The Angry Astronaut Affair
4100 Words | November 17 2014 | Rate This |
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By the time Reginald Waite returned home, the darkness of night covered the Houston metropolitan area, a perfect close for a perfectly rotten day. It was supposed to be a routine trip to Pasadena to discuss the specifics of a new model of satellite Antares was taking up next month, but he'd no more than started preflight checks on his T-38 Talon when he started finding maintenance errors. By the time he got everything corrected and in the air, he was running late enough that he'd had to use every trick to eke enough speed out of the plane to arrive on time.

Ten minutes after he walked through the door at JPL, some idiot made a crack about Shepard clones always being hot to trot in more ways than one. God, but he'd wanted to punch that jerk, and wouldn't that be a scene, a scheduled shuttle commander decking an engineer. It'd be as bad as the Great Astronaut Catfight a couple of years ago, when Melinda Bates came home after a six-month hitch at Luna Station to discover this little payload specialist hooking up with her husband and had driven cross-country to confront the Other Woman.

No, it'd be worse, thanks to a certain former senator pulling in all his markers to get one of his own clones installed as NASA Administrator. No way could Aiden McAllister look the other way about a disciplinary infraction by a clone of the man his own ur-brother had condemned as insubordinate, insouciant and immoral.

It had taken all the discipline of a career naval aviator to force the anger aside enough to get business done and fly back to Ellington. Now Reggie was finally home, sitting at his own computer, and he could let that icy wall of control melt away. Go on the Lovecraft Country game and burn off his anger dispelling shoggoths and Cthulhu-spawn, imagine they were everyone at JPL that he'd overheard making snarky remarks about clones taking over the astronaut corps.

As he woke his computer, he noticed that the forum window was in front of the gameplay window. A new post caught his attention:

From: Weeping_Willow
Subj: My Culture is NOT Your Cool Character
Date: Wednesday, January 14, 2009, 1508 MST (GMT+7)

I don't want to get into identity policing, but it really bothers me to see Native American characters being played by people who are obviously white. The sheer level of ignorance being displayed is offensive, especially when you consider what your ancestors did to us. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Show some respect and keep your games to your own cultures.

Reggie could feel his blood pressure rising, just like back at JPL. Except this time he didn't have to take it in silence, not now that he was using his own Internet connection, his own computer, and a screen name that would disconnect his online persona from his official identity as an astronaut.

From: Major_Tom
Subj: Re: My Culture Is NOT Your Cool Character
Date: Thursday, January 15, 2009, 2249 CST(GMT+6)

I get sick and tired of this "your ancestors did my ancestors wrong, so you owe me" song and dance. That's just a license for perpetual bellyaching instead of actually solving the problems you're having. I'm not responsible for my ur-brother's failings, and I share 100% of my nuclear DNA with him, so neither are Naturals who only have a fraction of any given forebears' genes.

Most people around here play to get away from our daily lives, not extend them into gamespace. When I first started playing I created a white male character. He was even an astronaut, although he was based more on Scott Carpenter than my actual ur-brother. Man, did that got old fast -- I felt like I was working all day and coming home to work some more. So I created a new character who was completely different -- not because I wanted to diss your culture, but because I want to have a game life that doesn't remind me of my real one of hand-me-down genes and the reputation of a man a decade dead that follows me everywhere I go.

Reggie became acutely aware of moonlight shining into the room. The Moon was a few days past opposition, enough that the terminator had moved beyond Mare Tranquillitatis and the landing lights of Slayton Field blazed bright as an impossible star.

Good God, but he wished he were back up there, where your competence was the only thing that mattered, not who you were a clone of or who your ancestors were. But no, as long as the third-generation orbiters were new he was stuck on shuttle duty, up to Freedom Station and back down, no further. He'd even gone to the Chief Astronaut, saying, "Shelly, can't you get me back to the Moon?" Michelle Grimwald had told him until those problems were resolved, NASA needed him here.

Might as well play Jerry Ironeagle until he wound down enough to get to sleep. Tomorrow he had meetings and he didn't want the flight directors to think he wasn't up to the job.

