Asteroid Wranglers (Part 1)

Drill Master Shane Slater hovered above the hull of the vessel Midas in his spacesuit with an AMU (Astronaut Maneuvering Unit) attached to it. Tiny points of light shone faintly across the black void of space above the surface of the ship. The craft was named after the mythological Greek king, Midas, who it was said, anything he touched turned to gold. Such a prestigious name was assigned to the ship because it was the first ever deployed to mine an asteroid. Its creators hoped this monumental endeavor would be extremely lucrative.

Shane studied the bent antenna of the ship’s communication relay. Outwardly, he couldn’t see any concerning signs of damage. He gently rubbed his thumb across the bend, feeling for any rough spots that might reveal anything more serious. Its surface felt smooth.

He tapped a button on the side of his helmet that cued his communication circuit. “Flight, the relay’s antenna has a slight bend in it,” Shane said. “But I’m not seeing any other signs of damage. Anything on your end of it?”

“Data is transmitting at 100%, Drill Master,” a female voice said over the comms. That was Flight Engineer Marie Nels.

“Then, as far as I can tell, whatever bent the antenna doesn’t seem to have caused any structural damage or created any interference in the ship’s systems.”

“Drill Master,” Spacecraft Commander Janice Foremin said. “From the sound of it, that bend might’ve been caused by a micro-meteor impact. Other parts of the ship might’ve been hit, and you’ll have to go over the rest of the ship for impacts, and also the lander.”

“Copy that.”

Shane activated the AMU’s thrusters to move along the top of the ship as he continued his inspection. He didn’t see any glinting on the metal of the square paneling that comprised this part of the ship’s hull. In actuality, each square was a container intended for storing mined asteroid material.

Each container fit together like Legos that, in effect, acted as a second hull for the top of the Midas. This was done to reduce the Midas’ mass by eliminating the need for a large cargo bay within the ship for storing the containers. The containers were also strategically positioned on top of the ship to cover the crew compartments and command deck, offering the crew additional protection from radiation. Solar radiation from the sun was the main focus of this shielding, but consideration was also given to the nuclear reactor that powered the ship’s main engine. Though insignificant when compared to the immense radiation generated by the Sun, the reactor still gave off dangerous levels of gamma radiation. The hull of the Midas was designed with these problems in mind, but the amount of protection offered by available materials was less than ideal. Designers solved the problem by using the containers. Their added thickness would help scatter radiation from the reactor and Sun. Then as the crew filled each container with mined material, the added ore would further enhance the crew’s radiation protection.

When Shane approached the back of the ship, he heard a warning beep that signaled a significant uptick in radiation levels. He fired his forward thrusters to eliminate his momentum because the ship’s reactor was ahead of him.

“Careful, Drill Master,” Marie warned. “You’re coming up on the section of the ship that houses the ship’s reactor.”

“Just noticed that,” Shane said. “Thanks for the heads up.”

He turned, giving his surroundings a quick inspection as he did, then moved off toward safer parts of the ship. The sides and underside of the ship were clean, so he moved to the lander.

Like the lander that touched down on the moon during the Apollo missions, this vehicle would land on another world, albeit a much smaller one. Operationally, the lander was the most important part of the ship, and if it was seriously damaged, they would have to head back to earth for repairs.

Shane meticulously looked over the lander, but it was clear of any signs of micro-meteor damage. “As far as I can tell,” Shane said. “The outside of the lander is fine.”

“Roger that,” Marie said.

“Alright, Drill Master,” Janice intoned. “I’ll get someone to have a look inside the lander just to double check that there isn’t any internal damage. You’re done out there. You’re clear to come back in.”

“Are you sure?” Shane asked jokingly. “Have anything else for me while I’m out here? Any leaky pipes or termite damage?”

“That’s a negative,” Janice said jovially. “I repeat, you’re clear to come back in.”

“Affirmative,” Shane said.

“Drill Master, you’re aware that no modern aircraft have used wood as a structural component,” John Mills said. “And in space, I’m pretty sure wood explodes, as well as termites.”

