Halfway through our six-month mission, we’ve got CNN on in the Destiny module—to “make us feel connected,” they say—and it’s all the typical shit. A car bomb went off in Karachi. Hurricanes brewing in the Gulf. Someone’s reporting on a tweet.
“Isn’t there any good news?” Heidi says.
“Sure,” says Ahmed, “look the other way.”
Out the windows, Earth looks so peaceful. Even the problems you can see from space still inspire awe. Shanghai is covered in a blossom of yellow smog. A trash island glistens in the Pacific like the scale of a massive fish. Heat lightning jumps across the clouds like thoughts on a brain.
The threats we can’t see are the close ones. Last week, on her space-walk, Heidi saw the scars of meteoroid impacts—pock marks across the station’s hull, bullet holes in our handrails.
“It’s like we’re being bombarded,” she says, meaning on the outside. But it’s on the inside, too.
We each glance at the screen as we do our science. Heidi’s reviewing data from the tissue samples we ran yesterday. Natalie tends to her spiders—Peter and Parker—and snaps pictures of their looping, weightless webs. Ahmed’s on his way to the treadmill. I’m at Veggie, because somebody thought we should grow tomatoes.
“Our forbearers mastered lettuce,” Heidi jokes. “Next stop bacon?”
“Only if we can get some more pork through Congress,” Natalie says.
“One small step for plants,” I say, in my announcer voice. “One giant leap for sandwiches.”
Natalie laughs. “You’re such a dad.”
Dad maybe, farmer no. In the Veggie unit, half a dozen tomato vines protrude from plant pillows, little sacks of dirt that hold their roots. On a few, I see signs of guttation—tiny droplets dot the edges [End Page 10] of the leaves—so I turn up the fan. It’s what happens when there’s too much internal pressure. The water just has to get out.
The older vines have started bearing oblong fruit. Two have ripened to that shining matte red that reminds me of fire trucks and sports cars, my favorite childhood toys. One zooming toward the danger, the other away from the ordinary. Packed into these little objects were all my reasons for becoming an astronaut. I shock myself, sometimes, the way a tomato, or fixing the toilet, or slurping bulbs of water out of the air—all the simple work we do up here—can suddenly tip toward the profound.
There’s a breaking news alert, a school shooting outside of DC.
“Not again,” Natalie says.
They’re showing familiar-looking aerial footage, a SWAT team crossing the sports fields and the track, when I realize I’ve seen this all before, because I recognize that track.
My daughter, Sasha, has run around that track. I’ve stood on those sidelines, cheering her on. I’ve played touch football with my sister’s kids, my brother-in-law—every day-after-Thanksgiving, before leftovers and pie.
And that’s when the name of the high school is announced—Madison High School, my daughter’s high school—and the screen goes black.
The trip from the launch pad to the ISS takes about six hours, but the next few minutes stretch longer. Even though we’re technically in free fall (my mind is in free fall), my organs feel like liftoff, my chest pushing into my stomach pushing into the floor—like the whole inside of me wants to go down and back.
And I do.
It should be easy.
Right now, we are 254 miles above the Earth. Just a few hours drive. I picture my daughter in history class. Shots fired. Alarm sounds. If there’s a globe on the teacher’s desk, our station would be just three-eighths of an inch above it. By contrast, the moon would be thirty feet away—in the corner of the room—where the students are huddled, far from the door.
We’re so close.
NASA wants to talk to me on the private line, and my...