EDIT: Today is February 1st, 2013, which makes it the 10th anniversary of this event. Raise a glass, won’t you, to the High Frontier.
This tale is prompted by hearing a familiar voice on the radio speaking to some elementary school students. One I hadn’t heard in eight years since a rather grim alcohol soaked day at McMurdo Station, Ms. Cady Coleman, Astronaut. She is currently serving aboard the International Space Station.
As previously discussed, I spent a year in Antarctica at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. We winterovers were entitled to some R&R during the summer before the full “The Shining”-grade lockdown for 9 months set in at Pole. But did they send us to Tahiti to enjoy warmth, greenery, and mai tais? Noooooo…they used to send folks to New Zealand but there was a bad spate of people skipping on their contracts now that they’d already endured three months of The Ice. By the time my year hit, people at Pole got sent for a week in beautiful, comparatively tropical, McMurdo Base. I got stuck there an additional two weeks waiting for a supply ship to offload.
Too much happened in this total of three weeks and much of it was spent drunk or short of sleep for me to hope to get all in one go. For the time being, let us discuss Room 129 in Building 155. Eleven of us went on R&R at the same time in mid-January 2003. Six of us were in Room 105, where I was put, and the rest were in 129. Sadly, the occupants of my room were focused on sleeping and reading. The other room had a strict schedule that went something like this:
1100 – Wake up.
1101 – Pour yesterday’s burnt coffee into trash can, or other room occupant’s boots as the muse demands.
1102 – Turn on coffee pot. (coffee pots in rooms are against the McMurdo rules)
1107 – Pour coffee. Add Irish Creme and whiskey to greet the McMurdo morning properly. Repeat as necessary.
1130 – Stack previous night’s beer cans and liquor bottles onto the growing pyramid.
1200 – Lunch. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1300 – Day Bar at Southern Exposure*.
1730 – Dinner. Offend sensitive McMurdans.
1830 – Night Bar at Southern Exposure*.
0030 – Midrats (“midnight rations”, McMurdo had a specific list of people allowed to eat at this time which we ignored). Assemble bar on the dining room table. Offend sensitive McMurdans
0130 – Room party or lounge shenannigans.
0400 to 0700 – Go to sleep, maybe.
You can take you guess as to which group I spent the most time with.
*: For reference, Southern Exposure is also known as The Smoking Bar. Once upon a time it had been the Chief’s Bar during the Navy days. There were two other outlets for booze, The Coffeehouse (formerly the Officer’s Club, a very old quansit hut), and Gallagher’s, AKA The Non-Smoking Bar (formerly the Erebus Club, the enlisted men’s club, renamed after the death of CPO Gallagher (ret.) who died on Ice in 1997).
I seem to be digressing. Let’s take the story to February 1st, 2003 standing in the main entryway to McMurdo’s primary building, Bldg 155, with NASA astronauts Eileen Collins and Cady Coleman. I’d gotten to help them move their remote campsite a few weeks earlier as they were doing meteorite collection on the ice sheet by the Pecora Hills. I have no problem whatsoever being menial labor on the endless frozen expanse when I get to hangout with astronauts. Hell, I moved their bucket toilet with glee and sat there for three hours in the cold waiting for a plane to take me back to safety.
Both Cady & Eileen had been on previous space shuttle flights. Eileen, in fact, had been the first female pilot the shuttle had ever had. There was some concern of damage to the shuttle for reentry. Thus, they were watching the Armed Forces Television monitors with rapt interest and sharing small tales of the awesome of going to space. Being the science nerd and child of Cape Canaveral I am, I was hanging on every word.
Then Columbia exploded.
There was a a sharp intake of breath from the dozen or so assembled. One of the construction folks screamed “NO!” at the top of her lungs.
I turned to Cady and said, “I have a bar worth of booze in my room if you’d like a drink RIGHT NOW.” She and Eileen slowly nodded, looking rather shellshocked. They’d just watched their co-workers die. No, more than that, these are the people you have been studying with, sweating in the gym with, and trapped in various spam cans with for years. Being an astronaut is somewhere between army platoon and tightly knit doctoral program group. These were more than co-workers or friends; they were fellow explorers on the frontier.
I would like to state for the record that it is rather hard to drink me under the table. I have survived evenings with naval personnel from several countries, a misadventure with a watch worth of Coasties, hard rock miners, gutter punks and emerged staggering tall (albeit holding The Plunger of Honor one time…long story, don’t ask). However, these two women had me holding on to the pool table for support as they kept clearing it with deadeye accuracy and taking more and more shots of gin. Commander Collins is 5’1″ and almost didn’t get to be an astronaut due to a space program worth of suits designed with the six footer John Glenn in mind. I doubt she said “Fuck you very much, NASA” but she did make sure that a suit was available to fit her by becoming part of the suit design project.
At the end of it all, Cady asked if I’d like to see the video she took on the shuttle. Her personal camera. That may have been the high point of my Antarctic experience.
To Cady, Eileen, and all the astro/cosmo/taikonauts, I wish you the very best as you keep humanity’s future in the stars going forward. To the names on the memorial at Kennedy Space Center, and all the others that have lost their lives as we try to escape the gravity well, I raise a glass.