John was one of the executives who was sent by the space company, Olympus Incorporated, to watch out for their interests during the mission. Unlike practically every space mission in history, this was the only expedition made solely for the purpose of making money. Olympus Incorporated was one of only a few companies capable of sending a manned mission to Mars. When they unfortunately lost the bid and were helpless to watch astronauts head for the red planet on a competitor’s ship, Olympus Incorporated created the Midas to mine an asteroid.

Scientists and astronomers alike have known that Earth’s solar system is full of asteroids containing useful materials. The majority of asteroids are, however, thought to be made up of iron-ferrite, with some silica and ice asteroids that are essentially dirty snowballs. But many are known to contain valuable metals such as nickel, iridium, palladium, and osmium, just to name a few. These metals are found in relatively scarce quantities on earth and would bring a hefty profit to anyone brave enough to venture out and mine them.

“You love raining on people’s parades, don’t you?” Shane said.

“What?” John said, feigning confusion. “I was just keeping things in perspective.”

“Well, I hope one of those termites explodes in your face.”

“You know, there was once this airplane called the Spruce Goose,” Archie Sullivan interjected. “And it was made completely out of wood. I think it was made by this guy named Howard Hughes. I remember learning about it in elementary school.” Archie was part of Shane’s drilling crew.

“Wood, really?” Shane said skeptically. “It didn’t crash in a fireball or anything?”

“No, it completed its first flight, intact.”

“Interesting. So how many Spruce Goose planes did this Hughes guy make?”

The line was silent for a long moment. “Umm, he only built the one.”

“It was that successful!” Shane said sarcastically.

“I think he was crazy or something,” Archie admitted.

“How do you know he was crazy?” John said.

“Because you’d have to be crazy to build a large aircraft completely out of something as stupid as wood.”

“Cut the chitchat,” Janice said. “Drill Master, are you back in yet?”

“Coming up on the airlock now.”

“Good; cosmic radiation is not your friend.”

“Really?” Archie said. “I’ve had all kinds of people that wer –“

A burst of static drowned him out as his circuit went dead.

“Thank you for cutting him short, Commander,” Shane said gratefully. “I was about to throw myself off the ship into nothingness if I had to continue that conversation.”

“You’re welcome. I have to give you a reason to live because I don’t think we could complete the mission without you, and I want to get paid.”

Shane laughed. “Alright, be inside in 10.”

When he reached the airlock, he carefully positioned himself to float smoothly through the outer door. He closed the hatch behind him, and the process of re-pressurization started. While atmosphere flowed into the airlock, Shane used handholds set into the wall to pull himself over to the docking slot for his AMU. As he freed himself from the cumbersome device, the airlock finished re-pressurizing. The inner door opened, and he was greeted by John. John pushed off the wall over to him and helped him out of his suit. Though John was from the company, he still had tasks assigned to him. No one was a passenger aboard the Midas.

The same was true even for Shane and his drilling crew. Though their main purpose was to drill into an asteroid, they each had their own tasks and duties aboard the ship during transit. They weren’t astronauts either, but they had received extensive training for working in 0G, EVA procedures, and how to operate astronaut equipment and ship systems. Even after all the training, the drilling crew was less qualified in these areas than the astronauts, but in an emergency, they could get the job done.

When Shane was free of his suit, John pushed back through the airlock, and he followed. John floated past the command deck hatch and caught himself on a handhold, then gazed through the open hatch of the lander. Shane stopped at the entrance of the command deck and shot John a quizzical look.

“I hope you haven’t found anything,” Shane said.

John shook his head. “No, nothing,” he said. “I’d be the first to let everyone know if I had found anything major.”

A dark-skinned man’s hand reached through the lander’s hatch and waved. “Everything go well with your spacewalk?” Kula Adamure inquired. He was the final member of Shane’s drilling crew. He hailed from South Africa and was highly experienced with mining metal.

“Yeah,” Shane called back. “The AMU really smoothed out the process.”

