Well into the Earth’s ionosphere, a commercial spaceplane prepares for re-entry above Great Britain. Inside, Yuri Mikailkov asks his wife why she’s always carrying around her old compass. His wife explains that as there are no directions in space, it’s easy for astronauts to lose track of their direction home. For that reason, many astronauts keep compasses as mementos. Yuri enquires about the words carved into the back of the cover, but his wife pulls the compass away before he can read it, telling him that there’s nothing wrong with a wife keeping a few secrets from her husband. Somewhat perplexed, Yuri notes that she’s still afraid of flying and gets up to go get coffee. His wife protests a bit, not wanting to be left alone, but Yuri assures her he’ll be right back. The door to the dining area closes behind Yuri and his wife turns to dejectedly gaze out the window into space. Suddenly, the window shatters as it is hit by a small, fast moving object… When humanity’s grasp extended to space, their bad habit of polluting their environment came with them. As such, collection of space debris has become an unglamorous necessity. In the year 2074, Hachirota ‘Hachimaki’ Hoshino serves as a rookie debris collector on the debris collection ship DS-12 Toy Box along with his teammates, Fee and Yuri. Out in the upper atmosphere, Hachimaki prepares to drop an empty fuel tank of some sort into the atmosphere and prepares to return to Toy Box with a full load of debris. Upon his return, Fee, captain of the Toy Box, throws him a freeze-dried meal, which Hachi accepts while complaining about the lack of real food in space. Fee tells him to quit complaining, pointing out that she hasn’t had a cigarette in weeks and Yuri hasn’t gotten to go back to Earth in over two months. Yuri, floating nearby munching on his own freeze-dried dinner, is busy spacing out. Hachi notes that Yuri has been doing this job longer than he has and yet he has never heard Yuri complain about it. Suddenly, Fee gets a pressure alarm, and sends Hachi and Yuri to check it out. A piece of debris, probably no larger than an egg, has smashed into Toy Box‘s hull, leaving a meter and a half wide hole which has depressurized one of Toy Box‘s cargo bays. Hachi and Yuri go about making a temporary patch without much fanfare–Toy Box‘s hull is pockmarked with smaller craters left by micro debris. Hachi makes small talk by telling Yuri that his goal in life is to buy his own spaceship and then asks Yuri why he took this job. Yuri lies and tells him that he didn’t have a reason. Six years ago, a bandaged Yuri was brought to a room filled with personal effects recovered from the passenger area of the ship he and his wife were on. His dead wife’s compass was no where to be found. Later, a repair ship comes alongside Toy Box to make more permanent repairs. Hachi goes out to help, still wondering why Yuri is always so distant. The repairman explains that he had a wife, but she died when the spaceplane they were traveling in got caught in a debris storm. Yuri only survived because he was in the back, but his wife’s body was never found… Out on another debris run, Hachi and Yuri are in the process of tying down a rather large piece of debris when Fee calls the back to the ship, as a debris cloud is on an intersecting course with them. Yuri and Hachi start to head back, but at the last moment, something catches Yuri’s eye–his wife’s compass in the distance. In a daze, he moves toward it, ignoring Fee’s warnings. Just as he’s about to grasp it, the debris shower hits, destroying his scout and knocking him toward the atmosphere. Hachi rushes to his aide, and Yuri wakes up just in time, and realizes he’s holding the compass. As Hachi maxes out his scout’s engine to pull them out of the atmosphere, Yuri sees the words ‘Please save Yuri’ carved into the compass’ cover. Afterwards, Fee and Hachi watch as Yuri, compass in hand, leaves a single lily in orbit in memory of his wife. Fee notes that, technically, he’s just making more work for them by leaving something in orbit, but since Yuri has collected more debris than anyone they know, Hachi thinks that they can forgive him for one flower.
While preparing a particularly large piece of debris for towing, Hachi forgets to disengage the magnet in his spacesuit’s boot and winds up breaking his leg. Laid up in a Lunar hospital for two months, Hachi begins to wonder why he ever bothered coming into space. When he considers the upshots of going back down to Earth for rehabilitation, his roommate, Harry Roland, chastises him, telling him that for a space man, “Going back down to Earth is not nice, it’s a sentence.” Fee recognizes the old man as one of the first astronauts to explore the asteroid belt. While wandering through the hospital lobby, Hachi sees a cute young woman gazing up at the stars and strikes up a conversation with her. He finds out her name is Nono. Hachi asks how long she’s been Moon-side and is shocked to find out that she’s been there for 12 years. He wonders what could possible be wrong with her that would keep her on the Moon for so long, but decides not to ask as a matter of courtesy. Nono asks him to describe the oceans to her. They become fast friends, but soon the day arrives when Hachi is scheduled to go back down to Earth for the final bit of his rehabilitation. They say their goodbyes and Hachi instantly regrets never asking her what was wrong with her. As Fee drives him across the Lunar surface towards the spaceport, they notice a lone spacesuited man lying among the dunes. They suit up and find Harry dying of oxygen poisoning. Fee suspects suicide as Harry explains that he had just been told that he had cancer from a lifetime of exposure to space radiation, and would have to be sent back to Earth. With his dying breath he proclaims his love of space and says that at least he will now be one with it. After bringing Harry’s corpse back to the hospital, a morose Hachi and Fee catch a smoke in the smoking room, having missed their flight back to Earth. Hachi sullenly reasons that if there is a god, he must really hate humans. They used up the Earth and now they move to do the same thing to space, despite all the obstacles in their way. In response, Fee violently punches him in the back of the head, yelling at him for being such a sissy and reminding him that he’s an astronaut and that people can’t survive without the work they do. Fee leaves in a huff and Nono, who happened to be nearby invites Hachi to go for a Moonwalk with her. She asks that he not tell any of the nurses, as she’s not allowed to go topside. Hachi asks why she has to listen to the nurses, and Nono explains that she’s only twelve years old. She further explains to a flabbergasted Hachi that she was born on the Moon–one of only four children like her. Because of the low gravity, she has grown tall quickly, but she could not survive under normal Earth gravity. Hachi asks her if she ever dreams of living on Earth, but Nono happily explains that she’s proud of her Lunar heritage and only wants to visit Earth–the Moon is her home and always will be. She jumps out onto the Lunar surface and asks Hachi what he thinks of her ocean. Broken out of his funk, Hachi realizes that humans accept the world they live in, no matter how desolate it may seem.
