The impact is felt inside and a panel falls off. A small smoke trail is formed around its wires. Ryan is restrained against her seat by the gravitational force of the fall and everything is shaking. The Shenzhou has left the burning debris behind. As it touches the lower atmosphere, it immediately cools down, dimming its brightness, surrounded by a purple sky.
It freefalls 9.8 meters per second and a parachute releases. The long fabric comes out and expands as the air fills the red and white canopy. When it’s fully open it slows down the abin’s descent and lets it glide in a diagonal path over the Earth. A breath of relief, as through the porthole, she sees the ropes of the parachute extend out to the large canvas cushioning the fall. A second parachute expands. It slows the fall even further, shifting the cabin into a more vertical descent toward the ground that is so close it now seems tangible.
Ryan starts coughing. The cabin is quickly filling with smoke, and The white cloud of smoke overflowing the small space is getting thicker.The Shenzhou drops, hanging from the parachutes, at a speed of thirty kilometers per hour. It is surrounded by a blue sky. It passes through a layer of clouds. She coughs as the white smoke is becoming unbearable. She’s suffocating. The Shenzhou is rapidly approaching the ground. It is falling straight toward a lake.
Two meters before hitting its surface, the landing engines ignite, giving the downward thrust meant to cushion the landing on a hard surface. The thrust parts the water, creating a curtain of steam, and the Shenzhou gently falls down into the lake, making a wave that spreads out in a circle. Ryan feels the cabin hit the water. She has landed safely. But she cannot celebrate because she can’t stop coughing. She is asphyxiating in the thick cloud of smoke. She unstraps herself and reaches a lever at the side of the hatch. She pulls the lever.
On the lake, with a small controlled explosion, the hatch cover is launched away from the cabin. Smoke pours out through the open hatch. She begins to unstrap herself when water pours in through the open hatch. She tries to make her way out, fighting against the strong current that is gushing in, but the flow is too strong and it pushes her back in. She struggles to force her way through the cascade rapidly filling the cabin, but it is too strong. The cabin is overflowing.
The water has reached Ryan’s chin when she manages to take one last deep breath of air before water completely fills it. The metallic capsule, which weighs almost three tons, sinks quickly into the lake. As the ropes of the parachute tense, the long fabric follows the cabin down. Air trapped inside Ryan’s suit leaks out through the collar and small bubbles float up. Ryan fights her way to the hatch, and pulling with her arms, she swims out. She pushes herself away from the cabin, swimming away from the pod as the Shenzhou hits the lake bottom.
A dark cloud of mud swells up around it. Ryan struggles to swim up to the surface, but she can only use one arm and the wet suit is dragging her down. She strokes rapidly, but she isn’t moving up. Instead she's going down, and her feet sink into the lake bed. She looks up and sees the rays of sunlight breaking through the lake’s surface are eclipsed by the parachute, which floats down toward her like a huge jellyfish about to engulf its pray. A frog crosses in front of her, effortlessly swimming on its way to the surface.
Small bubbles of air come out of Ryan’s nose as she struggles to open her suit. She takes off the bottom part of the suit. Above her the parachute is getting closer, a net about to trap her. She struggles out of the top part of her suit and squirming out from under it. She frees herself from the heavy garments and swims up as the sinking parachute traps her foot and begins dragging her down.
But with a kick, she sets herself free, and she swims up, stroking with her arms. She is completely out of breath, only the tiniest bubbles rise from her nose. She is about to lose consciousness, when she sees the frog swimming ahead of her, sliding smoothly through the water toward the rays of sunlight diffracted by the surface.
The surface is coming closer and closer. She reaches the thin boundary between water and air and she come out to the surface. And she takes an enormous breath. Almost primal, like the first breath of a newborn child, it burns her lungs but reclaims life. She only has enough strength to keep her face above water. She floats, catching her breath and taking long gulps of air.
She looks up at the sky where the clouds move, caressed by air and light. And beyond them, outer space. She turns around, and taking a deep breath, she swims, breaking through the water and harnessing every last bit of energy in her. The remains of the Chinese space station and other satellite debris streak high in the sky overhead. And soon she arrives to the shallow edge of the lake. She drags herself from the water, like the first amphibious life form crawling out of the primordial soup onto land. The water laps gently over her, washing in around her legs.
She lies with her face against the muddy shore and her eyes closed, recovering her strength. And she breathes. She breathes air. And as her breath steadies, she smiles. She pushes her face against the ground, enjoying the sense of weight, and she opens her eyes. Then she looks at her surroundings, taking in the almost unbearable beauty of the planet Earth. She’s breathing deeply and begins to cough. It’s not a cough, it’s a chuckle. Ryan is cracking up. Ecstasy overcomes Ryan and joyful laughter fills her body. She is alive.
She plants her palms against the ground and with an effort, she pushes herself up. She feels her weight, and manages to rise to her hands and knees like a four-legged mammal. And she stands up. One foot falls heavily on the ground. It sinks into the mud and then another foot. Ryan’s feet are solidly planted on the mud. One foot moves forward and lands on more solid ground, unstable, coping with the weight. And then the other foot follows as she begins to walk on planet Earth, laughing. She is punch drunk. She is free.
MANKIND'S RESPONSIBILITY: The Kessler Syndrome is an example of what happens with exponential growth. When two satellites collide, they produce millions of particles that could be hazardous to another spacecraft. Collision probability for this one satellite increases by a factor of 100 because it broke up into larger fragments. And then those can go on and chain-reaction with another group. This chain reaction could eventually form a debris belt, putting all satellites and space stations at risk.
Space travel and exploration would become extremely dangerous. The International Space Station is hit by small debris all the time. Solar arrays, hand rails outside airlocks, and its windows are all pockmarked from debris three millimeters and smaller. But what happens when there isn't enough warning for a collision with a trackable object? In 2009, 2011, and 2012, the crews of the International Space Station had debris passing close by, but not enough time for collision avoidance.
For nearly three decades, guidelines helped prevent the unnecessary accumulation of debris. There seemed to be hope. And then, between 2007 and 2009, a series of catastrophes showed us how vulnerable we are. The Chinese targeted one of their own old weather satellites, launching a kinetic kill missile into orbit. Essentially, a lump of metal set in the path of their satellite using relative velocity to destroy the satellite instead of explosives. When the missile hit, it produced over 3,300 pieces of trackable debris.
Even if all space activity stopped today the problem would worsen on it's own. An object left behind in orbit can take years, or even centuries, to return to Earth unassisted. In that time, it could blindly collide with other objects, filling the sky with debris. But all the ideas brought forward, none have reached space yet. So what is it that stands in the way of cleaning up? Unfortunately, it's on the order of a billion dollars or more for every collision prevented. Technology, cost and urgency all stand in the way of clean space.
The problem is more complicated than we ever imagined. Assuming man continues to operate in space as he has in the past, there is a significant probability that a large increase in debris could result from a collision at any time. In the short time we've had access to space, we've made technological strides that have changed our world in ways that would be unheard of 50 years ago. Imagine where we could be years from now and all that we're risking with inaction. Orbital debris is a man-made problem. It is mankind's responsibility to clean it up.