*

The meetings turned out better than Reggie had expected. But at Johnson Space Center anybody who couldn't deal with clones didn't last very long.

No, they head out west to hang out with all the other soreheads.

So he was in a markedly better mood when he got home that evening, more inclined to hang out with some of the other Lovecraft Country players instead of splatting eldritch nasties into thin sheets of slime. It'd be almost as fun as late-night bull sessions with his fellow lander pilots at the Roosa Barracks back on Slayton Field, or weekend liberties in Grissom City. God, I wish I were back up there.

Might as well wish Trofim Lysenko had outmaneuvered Andrei Zhdanov and killed Soviet genetics in its cradle so that human cloning would proceed slowly and publicly instead of in super-secret Cold War projects, without oversight or restraint on either side of the former Iron Curtain. Secrets that became all too public when the Soviet Union imploded in the 80's and President Reagan went on national TV to announce that yes, the US had its own cloning program as well.

Reggie had no more than gotten online when he found a private message from a friend, Stephanie Roderick, screen name Sailor_Yuggoth: Looks like you've kicked a hornets' nest down in the forum.

Steffi was right. In a single day he'd gotten over fifty responses, variations on the theme of You're Rude and Need to Apologize, adorned with the politically correct jargon he'd had to endure at that sensitivity training workshop NASA had required everybody attend a few months ago.

OK, you want an apology so damn bad, I'll give you one. I hope you choke on it.

From: Major_Tom
Subj: Re: My Culture Is NOT Your Cool Character
Date: Thursday, January 15, 2009, 1922 CST(GMT+6)

Sorry if I've hurt your feelings. I'll admit it was a mistake posting when I was still steamed after a very bad visit to JPL, but this stuff hit some sore spots of mine that got rubbed real tender.

Still, some people need to lighten up. I don't go bitching about how most of the people playing astronaut characters must've learned their astrodynamics out of a bad movie, and don't know Max Q from Solar Max, or translunar injection from orbital insertion. It's not like they're going to auger in an actual spacecraft and get people killed, so I just stay away from where they're playing. That way we all have fun.

*

The next day was a trying one, mostly because Reggie had to meet with bureaucrats instead of technical staff. By the time he got home, he was pretty keyed up, not the best frame of mind to hit the Lovecraft Country forum and find a firestorm. That original post had spawned eight other threads. Somebody even had the nerve to ask him if he was really a astronaut, or a clone. No way was he going to let that one slide:

From: Major_Tom
Subj: Re: Is Major_Tom for Real?
Date: Friday, January 16, 2009, 1925 CST(GMT+6)

You bet your ass I am. I've flown multiple classes of NASA's piloted spacecraft, including the second- and third-generation orbiters, three kinds of lunar lander, and the lunar ferry. My genesource goes back to the beginning of the American space program.

On the other hand, things weren't all a one-sided pile-on anymore:

From: Sailor_Yuggoth
Subj: Re: This Angry Astronaut Guy
Date: Friday, January 16, 209, 0738 CST(GMT+6)

I don't blame Major_Tom for being pissed off after a trip to JPL. My first few years there were great, when I was working on the Dispater probe to Pluto, but then a bunch of new people always wanted to gripe about how the clones were keeping Naturals from getting astronaut slots. Nobody ever wanted to consider that maybe they didn't make the cut because they didn't have the right stuff.

I finally came back to JSC. It was a painful decision, because I took the job at JPL when I was about to wash out of astronaut training. But I needed out of that poisonous atmosphere.

Steffi never told me she did astronaut training. When he'd praised her Cthulhu-Sailor Moon crossover fanfic for balancing eldritch elements with a science-based lunar setting and she'd told him she worked for NASA, it'd started a peculiar relationship that wouldn't quite reach altitude, yet refused to crash and burn. Steffi happily hopped rides in the back seat of his T-38--she found the post-Energy-Wars security theater in commercial airports as tiresome as he did. She'd even go jogging, swimming, and windsurfing with him. But every time things started getting romantic, she'd jink away.