The Space Defense Front–a terrorist group that wants humanity to leave space and return to fix the problems on Earth–has taken to placing bombs in smoking rooms in various Lunar cities. This has had a bad impact on Fee, who hasn’t had a smoke in over a month. After just missing one bombing and finding out that all of the city’s smoking rooms are being shut down in response, Fee desperately tries to sneak a smoke in a bathroom, but is immediately foiled by the city’s fire suppression system, which soaks her to the bone. Slowly being driven mad from nicotine withdraw, Fee decides to drive over to the next city, despite Hachi’s protest that they’re due to launch soon. Arriving in the next city, Fee happily prepares to light up when she runs into a man in a trench coat leaving the smoking room in a bit of a rush. Noticing that he has left his briefcase, Fee tries to flag him down, but suddenly realizes that the briefcase is probably a bomb. Sure enough, the smoking room explodes just as Fee takes cover. Once again drenched by the fire suppression system, Fee futilely attempts to activate her lighter anyway. Back in space, Fee has become utterly despondent. Hachi and Yuri try to figure out what they’re going to do about her, when suddenly the supposedly dead satellite they’ve come out to pick up powers up. It broadcasts a message from the Space Defense Front, explaining that humanity failed to learn from the depletion of petroleum reserves, instead simply turning to Helium-3 deposits on the Moon. The Space Defense Front believes that humanity is heading toward its own destruction unless we learn to subsist on what we have. And, in order to force the point, they are about to force humanity out of space. With that, the satellite fires up its engines and launches itself toward the nearby space station. Yuri realizes that the Space Defense Front is going for Kessler Syndrome–if the satellite destroys the space station, the massive amount of debris that will be created will go on to create more debris which will in turn create more debris until Earth’s orbits are flooded with fast-moving debris, effectively cutting humanity off from space. Fee’s decent into madness reaches a climax as she impulsively launches Toy Box in pursuit of the satellite, leaving Hachi and Yuri behind on their scouts. The crew of the space station desperately try to either move the station or destroy the satellite, but nothing works. The order is given to abandon the station when a tech notices that the DS-12 is also on a collision course for the station. Laughing manically, Fee rams Toy Box into the satellite, sending them both plunging toward the atmosphere, safely out of the station’s path… Floating around the ocean in Toy Box‘s emergency raft, Fee finally enjoys a cigarette unimpeded. On her communications system, Hachi explains that Orbital Control wants to officially commend her bravery when she gets back and then begins lecturing her on the outrageous stupidity of her actions. Apparently not listening, Fee simply tells him that life is a wonderful thing.
