayed dry.
He pushed open the sleep station door and floated out into the Destiny Lab module. He pushed himself past the dark grey experiment racks, the knots of hoses and cables, and Destiny's shuttered viewing window. Even shuttered, the window reminded him of his first ISS tears.
He pushed the memories away and launched himself off of the Unity module's airlock. If he aimed right, his flight would be a straight shot to the Zevzda module. He glided through Unity and kept his gaze forward to avoid looking at previous missions' patches on the walls or at the cupola through the adjoining Trinity node. He coasted through Zarya, past the floating cargo and dull gray storage lockers lining its walls, and toward Pirs's circular hatch at the other end. He skimmed the hatch and had to slow down in Pirs. On a good day he could make it all the way to breakfast without touching anything -- or glancing through Pirs's window.
Commander Larisa Alexeyevna and Flight Engineer Quentin "Q" Potter hovered over Zevzda's salmon colored table.
"Dobroye ootro," said Mike.
"Your accent is improving," said Commander Alexeyevna.
"Good Morning," said Q.
Today was a rest day for Q, so he was floating in a Mamma Mia T-shirt and pink shorts as he brewed tea in an improvised centrifugal infuser. The commander floated near the Soyuz side of the table and ate canned fish and a foil package of eggs while she read her palm top.
Mike pulled calcium fortified orange juice powder, a power bar, and some eggs-and-broccoli out of the pale yellow galley. He added water from the water dispenser to the juice and shook it. Then he made coffee.
The radio was on and the Capcom officer at Houston buzzed in. "Good morning ISS, this is Houston with special pre-planning meeting music for Colonel Potter." Cello and pianos filled the galley with slow, graceful notes. Normally, Mike was a blues kind of guy; but even with the competition from the fans, pumps and other station noises, the haunting, wistful piece got a hold of him. His damn coffee wasn't ready yet. One traitorous tear escaped before he clamped down on his feelings.
Commander Alexeyevna averted her eyes to the schedule on her palm top. Q, hovering, smiled and whispered, "You old softy."
Mike pretended he hadn't heard. The piece ended and Houston came back. "That was Saint-Saëns's cello solo, "The Swan," from the "Carnival of the Animals," chosen by your son and, uh family -- to, uh, say that they miss you and are looking forward to seeing you next week."
Mike's coffee was finally ready. He took a sip.
Q grabbed a station microphone out of its berth. "Thank you, Houston," he said. "That was a lovely way to begin my day. Tell Ian he's a sentimental fool and that Lieutenant Bebe -- "
Mike shot Q a warning look.
" -- and Commander Alexeyevna enjoyed the music almost as much as I did. Please pass my love on to my family and tell them I'm looking forward to seeing them as soon as I'm back on Earth. Oh yes -- also please tell them that they can wave to daddy when the station passes over England at 1343 Greenwich time --"
Mike suppressed a grimace. Seeing Earth through Destiny's view window was the number one item to start him leaking. If Q kept the port's shutters open all afternoon he'd be screwed during his subsequent NASA TV interview.
Q continued. " -- I'll be taking video in the Destiny Lab Module and if the clouds don't misbehave, I'll see them. Kiss kiss."
"Uh, roger that, ISS. Have a good day. Over and out."
Q stowed the mic.
"Q," said the commander, "it is good they cannot see the expression on your face when you say 'misbehave.'"
"Pity," said Q. "I say, Mike; I didn't know you were a fan of Saint-Saëns."
Mike looked up from his breakfast dishes. "The wife plays it all the time,' he lied. "She used to do a lot of ballet as a kid." That much was true. The coffee must be helping; thinking of her wasn't starting the waterworks.
Alexeyevna's palm top beeped. "Gentlemen," she said, "We should get started."
Mike and Q hovered a little closer for their planning meeting.
The commander continued. "Star City and Mission Control Moscow have authorized reliance on the new steady-state Electron-2 life support system. I will be preparing the old Elektron life support unit for long-term storage in the storage Progress off Pirs. Lieutenant, at 0900 you'll help me move the old unit from the Russian Research module so I can check the pressure on its nitrogen tanks, seal it up, and attach heat sensors and an E-Nose for potassium hydroxide detection. Colonel, be sure to have gloves available and a particle mask at all times in case there's a problem."
"Right," said Q.
"Lieutenant, Colonel Potter is wanting to use Destiny's treadmill for one of his extended runs."
"When's your Weekly Doctor Video Time?" asked Q.
"1224. And I have a Weekly Private Family Conference with my wife at 1028 this morning, right after the Elektron move."