Now everything made sense. Yet he couldn't be annoyed with her--returning to JSC had to be as painful for Steffi as remaining with NASA while medically grounded had been for Alan Shepard. And the latter choice was the one of the few things Reggie admired about his ur-brother.

*

The following days left Reggie torn. On one hand, his relationship with Steffi was now stabilizing at a steady cruising altitude. On the other, the fight in the Lovecraft Country forum kept flaring up, until it reminded him of the Energy Wars with their endless flare-ups of hostilities in one after another part of the Middle East. Not memories he needed right before a shuttle flight.

Respite came for the simple reason that the week before a shuttle launch was too busy for anything but training. And then Antares went up. The satellite launches went without a hitch, leaving only the stop at Freedom Station to bring back some space-manufactured electronics for a military project.

Which meant that while Freedom's technicians were loading the cargo, Reggie had time on his hands. And there was only so much you could spend floating by the flight deck windows and admiring the view. Even the Moon, once again a few days past opposition with the impossible star of Slayton Field shining just behind the terminator, couldn't hold him.

Might as well check his NASA e-mail. Mostly routine stuff the Astronaut Office sent out, but READYROOM-L, the pilot-astronaut e-mail list, had a lively discussion about the firestorm in the gaming community. Several people were speculating about the identity of the Angry Astronaut, and they were coming uncomfortably close. Given that somebody down on Earth was still posting in the same vein, Reggie decided he'd better set things straight. Grimwald didn't post on READYROOM-L, but she read it.

To: READYROOM-L@nasa.gov
From: rwaite@nasa.gov (Reginald Waite)
Date: Thursday, February 12, 2009, 1135 CST(GMT+6)
Subj: Re: The Angry Astronaut

Do you really think I'd be posting on gaming forums and blogs while I'm commanding a shuttle flight? I've never used NASA time or NASA bandwidth for personal purposes, and I don't intend to start now to attend a flamewar. Please give me a *little* credit in the political acumen department.

The rest of the flight went great. He'd been most concerned about reentry, since the previous commander and pilot had reported some odd burbles in the approach to landing. But Antares handled like a dream, and he didn't think it was just the so-called Shepard Touch. Reggie didn't believe in any such thing -- his skill came from long hours on the simulator, not some genetic ability to commune with aircraft and spacecraft.

After the debriefings, he headed off to the Keys for post-flight leave. Windsurfing was always a great way to unwind and get his muscles reaccustomed to 1g.

Except the weather wouldn't co-operate. Rain fell in endless sheets, leaving Reggie stuck in his motel room. Things might've been better with some company, but Steffi couldn't get loose from JSC, where she was helping analyze the data from his flight. Nothing to do but get out his personal laptop and hit the Internet.

He'd thought himself forewarned from that READYROOM-L discussion, but the actuality floored him. Not just the firestorm exploding into more than a hundred different posts on blogs and forums in completely unrelated gaming and sf-fantasy communities, even a Twitter hashtag, #angryastronaut. Somebody--no, make that several somebodies--had decided to carry the torch for him while he was in orbit. Some of them might be for real behind the screen names, but at least three were wannabes. They might think they had astronaut jargon down, but every one of them eventually made a howler. Then there was the kid who made several detailed posts about living with daily snipes and zaps about being a Shepard clone.

Thanks, little brother.

On the other hand, the people trying to portray him as some kind of racist asshat for refusing to accept inherited/collective guilt just pissed him off. At least now that he was on his own time again, he could nail some of these self-righteous pricks.

Time that might otherwise have crawled sped by as he fired off one scathing reply after another. By the next morning, people were calling the sudden return of Major_Tom an ARCLIGHT, a carpet-bombing run. Reggie laughed his sides sore at being credited for an Air Force operation when he was Navy--but his screen name did suggest a Zoomie, never mind it actually came from an old Bowie song. Even after the weather eased up, fighting the ongoing battle helped fill the gaps between windsurfing sessions, until it was time to head back to work.

