August 21; 11:02 a.m. Station Time
Walli Beckwith had no way of knowing that she probably had just under an hour to live. If she had known, she likely could have calculated exactly how much under an hour it was. By now she understood well-nigh all there was to know about how a spacecraft at a particular distance with a particular mass moving at a particular speed behaves, so she could also understand precisely when the one coming at her would arrive and what it would do when it hit. But the spacecraft was, at the moment, keeping all that a secret from Beckwith, as well as from the other two crew members aboard the International Space Station. If a mindless machine with no one aboard could be said to be acting with devious intent, this one was—and its intent was to kill them all.
The machine that was threatening to end the crew's lives would also make a mess of an experiment Beckwith was conducting, one that she'd rather looked forward to completing but now probably never would, what with death all at once on the day's menu of events. For most of the morning, she had been working in the station's Zarya, or Sunrise, laboratory—one of the five modules the Russians had contributed to the football-field-size, fifteen-module station. Lost
in the experiment, she jumped when a voice suddenly called out to her over the station's intercom system for a routine status check. Most communications aboard the station were conducted publicly, over speakers and microphones arrayed throughout the modules, sparing the crew from having to wear headsets all day.
"Are you all right back there, Walli?" the voice, belonging to the station commander, Vasily Zhirov, called in Russian-accented English.
"All good," she answered.
"You didn't catch the shit bug?"
"Not yet," Beckwith said with a laugh.
Zhirov's English was better than Beckwith's Russian, so that was how they typically communicated. Still, he chose his moments to speak in Russian, and for "shit bug," which was how he always referred to the E. coli intestinal bacteria that was used in the lab studies, he used "dermóvaya zaraza." In either language, the term was one of the many ways Zhirov had of waving off the science that was conducted aboard the station, which, as far as he could see, was busywork compared to the more challenging business of simply keeping the huge ship flying. When the experiment involved salmonella, Zhirov called it kurínaya bolézn, or chicken sickness, and any studies involving the five mice aboard the station were krysinie ígri, or rat games.
Earlier in the morning, Beckwith had been running E. coli studies, but she had finished up that work and was now starting on an experiment with meningitis bacteria, a more important job since it was being done in pursuit of a better treatment for the disease; it was the kind of experiment that made her feel her time in space was being especially well spent. As she worked, she could listen in on what Zhirov and the other Russian aboard, Yulian Lebedev, were doing.
The station had been shorthanded for the past two weeks, ever since the last three-person crew had returned to Earth to make way for the next. The newcomers would be arriving in ten days, filling out the crew manifest to the more typical six. Before they arrived, the station needed to be resupplied. An unmanned Progress cargo vehicle had been launched from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan two days ago and was scheduled to arrive and dock with the station at just after 11:00 this morning, station time, which was pegged to Greenwich Mean Time.
Docking a Progress had its perils. Without a pilot aboard, it relied on a computer to execute the delicate pas de deux of approaching and linking up with the station. But computers were imperfect, and for that reason, Zhirov and Lebedev, the two Russians aboard, who presumably had a better understanding of the Progress than the one American, would be in the nearby Pirs, or Pier, module, a downward-facing pod barely half the length of the school-bus-size Zarya. The nose of the Progress would fit into a port on the Pirs, a routine procedure that had been conducted uncounted times before. Still, the two cosmonauts would be monitoring the Progress's approach and could take over and fly it in by remote control if the automatic guidance system failed. The dual Mission Controls in Moscow and Houston would be listening in on the procedure, but it was Zhirov and Lebedev who would do the piloting if a problem arose.