Prose: The Man Who Took Away The Sky

An excerpt from the manuscript I wrote over the summer. Over winter break I plan to revise the entire manuscript, and to adapt this section to work also as a stand-alone short story.

The Man Who Took Away the Sky

While researching this book, within the National Archives I found this previously unpublished transcript of an interview with the final commander of NASA’s space flight program, the man whom history books have called “The Man Who Took Away the Sky”, former Navy aviator, test pilot, space shuttle commander, and later a doctor of mechanical engineering, Peter Krollins. This interview appears to have been held in the final hours before his execution and reveals aspects of the event that have not previously been reported. The document was found stamped and sealed as containing matters of national security, and has not before been publicly distributed. The interviewer’s identity is unknown, and the comments within the interview are his (or hers). The annotations are my own, intended to clarify historical facts for those unfamiliar with details about this period.

DEMERSLUIS TOWER, BIJLMERBAJES PRISON COMPLEX, AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS<1>

[The 6 x 9 concrete cell in the administrative segregation section of the tower has only a cot (fastened to the floor), combination stainless steel sink and toilet, a small metal table fastened to the wall, and an uncomfortable metal stool. Peter Krollins is sitting on the cot, allowing me to sit on the stool with my tape recorder (the most advanced piece of technology they allowed me to carry into the cell) resting beside me on the table.]

[How long have you been in administrative segregation <2>?]

Since [He pauses] a couple of weeks before the trial. There was a riot and someone tried to stick me with a prison shiv<3> during. Apparently no one mentioned to them that I’d been in the service before I got a desk job and this belly.

[And the guards broke up the fight?]

The guards only intervened after it was clear that I was winning the fight.

[Are the guards of mistreating you?]

[He reaches up and pulls his gums back, turning his head to the side, showing a gap in his upper left jaw where three teeth are missing.] I am pretty sure I didn’t get a rifle butt in the face, repeatedly, by accident. Which happened on the last day of the trial, before the verdict came back.

[Do you file a report about this event.]

No, and I never saw that guard again after that. I spent the rest of the day in the prison hospital, which was why they put off reading the verdict until the next day. And why I looked so vacant in the court room, I was medicated to the gills on pain killers. I haven’t left this cell since then.

[You have been treated well, overall?]

If you don’t count the media portraying me as the worse criminal in history, the Hitler<4> of the skies, then yes. I knew going in that it was going to be bad, but [He pauses a moment, looking at his hands in his lap.] It wasn’t until the crowd outside of The Hague<5>, on the first day of the trial [He pauses again] I didn’t realize how bad this was going to be.

[That first day was the only time they brought you by ground transport?]

Yes, after that first day they used a heli bring me in by the rooftop. Which was worse, I think, for me. From the ground, they were all just a mass of people, an obstacle to get through. I didn’t have a chance to think about how large the crowd was, or to hear what they were chanting. I had to focus on keeping upright and keeping pace with the police escort, which was harder than you’d think, wearing handcuffs and ankle restraints. Coming in from above I’d never seen that many people in one place before, and all them screaming for my death.

[Was it ever explained to you why you were kept here, and not at a prison nearer The Hague.]

Yes, there was a concern about the security there. That the crowd might overwhelm the facility and keeping me at? I’ve been here six months and I still can’t pronounce this place’s name. But the larger prison facility here is supposed to be more secure, despite being something like 60 klicks away from the trial site and the travel security needed back and forth.

[Do you think that the crowd had an effect upon how your trial turned out?]

Did you see how many cameras there were in the court room? Last time I saw an English language newspaper there were articles talking about the network outages being caused by an overload of demand due to everyone trying to stream live footage of the trial. More people were watching that bit of theatre than any film released in the last decade.

[Theatre?]

Look, it wasn’t a trial, it was never meant to be a trial, and everyone, myself included, knew that going into it. It was theatre. A courtroom drama production meant to distract people from the real problem and who was responsible for it.

[And whom might that be?]

Every elected official for the last few decades, and those who voted for them.

