Debris was hurtling toward you and 14 passengers aboard the VSS Michael Alsbury at nearly 18,000 miles per hour.
You were hovering just inches behind the spaceplane, sent there to fix its malfunctioned engines. All of you, rotating through low Earth orbit, the sun in clear view, were completely in the dark. When the notification came, the moment of first impact was less than five minutes away.
“Hermes 1,” the female Space Command operator exclaimed feverishly in your ear, “abort immediately. Unexpected debris incoming from polar orbit, north latitude, inclination approximately 87 degrees. I repeat: abort immediately.”
“10-4, Nova.” Your training kicked in. Human Maneuvering Unit thrusters attached to your spacesuit were instantly deployed, propelling you back toward your own spacecraft. Excessive thrust flipped you backward on the final approach. As you regained composure, yanking the external switch and opening the entry hatch, the civilian spaceplane was back in sight. A girl strapped inside, the only child on board, staring directly at you from a side window, mystified by your abrupt, unannounced movement.
“Hermes 1, status update.”
Seconds passed, and you were still outside, unmoved, the engine nearest you engraved with tiny lettering: “THEN I DEFY YOU, STARS!”
Debris — hundreds, maybe thousands of pieces — whirling closer. Tiny objects the size of a golf ball, some even smaller, racing through zero gravity with the energy of an automobile on the highway.
“Nova…” Your voice faded, eyes still on the girl, the dense tether connecting your spaceplane to hers in the foreground.
Detach or don’t detach, that is the question.
“Status update!” Nova yelled. “Now!”
* * *
UNITED STATES SPACE COMMAND
22,236 miles above Washington, D.C.
2:13 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: My fellow Americans. Yesterday, in the spirit of wanderers and voyagers guided on their journeys by the radiance and mystique of the stars, I became the first president to soar into the heavens aboard Space Force One. On this quest, I was reminded of Daniel 12:3: “And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”
I address you from United States Space Command, advancing in geostationary orbit, a specific route perfectly calibrated to match the rotating speed of the Earth, synced with the equator directly south of Washington. This structure is a shining example of American leadership and ingenuity; the very definition of American exceptionalism.
Today, I want us to think back some 30 years. The strategic environment was marked by a great power competition between the United States, Russia, and China. Many believed our animosity would only escalate, with conflicts in space a near certainty. But following years of deadlock, our three nations signed the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, after verification measures were included, and exceptions were created for stockpiling ground-based weapons in orbit. Three decades later, the situation has changed drastically. The space weapons treaty is now obsolete. To demonstrate why, I want to tell the world about a true American hero: Capt. Natalie Evans.
* * *
It began as a routine mission.
An Everhart II-class Orbital Cargo Shuttle was failing to launch a container full of various weapons, ammunition, and armored vehicles necessary for a mission on the ground — set to commence in 24 hours.
“Capt. Evans,” your commander briefed the entire unit, “if it’s unfixable without assistance, manually release the container and return ASAP.”
This was your 37th solo mission, but it still felt surreal.
In many ways, you were never supposed to be there. Of the 150 cadets in your class at the United States Space Force Academy, only 19 were women. The odds were stacked against you, something your father and a select group of old-school professors often made very clear.
Despite the stiff competition, you could always bond over a simple fact: the other military branches hated all of you. The Space Force came at the expense of everyone else, especially the Air Force, which still — 30 years later — insisted that it should hold your mission and that your entire military branch should have never been created. With a finite budget, they hated the unnecessary bureaucracy you created, the public interest you sucked up, the congressional appropriations that came with it.
On top of all of that, there was the fact that Space Command was physically in space, which even you thought was absurd. But then there was Congress. Oh, Congress. The world’s greatest legislative body interpreted e pluribus unum as “Out of 535, few.” Over decades, only about a dozen members — mostly in the House, but also a handful in the Senate — bargained over the annual defense bills with such expertise, such aggression, that the next thing anyone knew, the command was nowhere near complete, yet was voyaging in Earth’s shadow. The president of the United States became the most zealous proponent, and she often touted its next-generation features (achieved at just $425 billion over budget), which included artificial gravity and a design resembling the Milky Way galaxy.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: Capt. Evans was a standout among the Space Operations Force, the elite soldiers of Space Force. She was…
* * *
You were trained for understanding, traversing, even gallivanting orbits. To know all of them, you had to experience all of them, sometimes in your vehicle designed by the Space Development Agency, sometimes not.
