“Well, you are more than qualified to take the job, Mr Benson, but as I’m sure you are aware, your case is a little…,” the interview paused to find the right word, “…unusual. We have a few questions about how this might affect your ability to undertake the role that under other circumstances would be deemed insensitive, perhaps, but we mean no harm in asking these questions, I assure you.” The middle-aged, balding man in the overly tight grey suit was sat bolt upright, his interlinked hands resting on the desk before him.
“I had expected as much,” Tom said in reply. He had been wondering for the entirety of the interview when the elephant in the room would become a topic of discussion.
“Then you will forgive me for asking why exactly you use a wheelchair?”
“I was involved in a land mine accident while serving as an electrical engineer in the army, and the damage to the spine has resulted in paralysis from the waist downwards,” Tom did not to like to brood on the accident, which still gave him horrific, and very realistic nightmares almost five years on.
“Your upper body is in no way affected?”
“Bar some rather nasty scarring, no. I believe myself to be rather lucky is this regard.”
“And your intellect?”
“Pardon?” Tom was shocked and a little incredulous. He had anticipated questions about his physical abilities, but to query his mental capacities was simply insulting.
“Your intellect. Your ability to think rapidly in stressful situations, and to solve complex problems. Were they in any way impaired by the accident?”
“Of course not, my brain is in my head, not my legs,” as soon as the words had slipped out of his mouth, Tom regretted them, fearing they made him sound arrogant and insolent.
“I apologise profusely if I have caused any offense,” the interviewer did not look in the least bit sorry.
“My impairment is physical only,” Tom replied more calmly.
“Indeed. So, how would you move around the space station?”
“Propelling myself with my arms, just like I do every day on Earth. That will not be a problem.”
“OK. And can you give me a reason why we should risk sending someone disabled into space instead of someone able-bodied please?”
Tom smirked, “You won’t have to worry about the effects of microgravity on my leg muscles, which have atrophied anyway.” He was pleased to observe the flicker of a smile flit across the interviewers’ face.
“Well, thank you for coming, My Benson. We’ll be in touch,” the interviewer stood up and leant over the desk to shake Toms’ hand, before crossing the room to hold open the door for him.
“Thank you,” Tom said as he wheeled out of the room.
Nine months later Tom followed his crewmates, Helena and Ulrik, as they crossed the gangway to the relatively small rocket, with the crowd staring up at them from a distance. Only detectable by the flashes of light emitting from their cameras, Tom knew that the focus of the photographers would be on him, the first disabled astronaut ever. Helena and Ulrik clambered into the shuttle before him, and then helped Tom shuffle inelegantly from his wheelchair onto his seat, which currently faced the sky. This feeling was not entirely alien to Tom, who had on several occasions over-turned his wheelchair in an encounter with a small step, usually while inebriated.
The doors were closed and as he strapped himself in, Tom watched as a technician rolled his wheelchair back along the gangway; it was strange to think that he would not see it for three months. He almost missed it.
The intercom crackled into life, and ground control confirmed that all was ready for take-off. As the countdown began the engines rumbled into life, the vibrations causing Toms’ legs to bounce gently against the seat in a comical manner. Finally the Earth moved away, and as the smoke cleared they got one last look at the ground control centre beneath them before the Earth started to shrink at an alarming rate.
“Strange to think that outer space will be more accessible than my local pub,” Tom said.
It was several hours before the rocket got into orbit, and the sudden loss of gravity as this happened caused Tom’s legs to start flailing uncontrollably while his upper body was still strapped in. Tom unfastened his seatbelt faster than Helena and Ulrik, perhaps because they were merely fancier versions of his wheelchair belt. He drifted away from his seat, and almost immediately managed to kick a button on one of the many control panels around him by accident. Thankfully it was just the stereo, and the sounds of David Bowie filled the room.
“Alright, very funny, who put Space Oddity in the CD player?” Tom asked, turning round to face Helena and Ulrik, who were now floating in the tin can, far above the world. Ulrik had a grin spreading from ear to ear plastered across his face, while Helena was managing to propel herself around the cabin by laughter alone.
A few hours later the rocket docked with the International Space Station, a complicated process requiring extensive communication between those already on the station, ground control, and Tom, Helena, and Ulrik themselves. Eventually, after dealing with an uncooperative airlock that had to be switched off and on again, they entered the ISS. As they moved through the doorway Tom got his ankle caught on the hatch and Ulrik had to rescue him, but Tom could be independent in everything else he did. For the first time since the accident, he was no different from anyone else.
Two months into his time at the ISS, Tom was woken with a start by loud alarms and flashing red lights. Helena and Ulrik were already at the central control panel trying to assess what had gone wrong, and he joined them as soon as he had disentangled himself from the sleeping bag strapped to the wall. Dave, another member of the crew, was already trying to hold a discussion with ground control, who’s panicked voices could only just be heard over the alarm.
“We hit some unexpected debris out of nowhere and it’s damaged the cooling system, the station needs immediate attention!” Dave yelled, “Ulrik, Tom, get into your spacesuits, you’re going to have to do a space-walk!”
“Really, a space-walk?” Tom raised one eyebrow.
“This isn’t the time for jokes,” Dave said sharply, as Helena managed to silence the alarm, “Helena will help operate the air locks. I will stay on communications. Tom, you’re in charge of the electronics. Move!”
Tom didn’t need to be told twice. Getting into his suit was rather difficult given that not only were the trousers floating around aimlessly, but so were his legs. With a little help from Ulrik he managed to get dressed, and then made his way over to the airlock where Helena was waiting. Safety lines and hooks were put into place, and the tools needed for the repair job were fastened to them by another safety line. Then they were in the airlock as it depressurised, and finally moved out onto the side of the station.