Look, this problem didn’t start that day. It didn’t happen over night. It started years ago and those of us who held my job, or jobs like mine, had issued warnings about how bad it could get for a while and no one on power wanted to listen or do anything about it. This entire event was preventable, it didn’t have to have happened. We could have stopped it… [His voice trails off]

[How would you say it started then?]

Well, to begin with it wasn’t a single event but rather a series of events. But if I was to set a start point it would be the Kosmos-Iridium event<6>. That one signalled that the threat was real and was the beginning of the end. Not just for the debris fields it generated, but for the fact that we had an incident and no one seemed to care enough to do anything about it afterwards. [He pauses.] Well, that isn’t entirely true, they did revise later the space liability laws<7> to cover collision damage.

[Would you describe what did happen.]

So the Kosmos-Iridium event wasn’t the first space collision, just the first big one. Russian zombie<8> satellite hits US corporate communications satellite. They go boom and you get a few thousand pieces of debris, of shrapnel making debris rings in orbit. Immediately there is a bit of panic, people have to adjust their satellite orbits out of the debris path, a lot of talk about fault and liability. Some news articles heralding debris clean-up as the future of commercial space flight, and then nothing else. A year goes by, about a quarter of the debris has burned up in the atmosphere, no one talks about it any more outside of offices like mine. I was still a pilot then, just having got into the space program, but it made an impression on me as I’d seen planes take hits in the Gulf<9>, thinking about being in orbit and taking fire like that… It wouldn’t be pretty.

But nothing happened, no big chain of collisions, debris was burning up in orbit and no signs of an ablation cascade<10> on the horizon. Which was always the concern, going back to (19)78. Former NASA guy named Donald Kessler wrote a paper called Collison Frequency of Artificial satellites about the risks of a debris field forming in orbit<11>. There is a bit of physics and orbital mechanics to it, but in short he theorized that an orbital collision involving large enough objects would produce a cloud of debris that would collide with other satellites or objects and produce more debris to hit even more satellites, and on and on. A chain reaction of collisions until everything in an orbital path was destroyed.

Actually, what we have now is worse than he predicted. He was predicting debris belts or debris rings around the planet. What we have now are orbital shells of debris encompassing the globe.

[But Kosmos-Iridium was a while ago–]

I was getting to that. But it was the same thing all over again, on a larger scale. When the Kosmos-Iridium event happened it was unexpected, not because no one missed the debris, those were big satellites that you could see with a home telescope if you knew where to look, but because someone did the maths wrong. They were predicted to miss each other by about half a kilometre, and no one saw that close a call to be a problem because there were hundreds of encounters like that a week. If I remember right, the Iridium CEO called it a one-in-a-million event<12>. But it wasn’t, really, no rarer than someone sinking every ball on the break in a game of pool. There is only so much space, and we were filling it up even then with more satellites than was safe.

[Wait, how can there be limits on space? It is, well, space.]

Outer space may be infinite, but useful space in orbit is finite. There are three useful orbital tracks that we put satellites in: Low Earth Orbits, Medium Earth Orbits, and Geocentric or High Earth Orbits. So a height of about 100 to 22,000 miles above sea level. Below 100 miles the atmosphere is too thick, you fall from orbit and burn up too fast. Above 22,000 and the orbits start to get unstable and satellites are just less useful at that range.

So, a lot of space, but not all of that is useful. Most low earth satellites are in the 100 to 1200 mile range, and every human that’s gone into orbit has either stayed in that range or been on a trip to the moon and back. The ISS<13>, Hubble<14>, the Iridium satellites, all are in low earth orbit as well as about six hundred more objects. Iridium on their own had around 100 satellites at the end, all in that orbital shell. The medium orbital tracks had only maybe one hundred total objects, mostly positioning satellites. The rest, another six hundred or so were out on the Clarke Belt<15> in geosynchronous orbits.

[Clarke Belt?]

Ah, it’s the equatorial belt. Easiest place to put geosynchronous satellites. So it may look like there is a lot of space out at that range, but they are all in the same path out there.

But with all those satellites, and all that other clutter, it was really only a matter of time before something big happened. More debris than we could track…

[Other clutter?]

