Return to Planet Alpha

The Cat's Eye Nebula Redux (click image for more info)

he flex of the glass always bothered him. It warped against the vacuum and threatened to collapse. He knew that, in reality, the screen was not a glass screen, and that he was safe behind it for several hundred years before there was any danger of fissures or implosion, but that didn’t rid him of the dreams that resurfaced before every tour. Dreams where the glass bubbles inwards until the front of the capsule brushes his body, and then a sudden force drags him out into the airlessness of space until…

Dexter snapped himself out of his daydream and pressed a gloved finger against the screen. It was solid enough. A mere three hundred light years ahead, so close that he almost felt like he could reach into the nearest planet’s core, was the Hadley System.

A static cough signaled a message from the Icarus.

“Dexter, what’s your status? Over.” It was Santos, the Icarus’ captain.

“I’m coming up close, Icarus. It’s a gorgeous thing,” Dexter replied. The nearest planet, observable only from the OC Capsule, shone a pink-hued blue. Codenamed Hadley Alpha, it showed greatest promise of life.

“Remember, Dexter, obs only, stay within 700 of the Icarus. Over.”

“Understood, over,” Dexter replied.

As the OC Capsule rolled steadily onward, Dexter saw a ring appear around Alpha. Not natural, not mineral, he decided. Distinctly artificial. He supposed that there must be some kind of life down there, if satellites and digital instruments were already circling the planet. But their slow orbit, like a destructive ballet, worried him.

Dexter guided the OC gently until it matched speed with several of the smaller satellites. One just up ahead was revolving slowly, counter to its planetary orbit, spinning aimlessly just feet away from where Dexter sat, buckled in place, trapped behind the warping glass. “Not good,” he muttered.

Between cloud cover, there was land below. It was rocky, mostly red, like the deserts in which he had trained back home. He ran the topography program and waited. Turning endlessly, over and over, the satellite up ahead spun. Dexter knew that it would continue, like Planet Alpha, spinning in the vacuum until it simply fell apart.

* * * * *

This post is part of our series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.


Cosmic Heavyweights in Free-For-All: One of the most complex galaxy clusters, located about 5.4 billion light years from Earth.

By Chandra X-Ray Observatory, 2009.

Millennia ago, I stared into space
the man selling hot dogs beside me
and my mustard moment
threw the night sky at me.
And an ageless poem.
And this photo.

sight unveils
a thousand questions

Smell the breath of the galaxies.
Be a Superman, with no breath.
Invisible royal purple man,
pick up paperclips and Van Gogh’s ear
give me back every millennium’s climax.

sense unveils
a spangled ocean

God has sex with us
by creating galaxy clusters
and our small faces
ofttimes so emotional we stuff
blue and purple tree-shaped
fairy floss; as if God was on
one knee, simultaneously caressing
energy and chewing gum.

being unveils
the myriad life

I have seen you.
I have honoured you.
Day forever brightens in my pocket.

* * * * *

This post is one in a series of works inspired by the Smithsonian Institution’s photo archive, made publicly available on Flickr. If you would like to, choose an image from their collection and create something – be it prose, poetry, audio, or visual art – inspired by it, and send it to snakeoilcure [at] gmail [dot] com.

* * * * *

Michael Fitzgerald-Clarke is an English-born Australian poet who lives in Townsville, Queensland. At present he is working on a MS titled Five Faves, Five Least Faves. He blogs here. If Michael could have just one wish, he would give the wish away.

His other contributions to the Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.


t is a misconception that space is freezing; while it is about three degrees above absolute zero, or -270 degrees Celsius, an object in space will not immediately “freeze” upon exposure. Unlike The Alaskan Tundra, there are no air or gas molecules to carry heat away from an object. Heat will be lost by thermal radiation—a slow process.

McEvers pondered this irony: wishing he was back in his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, instead of 1330 kilometers above the Earth. At 100 pounds per square inch, his oxygen would not last much longer. He knew when his supply was depleted and asphyxia set in, his instinct would be to rip his helmet off. His lungs overriding his brain, hoping for a mere mole of O2. McEvers wondered what the uncold would feel like in his final moments.

ommander William Anders frantically looked through every checklist, every procedure manual, while McEvers checked his O2 gauge and tried once again to open Experior’s hatch without success. Second in command, Pilot Lee Cooper watched with a quiet desperation as McEvers signaled: two fingers to the temple—communication failure; and the flat hand moving across the neck—low on air. Cooper signaled for him to hold on.

“Houston, this is Commander Anders.  The comp’s giving a reading of 100 psi left in EVA One’s O2.  The computer override still is not allowing us to open to hatch. Please advise.” He bent his head down and tried to run his hand through his hair, forgetting he had his helmet on.  He clicked off the broadcast switch. It was only him and Cooper on the coms. Turning as much as his suit and restraint allowed, he stared at Cooper. “You know what they are going to say.”

Gemini XIII Pilot Lee Cooper could not help but avert his gaze, looking back at the window. “Bill. We’re not going to leave him out there.”

“You know the protocol.”

“You know what’s right.”

The red light indicating there was a transmission from Houston began to blink.  Anders reached for the broadcast switch. His pressurized glove was stopped by Cooper’s.

“Coop, you know as well as I do, if we shut off the hatch seal program and manually open the hatch, the computer will attempt to maintain cabin pressure. We would not be able to close the hatch. The internal pressure could blow it right off.”

“We have never lost a man in space, and we sure as fuck aren’t going to start now. I don’t care what Houston says. I don’t care what you say. I’m gettin’ him in. Christ, he’s got four minutes.”

The light continued to flash.

“We’re taking this,” the commander swiped his pilot’s hand away and clicked the broadcast switch.

