Authors: Ian Sales
Tags: #Apollo Quartet
Space Station Freedom is not visible, of course; it is still hundreds of thousands of miles away, as far from the Earth as the Moon. He cannot see the Moon either—and he has never seen it from any closer than LEO. He wonders what might have happened had he one day walked on its regolith. Would he have ever set foot on the surface of Mars?
Would he be here now, just shy of sixty years old, about to go on the longest journey of his life?
One hundred days after departing Earth orbit, thirty days before they reach Mars, Major Bradley Emerson Elliott, USAF, says farewell to his crewmate, Commander Robert Franklin Walker, USN. They shake hands, good solid bone-crushing grips, but superstitiously make no mention of luck or fortune. They possess total faith—in their own abilities, in the hardware, in the pencil-necks back on Earth. Neither doubts for an instant they will do this thing, both confidently anticipate a splashdown after a successful mission.
Elliott takes one last look around the hab module, his home for the past three months: its gridwork decking, its lockers and cubicles, its dumb up/down orientation as if designed for use in a gravity field; and then swims through the docking tunnel on the forward bulkhead and into the Mars Module. He’s wearing his spacesuit, but without helmet and gloves. He’ll put them on for the undocking, but for now he needs the dexterity of ungloved hands to perform the last few checks and programming changes to the MM. They’ve simulated the undocking twice before—on the day they pressurised and powered up the MM for the first time a week ago, and two days previously when they performed a full systems check of the spacecraft.
As he dives toward the floor of the MM, Elliott hears Walker close the tunnel hatch behind him. He somersaults clumsily until he is oriented as if about to fly the spacecraft. He pushes himself down until the soles of his boots touch the velcro on the floor and he sticks, but it doesn’t feel secure. He stands at the commander’s position and peers through the window before him. There is nothing to see: Ares 9 is hurtling towards Mars but the Red Planet is ahead of them, beneath his feet in fact, and so out of sight.
The earphones in Elliott’s communications cap crackle—
Can you read me, Discovery?
Got you, Endeavour. Loud and clear.
We got a minute to go, Brad. You want to verify your hatch closed?
Wait, let me get the umbilicals… Right, closed and locked.
Okay, I’ll vent the tunnel.
Give me a 06 20?
Sure… here’s the angles: 35955, 10752, 36102. Got that? Um, MET is 2405:08:59. Brad, can you confirm tunnel is vented?
Let me get them down—uh, 35955, 10752, 36102. That right? And yeah, tunnel is vented, Bob.
Yep, you got ‘em.
Okay, I got P47 up. I’m ready.
Roger. Going for soft undock.
Releasing capture latches…
What’s your 06 83 say?
Nice and neat Sep.
[laughter] Just the way I like it.
That’s it, I’m on my own now, Bob. See you in about two months. Starting Mars Intersection Sequence Intialisation…
There is something unreal about all this, preparing a spacecraft to land on Mars while still in interplanetary space, still thirty-five million miles from the destination. Once all the final changes have been made to the Mars Guidance Computer and the MM’s PNGS, Elliott will put on his gloves and helmet, check the integrity of his spacesuit… and then he’s go for hard undock. The MM, such an ungainly spacecraft, waiting impatiently in the saucer of the heatshield; it will separate from the flyby spacecraft, and Elliott will use the RCS to put the MM on an intercept course with Mars.
For now, his head is full of figures as he patiently punches verb number noun number into the DSKY. He has the checklist in front of him, and he works his way through it methodically, as he has done numerous times before in simulation. And as he looks up at the control panel, and the “8-ball” FDAI centred in it, he remembers he has one task not on the checklist. Digging into the pocket on the right bicep of his spacesuit, he pulls out a folded photograph. He opens the photo and tries to press it flat on the Attitude Controller arm-rest with both hands, but all he does is rip free of the velcro and rise up toward’s the MM’s ceiling. Annoyed, he pushes his feet back down to the floor but his boots do not stick. He attaches the restraint cables to the D-rings at his waist, locks the ratchets, and now he is held down firmly and securely. But the photo has lifted from the arm-rest and is floating before the commander’s window. He plucks it from the air, and tries again to flatten it, this time successfully. And he stands there, held in place by thirty pounds of force from the restraint cables, his thumbs and forefingers framing three sides of a creased and much-thumbed photograph. It’s a picture of Judy, of course. He brought a dozen with him in his Personal Preference Kit, but this is his favourite. He has spent many hours staring at it over the past one hundred days, floating in his compartment, needing solitude, needing time away from Franklin. The photo shows her standing by the French windows of their house in Nassau Bay. The sun shines through the glass behind her, forming a golden halo about her long blond hair. She is smiling, but it is a weary smile. He can no longer remember what day he took the photo or for what reason—perhaps they were going somewhere, a neighbour’s, a restaurant, he cannot recall. Judy always dresses well, the smart dress and heels are no clue. He puts a finger to his wife’s torso, and knows he will see her again. He is coming back, of that he is certain. She was angry when he was given command of Ares 9 and she stayed hurt right up to the moment he launched; but she will forgive him.