"Right -- big video day.... Then I'll want to use the treadmill at 1500."
Alexeyevna gave him a stern look. "Tonight is Jell-O dinner, Q, and it's your turn to prepare it."
Q grinned. "Have I ever let you down?"
"There is always a first time," said Alexeyevna. "Lieutenant, you also have a NASA TV session this afternoon at 1418."
Mike paused his calculations about the open view window. "Eh-yah. It's Ask An Astronaut day and I'll be showing off the biolab racks in Destiny."
"I assure you that we're all getting along fine," said the commander.
"And the recycled water tastes lovely," chimed in Q.
"Okay, okay. And this first month has been fantastic for me," said Mike. "Any news for the people of Earth about sex in space?"
"It's the best safe sex I've ever had," said Q.
"Dah-link," the commander made her accent thick. "If they want space sex, tell them to watch that movie, Moonraker."
After breakfast, Mike worked his way back to Destiny and secured his feet at "his" laptop area, next to his sleeping station. He started up the autodoc, beta-test software designed to replace an Earth-based Flight Surgeon on Mars trips. He held still while the the laptop's fisheye lens scanned his face. The reaction time program started; Mike placed his hands on the keyboard and hit the space bar to begin the test. Random numbers and letters appeared on the screen and Mike scrambled to type them. Thirty seconds later he was done.
The program asked him to rate his sleep. He gave it an eight out of ten.
A message from the auto-doc popped up on his screen. At least it looked like an e-mail and not like some talking paper-clip.
"Hi Mike, your reaction times have been a little low the last few days. Be careful today handling tools and during maintenance times, and you may want to take it extra easy on your day off in two days.
"If there is anything you'd like to talk about, contact the Flight Surgeon or double-click the auto-doc icon."
Damn. Today was the third day in a row his response times were down. Mike didn't need to do the math -- the psych program was going to send a red flag sooner or later. Even if it was a beta-test red flag. He closed the program and checked Destiny's biolab racks.
The little yellow crocuses needed some water. As soon as he saw them, his tears started. He swiped at his face with a tissue -- he didn't want to have to explain that his stray tears had shorted out a computer. Then he opened the crocus rack's jury-rigged top and carefully directed water to their growing medium.
Normally the lab rack computer, the payload computer, and the command-and-control computer talked to each other and watered the experiments; but somewhere in the system water requests were being lost. The ISS water system showed green lights, so that wasn't the problem's source. He'd been working with the Onboard Data Interfaces and Networks officer at Houstin to try to fix it. No experiments had been ruined, but Mike had to manually check the racks and water everything. He closed the crocus rack and went on to the fish rack. The fish had enough water, but the spinning algae tanks in the next rack were low, so he added more.
"Hallo Mike," said Q, floating into the lab.
"Hey Q." Mike patted his leg pocket where the tissues were.
"Don't mind me." The British astronaut floated to the Destiny's window bay. "I'm popping in to set up some video for Met Office."
Mike closed the algae rack. "No worries." He pulled himself back to his laptop -- it was far enough from the window bay that he couldn't see through the it. "Uh, Q -- I should have asked earlier; how long will you be using the window?"
"Met Office hopes to get good video the three passes over Britain for coastline measurements. So -- from about 1210 to about 1515; I figured by the time I had the treadmill ready to go it would be time to turn off the camera and close the shutters."
Mike was screwed. He had to show the kids from Odessa their crocus experiment for the NASA TV session and the lab rack was next to the window bay. Q opened the window shutters and Earthshine glowed from the bay.
"Every time I look at Earth it's simply brill," said Q.
"Yeah," sniffed Mike. "I love it." He reached for his tissues.
After helping commander Alexeyevna with the Elektron move, Mike left her capping the old oxygen generator in the storage Progress space vehicle. He floated into Zevzda; he had a few minutes to make himself more coffee. He sipped and focused on work. His conference with Nancy was coming up. There, coffee did help; he could think about her without tearing up. He took another sip and glanced at his watch. His days were booked with experiments and station maintenance; he couldn't brew coffee whenever he felt like it. He imagined himself with caffeine jitters, and what Nancy would say. She'd probably tell him to drink herbal tea and then pull out one of those smelly relaxation pillows.
Smelly pillows! That could work. He pushed himself to the galley and grabbed a coffee packet and a fork. Gently, he poked small holes in the packet, then wrapped the whole thing in a tissue from his leg pocket. If he couldn't drink coffee, at least he could smell it -- it couldn't hurt to try.
