2008 5th-6th Grade Prose Winner
From the moment space shuttle Olympus took off, Thelma Paterson was a bit nervous. Of course, she was riding on thousands of pounds of metal basically lit on fire. Then, it would be thrown into the airless vacuum of outer space. It was natural to be worried.
Luke Van Neer was working at mission control in Houston, Texas. Everything was going great. The Olympus launch had been hugely publicized. The attendance at the launch was one of the most anticipated in NASA history, mostly because the shuttle would be taking one of the last pieces to the International Space Station. Van Neer had only seen one disaster in his 13-year career. He vividly remembered Columbia, the shuttle that had blown up on its way back. Van Neer recalled his last communications with the doomed astronauts. A call from one of his colleagues snapped him back to the present.
Patty Burleson had been working at NASA for five years. After failing the physical to become an astronaut, Burleson had decided to work at mission control. She called Van Neer "Chief" as a joke. They had gone to Berkeley University together and majored in astrophysics. There, he had basically helped her through every test.
"What?" said Van Neer.
"Just wanted to tell you that everything's going great."
Van Neer gave her a thumbs-up.
There he sat, in a $2,000 chair custom-made and directly imported from Italy. His BlackBerry started to vibrate.
He had dropped out of college at the University Michigan State. It had been his freshman year. A year after he dropped out, his father died. Using the money he gained from his father's will, he had built a small oil company called Vexxon. Evolution had taken over since then. Now, Vexxon drilled for oil in Saudi Arabia, Alaska, Kazakhstan, Antarctica, Australia, Texas, Venezuela, Germany, Russia, and Canada. The most recent find had been in Minot, North Dakota. Vexxon had been one the first companies out there. It took a month to transport the rigs, buy land, and start drilling. But now it was going to pay off. Thomas J. Vanderhall III was sure of it.
Zero gravity. There's not much like it. Thelma Paterson felt like a superhero. It was an eerie feel≠ing, floating like that. There were three other members of NASA on the mission. There were two cosmonauts and one member of the European Space Agency. The food was like nothing she had ever seen or tasted. The ice cream sandwiches were actually pretty good.
The summons had come from mission control.
"Olympus, this is Houston. Do you read? Over."
"Houston, this is Olympus. We're doing fine," said Paterson.
"Good. Do you want to do Letterman at 5?"
"Is that five eastern time?"
Van Neer resigned his voice and took a sip of coffee. Perfect. Everything was A-OK. It was almost that new guy's shift. 3:00, Eastern Time. In two hours the astronauts would be interviewed by one of America's most popular talk-show hosts. More publicity. The only problem was that two astronauts didn't speak English. Another one spoke about ten words of it.
Vanderhall took his BlackBerry out of the left hip pocket of his jeans. He was a casual man, and only wore suits to big publicity events. He looked at the number and identified it immediately. It was Joseph Maraniss, one of the main shareholders in his business. He put the phone to his ear. Maraniss sounded worried.
"Tom, we may have a problem. Ten of our guys in Dakota have just been hospitalized. They're in critical condition," he said.
"Did they get hurt?" asked Vanderhall.
"No. The doctors said it's some sort of natural gas, but it's not like anything they've ever seen."
Not Good, thought Vanderhall. He threw his BlackBerry across the room. It hit the silk wallpa≠per, bursting into little shards perfectly in time to a string of curses.
The screen flickered to life. Thelma Paterson typed a command into the thermal control system. The Letterman interview couldn't have gone better. Paterson had to admit that he was pretty funny. It was her first time in the ISS, and even though she had seen pictures before, it still amazed her. She knew she knew she would never look at any sci-fi space movie the same way again. This was the real thing, not Plan Nine From Outer Space.
Van Neer stood with a cup of coffee in his hand and an open mouth. The image on the TV changed to the outside of a hospital. A newscaster began to speak.
"That's right, Tom. In places all over the world, people are dying of a mysterious sickness. An inside source said that it is gas-related. It is still unidentified. The news team here at Channel One is still working very hard to obtain more details."
Van Neer changed the channel.
"Thank you, Liz. We tried to talk to Thomas J. Vanderhall III, the owner of one of he most pow≠erful oil companies in the world, Vexxon, earlier this morning. Unfortunately, we couldn't get access to his apartment. We will keep trying to get you as close to the events that are unfolding here as we can."
Burleson looked over his shoulder.
"Oh, man." she said.
"This is on every channel. Even ESPN stopped the NBA Finals to report this." said Van Neer.
"Well, then it's got to be important." Burleson said.
Vanderhall downed another shot glass of whiskey and tossed it aside like a baseball. That's when he lost consciousness.
A Month Later...
Paterson was sweating. It wasn't because she was hot. The thousands of heat tiles on the bottom of the ship would take care of that. She hadn't been sleeping well lately. The problem was, they had lost contact with mission control two weeks ago. In fact, none of the astronauts had been sleeping well at all.
Now, space shuttle Olympus prepared for homecoming to a nearly lifeless earth.