Loose nuts or bolts, bits broken off from Mir<16> from early missed docking attempts, an entire tool box full of wrenches and parts lost during one shuttle mission, and [He pauses] other stuff that we placed into orbit.

[So what finally did happen?]

It was Envisat<17> that did it. Old EU<18> satellite, one of the largest that the ESA<19> ever put into space. Meant for a five-year mission, lasted ten, and then they lost control of it making it the largest zombie in orbit. Without any way to de-orbit it, it was an accident waiting to happen and no one wanted to point fingers or even talk about it. It was too large for the broom, and just too big to really do anything about.

[There wasn’t any talk of repairing it, of bringing it back online?]

Oh, there was always talk but the mechanics of doing so… Any sort of space walk like that is pretty much akin to trying to repair a broken air plane while in-flight. Matching orbits at close to 20,000 mph, crossing the expanse to the satellite, and then hoping that you even have the right sort of parts or tools to fix the problem was just too optimistic of a plan to try to make.

[So what happened to it?]

That’s the question. I was still trying to work backward from the collision data, trying to find out which object it was that crossed paths with it when I was arrested. The problem wasn’t one of trying to find the culprit, but in trying to figure out which of the thousands it was. You have to remember, there wasn’t just 600 plus satellites in orbit, but also about a million pieces of debris that were too small to be track-able.

All we know is that something hit it, maybe multiple somethings, but they hit it with enough force to not just puncture it but to outright shatter it. A worse case scenario sort of impact, one where the majority of the mass of the satellite was broken into small chunks that retained their inertia but with altered vectors. So instead of falling out of orbit it became a fast-moving debris cloud that was spreading out as time passed.

Because it was a zombie there wasn’t even any initial notice that it had been hit, its functions had been replaced by the ESA’s newer Sentinel series already so it wasn’t until warning alarms started sounding on the next set of collisions that it became clear there was a problem. By then it was too late, the debris cloud was too close to the next series of victims and moving too fast for satellites in its path to burn to new orbits.

After that it became a race, how quickly could we move satellites away from the debris field versus how fast the field was spreading and expanding. This was complicated by the fact that these were mostly communications satellites we were moving, so coordination and communication was being interrupted by our very acts of trying to keep the communication infrastructure.

[But it wasn’t fast enough.]

No, by the end of the first day it was clear that we’d lost the race. We started trying to de-orbit the satellites ourselves, burn them up in re-entry so their mass wouldn’t be added into the debris field when we ran into a problem that hadn’t been expected. Chafe. The mass of metal fragments in the debris cloud, especially fragments from what I would come to suspect had been nuclear armed military satellites that were up their in defiance of international law, was interfering with our ability to control the remaining satellites. It ended up with signals being delayed and in one case a set of satellites that had been meant to be de-orbited didn’t fire their thrusters until it was too late and moved themselves into the debris clouds path.

[How long did it take, from start to finish?]

It’s still not finished, there are still some of the Medium Earth Orbit satellites still left, spinning around the globe sending GPS<20> signals that no one can read through the cloud. Low Earth Orbit took less than a week, I never got data on some of the last collisions but I suspect that four to five days might have been it. The geosynchronous satellites all went out in just over a day, their follow so close a path around the planet that once a few pieces of debris hit the first satellite in that orbit and spread the field backwards along the orbital path, every satellite behind it passed through the cloud in less than a day. Like lambs to the slaughter, control of them had been blocked by chafe cloud so by the time we realized they were at risk we couldn’t do anything to save them.

[What about the cloud itself? Could it, can it be stopped?]

There had been plans once for a laser broom, the idea being a high powered laser that would either burn up small bits of debris or hit it with enough energy to perturb its orbit. But it never got off the design board. If we’d had those at the start, lots of them at the start, we might have been able to curtail and stop the initial cloud. Now, it’d be like trying to stop a snow storm with a hair dryer.

So we came up with another plan, one using aerogels. Basically a giant orbital sponge, something that would drift in orbit and either trap debris inside it or cause the debris to slow on hitting it and fall out of orbit on its own. But… [He pauses]

[The launch failed.]