Time for his call home. Mike traveled the length of the station, toward the Japanese Experiment Module, for his Weekly Private Family Conference. JEM was one of the more private areas on the station. Halfway through the station, he saw Q floating in the cupola, wearing earphones and mouthing the words to some musical while gazing at Earth.
Once in JEM, Mike parked himself at a laptop and patched into a video session. The video chat client started and Nancy waved to him from the small screen. She looked a little tired; station time was five hours ahead of Cape Canaveral.
"Hi Baby," she said. She was the only one allowed to call him that.
"Hey, Nance. Wish you were here." He fought back the tears; it was harder when he was seeing her.
She pretended to pout. "That's my line. How are you?"
"Good. Good. Getting Destiny looking good for tonight's show on NASA TV. Tonight's a Jell-O night, and that's always fun for us."
"You looked good last Tuesday with the crocus lab. Your mother said that she used to grow those when you lived in Connecticut." He lost control for a moment at the mention of his old home and Nancy paused. "Honey, is everything OK up there?"
"Yeah; everything's fine."
"I've got some good news for you," she held up a black-and-white sonogram. "We're pregnant!"
Tears leaked out of Mike's eyes. "That's great. I -- I --" he pulled a wipe out of his pocket and blotted the tears away. "Nancy Alice Bebe; I love you so much."
She was crying, too. "I wanted to tell you before you left; but I wasn't sure. And then I wanted to wait until you got back, because I didn't want to distract you. But then I figured that if I waited too long you'd find out anyway. Will it be okay?"
He was still crying. "You're the best wife a guy could have. Everything will be fine," he said and passed the tissue over his eyes again. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"I didn't want to know. Dr. Carver says that I'm about three months; so the due date is a week after you get back in March."
"That's great." Mike felt around in his flight suit for another tissue. He didn't want to sniff the coffee packet in front of her.
"Hey, Space Dad -- I hope you're not going to get too mushy on me and spoil the kid -- you're going through more tissues than I've seen you use during a cold."
"No," he said. "I -- we're not going to be raising a 'Baby Bebe' in this family." He winced. "Don't repeat that to the Public Affairs Officer or we'll be reading it in the papers for the next few years." He wiped his eyes again. "Nance, as soon as we're done here, go home and write up a statement. Say that I am ecstatic and the luckiest man alive. Run the statement by my dad, then send it to the PAO; this is the sort of thing she likes. Then get ready for the kinds of questions the reporters ask."
Nancy deadpanned. "'Mike and I believe in NASA's science mission and I have the greatest faith in his training and American engineering and technology to safeguard him during his explorations in space.'" She blew him a kiss. "Okay, Babe."
"I love you." He blew a kiss back. "Will you be okay?"
"I'll be fine. I'm sure as soon as I tell the rest of the family I'll have more advice and horror stories than I know what to do with." She got a mischievous look. "Would you like me to send you more tissues in the next care package?"
"No." He closed his eyes. When he opened them a moment later he'd stopped the tears. For now. "I wish I could have you."
After lunch, Mike floated over the laptop in JEM he used for private video conferences. He sipped another coffee as Dr. Erikson smiled at him through the video screen. "Hi Mike,"
"Hi Doc," Mike said.
"How's the congestion today?" Erikson asked.
"Better; or at least I'm getting used to it."
"That's what usually happens." The doctor looked down, Mike figured at his notes.
"So, Mike -- "
Uh oh, Mike thought, here it comes.
" -- how've you been sleeping lately?"
"Uh, okay. I guess. Waking up is still a little disorienting." Thinking of Nancy's face and the baby threatened tears and he clamped them down.
"Uh huh. Are you getting along with Commander Alexeyevna and Colonel Potter; things are smooth sailing?"
"They're interesting people and we're working together well. I'll miss Q's sense of humor when he's gone, but it will be refreshing to be part of the 'old timers' with Commander Alexeyevna once Q's replacement is on board."
"Hmm," said Erikson. Mike hated it when doctors said 'hmm' because it usually meant they thought they had figured something out that you hadn't yet. The doctor shuffled some papers. "Well, Mike, the autodoc's flagged your reaction times as being a little below average the last few days, and some of your facial metrics point to elevated stress levels, which would dovetail with the lowered reaction times. So is there anything bugging you?"
Mike let out a long breath. "Uh. I'm chasing down an intermittent software glitch. The computers aren't always talking to each other so I have to water the plants and check the fish."
"I miss my guitar a little. I miss my wife more." He finished his coffee and used all his willpower to keep the tears away. "I -- uh -- Nancy's writing a press release for the PAO, so I didn't want to say anything just yet but we're having a baby a week or two after I get back."
