A DISTANT VOICE CONFUSES ME, mumbling something about in and over. An icy cold fluid runs through my veins, sending a tremor through my body. My eyes open. Lights flicker around me in a blur. I can't feel anything, but I'm floating.
My fingers brush against the panel covering my sleeping berth.
My eyes refuse to focus. The light is blinding. I squeeze my eyelids shut and a rush of blood causes blots of color to burst in a kaleidoscope of chaos. Splashes of red and purple dance before me in mimicry of Mars, the planet I left behind almost nine months ago. I open my eyes again and stare at the thin plastic panel inches from my nose, struggling to remember where I am and what I'm doing.
The radio crackles. "Herschel, come in. Over."
I slide the panel open. The pain in the crook of my arm is excruciating. Tubes extend from my veins to a machine pumping quietly beside me, silently exchanging fluids. In the absence of gravity, a small bearing rotates, forcing the flow through the clear plastic tubes with constant pressure. I flick the bypass switch.
"Herschel. This is Houston. Comms check. Over."
I slip a headset over my ear. A thin wire mic extends beside my cheek. I cough, clearing my throat. "Houston. Herschel." My voice sounds like the rumble of a concrete mixer relentlessly turning loose gravel.
"Good morning. Welcome home."
The woman on the other end of the radio is kind, although what I'd really like right now is a bit of breathing space, not someone chirping cheerfully in my ear.
"How do you feel?"
"Like shit." In the early years, I would have given a more appropriate but far less honest answer. There's silence from Houston. Profanity isn't kosher for astronauts.
I loosen the straps holding my torso against the medi-bed and drift slightly as I tear open a foil packet containing an alcohol swab. With a single motion, I pull the tubes out of my arm, ripping the tape from my skin. A surge of pain electrifies my mind. After wiping with a swab, I press a cloth bandage over the wound. I'm not quick enough. In my drugged state, what feel like swift, precise movements are achingly slow. Blobs of fresh blood float before me in deep crimson, oscillating slightly in weightlessness.
A tuft of cotton and a fresh strip of tape stuck over the vein in my arm stop the bleeding. Over time, a clot will form. I use a paper towel to catch the blobs before they drift too far and smear on the inside hull.
Even in my groggy state, I'm in awe of the capillary action as the dry paper I'm holding sucks up each of the blobs, drawing them in like a vacuum cleaner.
Process and procedure dominate every aspect of life in space. NASA has a policy for everything, and with good reason. Even the most insignificant detail can be deadly out here. Something as simple as a failing fan can be disastrous, as noxious gases can pool in the corners of a spacecraft. I'm supposed to be following the predefined procedure, but I'm not.
The hull of the Herschel is made up of multiple layers to catch micrometeorites and prevent ruptures. If there were any structural weaknesses in any of the seams, the internal pressure would cause the Herschel to pop open, leaving the craft fizzing like a can of soda. As with all spacecraft, the Herschel is a compromise between conflicting priorities—mass/fuel, complexity/functionality, safety/practicality, risk/cost, and sometimes just a plain old lack of resources.
Dreams are free.
Exploration is expensive.
And not just financially. Risks are minimized but never negated.