You were in low Earth orbit.
The vast majority of satellites were there. Altitude: 100–1,200 miles. You circled the globe numerous times per day. The closer you were, the faster your orbital period. Your record, with a tiny boost, almost 20,000 miles per hour.
You were in semi-synchronous orbit.
Altitude: 12,600 miles. Speed: exactly twice as fast as Earth. Precisely two orbits per day.
You were in geosynchronous orbit.
Altitude: 22,000 miles. Speed: the exact same as Earth. Precisely one orbit per day.
They even put you in high Earth orbit.
Altitude: above geosynchronous. Speed: slower than Earth. Old satellites were pushed there, to die. The graveyard orbit, they called it. High radiation. Spend a lot of time there, develop cancer. After training, they never sent anyone back.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: Then, horror struck. Just three days ago, the so-called Anti-Colonial Regiment, the infamous global terrorist group, launched a crudely made ballistic missile from eastern Siberia toward the VSS Michael Alsbury, a luxury civilian spaceplane traveling from Los Angeles to Sydney on a highly elongated, scenic path.
Looking back, we should have seen this coming. Spaceflight coordinates are openly published on the internet, and even amateur physicists can determine intercept trajectories. We also knew that a Pakistani missile scientist, seeking extra cash, was providing ACR with technical assistance.
* * *
The first space junk you faced was entirely expected.
“Hermes 1,” the space operator said, “Zero-Seven ASAT debris flying within the danger zone on your present course in t-minus 10 minutes. Maui transmitting data now.”
Less than a second later, your main onboard navigational monitor lit up with pieces of debris, careening, artificially circled. All of it left over from a four decade-old Chinese anti-satellite test. “Nova,” you said, “onboard computer recommends a minimal change in deorbital eccentricity to maneuver around debris. Requesting permission to deorbit as recommended.”
A short pause.
“Received, Hermes 1. Onboard recommendation is a match. Permission granted.”
With that, the ride was smooth sailing, solar wind edition, and within hours you were docked with the designated cargo ship.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: The missile missed the plane, but the warhead still exploded, creating debris that struck a Russian military satellite, generating a field of dangerous wreckage that struck two other satellites nearby, producing even more debris. This chain reaction is known as Kessler Syndrome, and, at its worst, is best described as Murphy’s Law in space: Once set in motion, what can go wrong, will go wrong.
* * *
Inside the cargo ship, disjointed construction looked homogenous: Rows of guns, bullets, heavy ammunition, and armored vehicles filled the space, ready to land virtually anywhere on the ground in minutes.
“Nova,” you almost chuckled after merely 30 minutes of investigating, “the emergency mechanical safety switch is turned to the ‘on’ position, preventing the container ejection. Permission to turn ‘off.’”
Half a minute went by.
“Hermes 1, permission granted. No other issue?”
You couldn’t hold the laugh. “No, ma’am. Looks as though the switch was never returned to the correct position after last month’s manual repairs. Permission to verbally spank the boys upon return?”
You could feel her smile through the microphone. “Permission neither granted nor denied. Space Command is remotely releasing the container now.”
As you watched the container speed away from you through the single, tiny window aboard the cargo ship, the operator was back in your ear — this time almost certainly not smiling.
A spaceplane had malfunctioned, she said. Nova ordered you to assess the situation while an evacuation crew headed over.
You didn’t have time to change your oxygen tanks. Nova had no idea.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: We were lucky. Microscopic wreckage struck the Michael Alsbury’s OMS engines, rendering them at least temporarily inoperable. But amazingly, the plane was largely unharmed and no passengers were injured. At that point, we were aware that a missile had been launched and some unknown debris had been created, but nothing more. Capt. Evans was sent to check on the plane and attempt an external engine repair. Unbeknownst to us, she was heading directly toward danger.
