“Houston, we have a problem.”
A phrase so infamous, so ingrained in people’s minds, that it was practically impossible to utter anything else when something went wrong up in the unforgiving black. NASA hated it, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, obviously, because it meant something had gone wrong and they were about to have a hell of a time on their hands attempting to deal with it. Second, the fact that it was so well-known, so trivialised, so inherently ‘Hollywood’, meant that it had a tendency to make everything after it sound somewhat less serious than it actually was. Finally, pedantically, they hated it because it was wrong; attributed to astronaut Jack Swigert during one of Houston’s most historic episodes, the words that should actually have been recorded for time immemorial were “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. The fact that they weren’t, that Hollywood had trumped NASA and rewritten history, made it feel like at some level their victory had been tainted, its essence spoiled by the corrupting caress of ‘fiction’.
Could it be argued that they should have had better things to worry about than what a now dead astronaut had said, decades prior? Absolutely, but at the same time, you could also argue that you hoped to God that they didn’t. A vast amount of space-work was waiting; bursts of activity, followed by long, hopefully uneventful lulls until the next phase came around. Boredom, and trivial debate, as opposed to a savage flurry of catastrophe management, felt like a worthwhile trade.
As it happened, NASA had a pretty decent track record of success. Unfortunately, with the type of endeavours they pursued, a million mundane but critical tasks completed successfully wasn’t considered news. Instead it was typically the mistakes, and the failures, that made the headlines…
It’s odd the things that go through your head when you’re facing annihilation.
Alarms sounding all around him, compartments depressurising, electrical fires sputtering majestically in all the hellish glory of zero-g, and running through his mind were thoughts of inaccurate quotation and grammatical precision.
When he’d hit the transmit button he’d thought for a second about bucking the trend, ensuring that the words which slipped from his lips were something less trite, but ultimately he’d stuck with the classic; “Houston, we have a problem.” The damn phrase was embedded so deeply it was just sitting there on the tip of his tongue, waiting for him, and he had more pressing matters to attend to.
He had no idea what had happened, which was unfortunately all too often the case with this line of work. That would be a job for NASA in the months ahead. No doubt someone, somewhere down the line, would piece it all together, present it in a nice, pristine little data-pack, and they’d squirrel it away somewhere for future reference. As for right now however, it may as well have been system failure, micrometeoroid impact, or even goddamn alien assault, the result was the same regardless; he was royally screwed.
Nineteen months into a two-year stint on the lunar station, and he was leaving it, alone, in a lifeboat amid a rain of debris. Not exactly the farewell he’d been hoping for. Just five more months, and it would have been on a return craft, destined for Earth, with a selection of his crewmates. Instead, he looked now at the barren grey canvas of the lunar surface as it spiralled crazily in his viewport.
The training kicked in; he regretted it later, but at the time it felt like the right thing to do. He ignited the lifeboat’s thrusters, corrected the craft’s wild oscillations, stabilised its roll, angled it ‘feet-first’ toward the surface, and slowed its descent as best he could. The boat was critically damaged, whatever trashed the station also having had a fair jab at its auxiliary craft, and with a worrying majority of its systems wrecked, including life-support, to say the landing would be ‘rough’ was an understatement, but it would make it.
Likewise, the training meant that following the bone-crunching landing he kept communication open to Houston, even though a couple of hours and a sizable headache later he knew there was nothing they could do.
Again, Hollywood had deceived and misled the masses. Growing up, he’d envisaged NASA to be the cavalry, charging in to the rescue at the last minute, guiding astronauts in astonishing feats of ingenuity, repairing critically damaged spacecraft with stuff that was just lying around and sweeping them safely home. Realistically, this was laughable. The majority of the time that something went wrong in space, the sad fact was it was simply unsolvable. It wasn’t like they had a vast stockpile of spare parts lying around, and complex equipment categorically could not be fixed with a bit of gum and traces of spit. As for rescue, it took months, sometimes years to plan a basic mission let alone a complex rescue op, and even if a suitable craft just happened to be sat on a launch pad, prepped and ready, it would still take at least eight hours to get anywhere near him, and significantly longer if it actually wanted to stop and pick him up rather than just race merrily past. All of which was pretty discomforting when considering that he had maybe three hours of oxygen left, three-and-a-half tops. Assuming of course, that he didn’t cook to death in his suit first; Hollywood may have been more interested in showing astronauts freezing to death, regardless of its accuracy, but hey, what else was new?
Speaking with NASA, there were a few half-hearted suggestions made, things he could try, but none were offered with much conviction and he didn’t blame them. These people were realists. They lived and breathed this stuff. They knew his chances as well as he did, and it’s hard to plaster on a sheen of optimism when you’re painfully aware you’re speaking with a dead man.
After a while, he interrupted them and told them to just put him through to his wife and son. He didn’t have long left, and he’d be damned if he didn’t spend some of it saying goodbye to the people he loved.
The speed with which they got off the line and made the connection was another sorry indication of how righteously up shit creek he was.
When he heard his wife’s voice, it suddenly hit him that this was really it. Everything up to that point had been some surreal dream, a role-play game between colleagues, running through worst-case scenarios and disaster simulations. Talking to her, hearing the raw emotion in her voice, her pain, her suffering; that’s when he knew it was real, that he wasn’t going home. It didn’t matter how many people were listening in, he allowed himself to cry together with her. He didn’t care what they would think of him; real men didn’t bottle up their feelings, pretend they didn’t have them, and allow their spouse to wallow alone. He joined her, sharing her torment, their tears uniting them at an end where distance had separated them so far.
Still, as the oxygen readout on his suit began to inch into the red, he made sure to say his final goodbye and end the call; he’d not had a chance to speak to his son, the boy off playing in town somewhere and unreachable, but he’d left a message for him, and forcing his wife to listen to his actual dying breaths felt more like a punishment than a blessing. Houston returned, asking him if there was anything more they could do for him, but he brushed them aside; he didn’t need someone holding his hand as his time ran out, and he wouldn’t have wished the grisly task on anyone.
Instead, he looked to the lifeless grey surface of rock outside his lifeboat’s escape hatch, his thoughts focused only on his family, and prepared to terminate the connection, his hand resting on the door’s release lever. His final words he chose to draw from the world of literature, abandoning the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood for the prestige of the written word.
“I am just going outside and may be some time.”
“Houston, we have a problem.”