Today's Reading

The U.S. would never have been able to launch the plutonium RTGs to the ISS, as any mention of radioactivity ignited hysteria—even though the compact nuclear power sources were absolutely necessary for powering the sensors, rovers, and living areas needed for exploring Mars and beyond, where solar panels are impractical. But the Russians didn't have environmental activists or an independent press to publicize a risky launch; they just didn't tell anyone, and took NASA's money without fanfare. So Kimberly had to admit, compared to the sexy role RTGs had in ISS's next phase in the space program, some of her efforts at advancing humankind's knowledge had more to do with the public relations side of NASA, looking after zero-gee ant farms, growing larger-than-life asparagus, and measuring the viscosity of weightless Jell-O.

But she kept that gripe to herself. The money they made from launching the RTGs and tourism was of particular interest to the Russians, especially since the U.S. would soon stop paying $82 million apiece for every American astronaut launched in a Russian Soyuz capsule to the ISS. The U.S. hadn't had a human-rated spacecraft since the Space Shuttle retired, but thank goodness several newly licensed capsules—Boeing's Starliner and SpaceX's Dragon—were just coming into service. Kimberly grimaced as she thought of her last return flight in the Soyuz: a horrific four-gee descent that squeezed your guts and usually hit the ground at some isolated farmland in the Kazakhstani wilderness.

If you were lucky.

She never complained about the landings, knowing that one of her more famous fellow astronauts had come down smack in the middle of the Iraq war zone some twenty years earlier.

So while she regretted not being present to meet Farid Hazood and the Qatari tourist, Adama Bakhet, at the docking port, Kimberly told herself she'd make it up soon enough after they'd entered the ISS and started integrating with the crew. Besides, two of the Russians and the other Americans aboard the station couldn't make the docking, either; Al was manning the control center and Robert was with the Russians, who had just borrowed three of the four JPM laptops and were now readying a pair of EVA suits in the Joint Airlock.

So Kimberly kept one eye on the experiments percolating along, and the other on the webcast video she'd put on her laptop as the basketball-shaped Soyuz slowly approached the Russian MRM-2 docking compartment, or DC. The capsule floated gently toward the ISS, no faster than one foot per second as the new female "Voice of NASA" spoke quietly over the comm link.

She could see in the background of her laptop's monitor stars moving slowly, silently across the black infinity of space. Even though she had witnessed dozens of dockings, the scene still made a heart-stopping view: mating with the million-pound ISS while it and the Soyuz capsule both hurtled through space at 17,500 miles per hour brought a lump to her throat. It was an incredible human achievement, accomplished some 250 miles above the Earth's surface.

Reluctantly, Kimberly turned away from the laptop and peered through the confocal microscope at the crystal she was monitoring. It was visibly growing, slowly but unmistakably, like a diamond glittering in the microscope's glareless light. Floating in front of the experimental chamber, she was careful to position herself away from the portable microwave projector that was beaming its 98 GHz radiation into the crystal specimen.

The novel experiment was something she'd never expected to come from the Air Force Academy, but with Scott Robinson pushing heaven and earth to overcome the Academy's trade-school reputation, his alma mater was evolving into a world-class research organization.

Now where did that come from? Kimberly hadn't thought of Scott in what? Minutes?

Focus on the experiment, she commanded herself. Stop thinking about Scott: you're divorced, it's over.

But her ex-husband was CAPCOM today, serving as their astronaut lead at the mission control center, MCC at Houston, commanding the space station's communications link with the ground. It's been eighteen months since the divorce, Kimberly told herself, a near eternity in today's stop-and-shop world of one-relationship-after-another. And besides, his ego was so large it probably filled every corner of the MCC.

Still, she saw Scott's handsome, smiling face in her mind.

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