* * *
Nova was screaming at you.
The contents of her message irrelevant, the theme clear: You have no time. Your lack of responses meant she already thought you were dead. Back at the controls of your ship, you commandeered the computer and calculated the fastest deorbit to atmospheric reentry. There was only one problem: Your ship, unlike the Michael Alsbury, was designed strictly for orbiting, not for atmospheric drag and aerodynamic heating. It would burn up on re-entry. But if you wanted to save the others, the only option available was towing them toward the ground. OMS engines were now full-steam — rather, full hypergolic propellant — ahead.
The tether would surely break, likely from heat rather than force, freeing their ship to maneuver through gravity once back in the atmosphere If you were lucky, the 14 passengers might just make it home. Your ship, though, was doomed no matter what, and you had to get out of there on your own – fast.
You radioed the crew of the Michael Alsbury, told them they better prepare to use their RCS thrusters, which still worked, and orient themselves for reentry. They’d have one minute to execute. Internal sirens were blaring, one for the debris, another for your proximity to the mesosphere. Based on your location, speed, and angular deorbit, your best guess was they would land at the Rogers Dry Lake at Edwards Air Force Base, California. Worst case scenario, they end up in the Spacecraft Cemetery, a remote location over the southern Pacific Ocean.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: With the space debris just minutes away, Capt. Evans courageously ignored her orders and used her first-rate physics and second-to-none orbital training to steer her ship, with the Michael Alsbury attached, toward N’djili Airport in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has a runway of 15,000 feet, long enough to support a spaceplane landing.
* * *
Your last words to the Michael Alsbury: “Godspeed.”
With no feasible way to detach the tether from inside your ship, you opened the exit hatch, propelled yourself outward, and exhausted the thrust of your Human Maneuvering Unit in ascension. Debris flew by with so much velocity that you only caught glimpses of the solar wind trails before they were gone.
Somehow, none hit you, and you maneuvered yourself just high enough to be in a functional orbit. If you had been hit, it would have been ugly: rapid decompression, ruptured lungs, sudden-onset hypoxia and, after maybe 90 seconds, boiled blood.
You finally recounted everything to Nova, and she told you a rescue team was three or four hours away.
Time, it seemed, had never been on your side.
* * *
THE PRESIDENT: With Capt. Evans’ bravery in mind, I announce the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. We now know that terrorists can and will deliver death and destruction via missile. We must have the freedom and flexibility to develop effective defenses against those attacks. Defending the American people is my highest priority as commander in chief, and I won’t allow the United States to remain in a treaty that prevents us from developing effective defenses to ensure peace in the final frontier. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: Madam President?
THE PRESIDENT: Yes, Ms. Agronsky?
JOURNALIST: Madam President, Russia and China are calling an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council —
THE PRESIDENT: They are?
JOURNALIST: Yes, ma’am. They’re claiming you have covertly supported ACR for years —
THE PRESIDENT: That is —
AIDE: The president isn’t taking questions, Martina.
2:36 P.M. EDT
Nova tried to calm you.
She said your real name. You didn’t reply, focused on the lonely planet below. You were somewhere above Mongolia, directly south of Russia, north of China.
“Natalie,” she said again, almost whispering. You remained silent. She told you that you would be remembered as a hero. The name Natalie Evans would forever be synonymous with valor.
Minutes went by. The edges of Alaska appeared.
Oxygen, 1 percent.
You examined the continental proximity. No political borders were apparent, only land and water, interconnected, a modest piece of the wider, uniform sphere. Thoughts became ragged, erratic, incoherent. They were fragments just swirling around your head, velocity increasing, revolving in a sort of Molniya orbit, near perigee. The beauty in front of you, the horror beyond, completely forgotten. Your mind grew increasingly eccentric, your body in near-perfect Kepler motion, eccentricity zero.
It was your second time in graveyard orbit.
James McKeon is a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the political director of Council for a Livable World. He frequently writes fiction in his spare time.