“Well, don’t get used to using it,” John said. “The fuel in that is expensive.”

“Come on, John, let the man enjoy the experience,” Kula said.

“Drill Master, as soon as we’re done here, I’ve got a briefing scheduled for the crew.”

“Everyone was briefed on the details of our mission while we were aboard the ISS (International Space Station),” Shane noted. “We all know we’re headed for a rock hurtling through space, and though that was close to three weeks ago, we all still know what to do once we get there.”

“We’re a couple of days out from our target,” John said. “And the other executives want to ensure no detail is overlooked on this venture. A lot of money is riding on this mission, and we cannot afford any mistakes.”

Shane swung his arm out to indicate the ship. “We’re in space; we know how dangerous of an environment we are working in. We all know that any mistakes could kill us all.”

“You, as well as the rest of the crew, stand to gain a considerable sum of money because of the extremely hazardous conditions of this voyage. And so long as you abide by the conditions outlined in your contract, you are expected to attend any briefings that the company or I deem necessary.”

“Yes, sir,” Shane said curtly and saluted John even though he wasn’t a member of the Space Force. Shane turned and pushed through the command deck hatch.

“I’d better see you at the briefing!” John called out indignantly.

Shane entered the command deck to find three crew members gazing at him inquisitively. “Anything we need to be aware of, Drill Master?” Janice asked.

Shane shook his head. “No, nothing,” he said. “John and I were just having a difference of opinion about how best to utilize our time. I’m going to drop by the crew compartment to get something to drink.” Janice nodded. “

Shane moved through a hatch at the back of the command deck, through the adjoining corridor, and into the crew compartment. On his way to the lounge, he passed Pilot Duncan Levin in the gym compartment, who from Shane’s point of view jogged on a treadmill that appeared to be on the wall. He opened the cabinet with the drink pouches and started picking through the different flavors. First, he found the juices, and none of them sounded good. Next came the teas, but he wasn’t much of a tea person. Sodas followed the teas, and after a moment of contemplation, he decided on Dr. Pepper. He had taken a sip through the pouch’s straw when his earpiece came to life.

“All crew members report to the command deck for a mandatory briefing. I repeat. All crew members report to the command deck for a mandatory briefing.”

With his drink in hand, he pushed back into the corridor and found Duncan exiting the gym.

“Drill Master, do you know what this is about?” Duncan asked as the two of them made their way to the command deck.

“The company wants to make sure we haven’t forgotten what we’re out here for,” Shane said.

Duncan shook his head. “Olympus Incorporated sure loves their briefings,” he said sarcastically. “I guess it makes their executives feel important writing everything up.”

They arrived at the command deck with the rest of the crew. Everyone floated into a seat in front of a large screen. John hovered beside the screen with a tablet in his hand.

“Welcome, everyone,” John said. “I’ve called this briefing to go over the details of our mission. I’m sure none of us have forgotten what this whole trip is about, but Olympus Incorporated doesn’t want to leave anything to chance.”

John glared at Shane for the last part of his statement. Shane kept his face impassive and simply took another tug off his Dr. Pepper pouch.

John tapped keys on his tablet, and the picture of a dull gray and brown potato-shaped asteroid appeared on the screen. “This is our objective,” John continued. “This is asteroid XJ2396, XJ for short, or as some of us have come to know it as Icarus. It’s roughly half a mile in length, slightly less than that across, and a quarter in depth. I will make the exact dimensions available on everyone’s personal tablet. It has an Iron-Ferrite core with some silica deposits at the surface.”

He tapped some keys, and a zoomed-out view of the solar system replaced the asteroid. A red line appeared to represent the path of the asteroid through the solar system. “We believe Icarus is traveling on an erratic orbit around the sun and likely emerged from the Kuiper belt near the edge of the solar system or further out. We believe an impact with another object altered its orbit, and the gravity of Neptune or Jupiter put it on its existing path. Icarus currently sits in the empty expanse between the orbits of the Earth and Venus. After bypassing the orbital path of Venus, it’ll pass Mercury and then the sun. The sun’s gravity will throw it around back toward Mercury. But Mercury’s gravity will then slingshot Icarus into the sun.”