“Houston, this is Experior, please confirm transmission.”

“That’s affirmative Experior, we copy. We have a reading of 80 psi left in EVA One’s suit, but are unable to communicate with him. Have you made contact?”

“Negative on contact Houston,” Cooper interjected. “We still have visual contact on McEvers. He’s giving us the distress signal and has grasped onto the hatch bay external opener. He has made several attempts to manually open the hatch. But I’m coming up with a workaround for the capsule pressure program.”


Cooper grimaced, snapping his head back the against headrest. He buried his head, helmet and all, into his hands.

It was difficult for the commander to avoid seeing McEvers. Maintaining composure, he focused on the instruments and hit his com button. “Houston, please advise.”

Experior, you are ordered to cease further attempts for a manual retrieval of EVA One. Initiate mission abort, and prepare for early reentry.”

A sole reply from the Commander: “Copy, Houston.”

“‘Cease further attempts for manual retrieval of EVA One!’ Are you people insane? You don’t even have the fucking balls to say his name—Lt. Jack McEvers.” Cooper unlocked his restraints and hovered slightly off his seat; he gripped the Commander’s life support hoses.  Anders’ eyes opened wide, his pupils constricted. The pilot pressed his helmet against his superior’s, “Husband to Shelly McEvers, father to sixteen-year old Lindsay and eight-year old Charlotte. Can’t y’all say what we’re really doing here? Oh sure, it’s much easier to release a suit shell code named  ‘EVA One’ into a fatal orbit.”

Cooper let go of the commander’s hoses and clipped back into his seat. He began punching the computer’s keypad. “That’s a negative Houston, we will attempt to override the pressure program and execute a manual retrieval  of McEvers—a manual retrieval of Jack.”

Commander Anders threw his arm and gripped Cooper’s shoulder with enough force to squeeze the air pressure into the arm, stiffening the joint. Anders switched the broadcast com off and faced his subordinate. “Lee, he’s got less than one minute of air. Even if it were possible for us to do this without compromising the capsule, there is not enough time.  Sit back and prep the parachute deployment system. That is an order, Lieutenant.”

Both astronauts turned their attention to the window. McEvers was inches away from the window. He alternated between banging on the window and giving the no air signal in what looked like slow motion.  An alarm went off accompanied by a flashing light—indicating his autonomous O2 pressure was now zero. They watched from inside as the man in the suit grasped for his neck, letting go of the craft. He remained near the window. As he had predicted earlier, McEvers could not help but twist open his helmet’s airlock, exposing himself to the vacuum. By the look of his face,  Anders could tell McEvers had held his breath, as he twisted his head back and forth. Within less than a second, the spacewalker’s body jolted and snapped open his jaw as explosive decompression ruptured his lungs. Cyanosis set in quickly, and the blue faced, bloated astronaut remained by the ship. Though the body was unconscious, the heart continued to beat for several seconds, until hypoxia became anoxia. And death ensued.

Cooper screamed into his helmet, while punching the window.  The Commander punched in a private com with Houston and whispered a few words.

“We killed Jack.” Cooper had begun to sob.

Busy flipping various switches, Commander Anders ignored his remaining crew member.

After a moment, Lee Cooper began to feel dizzy and noticed his vision narrowing. He looked at his commander who appeared to be farther away. “We killed….we,” his speech became slurred. “Are we losing O2?”

Anders began the reentry procedure, “No, don’t worry. We are not losing O2. Houston and I have, however, decided to divert just enough O2 away from your suit to relax you,” he patted his pilot on the shoulder. “It’s okay, pal. We’ll be home soon.”

Cooper’s eyes closed as he struggled to speak “You—”

And then, lights out.

Experior, this is Houston. Flight surgeon confirms Cooper’s vitals are stable, and he should remain unconscious through reentry.”

“Copy that, Houston. Initialing decent. Altimeter confirms.”

As Anders hit the thruster to move him toward descent, he could not help but look at McEvers’s corpse shrinking out of view. A morbid curiosity wondered how long the body would stay in orbit. And if the solar radiation had already seared the unprotected face.

The Commander checked to make sure his pilot was secure for the coming g-forces, and then went through the reentry checklist. The capsule began to rattle as they entered the earth’s atmosphere.  Anders double checked to make sure Cooper was secure.

“Houston, I’m doing a final systems check before reentry com blackout.”

“Copy that Experior, you are go for reentry.”

The commander lay back, letting heat shields, atmosphere, and explosive parachutes do their job. Six minutes and this would all be over.

t was at two minutes until touchdown, when Cooper began to wake from his hypoxic sedation. His eyes opened slowly. He was careful not to move his body as he checked the instrument panel altitude—thirty kilometers. Not much time. He stared at the panel for a few moments, then at the fire outside the window. Finally his view shifted to his commander, who was braced for the touchdown.

“Son of a bitch,” he whispered to himself.

And then Cooper began to mentally rehearse the sequence of key strokes that flashed in his mind before passing out.

With twenty kilometers until touchdown, Cooper turned to his Commander, and pressed his com button. “It’s been an honor to fly with you Jim.” Though his arm was heavy with gravitational force, the pilot pressed a series of keystrokes into the flight computer, and flicked two switches before the commander grasped his arm.

“What did you—” Anders looked at the panel and then back at Cooper. “The para—”

The crew of the USS Wasp had varying reactions as they saw the Gemini capsule fall from the sky: most pointed, some gasped, and some looked away. But there was a split second of collective silence as the capsule splashed down without its parachutes deployed. The divers broke free from the initial shock and dove into the water after the men in the capsule. They swam with unrelenting force, though they knew their efforts were fruitless.