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Deadlock


Deadlock, illustration

Credit: Getty Images

I was NASA's chief orbital technician, as the agency was changing its name to NAIA, the National Artificial Intelligence Administration, responsible for de-orbiting the International Space Station. The ISS name itself was a misnomer, coined when the space program was sliding from dream toward delusion. By definition, space stations are orbital facilities where astronauts transfer from Earth-launch vehicles to interplanetary ships intended for, say, the first human expedition to Mars, which indeed never took place. Having accomplished little worthwhile scientific research since its 1998 launch, the ISS was primarily a propaganda tool, pretending the technologically advanced nations of the world had become partners and that humanity had a glorious future in outer space.

After decades of indecision, the alternatives now were to find a new purpose for the ISS and boost it to a higher orbit or crash it back to Earth at a safe location in the vast Pacific Ocean. Allowing the orbit to degrade naturally could have flattened part of a city, with great loss of life and national prestige. So I was ordered to program the precise instructions into the small thrusters that controlled its orientation, then fire a retrorocket that had recently been added, to drop it to its ocean target zone far from any ships. I secretly pondered violating my orders, however, lofting it instead to a higher orbit so it would survive until the spaceflight social movement could convince politicians to revive the program.


 

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