*

To: Michelle Grimwald, Chief Astronaut
From: Aiden McAllister, NASA Administrator
Date: Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Subj: That Angry Astronaut

I've just received a heads-up from our friends in Congress. This business is getting bad enough that both the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics *and* the Senate Commerce Committee on Science and Space want to take a look at it. If we don't want a very public airing of NASA's dirty laundry, we need to clear this thing up in-house.

To: Aiden McAllister, NASA Administrator
From: Michelle Grimwald, Chief Astronaut
Date: Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Subj: Re: That Angry Astronaut

That'd be easier said than done. We don't even know who this guy is, and that's assuming there's only one person, not a whole crew. Some of those posts have so many blatant misuses of jargon and technical terminology that I don't think the writers are even astronauts. For all we know, the whole lot of them could be wannabes. It's not like anybody's posting from NASA accounts.

I know a lot of my people have said stuff like this with friends around the water cooler--I do get out of this office from time to time. But I can't start disciplining anybody without proof.

To: Michelle Grimwald, Chief Astronaut
From: Aiden McAllister, NASA Administrator
Date: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Subj: Re: That Angry Astronaut

Just how much proof do you need? He said his genesource goes back to the beginning of the American space program--IOW, the Mercury Seven--and died a decade ago. Alan Shepard passed away in July of 1998, in the date range. Since our Angry Astronaut admits to having flown to JPL the day he made his first inflammatory post, and Reginald Waite (a Shepard clone) took a NASA T-38 to Pasadena that day, I say we have our man.

To: Aiden McAllister, NASA Administrator
From: Michelle Grimwald, Chief Astronaut
Date: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Subj: Re: That Angry Astronaut

Are you sure you want to take Waite down? The way he's always bitching about being treated like an extension of Shepard, he's going to have a field day telling everybody this is Glenn's final revenge on the Icy Commander.

To: Michelle Grimwald, Chief Astronaut
From: Aiden McAllister, NASA Administrator
Date: Thursday, February 19, 2009
Subj: Reginald Waite (was Re: That Angry Astronaut)

I think I can take the wind out of Waite's sails without making a martyr of him. Considering how he ranted repeatedly during the "carpet-bombing run" that if Native Americans want all the white people off their land, they need to send everybody to the Moon because there isn't enough room in Europe to send them all back, I'd say he's volunteered himself for a permanent lunar posting. Especially now that we've settled on Shepardsport as the name for the Farside spaceport.

*

Reggie had just gotten back to his JSC office and was setting up his laptop when he heard a tap on the door. He hardly looked up as he called for the person to come in.

He'd expected it to be one of the engineers, needing to discuss some aspect of Antares' performance, so he was quite surprised to see his boss standing there, lips compressed into a line. Oh crap, Shelly's pissed.

Even as Reggie scrambled to his feet, casting for a way to salvage the situation, Grimwald hooked her thumb toward the corridor. "Come with me, Captain Waite."

Definitely not a good sign, that cold formal address. Reggie became acutely aware of his own casual attire, his Naval Academy class ring the only sign he wasn't the civilian his polo shirt and chinos suggested.

Nothing he could do about it now. Better concentrate on projecting confidence even if he didn't feel it. Not to the point of sneering like Shepard might've, but not looking like a kid hauled off to the principal's office either.

However Reggie might hold his head high and keep his eyes forward, Grimwald's demeanor had everybody avoiding eye contact as they passed in the hall, even people he thought were his friends. She delivered him to the office of the NASA Administrator. Talk about getting sent to the principal's office. All Reggie's old memories were coming back from his grade and high school misadventures.

Aiden McAllister did get up and greet them at the door, but he never met Reggie's eyes, not even while gesturing, take a seat. Contrast that with the warm greeting McAllister gave Grimwald, whom he invited to sit at his right hand behind that big oaken desk, and the score was pretty clear.

Determined to maintain his facade, Reggie leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms. Yeah, just try your best Glenn moves on me.

On the way back to his own seat, McAllister swept a sheaf of papers from the desktop, straight at Reggie, who had to unfold his arms and grab everything before it ended up in his lap.

"Did you make these posts, Waite?" Marine Corps hard, Marine Corps strong.

