31 stories in 31 days challenge for July. For #10 on July 10th.
In 1985 the United States government received an emergency and highly secret dispatch from the Soviet Union. The USSR had lost contact with their space station with four cosmonauts as well as the two cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz capsule sent to investigate.
They have picked up nothing but silence for the two weeks since the capsule confirmed docking with the space station. Meanwhile the Russian space agency was noting that the station was starting a slow spin.
The issue went directly to the desk of President Ronald Reagan who held a secret meeting with a few high ranking officials and without any aides. The decision was to make a secret shuttle launch, reported to the press as a launch of an unmanned rocket carrying a military payload. The press would be made to think they had launched a spy satellite.
This would all be done in secret. As a matter of fact Space Shuttle Challenger had been specially prepared as a back-up in case the launch of Discovery had been scrubbed. It hadn't and the Challenger was still mostly prepped and ready to go.
The space shuttle was moved to the launchpad on the regular crawler but was covered in a giant tarp, anyone asking questions was told that this was simply a test of the ground crews and their operations using a dummy ship. After night fell the preparations continued. Someone “leaked” to the media that a Titan 34D would be launched with a spy satellite during the night.
Captain Sean Mallory, Commander Thomas Marshall, Commander Douglas Wright and Sergei Andreyev of the Soviet Union made up the crew on this secret mission. Once the ship was on the launchpad and all systems reported as nominal a very shortened countdown took place.
Then at 3 AM eastern time, it launched. The shuttle launch lit up the night and could be seen for many miles. NASA told the Associated Press and United Press International that a Titan 34D was carrying a military payload into orbit, but said it would not deny or confirm what it was carrying.
It would take hours of orbiting before they would catch up to the Russian space station. The following day there were tours of Mission Control, as usual, but very few people knew there was a second mission control right upstairs. As far as everyone knew, the Discovery was the only shuttle in orbit and NASA made sure to highlight the satellite recovery mission it was carrying out.
Meanwhile upstairs in the second mission control center there was another team of controllers, sworn to secrecy, helping the Challenger adjust its orbit as it caught up to the silent Russian space station. They even used the codename “Disco One” on communications, although these were almost all scrambled, and communications were also minimized.
“11.8 miles from target Disco One” the controllers said “Rate of approach is 3,000 meters per hour”
Challenger was close enough to get a good look at the Russian space station almost a day into its mission.
“Houston, I can confirm that target is drifting and has a slow horizontal spin” Captain Mallory reported “We are still receiving no communication or any sign that someone is home”
“Roger. Proceed with caution”
“I hear you” the Captain said.
Then they saw the Soyuz capsule floating about twelve meters off the space station.
“Houston, reporting that the Soyuz has dislodged or has been moved from target” Captain Mallory said “Should we recover the capsule before checking out the main target?”
The controllers at NASA discussed this for some ten minutes. Then they told the Challenger crew to use the arm to capture the capsule. That one of them should go EVA and get a look inside.
The astronauts found this interesting, their cosmonaut friend remain tight-lipped about the possible reasons for this. Douglas Wright suited up for the EVA, the bay doors were already open so Thomas Marshall, the pilot, maneuvered the shuttle underneath the space station and the capsule, making sure that the tail of the shuttle did not clip the station or any of its solar collectors.
“The solar collectors look like their in bad shape” Mallory said looking out as they passed under the station toward the capsule.
The cosmonaut Sergei Andreyev spoke up “That happened two months ago when one of the Progress supply capsules hit the docking ring too hard.”
Of course the Soviets did not release such information to the public.
“All set” Wright reported “I am ready to go EVA.”
The hatch into the payload bay opened and Wright exited, wearing not a normal spacesuit but an Extravehicular Mobility Unit. This apparatus made him basically his own small space ship, he had thrusters that allowed him to move away from the shuttle. This is where some of the more dramatic pictures from space came from during the shuttle years.
His EMU had a camera, as well as lights, in the helmet that would allow NASA to see what he saw. Wright moved close to the capsule, now held in place by the robotic arm from the shuttle, he was trying to get into place to see inside of the Soyuz.
“Passed the service module” he said moving slowly. “I am near the mid-section of the descent module, I will now move around to find the porthole”
Cameras on the space shuttle were beaming this back to Houston, heavily encrypted. “I see it, let me get close enough to see inside...” All that could be seen was his back.
“I think I see a body, its torso is in the orbital module and I can see legs” Wright told them “I don't see any real damage to the capsule though.. Oh my god!”
“What happened?” Marshall asked but there were voices from Houston too, they were all talking over each other.
“I don't know how to describe it” Wright said breathing heavily “The cosmonaut is moving and looking at me but... he doesn't seem human any more. He is missing some flesh, an eyeball is hanging out and there is blood everywhere, he is trying to bite through the porthole”
Captain Marshall looked at the cosmonaut he had brought into space “What is going on? You know something, you have to know something!”
