The General Assembly Hall of the United Nations exploded with the cries of angry, confused, and ultimately frightened representatives. While the cacophony of voices in numerous languages and dialects echoed about him, Laslo Televast calmly took a drink of water and waited for the excitement to die down. The committee chairman pounded a gavel on the table, “Please delegates! These outbursts are not productive! And will the representative from the USSR kindly put his shoe back on!”
As a semblance of calm returned to the hall, Televast continued, “There’s no point in trying to deny it, ladies and gentlemen. This asteroid is on a path that will bring it in direct contact with Earth within the next six weeks. Our data is infallible. However, just as our science has helped us detect the problem, our science can prove to be the solution as well. I propose that we sent a three-man crew into deep space using one of my Transtar rockets and intercept the asteroid while it is a few weeks away from Earth. Upon landing on the asteroid, the crew will place several atomic explosives at key points along the asteroid’s equator. The crew will then depart and trigger the explosives once they reach a safe distance. With any luck, the asteroid will be reduced to hundreds of smaller rocks and the debris will disperse through the solar system.”
Delegates shouted and banged tables once again, but the debate was more for show than anything else. In the end, everyone in the room knew that Televast’s plan was the only one that could save the planet.
Under Televast’s driving leadership, the Transtar rocket and its crew were ready within a week. Along with Colonel Spear as commander, Spear’s old friend and colleague Clark Nelson was recruited as co-pilot, and to handle the mechanical details of the flight, crusty technician Riley O’Hanlon was brought out of retirement. Spear was happy to know that one of the most experienced rocketry engineers was going to sit beside him. There was no room for error on this mission.
In the wee hours of a Wednesday morning, just as the sky grew purple from the rising sun, the three astronauts sat strapped down in their contoured seats scanning a flashing array of lights and monitors. All systems had been checked and double checked. Everything was in order. All that was left was the silent waiting for the countdown to begin.
“Via con dios, mi amigos!” Laslo Televast barked over the intercom, shattering the tension-filled silence. “We will be monitoring your progress the whole way. This should be a walk in the park for you fine gentlemen!”
“Sure, a walk with a 100 sticks of dynamite strapped to your back,” Nelson muttered.
Spear was about to respond when Betty’s voice came over the speaker, “My darling, please be careful. I’m so proud of you. I want you to come back to me in one piece, you hear?”
Spear grabbed the microphone from its holder on the control panel, “You just worry about picking out the prettiest wedding dress you can find. I’ll be home before you can say, I love you.”
There was no response because the rocket systems engineer in the control room cut in with, “10-9-8-7…” Spear, Nelson, and O’Hanlon sunk into their padded seats in anticipation of the g-forces. No matter how many times these men had experienced the effects of massive thrust on their bodies, they never got used to it. The force could be excruciating, but within minutes the rocket ship known as Transtar 12 was speeding past the moon and hurtling toward the vast reaches of deep space.
Transtar 12 settled into a slow rotation as it flew toward its objective, creating a light gravity. While much lighter than Earth normal, the astronauts were still able to walk across the floor and avoid flying into delicate equipment. For three days, the men went about the regular monitoring and maintenance associated with a deep space flight. At times, Spear found himself almost forgetting the tremendous task awaiting him at the end of the flight. It didn’t help that he was leaving Betty behind just weeks before their impending marriage. He could only imagine how difficult it was for her, waiting for news, praying that he would return unharmed. This was a new sensation. When he was single, he felt little concern for his own safety. Now he felt an obligation to stay alive for Betty’s sake.
“Colonel Spear!” Nelson’s cry shook Spear from his reverie. “There’s an object approaching at tremendous speed!”
“What kind of object?” Spear asked.
“Unknown, sir,” Nelson replied, his look of concern made more shocking by the glow of the monitor reflecting on his face.
Spear made his way from the aft control panel to take a look, but was halted in his forward progress by a severe jolt to the ship. Tumbling to the floor, he felt a momentary increase in gravity as the spin of the rocket accelerated. By the time the onboard computers compensated for the speed, the object was gone.
“Can you see it on the rear cameras?” Spear yelled as he rose to his feet.
“Nothing,” Nelson sighed. “It disappeared as fast as it came.”
The floor hatch creaked open and O’Hanlon popped his head out of the opening. “Holy Moses! What was that?!”
“No idea, Riley,” Spear replied. “Damage report.”
“Whatever that thing was, it hit us in the worst possible spot,” Riley said, “our rear retro-rockets are completely smashed. Without them, there’s no way we can land on the asteroid.”
A moment of grim silence hung over the room. Spear knew there was no way to plant those explosives remotely. To work effectively, their placement had to be precise. Spear asked, “Are they repairable?”
O’Hanlon rolled the question around in his head for a minute. “Well, from what I can see on the monitor, they could be jerry rigged back into working order. But someone has to go outside to do it. That would mean reducing speed.”
“Not a chance,” Spear shot back. “We have to stay on schedule. I’ve made space walks at this rate of speed before. I’ll go out there.”
“Wait a minute, Colonel,” O’Hanlon raised his hand. “As my sainted mother used to say, ‘You don’t send the cobbler to fetch the evening tea.’”
Spear chuckled, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
O’Hanlon shrugged. “I have no idea. She would get in her cups now and then. What I do know is that you are not qualified to fix those retro-rockets. If anyone is going out there, it’ll be me.”
“Keep a steady hand on the helm, Clark,” Spear ordered. “We don’t want to jostle our only engineer.”
“You got it, Colonel.”
The two watched the monitor closely, surveying O’Hanlon’s progress on the retro-rockets. The work was maddeningly slow, but Spear knew that nothing could be left to chance. Even with the best repairs, the ship would still handle like a bucking mule when they landed on the asteroid.
“Onto rocket four and then I should be done.” O’Hanlon’s voice crackled over the intercom.
Spear wiped a bead of sweat from his brow. They were less than 24 hours from the asteroid. Soon, Nelson would have to change course to put them in position for orbit around the runaway rock. The maneuver could not be accomplished with O’Hanlon on the skin of the ship. Spear could feel his stomach turning as another hour ticked away.
“I think I’ve got it fixed,” O’Hanlon called back finally.
Spear gulped air and exhaled with relief. “That’s great, Riley! Now get back in here as soon as you can.”
“Will do, Skipper.”
Spear smiled at the monitor as he saw his engineer rise for the slow walk across the surface of the rocket. Then he noticed something that washed the smile from his face. O’Hanlon’s tether was tangled on a damaged section of the hull. From Spear’s view, the cord looked frayed, possibly from rubbing against the metal while O’Hanlon worked on the retro-rocket. “Riley, hold on.”
Before O’Hanlon could respond, the tether snapped. The man who had just saved the mission was floating away from the ship.