"Congratulations." Erikson put his hand to his chin. "So if she's writing the PAO now, you just found out -- so that's not.... We'll keep an eye on this -- the auto doc's still in beta and the programmers are fine tuning it."
Mike felt guilty -- if his lying messed up the calibration for the autodoc, it could jeopardize a future Mars mission.
Dr. Erikson continued. "That looks like coffee you're drinking; be sure to limit your caffeine intake and no coffee after 1300. Make sure you get some extra sleep the next few nights and let's talk about this next week. Oh, and spend some extra time in the cupola -- Earthshine's good for you. If you think of anything else, let me know."
"Roger that," Mike said.
The video session closed. Mike took a sniff of his coffee sachet and it hit him what he was doing: sniffing coffee grounds on the sly. He floated by the laptop for a moment. His crying sessions were out of his control. There; he'd admitted it. In a way, it felt good, even if he did have to mop up a little afterward. Mike took a deep breath. If he wanted to keep any kind of self-respect and professionalism, he needed to come clean with his fellow astronauts and Mission Control.
He grabbed a rung and went to call Q and the Commander.
They gathered in the Zvezda module. Q mixed powered Jell-O and water together -- several multi-colored packets floated near him.
"I need some help," Mike said. "I've, uh, got a problem."
The Commander and Q traded glances.
Mike plunged on. "Little things start me crying. I've tried to patch the leaks, but it's not working." He felt a hollow pit in his stomach -- he hadn't felt that since his visits to the middle school councilor's office. "And it's getting worse."
Commander Alexeyevna frowned. "Little things like what?"
"Let me guess," Q said. "Seeing Earth through the cupola and Destiny's view window?"
Mike nodded. "Even the moon'll do it. And the crocuses. And the picture of my wife. And certain foods that remind me of home."
The commander looked thoughtful. "And this morning's pre-planning music."
She shrugged. "Something like homesickness can't interfere with the work here. I have found aerobic exercise helps."
Q raised an eyebrow. "Does Dr. Erikson know about this?" he asked Mike.
"Not exactly," Mike said. "The autodoc snitched on me; he's eyeing my reaction times and attributing them to stress caused by bad sleep."
"Dr. Erikson advised me that your reaction times were low," said the commander. Mike was irritated, but there wasn't really such a thing as privacy when it came to mission safety. "We decided they were within acceptable limits for now and he suggested scheduling a few light days to rest you. Since your crying episodes aren't an immediate danger to the station, I suggest you, 'Get over it' and get on with your work."
"I'm not homesick -- it's just that everything is awesomely beautiful -- and I've been trying to get over it, commander."
She gave him an evaluating stare. "Can you do you work?"
"I'm fine not looking at flowers or out of windows."
She snorted. "How will you do a spacewalk then?"
Mike sighed. She was right. "I'm sorry; I'll advise Mission Control on my condition. I expect they'll want to prepare my backup. If you will excuse me."
He was not going to cry. He was not going to cry.
"Mike," she said, "if it helps, a lesser man would have stopped talking to us and holed up somewhere with a bottle of vodka."
"Thanks," Mike said. He couldn't help thinking that a better man would have been able to do his job. He set off for Destiny.
Q caught up with him in the Unity module. "I say, Mike, I didn't want to bring this up in front of the commander, and I'm suggesting this as one professional to another but have you ruled out being away conjugally from your wife as a cause?"
"I'd say you might be onto something," Mike said, "except this has been going on since day one."
Q's brows furrowed. "Bother. Well, if we think of anything -- and I know Larisa will be thinking about solutions once the Elektron unit is completely stowed -- we'll let you know."
"Thanks, Q." Mike paused. "Hey, Q; now that my secret's out -- can I shutter Destiny's window during the NASA TV shot?"
"What?" Q recoiled in mock horror. "And rob the recruiters the ability to offer ascans a chance to work with a big, strong, sensitive astronaut?"
"You haven't been called 'Baby Bebe' during most of your childhood."
"Oh, very well -- but I do need to get footage for Met Office when we're over Britain and Destiny's window is the best."
Before setting up for "Ask an Astronaut," Mike had some more coffee. Jitters be damned; it worked in the short run -- and "Baby Bebe" would be the least of his problems if he started crying on NASA TV. He wouldn't be able to train ascans without their respect. And training other astronauts on the ground looked like the only future he had with NASA.
"Come on, Mike," he said. "You've got the best job in the world right now; so do it." The future could wait until the next resupply Soyuz brought his replacement.
