Alex looked out of his small triangular window just in front of him. Empty blackness everywhere, a small tip of blue in the corner down below him. Or was it above him, what was up, what was down. Circling the earth in geostationary orbit, was like standing still and the universe spinning around him. Occasionally the moon traversed his window, the sun burned like a raging inferno several times a day. No night, no day, no difference.
The rocket boosters, dead as the eternity of space remained silent. He thumped the buttons again and again. The supply of de-hydrated food was rapidly running out, did it matter? The hatch above his head, he looked up at the emergency release. Just reach up, unlock it; float out silently to freedom and oblivion.
Remembering the call to Mission Control’s inner sanctum somewhere on the outskirts of Houston for a Code One briefing. Sitting outside the chamber room, waiting to be called in. The grey, solid metal door clicked open and Greg Dunbar NASA’s Operations Director beckoned him in. The windowless room, dimly lit with modern wood panelled walls, full length red curtains along the end wall.
‘A directive from the White House, we must have a manned surveillance flight to pinpoint the Russian nuclear installations and see what they’re developing.’
‘OK Chief, where do I fit in?
‘We want you to man the flight, you’re our most experienced astronaut on the Apollo programme, and you’ve already flown the Gemini capsule.’
His first Gemini mission, with Doug Newsome, a forty eight hour extravaganza, spaceflight was fun in those not so distant days. The re-entry was something else, glowing white hot, flumes of flame danced outside their tiny windows. Feeling the heat in the spacesuit. The ecstasy of splashdown followed by the sudden chill and seasickness, bobbing around in the Pacific Ocean.
‘An unmanned satellite is not sophisticated enough to search numerous locations, interpret the data you identify and come up with a logic for what’s going on at each base.’
No joyful return on this mission; falling to earth so many miles below, burning up in the atmosphere, like an errant meteorite.
‘You’re our only man for the mission. We can’t utilise an Apollo capsule, they’re all allocated to the lunar landing programme. We've got the spare Gemini capsule; number seven that was never flown, but used for training purposes.’
‘Wonder what Doug is doing now? Is he still with Stella, they made a good couple.’
‘She’s currently at Cape Kennedy being modified to fit all the spy gear and multi linear encryption modules. It needs to be ready for launch in three weeks, and so do you.’
‘If I press all these switches, what the worst that can happen? There must be a self-destruct button here somewhere.’
‘This is all top secret stuff, the media will be told it is an unmanned satellite launch.’
Lift off was Sunday 23rd April 1967, with splashdown in the Pacific four days later. Alex was briefed on all his duties and operation of the equipment at Mission Control, before being transported to the launch site two days before lift off. A trouble free ride on the modified Saturn V rocket, took him to orbit approximately 22,000 miles above the earth.
‘Alice, precious Alice, if only … I could say sorry. She wouldn't care ... that jerk Roger … an accountant, what a bore!’
He had to fire a number of small boosters to manoeuvre the spaceship over the Russian steppes and lock on to the co-ordinates of the likely nuclear weapons sites.
‘No one knows I’m here. No one cares. I’ve disappeared, a missing person.’
The radio crackled into life, his daily five minute report to Mission Control.
‘Okay Alex, Houston here, do you read?’
A stunning silence, looking out of the window as Earth drifted slowly into view. The clouds had mostly lifted over South America, he could just about make out Mexico. Houston was just above that cloud.
‘Alex, Mission Control Houston here, do you read? Over.’
It was Angela today, he liked Angela. They nearly had an affair a couple of years ago, but it was another might have been.
‘Mission Control, I hear you.’
‘How’s it going today Alex?’
‘Shit, basically Angie!’
‘We’re all praying for you here, Alex.’
‘Thanks, that’s about all that’s left I guess.’
‘The guys in R&D are working round the clock with the engineering crew looking for a solution.’
‘You guys have just drifted into view now, I can see the whole of good old Earth.’
‘That’s nice, Alex.’
With a blast of static crackling over the miles, the radio link went down. Alex groped under his seat and dug out his remaining supplies of food. Only three dehydrated sachets left, all turkey stew with vegetables. They all tasted the same anyway, he threw them back under his seat.
‘Wonder who Angela’s screwing now? Not Gary, surely; he was always sniffing round her.’
An endless journey, a timeless flight. Alex mumbled the words to himself, sounded like the words of a song, he wasn’t sure they were. Maybe he could write something, but then who would be reading it. Maybe the Russians were listening in to his every move. Maybe they had a laser trained on his disabled spacecraft and were about to blast him into oblivion. That seemed like the best scenario now.
His eyes wandered round the inside of his cockpit once more as Earth disappeared from view in the window, leaving the blackness stretching to eternity. There were protruding wires adjacent to him where they’d modified the spacecraft with all the spy gear. He grabbed the orange, black and purple wires and tugged them. They held firm, he tugged harder; still they resisted.
‘If I can make a spark, it may trigger the oxygen.’
He pulled harder still, they’d been fixed in good. Exasperated he released his grip and stared at his control panel in front of him. He tried the booster buttons again, in rapid fire succession … still nothing. Then it struck him.
‘The pill, I’d forgotten about the pill!’
His hands patted the various pockets of his jump suit. Anti-sickness tablets, no not them. Diarrhoea tablets, you must be joking! Valium, why not? He pulled out a red foil wrapped strip of six tablets, slowly taking them one by one.
‘What I really need is alcohol now and plenty of it.’
Then he remembered as his brain relaxed for the first time in three days. They were above his head. A small orange plastic panel with skull and cross bones, concealed a small recess. Inside a small foil strip, only two tablets. No instructions, nothing. He pulled open the foil and released one of the tablets; a pinkish colour, oval in shape with grey flecks on the surface. Rolling it in his fingers, lifted it to his nose. A faint smell of rotten eggs, possibly hydrogen sulphide he guessed, maybe cyanide. What did cyanide smell off? He brought it to his lips, his tongue lightly brushed the surface of the tablet. It burnt the tip of his tongue, he felt drowsy.