“The site of impact is behind the nearest solar panel on your left,” Dave’s voice sounded tinny over the earpieces in the space-suits.
Hand-over-hand, always having a least one line tethered to the station for safety, Ulrik and Tom made their painfully slow progress towards the damaged area. The sensation of his legs weightlessly drifting outwards made Tom a little uncomfortable, but it wasn’t until his leg got caught on the solar panel that he had any real issues. Unable to move his leg to wriggle free, he had to call Ulrik over to help, but this time it was not as simple as when he got his leg stuck when entering the space station. This time they had less than half an hour before the sun re-appeared, when they would want to be back inside the station, unable to do any more repairing until the sun disappeared again. In the rush, Toms’ safety line became entangled with Ulriks’, which took a further minute to sort out.
Eventually made it to the impact site, which essentially looked like a bowl containing a salad of shards of metal and plastic. Wires poked through broken casing, some even releasing the odd spark. Both men began to tinker, trying to make sense of the mess before them while listening to Dave’s instructions. It hardly seemed like a couple of minutes since they had begun this task than Helena was calling them back into the airlock as the sunrise approached.
Once they were back inside the station, Tom took his helmet off to have a better discussion with Dave.
“How the hell are we going to fix that?” he asked.
“The stations’ sensors are providing ground control with some data, so we’ll get better intel from them shortly. It looks stable for the time being, but it’s going to get really hot in here after a while in the sun. If I were you, I’d get ready to leave the airlock the second the sun disappears again.”
“Yes, sir,” Tom said without thinking, feeling almost as if he was back in the army.
At sunset Tom and Ulrik once again headed for the damaged area, a little quicker this time now that they knew exactly where it was. Dave fed them information piece by piece as he talked with ground control, while Tom worked on the wiring, and Ulrik tried to repair the exterior of the ship. The gloves they wore were incredibly cumbersome, and Tom found himself growing increasingly frustrated that his hands felt as disabled as the rest of him.
As he fumbled with the delicate electrics, he managed to reconnect the damaged circuits, and he heard Dave’s voice in his ear; “The cooling system is functioning again. I’m sending out some spare casing via the airlock; I don’t think you’ll be able to repair the damaged casing. Collect it for Ulrik.”
Awkwardly, Tom made his way back towards the airlock, continually trapping his legs between himself and the space station until he looked like a human pretzel. He cursed under his breath, unable to fathom why exactly Dave thought he would be happy to fetch and carry items on command when his legs would quite literally have been more useful had they not been present. Helena had already placed the casing in the airlock ready for him to reach as soon as the door opened, which was a relief, and then he had to crawl over the ship back to where Ulrik was still at work.
“It’s flat-pack but there’s no Allen key,” Tom said as he handed it over, a futile attempt at lightening the atmosphere, despite the fact that there wasn’t one.
Eventually the replacement panel had been screwed into place, and the only sign of an impact with space debris was a collection of scratches surrounding the repaired section. Ground control confirmed that the sensors were now producing perfectly normal readings, and Tom and Ulrik made their way back to the airlock. In less of a rush, Tom was able to keep his legs from becoming as cumbersome as they had been before, and even managed to avoid getting caught on any protruding elements of the station. A few minutes after re-entering the ISS, the sun re-appeared from behind the Earth, and a soft orange light flooded the room.
The return trip to Earth was mostly uneventful. Tom was now used to the lack of gravity, and was less prone to knocking things over accidentally; in fact, he made the most of his last few hours of not needing a wheelchair. Just before they were due to feel the full force of gravity once more, he made his way to his seat and strapped himself in as ordered. Ground control had warned all the astronauts on the dangers of not being seated when gravity kicked in, including blacking out due the sudden draining of blood from the brain, or injuries from colliding with the floor. The story of how one unfortunate astronaut had broken his leg had been repeated often enough, but Tom remained adamant that stepping on a land-mine was still far more risky.
The fall to Earth was broken by the deployment of parachutes, but the capsule containing Tom and his colleagues still landed in the sea with enough force to plunge it underwater, before bobbing back up to the surface. All of them, Tom included, were feeling the effects of gravity now. Tom could feel his heart beating harder to push blood up to the brain against gravity, something it hadn’t had to deal with for three months, and he felt dazed and tired as his brain tried to deal with the slower provision of oxygen.
It did not take long for the rescue team to arrive, hauling them onto a boat and taking them to shore. As they approached the harbour they could see a crowd gathering on the harbour wall, and when they were closer still, they could hear them cheering and clapping. Once the boat had docked, Helena, Ulrik, and Tom were all placed in wheelchairs, since standing upright with gravity sickness could result in fainting, and made their way to the jetty, where members of ground control awaited them. Tom had no issue controlling his chair, reuniting with it as if it were an old friend, but both Helena and Ulrik required some help manoeuvring their wheelchairs along the gangway, with Ulrik getting stuck on the railings at least twice.
“Is this what it’s like for you all the time?” Helena called after Tom.
“Pretty much,” he responded, “you wait until we get among the crowd and have a child’s point of view.”
As they moved forward, pushing through the crowd that engulfed them, Ulrik and Helena ran over several people, and eventually resorted to following Tom in single file through the crowd, akin to a mother duck and her offspring. It amused Tom that in this scenario, his disability was actually to his benefit, something that before had only ever been true of discounted concert tickets when people felt sorry for him.
They headed towards a coach that awaited them, and in doing so passed a newspaper stand in the midst of the crowd with a teenage boy trying to sell papers to the passers-by, probably earning less than a single paper cost. Tom picked one up, and as he made his awkward way onto the coach via a very slow and noisy lift, he began to read. He had a lot to catch up on.