Since they no longer have a spaceship, Toy Box‘s crew is sent down to Earth for a vacation. Hachi heads back to his family’s home in Japan with Yuri in tow. He introduces Yuri to his mother, who makes fun of Hachi for forgetting that it is winter in Japan right now. They make small talk, when a growing noise causes Hachi’s mother to tell Yuri to duck before she takes cover herself. This action confuses Hachi until a rocket crashes through the front door, clipping Hachi across the nose before coming to a rest in the dining room. Hachi’s little brother, Kyutaro, quickly runs into claim his rocket, relieved that it didn’t hit the neighbor’s house. After getting chewed out by his mother and made fun of for his lack of height by his brother, Kyutaro collects his rocket and heads back to the beach. Hachi’s mother apologizes to Yuri, explaining that he gets it from his father, who is also an astronaut. Curious, Yuri follows Kyutaro and finds the shack he works out of, electrolyzing seawater for fuel and getting parts from the junkyard of the nearby spaceport. Striking up a rapport with the boy, Yuri helps him out by pirating some of his company’s rocket control software in an attempt to solve his earlier navigational problems. Kyutaro and Yuri attempt another launch, which seems to go well until something falls off the rocket, sending it careening back down toward them. Though Kyutaro and Yuri make it out without a scratch, Yuri’s wife’s compass, which he had been carrying with him in his jacket is smashed. Kyutaro asks if it was important, and after a pause Yuri tells him it wasn’t. Later, Hachi gets a call from Fee who tells him that they’re being given a brand new ship as a result of her heroic actions. After she hangs up, Kyutaro asks Hachi about the compass. After telling him the story, Hachi tells Kyutaro to go find Yuri, who is out for a walk, and apologize. Hachi then tells Kyutaro that he needs to stop playing with rockets, which leads to a fight that Kyutaro wins. Kyutaro finds Yuri just as he’s about to throw the remains of the compass into the ocean. He begins to apologize, but Yuri breaks in, telling him about how when he was young he roamed around the Earth for a while. He was searching for the answers to his many questions regarding the meaning of life–but all he eventually discovered was that he was searching for a clarity which didn’t exist. He always told himself that when he found the compass, he’d quit space, but his friends are up there. In conclusion, he thanks Kyutaro for breaking the compass. Kyutaro doesn’t really get it, which causes Yuri to laugh and admit that he really doesn’t either. He looks thoughtfully at the compass and asks Kyutaro if he could do him a favor… A week or two later, the spaceplane carrying Hachi and Yuri back to space launches. Yuri tells Hachi to look out the window towards the beach, where he sees another one of Kyutaro’s rockets launching. This one, however, flies straight and true and Yuri explains that his compass is in its nosecone. Back down on the beach, Kyutaro walks through the smoke created by his successful launch and tells himself that he’ll catch up soon enough.
During a sudden radiation storm, communications were knocked out and Hachi lost contact with Toy Box, leaving him completely isolated in the void of space. Fearing radiation poisoning, he was rushed to a Lunar hospital as soon as he was recovered. While they wait, Yuri tries to comfort Fee, who blames herself for the accident. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, Hachi has come through without a scratch. Hachi believes this to be proof that space loves him, and prepares to redouble his efforts to get that spaceship of his. As he prepares to leave with a relieved Fee and Yuri, the doctors call him back for one last test–a sensory deprivation test intended to simulate space. Yuri recalls that he had to spend six hours in total darkness to get his EVA license. Surprisingly, though, Hachi’s heart rate begins to climb a mere two minutes into the test. The doctor diagnoses it as Deep-Space Disorder–an illness that could end his career. Afterwards, an angry Hachi eats lunch while explaining that it was just because he was tired and hungry. Despite this, on his second attempt he begins to hallucinate. A vision of himself in a spacesuit appears to him and accuses him of being afraid of going after his dreams. If his license is taken away because of this illness, he’ll have the perfect excuse–he can always look up at the stars and think that he’d still be there if it weren’t for that illness. Hachi yells at his vision to shut up and head butts him, only to find that he’s head butted the exit sign as the lights turn on and he passes out. Afterwards, Fee tries to cheer an utterly defeated Hachi up, eventually suggesting his take a trip back to Earth to recover. This suggestion is exactly what Hachi doesn’t want to hear, and he sneaks away when her back is turned. When Fee and Yuri manage to track him down, they find him shuffling across the Lunar surface, mumbling to himself about Earth’s gravity. Trying to talk some sense into him, Yuri reminds him that this is how Harry died, and if Hachi wants to die, Yuri would like to show him something first. With that, Yuri takes Hachi to see the Tandem Mirror Engine–the most powerful engine ever built by man. With this new type of engine, the development of Mars is within reach, and in this new era, astronauts like Hachi will have a lot of work waiting for them. In a new kind of daze, Hachi touches the giant mirror coil, which envelops him in a bolt of static electricity. He once again sees his vision self. Hachi wonders if the pioneers of space travel ever had to deal with visions like this as they lied to themselves that space travel was possible–deluding themselves until they had made their dream a reality. His vision decides to leave, telling Hachi that he’ll be back soon. A recharged Hachi passes the sensory deprivation test and tells his vision he’ll be waiting for him.
Planetes immediately sets itself apart from most science fiction manga titles through strong, character-driven storylines set in a surprisingly realistic near-future setting. The anime adaptation premiered a mere two years after the first chapter was published. This volume will be the most familiar to people who are already familiar with the show, as anime episodes 10, 7, 12-13, and 16 (respectively) are drawn directly from these five chapters, with the only major differences being the noticeable addition of Tanabe and the Debris Section office workers to the anime version. In this version of the story, Toy Box seems to be much more autonomous–staying in orbit for weeks at a time and returning to the Moon for debris drop-offs and re-supply. Office politics stories were another addition made by the anime adaptation. The art is top notch stuff. Action scenes feel very fluid and all their equipment is very detailed. I’m also quite fond of the way Yukimura draws facial expressions, especially during Fee’s mental breakdown (hilarious stuff, thanks mostly to the art). The first volume does a good job introducing the three main characters, with the most attention being paid to Yuri. It’s really hard to find anything to complain about with this volume–all five stories are excellent and well executed. Those of us familiar with the anime might, however, be a little disappointed at the rather small main cast, but don’t worry too much, Tanabe will show up in a couple chapters.