Astronaut, 77, Dies in Space
After 39 consecutive years in space, Cmdr. Baskins leaves lasting legacy.
HOUSTON - A new chapter in human history was written today, when the first human died in space. Commander James Baskins, 77, expired at 0433 hours, EST, apparently of natural causes, aboard the Gore CO2 Monitoring Platform.
Christopher Huffins, a spokesman for NASA, said the administration plans to send a recovery shuttle for the remains. The late Cmdr. Baskins is set to receive full honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. following the return on May 6.
Cmdr. Baskins set a new record for longest continuous duration of time in orbit—39 years, 123 days. After serving on maintenance crews aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery for work on the then-new Gore CO2 Monitoring Platform from 2023 to 2029, he accepted a full-time position aboard the space station in 2030.
It is well documented that a relationship blossomed between Cmdr. Baskins and Science Officer Wahilda Robin during the mid 30’s, when the concern over CO2 levels in the atmosphere grew to epidemic proportions and the monitoring platform crew worked around-the-clock to save the last remaining shards of glacier left at the poles. Baskins himself received a simultaneous barrage of criticism and acclaim for staying awake 135 straight hours as the last of the ice caps faded into the sea on August 12, 2038.
Baskins’ video of the last ice caps is still included in almost all middle school science curricula. It is also widely known, though the incident was initially concealed by NASA, that Cmdr. Baskins fell out of communication with Mission Control in Houston for 15 weeks following the melting of the ice caps. Years later, Baskins attributed the communication lapse to “the tremendous atmosphere of failure” that permeated the crew.
By the end of 2038, NASA finalized plans to reduce the role of the monitoring platform and sought to reduce its crew from seven to two. The Gore Platform would be re-commissioned as a hurricane tracking station. The silence was broken on December 5, 2038, when the crew received word from Houston that they were to be replaced by a two-person crew. During this communication, Baskins startled Mission Control and the world by announcing that he and S.O. Robin had conceived the first child in space. While the notion of a birth in space was appealing to the scientific community, both Mission Control and the parents deemed it smarter to have the delivery on Earth, as the crew lacked an established obstetrician.
Dual aeronautical tragedies struck in the early months of 2039. On January 12, Space Shuttle Endeavor, bearing five astronauts, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean shortly after takeoff. The flight was commissioned as the first of two missions to taxi the platform’s crew back to Earth. As the loss of the Endeavor crew was mourned by multitudes around the globe and seven above it, NASA frenetically attempted to assemble another recovery mission for the astronauts on the platform. The timetable waned for S.O. Robin’s safe return.
By March, a successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery assuaged any fears of a space birth. On March 8, six members of the Gore Platform, including S.O. Robin—then eight months pregnant—boarded Discovery as it shuttled them back to Earth. Cmdr. Baskins remained the only astronaut aboard the space station, as chief commanding officer, and thusly, the only crew member capable of operating all systems.
Upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, space shuttle Discovery inexplicably came apart, ending the lives of all 11 on board. NASA later attributed the disaster to faulty heat shield cells that were overlooked in the expedited planning stages. As the incident was the second disaster in less than three months, all flights were suspended until the administration could find the root of the failures. A five-year intensive investigation followed of all NASA systems. During this time, Cmdr. Baskins was left marooned aboard the platform. He kept regular communication with Mission Control over this span.
The investigation did not uncover a specific technological or organizational failure. Rather, it deemed that the equipment utilized to send astronauts into space—mainly the fifty-plus-year-old orbiter—was well beyond its prime. NASA had originally planned to phase out the space shuttle in 2010, but due to budget constraints, was left to implement the aging system well beyond its effectiveness.
In 2044, following the investigation, NASA sought to replace the shuttle system with an updated model, the deep space explorer, Journeyman. However, the timetable for testing and eventual completion of this program was set at 10 years at the earliest. An offer was extended to Cmdr. Baskins for one last shuttle mission to retrieve him, but he refused, citing “the immense miscalculation of risking five lives for one.” Instead, Baskins requested a permanent position aboard the Gore Platform.
While many in the mass media and science community questioned Cmdr. Baskins’ decision to be left in space, both he and NASA remained tight-lipped as to their motives.
Over the next 15 years, he performed the duties of the meteorological crew that had never made it aboard, and monitored the increase in destructive weather patterns as a result of global warming. During this span, Baskins also petitioned, albeit remotely, for the U.S. government to update its environmental policy. His voice represented an impassioned plea from the scientific community, a voice with which many on Earth empathize. Through Baskins, much of the innovative environmental policy was popularized and eventually accepted by governments around the world.
In 2062, NASA released to the public a series of video journals compiled by Baskins during his time alone in space. During one confessional, he articulated the crew’s feelings after the ice caps melted in 2038:
“I felt like this space station was built as a band-aid, some way for those in power around the world to say ‘At least we tried to stop global warming.’ But it was too late. By the time we finished construction of Gore, the problem was out of control. It was out of control before we even started construction. Who knows, it may have been too late long before that.
“I’ve come to accept that I’m not personally responsible for the failure of our mission, which was always ambiguous, but one I viewed as ‘stop the ice caps from melting.’ Of course, we didn’t stop that from happening. Didn’t even come close. But the crew wasn’t at fault, as much as we tried to convince ourselves otherwise. Rather, we felt the failure of humanity at large. We couldn’t help but feel like we let the Earth down. That we, somehow, were representatives of humanity. And that we had failed in our cause.”
In a later excerpt, Baskins speaks of the loss of the two shuttle crews in 2039 and his decision to stay aboard the platform:
“To be up here, and see firsthand the tragedies of those missions, to know personally everyone who lost his or her life, it was enough to make me want to stay here. No sense in risking more lives to get me home. I didn’t want to go back. Most of the time, afterwards, I spent thinking and thinking and regretting that I hadn’t told Houston sooner about [S.O. Robin’s pregnancy]. Maybe it would have changed things. Given them more time to plan. Maybe it wouldn’t. It’s hard to say. But I’ve stopped worrying about it. 20 years was enough. I’ve chosen to stay here and live with my mistakes, just as those on Earth have to live with theirs—and the mistakes of so many generations before them. But you have to learn from that—you have to—and make the changes necessary and move on.”
Throughout his 39-year tenure aboard the Gore Platform, Cmdr. Baskins paved a new legacy for the space program. No longer exists the unbridled optimism of scientific exploration, but rather the knowledge that shortcomings cannot be conditioned into strengths, that failures in space translate into terrestrial failings as well.
Despite the somber air of Cmdr. Baskins life above the Earth, his remains are to receive a hero’s welcome by NASA. A permanent exhibit is being finalized at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
Said Huffins, “This is the Welcome Home Celebration that he never received—a reception that this administration views as necessary. Cmdr. James Baskins was a man who taught the world at large the implications of our actions. He acted on his beliefs, and was willing to dedicate his life to promoting the greater good.”
Friday, May 3, 2069
*This exercise was provided by Bigler of Drifting Imagination: Begin with the line "A new chapter in human history was written today, when the first human died in space."