Reggie leafed through the stack, doing his best to look nonchalant when it was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking at seeing so many of his sharpest posts printed up. Or his voice from quavering, when he knew he could delay answering no longer. "I don't see how any of this nonsense merits a disciplinary hearing. Nothing was done on NASA time or bandwidth, and my name isn't on any of it."

MacAllister gave him a curt nod. "Then you admit to having posted these comments in multiple public forums and blogs. Although you did have the sense to use a pseudonymous screen name, you do realize that once you referred to being an astronaut, your posts reflect upon NASA." He looked directly into Reggie's eyes. "Particularly when Congress is looking into it."

"Congress?" The word came out in a throaty rasp.

Grimwald pointed a pen straight at Reggie. God, she looks just like Mrs. Farnsworth in eighth grade math back in Salem. "Yes, Congress. I'm happy to see something's finally beaten past that Shepard insouciance of yours, because NASA so does not need Congress thinking we've got a bunch of out-of-control astronauts. Political speech does have political repercussions, Captain Waite."

McAllister continued, "Normally we'd ground an astronaut who created such a public scandal. At least for a year, and after your 'carpet-bombing run,' I'd be inclined to make it permanent. Maybe even termination with prejudice. Strip you of all your pilot certifications so you can't pick up with one of the private launch companies."

Reggie choked down a gulp. If he were drummed out of NASA, it would kill his Navy career too. He was still a good enough poker and Magic player that he could scratch together a living on the professional gaming circuit, or he could give windsurfing lessons, so he wouldn't starve. But for a man who'd made a career flying high-performance aircraft and spacecraft, it wouldn't be much of a life.

McAllister was nodding. "On the other hand, it might be best not to leave you here on Earth where you can drum up sympathizers. The new port facility on Farside needs a commandant, and given its name, it would be nice to have a Shepard clone in that position."

Talk about a choice in which one option was rotten and the other was no choice at all. At least as a spaceport commandant he'd have to maintain certifications, so he'd have opportunities to fly landers. "I'll go to Farside."

*

Reggie suppressed his urge to fidget, to check his watch. Was it his imagination, or was the main airlock into Shepardsport particularly slow to mate with the crawler's and cycle?

It had been a long and miserable trip here. There'd been the training for his new job, which felt longer because of the air of disgrace that clung to him. What up-and-coming astronaut wanted to be seen associating with someone who'd attracted the big boss's wrath? Then the painful ride as a passenger aboard Kitty Hawk. Reggie had barely been able to look at the orbiter's sleek form atop the shuttle stack as he crossed the gantry to board. Only a year earlier he'd commanded its shakedown flight as the first third-generation shuttle, and now it'd be the last he'd ever ride.

Boarding the lunar ferry and leaving Freedom Station for the Moon had been little better, for he kept fighting the urge to cast a longing look back at Earth. Better to reread the orders he carried and pretend they represented a promotion. At least by the time he arrived at Luna Station and boarded the lander, he'd reconciled himself to life looking at a lunar sky without the familiar blue marble of the homeworld.

Beside him, Steffi was fighting her own nerves. He recalled how he'd been sitting with her in her cubicle, struggling to find a way to break up that would let her down easy, when her boss had arrived to take her to her own Unpleasant Meeting. Apparently somebody in the NASA hierarchy felt she'd been too blatant in drumming up support for him while he was aboard the Antares and unable to carry on his own fight, so McAllister had offered her a similar choice to his. She could accept dismissal with prejudice, or exile as Shepardsport's new IT chief. She'd made a crack about liking both kinds of music, country and western, and told McAllister she was standing by her man. She and Reggie had formalized their relationship shortly afterward

At last the airlock's inner door opened and they could step out onto the entrance antechamber of their new home. He looked around at the gray lunarcrete walls, at the people watching him. How to strike the right note that would make it plain he was not coming here as a powerless exile, but their new commandant?

History and irony, that was the ticket. "What was it Alan Shepard said when he finally set foot on the moon? Ah, yes, 'It's been a long way but--we're here.'"
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Leigh Kimmel is a writer, artist and bookseller living in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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