Sparrow, Dawning, Seven
As the first stage rockets ignited,
a low-frequency rumbling somewhere far below her like the voice of
the earth’s discontent, it first occurred to Leena that she might
die. At this hour, on this day, caught up in a fiery holocaust as
the liquid chemical engines overtook their processes and burned all
of Baikonour down to ashes. Fire had licked at her heels all her
life, and this was the moment it would finally outpace her.
“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” came the
voice of the technician in the control bunker, calling the
all-clear. Five, five, five. His voice buzzed in her ears,
the sound from the speakers rebounding around her visored helmet
like a shouted echo in a hangar.
Leena rechecked the seal on her
gloves, squinting in the low light of the red bulb burning. Any
minute now, she was sure. The technician would call out the warning,
Three, three, three, and the flames that had burned at her
footsteps since Stalingrad would finally be upon her. Her parents,
and Sergei, and now Leena herself, all fuel for the fire.
The engines below her entered their
primary stage, the low rumbling intensifying into the roar of
approaching thunder, her teeth set on edge. Smoke and steam would be
billowing out now from the base of the launch pad, Leena knew,
though she could see none of it, the viewport blocked by the heavy
nose fairing covering the module. She thought of the others in the
barracks, listening in on radios wired to the walls, and the select
few dignitaries joining Korolev and the technicians in the bunker.
Yuri would be there, weighted down with medals, as would Gherman and
Andrian, Pavel and Valeri. And Valentina, of course.
Ponomaryova would be nearby, sealed into her bright orange pressure
suit, ready to take Leena’s seat in the event that a replacement was
needed, determination burning beneath her thick brows. Leena
couldn’t help but pity her. Twice a second, first for
Tereshkova and now for Leena, at
this rate Ponomaryova would never reach the stars.
“Pjat’, pjat’, pjat’,” buzzed the
voice of control in her ears.
Leena could stand the anticipation
no longer. Either she would launch, and serve the Soviet as few
before her had, or she would die in a fiery conflagration, there on
the pad. There were no other options. Let the technician buzz
Five, five, five until his lungs bled out all their air, damn
him. Leena would not wait.
“Poyekali!” Leena shouted, not to
the technicians, or Korolev, but to the spirit of flame that had
haunted her days. Let’s go! Not an eager cry for
adventure, as it had been when Yuri had shouted it three years
before, but a challenge to her pursuer to finally face her.
“Vorobyey,” came the voice of the
technician in her ear, as the timbre of the engine’s roar
Slowly, like dawn stealing softly
over a wide plain, the rocket began to rise. So light was the
transition from earth to flight that Leena at first didn’t recognize
it. There followed a slight shiver, and then the vibrations rippling
through the metal sphere module shifting up the spectrum, becoming a
high frequency whine like a kettle gone to boil.
The pressure of acceleration pulled
at Leena’s face, the g-load slowly climbing from Earth normal to
roughly five times that. She tried to speak into the microphone
fixed to the base of her helmet, to respond to control’s calls for
status, but she found it difficult to talk, the muscles of her face
drawn back taut against the bones of her skull.
All three stages of the rocket were
firing now, pushing against the bonds of gravity, shooting towards
the far horizon, and the curve of space beyond. Leena felt pinned to
the seat like a butterfly on cork, unable to move even if the heavy
straps were not still in place.
Without warning the strain eased,
and Leena felt herself grow lighter. The pressure pushing her
against the seat dropped suddenly, and it seemed to her as if
something had separated from the rocket. Creeping silence followed,
the high-pitched shrill of the engines growing ever and ever softer.
The fairing, a heavy plating covering the module to protect against
air friction during the steep climb, fell away. The viewport finally
unobstructed, Leena could see outside.