“Well, I believe it’s aptly named,” Archie said. “Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell to his death.”

“That’s accurate, if not a simplistically crude telling of that Greek myth,” John said, slightly annoyed. “Moving on.” The screen changed to an image of asteroid XJ that showed several different colors coming off it in thin rectangles. “Spectrograph analysis of Icarus shows it possesses an unusually high concentration of rhodium, platinum, and gold. This is why we’re all here. Platinum and gold are both relatively rare metals, but rhodium is even rarer and one of the most, if not the most, valuable metal on the periodic table.”

Shane raised his hand. “Rhodium?” he said. “I’ve never even heard of it. What’s it used in that makes it so valuable?”

“It’s used in the catalytic converters of cars which helps reduce the amount of pollution they produce. It’s also used as a catalyst in the chemical industry to make any number of chemicals and has many other vital uses. But the important thing is that it’s worth a lot of money. Just to give you an idea, one pound of rhodium has an estimated worth somewhere in the range of $263,000.”

Shane cursed in surprise.

“That must mean,” Archie said before he paused and looked up as he figured out the worth of rhodium in his head. He looked forward and said, “that one ton of rhodium has a value of about $500 million.”

John nodded eagerly. “Exactly.”

“Why was none of this information shared during the briefing aboard ISS?” Shane said.

“Because there was a concern,” John said. “Regarding the security of the mission if the potential profit details were released before our departure. We’re talking about some serious cash here, and we don’t know if our competitors are above sabotage.”

“That makes a lot of sense.”

“Getting back to XJ. If the concentration of all three of those metals is as high as we think they are on the asteroid, our haul could bring in billions of dollars. And since every one of you will receive a percentage of the profits, we’re talking about all of you getting millions of dollars.”

“We won’t have to work another day of our lives!” Archie said excitedly.

“Hold short,” Janice said. “I think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. We haven’t gotten the job done yet. We need to stay focused on our objective. Any lapses in concentration could end in disaster. Understood?”

Everyone nodded.

John cleared his throat and regained his composure. “You’re right. Thank you, Commander. As I was saying. When we reach XJ, the Midas will decelerate to match its speed. When that operation has been completed, we will send the lander to make contact with the asteroid. Then if it’s necessary, the lander will use its thrusters to adjust the rotation of the asteroid until the Midas can safely orbit in synchronization directly above the lander. The Midas will deploy its umbilical to the lander, which will allow mined ore to be transferred directly to the ship for processing. Then mining will begin. Once all usable material has been acquired, the process will happen in reverse, and the ship will begin its return journey to Earth. Any questions?”

Everyone looked at each other, but no one raised their hand.

“There are no questions, John,” Janice said.

“Very good. Everyone may return to their assigned tasks. Thank you.” John tapped keys, then the image on the screen winked out. Everyone filed out of the command deck.

It was Shane’s sleep period, so he moved to the lounge for something quick to eat before heading to the sleeping compartment. Despite becoming aware of a significant financial gain in his future, after enduring John’s long-winded briefing, he felt like he needed a nap. He slipped into his bunk and strapped himself in so he wouldn’t float into some other compartment. He had closed his eyes when alarms began to blare. He wondered if his daring to think something was boring in space had brought misfortune to the ship.

Adam Freestone is an Alaskan author and writer of the Sentinel Flame series. He writes fantasy stories but also has a talent for the unexpected. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise considering he has been coming up with stories his whole life. But apart from his writing skills, he isn’t quite what most people would expect. He is a near quadriplegic man afflicted with Muscular Dystrophy, confined to a wheelchair and dependent on a ventilator, but despite everything he has going against him, he never lets it stand in his way. He is a go-getter, animal and nature lover, MDA participant, and smart minded writer. Everything that goes into his stories is carefully considered, nothing he writes goes down casually. His stories are never quite what they first appear to be.