No, the launch succeeded. But the politics failed. We had a small window to shoot for, the North Korean Discontinuity<21>, an opening in the debris cloud where we could launch a rocket into an deploy the aerogel device. But on the day of the launch we were delayed, ordered to stand down until the President could arrive. He saw this as a chance to build his legacy, to claim for America a place in history as the saviour of the world. But delaying the launch meant we missed the window. We came in at what we thought was the trailing edge of it, but the debris had already started to spread back into the opening and before the device could deploy the launch vehicle was hit. Our plan to start sweeping the debris out of the sky just ended up adding more debris and speeding up the disappearance of the Discontinuity.

[And that was when you were arrested.]

The actual arrest came a few days later, but that was when the tone in the media changed. It went from being a horrific disaster to my being accused of gross negligence. After Hurricane Gertrude<22> hit the Atlantic coast without any warning, that was when they started calling me a murderer too.

[From what you have told me today, you weren’t actually to blame for these events. Why, did you enter a plea of guilty at the trial?]

[Silence]

[Do you hold yourself to blame for these events?]

You know, I was offered asylum.

[Asylum?]

Ambassadors from both the Congo and Kenya<23> offered me asylum. They didn’t care about the satellites being gone, in their eyes it was a first world problem and to them it meant that the sky above their head was finally free from US or European eyes staring down at them. Space to them was just a place that rich countries poured money into, instead of paying back the nations they had once conquered and colonized.

[But you didn’t accept it.]

Do you remember when I said that we couldn’t track all of the debris? There was no reason for that to be true. The only reason was that NASA’s budget had been cut back year after year. By the time I took over the space flight program we didn’t even have any shuttles left of our own, we were renting them from the private space flight firms or hitching rides with the ESA. If we’d been funded, if we’d had a budget, then maybe… [His voice drifts off]

[Maybe what?]

We needed money, and congress wanted space flight to be a private-public partnership, so we had to start looking for corporate sponsors. I had to go out, hat in hand, and try to convince businesses to sponsor NASA missions as if the shuttle was some NASCAR<24> car.

Part of that ended up being advertisements, acted out and filmed in space. That didn’t last long, you probably remember the baseball debacle, but the golf and tennis ads… We intentionally added more debris into orbit, fast-moving, aerodynamic, sporting equipment now orbiting the planet. On my say so. Done so that we could get the funding to make repairs to the space telescope, so we could look out at the more distant stars… See better worlds.

[He sits quiet a moment.]

The object that hit Envisat… It could have been one of them, one of the golf balls that they hit from the shuttle wings. A dozen golf balls, hit into Low Earth Orbit, all for an ad that only played once.

[He leans forward, holding his head in his hands now.]

[Do you have anything else you want to say?]

[He shakes his head, never looking up.]

***** TRANSCRIPT ENDS *****

Records show that he was executed on the day following this interview. While media reports at the time claim that his final words were I am sorry, please God, forgive me.Åh the actual recording made of his execution shows that he remained silent until his end. Fragmentary records make it impossible to now completely reconstruct the incident so we will never know if his suspicion was correct, whether it was the result of something that happened under his watch at NASA or if the initial debris impact was entirely unrelated. He was found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity, Gross Negligence, Mass Manslaughter, and Property Damage.

—-

[1] The Netherlands was a nation that existed in what is now the Northern Europe Flood Reclamation zone. Prior to the rising sea levels, and super-storm events, it boasted a population in excess of 18 million. It was also known as Holland.

[2] Administrative Segregation was also known as Solitary Confinement. A no longer used technique of psychological torture by means of limiting human interaction between prison occupants.

[3] A ÅgshivÅh is an improvised weapon, a make-shift knife, that would be crudely fashioned from available materials.

[4] Mid-20th century leader of the region formerly referred to as Germany. Known for his charismatic speech making, genocidal politics, and small moustache worn beneath the nose. Thought to have killed the fashion trends for both the tiny moustache and the comb-over hair style for men.

[5] The Hague was the Netherlands seat of government, this trial however took place at the International Criminal Court (ICC) which, while near The Hague, was an international body and not run solely by the Netherlands.