Looking up through the circular
window, Leena saw hanging above her the curve of the Earth, a kind
of aura around the horizon bleeding from light blue into violet into
the black of space beyond. The stars, hanging on the curtain of
deepest black, were larger and brighter than Leena ever could have
imagined possible. The Earth’s seas, passing overhead, were of a
uniform gray from this perspective, the surface rippled and uneven
like windblown sand dunes.
Only a handful of people before
Leena had seen their planetary home from this height, the half-dozen
cosmonauts who’d preceded her and a handful of Americans, if the
reports from overseas were to be believed. They had all come for
only brief stays, though, the longest of them no longer than five
days. Leena, the second woman to come this far, would outlast them
all, ten days spent orbiting the Earth as high as the lower Van
Allen belt in the belly of Vostok 7.
Ten days, and then
she’d return to the bosom of the Earth, Hero of the State, welcomed
into the Party with open arms, and perhaps even given an honorary
promotion in rank. Senior Lieutenant, perhaps, or even Commander,
but never Major. That was for Yuri and the others. The men. Poor
her return, had not even been granted the slight honor of a Senior
Lieutenant’s commission, still holding only the Junior Lieutenant’s
grade that all of the members of the female cosmonaut group had been
awarded years before. Though she’d never risen higher than the rank
of private in the Red Army, with her previous military service
record Leena hoped for something better.
Senior Lieutenant Akilina
Mikhailovna Chirikova, Female Cosmonaut Group. It had a certain ring
Pulling a pencil and tablet from a
zippered pocket at her side, she intended to take the requisite
notes but became too engrossed in the slow ballet of the pencil
spinning end over end in zero gravity. Leena
smiled, muscles moving strangely without resistance, and laughed at
her early fears. She’d come this far, this high, because the fire
had never caught her, after all. She’d been silly to think that it
The mission plan of
Vostok 7 was simple: a high altitude flight into the lower Van Allen
radiation belt for radiological-biological studies, lasting ten
days, at the end of which the craft’s orbit would be allowed to
decay naturally to re-entry. That the studies were concerned
primarily with what would happen to the human organism if exposed to
the radiation of the lower Van Allen for ten days, was a factor of
the mission upon which Leena chose not to dwell. Having been
obsessed with flight for so many years, she would now be flying
higher and longer than any human before her. And after the first few
hours of the flight, she was feeling no ill effects of the radiation
exposure. The interior of the craft was holding steady at a
reasonable 20 degrees Centigrade, and though she’d not yet released
the harness holding her into the launch chair, in the low-gravity
environment neither the tight straps nor her cumbersome pressure
suit were especially noisome.
originally scheduled to make this flight, but in March of the past
year the decision had been made to have him fly Vostok 5 in the
place of Ponomaryova. She was certainly the most qualified, both
technically and emotionally, of any in the female cosmonaut group,
more qualified than many of them men; but Ponomaryova was an
agitator, always complaining about the treatment the women received,
always saying that they were the equal to the men and should be
treated as such. And she was not an ideologue, causing many to doubt
her loyalty to the principles of the Soviet. Instead of women flying
both Vostok flights, 5 and 6, as planned, only Tereshkova was
allowed to go, with Bykovsky pulled forward out of Vostok 7 to take
Ponomaryova’s place. Initially, it was suggested that this was for
safety purposes, and that Ponomaryova would be going aloft in Vostok
7, but in November when the flight crews for the next seven Vostok
missions were announced, the task had instead fallen to Leena.
Ponomaryova was on the list, but only as Leena’s second. Worse, when
news arrived a few weeks later of the American president’s
assassination, and with the Chief Designer making plans to begin
Soyuz launch the following year, there were already talks about
canceling any future Vostok missions, and going to the multi-crew
Voskhod configuration for all future flights, to compete with the
American’s two-manned Gemini missions. Any three-manned Voskhod
mission would be precisely that—three men. Korolev would never agree
to send up three women in the same capsule, and decorum would not
allow one woman to accompany two men. And so the chances were
increasingly slim that Ponomaryova would get her chance at glory.