Within 10 minutes the President of the United States had been woken up, an hour later he was shown the footage taken from Wrights helmet-mounted camera.
“Our best guess is they were working on biological weapons aboard the space station, you can do things in the near-weightless environment that cannot be done on Earth” the President was told, and he began writing a memo to the Soviet Premier with his own hand.
Over the next hour a flurry of communications took place between DC and Moscow, finally the Russian leader privately apologized and said his country had made a “mistake”. Safety precautions would have prevented any of this from being done in space.
“If you ignore safety and procedures bad things are going to happen. You should learn from things like 3 Mile Island.” Reagan told the Russian leader after all the heated exchanges had cooled down.
The next issue was how to proceed. Obviously they would need to see if there were cosmonauts in the space station in the same condition as the one in the capsule. Commander Wright would resume the spacewalk to get a look inside of the space station.
The Russian space station was made up of several modules. There were a lot of antennas and solar arrays that could get in the way. Commander Wright would take his time looking into as many modules as he could, the ones that had portholes at least.
“I am now looking inside of the Spectre module” he said looking into the biggest of the components of the station. “Oh man..” he said “I see a person gnawing on what looks like a femur... I don't want to talk about it, just look at the images”
Images from the inside of the space station were gruesome. It turned the stomach of the select few who saw them. The secrecy level tightened as much as possible with the knowledge that there were living dead out in space.
Reagan and Gorbachev discussed what to do about the situation.
“The only thing we can do is to save the space station” The Russian leader said through a translator “This means the atmosphere needs to be vented, since we do not have ground control I am asking you to open the hatches.”
Ronald Reagan was aghast by this. As he thought more and more about it, even though there was a knot in his gut, he had to admit that the Soviet leader made a good point. These men were already dead, if they vent the atmosphere of the station and let the bodies out into space, where they would eventually burn up in the atmosphere it would be like a cremation.
By this point Commander Douglas Wright had been in the EMU for 3.5 hours, the suits life support was rated for around 8 hours, so he had a comfortable margin of safety on the EVA. He was joined by cosmonaut Sergei Andreyev because none of the other Americans wanted to be the ones to open the hatches. Besides, the cosmonaut knew how to vent the atmosphere.
When Wright got his orders he said “This is not what I signed up for” but he did not refuse to do the job. At least as a helper to the cosmonaut. “It is right and proper than a Russian cosmonaut be the one to do this”. Sergei agreed with this.
Using the only other Extravehicular Mobility Unit that the shuttle carried the cosmonaut went to the Spectre and started turning knobs and punching commands into a touch pad. Finally there were several atmospheric leaks in six directions, meant to keep the station stable during a vent. Then the cosmonaut went up to the Core Module and did something similar, but this time he opened the airlock to space where a Soyuz might be docked.
A rush of atmosphere brought out a body but it grabbed a hold of Sergei and tried to bite through the faceplate on his helmet. Finally the cosmonaut extricated himself and pushed the living dead away, toward the planet which was 223 miles below them.
“Oh my God” Commander Wright said watching the dead body flail and try to swim back to them as it fell away. He didn't see the second body climb out and grab the cosmonaut from behind, threatening the safety of the space suit. When Wright looked back he was able to push the thing away upward and it bounced off the solar array of the Priroda module and then away from the station. It also was still struggling.
A small probe camera was pushed into the space station, now opened to space. They checked every module and found human remains in most of them. Then they moved on to the capsule where the cosmonaut separated the orbital module from the descent and service modules, the hatch was opened and the thing inside tried to lunge at them but it remained inside the descent module.
Finally Sergei grabbed it by the elbow and pulled it out, the creature bit into his shoulder and then scratched at his arm with claws. His suit was ripped on the arm but the creature had a good hold on his helmet until Wright used his thrusters and kicked the creature away. He had to slow down and stop before reaching the cosmonaut who was venting atmosphere.
“Let's get you to the shuttle, hurry!” Commander Wright said but Sergei pulled open the rip on his arm and showed the wound. “I have been infected. I cannot go back, I will only infect others. I will pull the Soyuz back toward the planet and we will both burn up.”
The cosmonaut did this before running out of oxygen.
The rest of the crew only watched in horror and less than thirty minutes later at full EMU thrust they could see the re-entry burning of the capsule and cosmonaut. They knew that none of this would be recorded for history, none of this would ever be known to rest of the world. Their mission would not even get an STS designation number, that even their military missions were given.
Less than three days after taking off the shuttle landed in the night with no media or fanfare and only a skeleton crew on the ground. The shuttle Challenger was towed away to its hangar and the landing strip prepared for Discovery's return a few days later.
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