[6] This occurred on February 10th, 2009 at UTC 16:56. It involved Kosmos-2251, a communications satellite launched by the former nation of Russia and Iridium-33 a communications satellite launched by the Iridium corporation of the United States of America.

[7] He is referring to ÅgThe?Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects, also known as the?Space Liability convention, a treaty signed in 1972 to expand on the laws in place from the earlier Outer Space treaty of 1967.

[8] The usage of ÅgzombieÅh here refers to satellites that are no longer responding to communications or instructions.

[9] Gulf is a colloquial shorthand used in this case to refer to the Gulf Wars, a series of imperialistic attacks by the United States of America on nations in the Middle-East in an attempt to exert influence over their production and distribution of petroleum products.

[10] Ablation Cascade is synonymous with Kessler Syndrome, Kessler Effect, and Collisional Cascading, see note 11.

[11] The full paper citation is: Donald J. Kessler and Burton G. Cour-Palais (1978). “Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt”.?Journal of Geophysical Research?83: 2637?2646.

[12] Media records show that in 2007, Iridium CEO John Campbell estimated the risk at 1-in-50 million, but reported that the risk was a fair trade-off despite having an average of 400 potential collision threats each week.

[13] International Space Station, an orbital habitat at the time of the event. Due to being on the far side of the planet when the cascade began it was successfully evacuated in time, making use of the Soyuz re-entry capsules.

[14] Hubble Space Telescope, out of date and largely supplanted by the time of the event. It was still one of NASA’s most famous landmarks and was known as much for it’s engineering difficulties as for what it discovered.

[15] Named for author Arthur C. Clarke, who first theorized the placement and usage of geosynchronous satellites years before the first were launched or in use.

[16] Former Russian orbital habitat. The first modular space habitat, and the first to be occupied for extended periods of time. It was de-orbited and destroyed in 2001.

[17] Envisat, short for Environmental Satellite. Weather and environmental satellite launched by the ESA. Launched in 2002, it was planned to be de-orbited in 2014. However, control was lost in 2012 and it was left to naturally decay in orbit, a process that had been predicted to take 150 years before re-entry and burn up.

[18] EU ? European Union, the precursor to the current United Europe.

[19] ESA ? European Space Agency, established in 1975 it lasted until about ten years after the event, where it was disbanded as it could no longer fulfil it’s charter due to the debris field blocking access to orbit.

[20] Global Position System or Satellite, a coordinate system to determine your location upon the surface of the Earth based upon signals received from satellites in Medium Earth Orbit.

[21] The North Korean Discontinuity was an opening formed in the debris shield due to a nuclear attack by North Korea. North Korea was an isolationist rogue state at the time of the event, suffering from a series of hereditary leaders who were marked with increasing mental instability. Media records at the time show that the nuclear attack was intended for the North American continent, a coastal city of Los Angelos and had something to do with the either the interrupt of the broadcast of or the performance of their regional basketball team, a sport North Korean leaders had a recorded passion for. After the nuclear launch the nation closed it’s border entirely, and forced it’s population into the massive underground shelters that had been dug in the nations mountainsides. A decade later when their automated defenses finally went offline and contact was re-established, the new leadership claimed that the nuclear attack had not been launched in anger but in an attempt to clear away the debris so that the stars could still be seen in the sky.

[22] Hurricane Gertrude was not the strongest, or the largest storm to hit the Atlantic coastline, but it was the most devastating as it was the first to strike after the destruction of the weather satellite network. Striking with no warning, people were ill-prepared for the sudden winds, rain, and flash flooding events resulting in the storm having among the worse fatalities of any to strike North America until the first true super-storm event took place.

[23] Congo and Kenya were both equatorial countries on the African continent. Both had suffered in previous centuries due to European colonialism.

[24] NASCAR was a vehicular racing event using four-tired combustion engine vehicles that were often garishly decorated with the logos and emblems of the corporations that sponsored them. The event seemed to focus evenly between scantily dressed females who formed some sort of cheer squad for the drivers while the racing portion of the event seemed to be based upon determining which driver was capable of turning left at the highest possible safe speed to navigate around a paved oval pathway.

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