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An incredible, true-life adventure set on the most dangerous frontier of all—outer spaceIn the nearly forty years since Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, space travel has come to be seen as a routine enterprise—at least until the shuttle Columbia disintegrated like the Challenger before it, reminding us, once again, that the dangers are all too real.
Too Far from Home vividly captures the hazardous realities of space travel. Every time an astronaut makes the trip into space, he faces the possibility of death from the slightest mechanical error or instance of bad luck: a cracked O-ring, an errant piece of space junk, an oxygen leak . . . There are a myriad of frighteningly probable events that would result in an astronaut’s death. In fact, twenty-one people who have attempted the journey have been killed.
Yet for a special breed of individual, the call of space is worth the risk. Men such as U.S. astronauts Donald Pettit and Kenneth Bowersox, and Russian flight engineer Nikolai Budarin, who in November 2002 left on what was to be a routine fourteen-week mission maintaining the International Space Station.
But then, on February 23, 2003, the Columbia exploded beneath them. Despite the numerous news reports examining the tragedy, the public remained largely unaware that three men remained orbiting the earth. With the launch program suspended indefinitely, these astronauts had suddenly lost their ride home.
Too Far from Home chronicles the efforts of the beleaguered Mission Controls in Houston and Moscow as they work frantically against the clock to bring their men safely back to Earth, ultimately settling on a plan that felt, at best, like a long shot.
Latched to the side of the space station was a Russian-built Soyuz TMA-1 capsule, whose technology dated from the late 1960s (in 1971 a malfunction in the Soyuz 11 capsule left three Russian astronauts dead.) Despite the inherent danger, the Soyuz became the only hope to return Bowersox, Budarin, and Pettit home.
Chris Jones writes beautifully of the majesty and mystique of space travel, while reminding us all how perilous it is to soar beyond the sky.
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CHRIS JONES joined Esquire as a contributing editor and sports columnist, and became a Writer at Large when he won the 2005 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing for the story that became the basis for this book. Previously he was a sportswriter at the National Post, where he won an award as Canada’s outstanding young journalist. His work has also appeared in The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Sports Writing anthologies. He lives in Ottawa, Canada.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
1 SIMPLE MACHINES
For this one dream, men had turned chimpanzees into crash test dummies, gone through a thousand pink enema bags to make sure their own plumbing was ready to withstand the trip, and finally been launched like artillery shells—in corrugated–tin capsules held together by hardware–store screws—deep into the black. Not much later, they were balancing themselves on top of six million pounds of rocket fuel and lighting it on fire. Today the insanity physics continue. Astronauts blink down the risk that a rubber O–ring on one of the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters might give way, spraying a flame laced with powdered aluminum, ammonium perchlorate, and iron oxide onto the external fuel tank, igniting its cargo of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, and having their cockpit turn into a coffin.
All to cross the gap between home and away, to cross a distance that, on land, any old rust bucket could fart across in a couple of hours. But the gulf between earth and space is, and always will remain, a wider divide: it’s a chasm without walls, and plenty of men, as well as a couple of women, have died trying to string their way to the other side.
Captain Kenneth Bowersox had survived the trip four times, twice as a pilot in the space shuttle’s forward right seat, twice as commander in the forward left. Now he played the unaccustomed role of cargo, staring at rows of storage lockers instead of the beckoning sky. The pilot had become the passenger, one of three men crammed below decks like ballast, waiting to be shuttled on Endeavour to the International Space Station.
Despite having been shunted downstairs for launch, Bowersox had been looking forward to his fourteen–week–long mission the way the rest of us look forward to a much–needed vacation. Although he had visited space four times, none of his previous shuttle missions had lasted more than sixteen days, and he had never been to the International Space Station. He had always felt that he had been asked to come home too soon. This time, however, he would have time to linger. He and his colleagues would conduct a range of scientific experiments and busily maintain station—astronauts rarely bother to slip the in front of station, thinking of it as a place rather than a thing—but their principal assignment would be to make themselves and the men and women who would follow them content living in orbit. Even before launch, Bowersox was confident that, as far as finding happiness went, he would succeed. He might have been flying steerage, but space was still his island in the sun.
For all that Bowersox tried to focus on the destination, he couldn’t help wishing he was up above for the journey. He wished he was alongside the two men in the front–row seats—in his seats—able to take in the view and, more important, see the fifty control panels and nine monitors that flashed before Commander Jim Wetherbee and Paul Lockhart, the pilot. Against his life’s habit, Bowersox had ceded control, and now he shifted in his seat and fiddled with his straps. At least Wetherbee had been in space five times already, and like Bowersox, he was a Naval Academy man and okay by him; Lockhart, in contrast, was making just his second trip, and only five months after his first, back in June 2002.
Also, he came out of the air force.
Worse, Lockhart wasn’t meant to be flying today. Had everything gone to plan, Lockhart should have been in Houston, watching NASA TV, trying to get out from under the private jealousy that runs through every grounded astronaut forced to watch another man’s dreams come true.
