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By the time they drove out to the shuttle they had been in their spacesuits so long they were all beginning to sweat. They were sitting opposite each other in the van, five facing five, but were mostly quiet. Only Harry, Igor and Commander Sheppard were comfortable enough to make cheerful banter. The others avoided each other’s eyes, each in their own private world of anticipation. The silence became more noticeable as they left mission control behind, along with the band and the cheering crowd and the screen which read T-minus 90 minutes, and made their way to the open stretch of land where the shuttle was chained to the Earth.
The Congreve was far bigger than Astrid remembered, the size of a cathedral. The orbiter, the small space where the crew would be strapped in, sat on top of propellant-filled towers which generated enough thrust to hurl them through the atmosphere. Astrid climbed out of the van at the foot of the giant, which hissed and thrummed, and from where she stood, could see steam curl off the steel surface like breath through parted lips.
Sixty metres above her the orbiter access was like the arm of a crane, and as they took the lift up to it Astrid felt the drop in her stomach. Yet she knew this thirty seconds of acceleration was nothing compared to the flight that awaited her on the other side of the shuttle’s hatch, where they would soar to twenty-six times the speed of sound in eight minutes.
The elevator door slid open to a sunlit bridge and they were greeted by the close-out crew – the white-suited technicians who approached the senior astronauts with hugs and the members of the Beta with handshakes. ‘Just follow the yellow-brick road,’ said one of the men with a number 2 printed on his back. He was pointing to the yellow and black chevrons painted on the narrow walkway which led to the white room, the small chamber in front of the hatch. The little space was packed with people and almost as soon as Astrid entered three of them descended on her, tugging at the straps on her spacesuit and re-attaching communication lines.
‘Hey,’ Jesse looked up from the small crowd in front of him and asked, ‘You don’t know how to . . .’ He was fiddling with the straps on his parachute, blushing with confusion. Astrid was about to lean over to help him when one of the suit technicians brushed her hands away and attached it herself. ‘You’re ready,’ she told him, and Jesse took a deep breath and headed into the shuttle. ‘See you on the other side,’ he said over his shoulder.
‘How does that feel?’ a man peered up at Astrid from behind his glasses, fastening the final strap on her suit. ‘Too tight?’
‘Not really,’ she told him, and then it was her turn to step through the hatch. It was a little circular door and climbing in was an inelegant process which required Astrid to get on all fours and then to roll onto her back, every movement a struggle in her heavy suit. She felt like a diver wearing a second skeleton, but it occurred to her, as the crew fumbled to strap her in, that these were the last people she would see on Earth, and she didn’t even know their names.
Once they finished, Astrid was tied down so tightly she could feel the pulse throbbing in her legs. Her ears were filled with the chatter of mission control. ‘As you know: I’ve done this a few times,’ Commander Sheppard said with a smile. ‘It’s over quickly. Your job is just to take it all in.’
Something strange and wonderful occurred to Astrid then. The fight was finished. For the first time in her life, even if she did nothing at all, she would be in space.
Sometimes her father would call upon new believers to tell the story of how they came to faith. Their testimony. And this was hers. Astrid had grown up knowing that there was a distant planet outside her own solar system, a green twin of Earth orbiting dual stars. The first day that a longing to go there awoke inside her, she had been in assembly. All the children in her year group had been ushered into the school hall to watch a video, part of a presentation delivered by a team from the UKSA. ‘Another habitable planet,’ announced one of them across the darkened room and the screen lit up with dazzling vistas of an alien land. Astrid saw an ocean, lush mountain ranges and terracotta canyons ridged like jewel-box shells.
‘They call it a “New Earth”,’ said the young astrobiologist with exaggerated air-quotes, ‘but our findings actually suggest that Terra-Two is many millions of years older than our own Earth; truly, we’re living on Terra-Two.’
Under the collar of her shirt, Astrid’s neck prickled with goosebumps. She sat up as if she had been called by name, and in a way she had. This, they’d told her, was a place for the intrepid. The first settlers would not arrive until they were middle-aged, even if they left today. Their job would be to chart terrain, and to explore the land, to name the secret schools of fish which swept through the coral reefs, and photograph night-blooming flowers. Someone in this room, they’d said in a reverent whisper, may be the first to set foot in the crystalline caves which had formed underground. Astrid had imagined herself descending to find her own adult face reflected in the frosty mineral beams.
This is a job for the brave, they’d said, a job for dreamers, for people who, like Astrid, woke every morning longing for another world. ‘Imagine it,’ the recruiter had said. And Astrid had.
That week, she’d bounced around with the hyper energy of a new convert. She would get into Dalton, she would specialize in astrobiology, she would be accepted into the Beta and she would go to Terra-Two.
Astrid would remember the years after that assembly and before the launch as a single shining line of triumph. The shortest route between point A, the naming of her desire and point B, leaving Earth – its sole zenith of realization.
Later, they would ask what she had been thinking when the hatch slammed shut. Had she been contemplating what a slow labour their mission was, how many minds and hands it had taken to get her to this point, to this two-minute launch window? Or was she counting every sacrifice, every year of her life she had given and was still to give?
As the flight director commenced the countdown, she heard Professor Stenton’s measured voice crackle through the headset. ‘Take care of yourself,’ she said, the thing she said whenever she bid them goodbye from the driveway before a school trip, or at the start of a holiday with the sun in her eyes.
They would ask Astrid if she had been afraid and she would answer ‘no’ every time. And if she ever looked back at the strange arc of her life and wondered if any moment had been as perfect as dreaming of it, she would say, ‘that one’.
The shuttle launched. Astrid burst through the luminescent atmosphere and into the black firmament beyond. She had been longing to leave her whole life, and finally nothing was standing between her and the stars.