Click. Michael May fastened the last strap on his space suit and lifted on his helmet.
‘Primary life support system secure?’ shouted the bald-headed man in front of him.
‘Suit sealer secure?’
Michael looked around the hangar. Forget Tom Hill’s dream of driving a Bugatti Veyron. Forget Darren Fletcher fantasizing about playing left wing for Chelsea. This had to beat the whole lot: for the first time in his life, Michael wished that everyone at home could see him.
‘Give me a thumbs-up y’all when you’re ready,’ said the bald-headed man in uniform. ‘Then I’ll start up the pumps. Any problems just put your hand up and we’ll stop.’
As the words still echoed, Michael’s legs wobbled underneath him. What if he wasn’t any good? What if he messed this up? This wasn’t just a dream any more. He really was in America and he really was just about to find out what it felt like to float in space.
Ten gloved-thumbs rose into the air and ten helmets momentarily glanced up to a balcony surrounded by a smoked glass screen. Standing behind it were a huddle of adults wearing half-smiles, scanning every movement below them.
Michael filled his lungs slowly, staring at the water stretching out in front of him. His heart thumped like a jackhammer. Surely everyone else could hear it! Suddenly black fans, sounding like giant microwaves, started to whirr in each corner of the hangar.
Bob Sturton, who was in charge, gave his next command. ‘I want y’all to move to the edge of the pool now and then I’m gonna turn on the oxygen to your umbilicals.’
With help, Michael and the other children shuffled to the poolside like giant white penguins. A few seconds later, a rush of cool air flooded into his helmet. Michael almost gulped it.
‘This is the most important piece of equipment for you guys,’ said Bob, picking up a curly tube that led from the back of Michael’s spacesuit to a silver box on the wall. ‘This is your “Primary life support system” or “umbilical” as we call it. This is where your communication and oxygen come from and it must not, under any circumstances, get twisted. When you get down there, you’ll see your support divers. These guys are going to be watching you the whole time and are there to help if you get into trouble. Any problems, remember to put your hand up and they’ll come straight to you.’
Michael started running through the briefing they’d all had the day before, trying to remember as much as he could. The building they were in now was the ‘Neutral Buoyancy Pool’ (N.B.P). Bob had explained to Michael and the nine others in his group, that this was basically the world’s largest indoor pool! Longer and wider than an Olympic-sized swimming pool it was also six times deeper and could hold an entire space shuttle cargo bay in it!
Bob looked at his watch and then lifted his arm to signal the start. One at a time the children inched forwards, then stepped from the poolside onto a square platform, suspended from a yellow crane by four metal wires. A loud beeping, which reminded Michael of a lorry reversing, rang around the hangar as barriers jolted down on each side of the platform. With another signal from Bob, it started to lower towards the water.
Michael’s chest suddenly tightened and his gloves grew damp inside. He couldn’t let it affect him now. He just couldn’t! He would soon be below the surface and anyway, he was in a space suit this time. The water couldn’t get to him. Deep breaths – take long, deep breaths, he thought. The jackhammer began to slow and by the time Michael was completely submerged, his breath was slow and calm.
He hadn’t prepared himself for what it would look like under water but his eyes widened immediately. He’d seen pictures and video footage of all one hundred and thirty three space shuttle launches since the very first in 1981 and he knew what every inch of every shuttle looked like. But to actually have part of a space shuttle below him right now!
‘Wicked!’ he mouthed before twisting around to see the same look of amazement on the others’ faces.
Bob’s voice suddenly boomed in Michael’s earpiece.
‘Great job guys! As you can see, today we have a mock-up of the space shuttle cargo bay. It’s floating approximately nine metres below you in a tank containing six million gallons of water. An exact replica of the Atlantis shuttle cargo bay, it measures eighteen point three metres long by four point six metres wide.’
Wow! This thing would be able to fit in a whole fleet of Tom Hill’s Bugattis or give Darren Fletcher enough space to imagine he was taking a penalty at Stamford Bridge!
‘Once you give me the OK, I’m gonna get you down to the shuttle and then the divers will adjust your weights to make you neutrally buoyant. Now who can tell me what neutrally buoyant means?’ asked Bob.