The man stuck watching television this time around was Gus Loria of the marines, who had thrown out his back in August and been scratched from the mission, which would have been his first. Instead, Lockhart’s vacation plans had been canceled, and he was pressed into emergency service, jammed into the same seat on the same shuttle he’d occupied just that past summer. It was still set for his height, and he settled right in.
Loria was less comfortable on his perch back in Houston, and he wasn’t alone among the unhappy spectators. Joining him was Dr. Don Thomas, a four–trip veteran and the science officer who had been expected to join Bowersox and the Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin—a former engineer who had logged nearly a year in space on Mir, the International Space Station’s burned–up predecessor—for their stay. Over two years of training, at home and in Russia, in simulators and classrooms and T–38 jets, they had become Expedition Six.
Thomas had also undergone a more sinister indoctrination. Without the apron of earth’s atmosphere to protect them, astronauts are exposed to higher–than–usual amounts of solar radiation. Because little is known about exactly how much exposure will trigger cancer, and rather than risk its astronaut corps becoming lumpy with tumors, NASA has set an arbitrary radiation “red line.” If an astronaut approaches that ceiling, he’s grounded and stuck behind a desk until his cancer–free retirement (fingers crossed). Extensive medical investigation had revealed that Thomas, for whatever reason, had come unacceptably close to NASA’s red line. Another four months in space and he would have gone over it. He would have carried too much of the universe home with him.
The flight surgeons had passed on their findings to Mission Control and, in turn, to Bowersox. As the commander of Expedition Six, he had been left facing down three possible outcomes following the unsettling news: he could choose to ignore the evidence and fight to allow Thomas to fly; he could see Thomas scratched from the mission and replaced with his designated backup, a chemical–engineer–turned–rookie–astronaut named Don Pettit; or Bowersox could ground himself, Budarin, and Thomas, and order all three members of Expedition Six replaced by their reserves. He had taken the options to bed with him and been surprised by how much time he spent turning them over.
Through training and by nature, Bowersox had acquired a certain cool. He carried a sense of detachment with him almost always: a pilot’s life, if he wants to see the end of it, doesn’t hold a lot of room for romance, and Bowersox had mastered the hard art of bottling up his feelings. Confronted with a dilemma that would keep most men up at night, he’d hold it under the light like a clinician, pulling it apart without emotion. The walls he’d built carried clean through his eyes, which were the same hard, glacier blue that had become a trademark of the best pilots, like Chuck Yeager’s drawl or a strong chin. (Bowersox, who grew up in Indiana, owned the chin but not the accent.) Since Norman Mailer had pointed out that all but one of Apollo’s first class of sixteen astronauts boasted blue peepers, that genetic fluke had become a virtual requirement of the astronaut corps. It was as if the color of a man’s eyes revealed the tenor of his heart, cold and colder.
But here Bowersox struggled, even though the facts were plain. Thomas’s health presented a risk, and a trip into space was marbled with enough risk already. That should have been all there was to it. And yet, for one of the few times in his life, it was finally his turn to lie awake, allowing the data to be clouded by late–night sentiment. He had grown to like Thomas—a quiet, hardworking, serious–minded man, the sort whose hands never shook. Bowersox's affection for him, when viewed through the peculiar prism of space travel, was a particular kind of love: it meant that he was both comfortable in his company and confident in his abilities. They had developed an abiding faith in each other, and now Bowersox was confronted with a decision that, in an instant, might break what had taken years to build.
He didn’t want his friend killed with kindness, however, and he began casting his mind toward switching out the entire crew. It didn’t take him long to shake off that option like a shiver. The clean sweep would have crushed Budarin and brought Thomas no closer to space. And in the honesty of his private company, Bowersox had to admit that his own itching to fly bordered on a sickness. Through the semidarkness, he stared down the prospect of spiking what might be his last stab at it. He was forty–five years old, almost forty–six, growing long–toothed by astronaut standards; he’d lost his ginger hair a long time ago. Deep down, he knew his time was running out. He also knew there were dozens of astronauts lurking in the wings behind him, first–stringers their entire lives who'd found themselves in the unnatural position of waiting, sometimes for seven, eight, nine years, hoping that their phone would finally ring with the call that gave them the go–ahead. No part of Bowersox wanted to put a line through his own name in exchange for one of theirs; no blue–eyed pilot would ever volunteer to give up the stick.
All of which had left him with a single option: replacing Thomas with Pettit, exchanging one Don for another, and, in the process, learning how to think of a friend as though he was just another part of the machine.
At Star City, an hour north of downtown Moscow, down a road cut through a green forest, a contingent of exiled Americans had gathered in the small cottage occupied by Don Pettit. He had been in Russia for more than a year, mostly going through the motions. Although he took his training seriously, he knew that, as a reserve, his chances of getting called up to join Expedition Six were close to zero. Really, his agreeing to a semipermanent exile was part of a grander plan he had drawn up for himself. For a rookie astronaut, clocking in as a backup was viewed favorably by those few, untouchable men in Houst...
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