And chances were good that Leena might be the last woman into space
for some time to come.
Leena didn’t spare
time to worry about such hypothetical eventualities. She had mission
operations to consider; so far, however, the flight had been far
easier on her than anticipated. Leaving aside any radiological
fears, it seemed to Leena that the potential hazard of low-gravity,
too, had been overestimated. Once the initial stress of launch was
passed, the flight hadn’t been nearly as bad as Leena had feared.
The rumor was that Tereshkova had been so ill and nauseated from
turbulence and the subsequent low-gee that she was virtually
incoherent for much of her seventy-one hours in orbit, and it was
whispered that even Gagarin had been unable to control his rioting
stomach on initial launch. Leena thought the orbit itself was much
easier to endure than the interminable training that had preceded
this day. Hot mock-up—whole days and nights spent in full
pressurized spacesuit in the ground spacecraft simulator—had been
more grueling than this by far. Yerkina, who was to have been
Ponomaryova’s backup on Vostok 6, had been excluded from the mission
after removing her boots one day into the hot mock-up simulation,
having eaten only three rations in the three days of her test. It
had reflected badly on all the female cosmonaut group that Yerkina
had failed so miserably… though Leena could not help but notice that
similar failings by the male cosmonauts did not cast a shadow over
their entire groups.
The orbital path of
Vostok 7 would carry the module over the northern reaches of the
Soviet Union, across the Pacific Ocean and the southern Atlantic,
then over the length of Africa, over the Atlantic, Turkey, the Black
Sea, and then back over the Soviet Union.
The orbital period
was just under two hours, and the module had nearly completed one
complete orbit, passing over Northern Africa, the Mediterranean just
coming into view. Leena knew that, in the coming days, it was a
sight that she would see countless times again.
From the radio came a
sudden burst of static. The module was approaching the broadcast
range of Baikonour itself, and the operator at the Baikonur ground
station might be trying to contact her. Leena adjusted the gain and
frequency, trying to regain the signal.
pozhalujsta.” Leena said, confirming that the tells on her
transmitter showed active. Repeat, please.
Just then, the interior of the
module was filled with a blinding white light, and squinting against
the glare Leena leaned up to the viewport to look outside. There,
just before her, hung an object that shone like the sun. It was
impossible to judge size or distance, but it seemed small and close
enough that she might reach out and snatch it up in her hands. A
sphere, it glinted like a mirror, reflecting back the light of the
sun behind her.
Could it be another satellite, some
early Sputnik prototype the authorities had not publicized? Or an
American counterpart, positioned over Russia for the purposes of
espionage? Whatever it was, it was directly in the path of Leena’s
module, the distance between them closing with every heartbeat.
“Centr upravlenija?” Leena
whispered into the helmet microphone. Control
center? Before she could go on, before the ground crew in
the Baikonour facilities could answer, the module was upon the
object, only bare meters away.
Leena gritted her teeth,
anticipating a jarring impact. She closed her eyes, and felt a wave
of unease flood over her. There came no jolt or bang, nothing to
indicate the object had struck her craft.
Tentatively, Leena opened her eyes.
Through the viewport, the mirrored sphere was nowhere to be seen.
What she did see, however, was impossible.
Where before there’d been only the
gray sand dunes of the Mediterranean with the southern edge of
Turkey just visible on the horizon, she now saw mountains surrounded
by lush green forests, blue ribbons of rivers slipping down to the
seas, tan deserts stretching out across the far distance.
Leena knew her geography. She’d
studied the protected path of Vostok 7 in its orbits until she could
have drawn maps of the continents from memory, had pored over the
photos snapped by the earlier cosmonauts until they painted her
dreams, and at no point, in all of those months and years of work,
had she ever seen anything like the vista stretching out before her.
Wherever she was, whatever had just
happened, she was no longer orbiting the Earth she knew.
continue to Chapter 2