A voice answered immediately. Michael recognised it as Buddy, one of the four Americans here. They’d only known each other for two days, but Michael was already hoping that Buddy would become a friend. Short, with dark hair and an evil sense of humour, Buddy was one of those boys who could get away with anything. This was impressive. Michael’s teacher, Mrs Jarvis, seemed to have eyes in the back of her head. The moment he tried to do something he shouldn’t, he’d hear her parrot voice shout his name and she’d wave her spindly finger at his chair.
‘Neutral buoyancy is the equal tendency of an object to sink or float,’ recited Buddy with a drawl that made Michael picture cowboy films. ‘If a combination of weights and floats are used to make an item neutrally buoyant, it will seem to almost hover under the water. This makes moving even heavy objects easy, just like it is in space.’
‘Great job, Buddy,’ said Bob. ‘Right, are you guys ready to begin?’
Goose bumps immediately erupted over Michael’s arms and neck. He lifted his right thumb up to answer Bob. This was the actual pool where astronauts trained for space walks. It was here at the N.B.P that American astronauts had to put in between seven and ten hours of training for each hour they were going to spend outside their spacecraft. It was the closest thing to weightlessness that you could get and he was just about to experience it! The other children all gave a ‘thumbs up’ and the hoist supporting them carried on its descent to the shuttle.
Michael kept looking down as they went deeper and deeper and apart from the sound of his breathing, there was silence. It’s not deep water, he thought. It’s just a nice warm bath. There’s nothing to worry about. He knew that the water had been heated to something like twenty-eight degrees Celsius to protect the divers and had half expected to feel the warmth of the water, but in his spacesuit the temperature stayed exactly the same. Little by little the blurry shapes below became clearer and the colossal shuttle cargo bay came into focus. There was a sudden jolt and the platform came to a halt. The divers then re-appeared and busied themselves removing the barriers from the hoist and adjusting the children’s weights. From the surface, Bob relayed his next instruction.
‘Right guys, we went through this yesterday in the classroom and you’ve all walked through it on dry land. Now it’s time to see what you’re made of! Michael, tell me what the “payload bay” is and what it’s used for.’
Michael said nothing.
‘Michael, did you hear me?’
There was silence for a few seconds more as Michael tried to order the jumble in his head. This is exactly how he felt at home, when he was asked to stand up and regurgitate the periodic table!
‘Err…a “payload” is another name for cargo or goods that are being delivered or transported,’ he said in a rush. ‘The “payload bay” is where these goods, like satellites or lab equipment are carried.’
‘Excellent, Michael!’ shouted Bob. ‘Perfect! Now, Tilly, what is the “space arm” and what does it do?’
A confident, high-pitched American voice answered.
‘A “space arm” is the remote manipulator arm on a shuttle. It’s a kind of robotic arm, used to lift payload out of or into the cargo bay.’
‘Good job, Tilly!’ said Bob. ‘You guys really know your stuff! So, y’all understand that you each have three tasks to perform. First, you need to locate the satellite and use the space arm to pick it up. Then you must manoeuvre it into the cargo bay and finally you need to show me that you can close the cargo bay doors. Anyone who fails to complete all three tasks is going home. Give me a “thumbs up” if you understand and you’re happy to go on.’
The word ‘home’ made Michael’s stomach turn. He’d only just got here and had absolutely no intention of going home. Not if he could help it.
He’d wondered how Bob could possibly see them nine metres down in the pool, until he noticed that one of the divers floating in front of them, was holding what looked like a video camera. So all their mistakes were going to be recorded then!
The children had partners to work with and Michael had been paired up with Will Bradley (Jr.). Will was the loudest in the group and a bit of a joker. Michael wasn’t at all sure about him. He came from Washington, but apart from that, Michael only knew two other things about him. He was a year older than Michael at fourteen and he had three older brothers. Michael just hoped that Will was as good at listening as he was at talking and could remember the briefing from the day before.
‘You have two hours to complete your task and your time starts now!’ instructed Bob through their earpieces.
Michael began immediately by pressing the communications button on the left side of his helmet. This gave him a separate radio channel to talk to his partner.
‘Will, are you ready?’
‘Sure am,’ replied Will.