He set up the cameras. He looked at the fixed camera's LCD display and made sure the biolab was framed and that he fit in the picture. Seeing his face reminded him to smile. He tested a hand camera for close-ups of the equipment and then let it float at the end of its cable within easy reach -- the folks on Earth always liked seeing reminders of microgravity.
The Capcom officer spoke over the radio. "ISS, this is Mission Control Houston. Mike, are you ready in Destiny?"
Mike spoke at the fixed camera. "I'm set up here -- do you read me?"
"We hear you loud and clear. The students are ready and excited to meet their gardener. Video contact in five seconds."
Mike looked at his laptop's video session. The control room in Houston resolved.
The Public Affairs Officer, Lisa Knapp, introduced each student.
"My name is Yuan Chun from China. Thank you for watching our algae. How do buoyant organisms, such as algae or jellyfish, adapt to space?"
Mike smiled. "You're welcome. That's a good question Yuan Chun; one difference between the ocean and space is gravity, another is the Earth's electromagnetic field...."
"Hello. I'm Dieter from Germany. How possible would it be to use the bacteria in waste products on the ISS to produce electricity for the station? Thank you."
Mike had to hand it to the kids, that was a new variation on the old bathroom question. "Dieter, your question is the sort of thing Mars mission and other deep space mission planners think about. On the ISS we get our electricity from the sun...."
"My name is Anna Inber from Ukraine. Thank you for watering my school's crocuses plants. Do you foresee a time when plants could be grown as a part of space craft life support systems, and will you be showing us the growing area? Thank you."
"Anna, you're welcome. The Earth is one giant life-support machine with millions of systems interlocked. Up here in the ISS, we have water conduits and air vents taking pollutants away from the living areas to the filters where our carbon dioxide and waste materials are scrubbed out or collected. Personally, I like looking at trees more than I do a water splitter -- and a tree is safer because it doesn't produce hydrogen gas, which we have to vent.
"Unfortunately, to get enough trees up here, we'd have to grow them from seeds. And right now, the biggest plants we can have on the station have to fit in the lab racks --" Mike took a deep breath and steadied himself "-- and here's your crocuses." He opened up the rack and fought the tears. He had to keep talking. "Uh, I've been watering them manually." He undid the tape holding the plastic lid down. "The -- uh, mphh." The tears hit. "Uh, let's switch to the other camera for a close-up on the flowers."
"Oh!" said Anna, "I thought I was the only one the crocuses made cry!"
Mike nearly lost control of the hand camera. "Could you say that again?"
"They're like onions to me -- and maybe one of my teachers at school. We didn't know because, like the crocuses on the station, they're covered most of the time. It's like a bee sting or something; if you grew up with them, you get -- you get -- well, they make you cry more easily. It's a crazy kind of -- allergy? -- Yes, allergy."
Mike replaced the cover. "Well, thank you, Anna." He didn't have to use a video smile. "That clears up a big mystery." He focused the hand camera on a stray floating tear. "I guess while we've got a little more time -- here's a demonstration of what liquids do in microgravity."
On his rest day, Mike fired up the autodoc
program. He glanced at the crocuses -- they were secured under a new plastic cover that he'd fused to the base. They even had their own air and water tubes. He smiled into the laptop's fisheye lens before beginning the reaction time test. When he was done, the program e-mailed a clean bill of mental health.
His tears had gone away. The newspaper headlines read things like "Space Allergy Nothing to Cry About," which made him wince, but was lightyears better than "Baby Bebe to Leave ISS." He could look out of Destiny's window at the stars, the Earth or the Moon without having to worry that he'd short out equipment. And Nancy was back on his door, smiling at him and orienting him when he woke up.
He wondered, though, how much his crying was the crocuses and how much was him. Maybe years of keeping his emotions inside had robbed him of his ability to feel.
Before his weight lifting session, he wanted some time in the cupola -- the new moon was near the north lunar node and he'd have one of the best seats in the house for watching the moon's umbra slide over Earth. He glided to the Trinity node and hung before the windows.
Outside, the blue-white of the Earth shone over everything. The station hurtled over the eastern US seaboard. He looked east, there, slowly easing westward over the Atlantic toward the US, the shadow of the moon -- oblique now, but during their next pass he knew it would grow to a near perfect circle.
Seeing the beautiful dance of the planet like this was like that first sight of the Earth on his first day. To his amazement, the tears came. He let them.
There were no tissues in his pockets. He zoomed back to the Unity module and spoke into the station intercom.
"Larisa, Q; you have to come to the cupola to see this!"
Copyright © 2009 by John Burridge