‘Let’s go and find the satellite first and then we can work out how we’re going to get it into position for the space arm,’ suggested Michael and with a nod from Will, the two boys made a move towards the edge of the platform. Michael watched his partner’s slow motion movements. It looked like Will was trying to wade through quick sand. He tried to jump off the platform to follow Will, but toppled forwards.
‘Whoa,’ he shouted, trying to steady himself. ‘Will, this is weird isn’t it? When I move, it feels like someone’s pressed the half speed button on my remote control!
Will swung around slowly.
‘Yeah, it’s freaky. You look just like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did in the footage of the moon landing. D’you remember what they said?’
‘Of course I do!’ answered Michael, surprised at the easy question. ‘One small step for man…one giant leap for mankind!’
‘No, not that! I mean the bit where Buzz Aldrin said that it took him three or four steps to get the hang of walking on the moon!’
Michael eventually managed to get a rhythm going and the two boys made their way to a thin white metal rail. This is impossible thought Michael as he tried to wrap his glove around it. Although he could feel his fingers and move them, the pressure in his spacesuit made it so difficult to grab hold of anything tightly. This is why astronauts always look so clumsy, he thought.
‘Over there! Look!’ said Will suddenly as they came to the middle of the pool. When Michael looked to where Will was pointing, he saw a cluster of large, white dishes.
‘They look like giant pasta bowls!’ said Michael, smiling. ‘I wouldn’t mind having my dinner served in one of those! Let’s check for the right one though. Bob said they’ve all got serial numbers on them.’
‘Can you remember the number?’ said Will, his voice telling Michael that he had absolutely no idea.
‘Easy!’ said Michael. ‘It’s the first part of my granny’s telephone number…862.’
‘It’s not this one then,’ said Will, reading the three numbers from a metal plate on the back of the first satellite dish.
‘Nor this one,’ said Michael, looking at a second dish nearby.
It took the boys several minutes of bobbing around like puppets before they found the right satellite.
‘Got it!’ shouted Michael when he saw the familiar numbers. ‘Right, let’s put something on it, so we can find it again.’ He removed a karabiner clip with an orange tag on it from his belt and attached it to one of the metal struts of the satellite dish.
‘OK now we’ve got to get to the space arm and try to lift this thing up to the payload bay,’ said Will motioning for Michael to follow him.
By now, the pool was crowded. There were divers swimming around, nine other children floating in big spacesuits and a camera stuck in front of them the whole time. But to Michael, it was all strangely calm. Perhaps it was because he could hear nothing but Will. Perhaps it was because he could only move slowly in his cumbersome spacesuit…or perhaps it was because, for the first time, he knew what he was doing.
‘I can’t breathe!’ rasped a tiny, wobbly voice suddenly in Michael’s other ear.
‘What was that?’ said Michael, swinging around as fast as his suit would allow.
‘Someone must have pressed the emergency radio button to get hold of Bob on the surface. That’s the only way we’d be able to hear anyone else,’ said Will.
It sounded like Aiko’s voice, but Michael couldn’t be sure and he couldn’t see her anywhere near him.
‘Aiko, this is Bob,’ came a familiar drawl over the radio. ‘Now I want you to listen to me. You must have your umbilical caught on something and it’s stopping the flow of oxygen to your helmet. Put up your hand and stay exactly where you are and one of my guys will be with you straight away.’
‘But I can’t breathe… Help me!’ pleaded the frantic voice.
Michael looked above and below him and turned around three hundred and sixty degrees as fast as he could, before he saw blurred shapes thrashing about back over by the satellites.
‘Hold on, Aiko!’ shouted Michael, pressing his emergency radio button and pushing off with his left foot in her direction. What he’d read about space walking was completely true, thought Michael as he tried to get some momentum going. It was like his brain was working at full speed, but his body could only operate at half-speed in his spacesuit.
‘Come on legs!’
In three or four kangaroo-type hops, Michael was close enough to see that someone else had beaten him to it and he stopped. It took him a moment to realise. Whoever it was, wasn’t helping Aiko. They were moving away! There were no support divers in sight and Aiko was now floating limply on her side. Michael toppled forwards again, trying to keep his balance. He wrapped his glove around her arm and shook it, looking through her visor. Her eyes were closed.