He slides a corner of the photo under an edge of one of the control panels. Judy will watch over him during the next thirty days as he flies towards Mars in this box with walls twice as thick as a soda can’s. Apollo was dangerous—Apollo 13 proved that. But Lovell, Swigert and Haise got home, the pencil-necks brought them home. That was easy, that was local.
There is no hope of rescue on this mission.
I see we got a regular hero visiting, says the man in the docking adaptor. The nametag on his constant wear garment reads Parazynski. It is not a name Elliott knows, but then he has been out of the Astronaut Corps for nearly two decades.
Parazynski puts out a hand and grasps the hatch coaming just behind him. His other hand he raises in a salute. Welcome aboard, sir, he says; and this time his voice has the deference due to a person of Elliott’s rank and achievements.
A second astronaut appears in the module through the hatch behind Parazynski, a woman. Her dark hair floats about her head like a sable nimbus.
We got us the first man on Mars here, Parazynski tells her, his gaze still on Elliott.
man on Mars, Elliott corrects. He is trying to keep the tone light, but there is a bite to Parazynski’s words and Elliott wonders what he has done to deserve it.
Yeah, damn shame we never went back, Parazynski replies.
Could it be envy? It has been many years since Elliott was a member of NASA and he does not know what narrative has been written internally about his missions, past and present. Ares 9 may have been a one-off, he wants to say; but Americans have visited other stars, there is even an inhabited base on an exoplanet orbiting one.
Elliott knows this because that is where he is going.
Parazynski spins about and pushes himself through the hatch, bringing himself to a halt by his fellow astronaut. She has one foot to the floor and one hand to the ceiling—according to Elliott’s orientation, that is. Elliott can now see her name tag: it reads Weber. Another name unfamiliar to him.
Elliott follows Parazynski and Weber from the docking adaptor and into the module, a long cylinder walled, floored and roofed with lockers and screens and loops of wires. A tied bundle of cables and a slowly undulating fabric duct run along one corner and then dive down and through the hatch at the far end. Weber leads them into another docking adaptor, and as he joins her, Elliott looks up, sees an open hatch and, through it, what appears to be the interior of a Lunar Module. They are hundreds of thousand of miles from the Moon, and no one has been on the lunar surface for almost thirty years. He is about to ask, when Weber arrows down through a hatch in the floor, closely followed by Parazynski. Elliott pulls himself across to the hatch in the floor, then with a yank of both arms propels himself into the module below—
—and suffers a moment of vertigo as what was a vertical shaft full of clutter abruptly becomes a horizontal tunnel. Weber and Parazysnki have already disappeared through another hatch at the far end, and Elliott wonders how extensive this space station is. True, it has been in place now for fifteen years, and has been added to on a regular basis…
He is surprised the space station does not smell; all those years and its interior looks tired and battered, with its snaking wires and hoses and far too many broken consoles, strips of duct tape and pieces of cardboard. But there is no odour at all, and he belatedly realises the air he is breathing is constantly on the move. Perhaps in some niche, where a pool of still air has gathered, some strange smell specific to freefall living might be found.
Through the hatch and this is the largest and untidiest module yet. The far end is sealed; it is the end of the line. There is a low table covered in velcro strips and double-sided duct-tape on the “floor” in amongst equipment Elliotn cannot identify.
I guess, Parazynski says, you can tell us what brings you here.
Elliott reaches for something to halt himself, and puts a hand to a rail running along one wall. Once he is stationary, he says, The Robert H Goddard is taking me to Earth Two.
You must be a real important guy.
No, I have a real important job to do.
And they picked you because?
Elliott does not answer but looks about him and wonders why there is no window in this module. Do they not want to look out? He remembers a famous photograph of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, taken by the crew of Apollo 8, Christmas 1968. A blue marble, so small and fragile, and the greatest distance from which the planet had ever been seen at that time. The Earth in that photo would be approximately the same size as the Earth seen from Space Station Freedom.
You’re USAF, right? asks Parazynski.
Elliott nods, then watches as Weber consults a wristwatch and then porpoises about and launches herself at the open hatch. She swims from view.
Parazynski continues, You ever been to Area 51?
Again, Elliott nods, but cautiously. He has visited Groom Lake Air Force Base several times in his capacity as commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards AFB. He has even seen some of the classified aircraft projects being developed and tested at Area 51.
Parazynski says, That’s where the Serpos were invented, right?
A part of Area 51, yes, Elliott replies, called S4. But I don’t have clearance for there.
Is it true, Parazynski asks, the Rocks use technology reverse-engineered from some flying saucer shot down in New Mexico in 1947?
Rocks? he asks.
The Goddard, the Webb and the Paine—the Rocks.
Elliott knows for a cold hard fact the secret Serpo engine which allows the “Rocks” to travel faster than the speed of light has nothing to do with any flying saucer, but he is not about to reveal it.
That’s classified, he says.
He has heard of the crash at Roswell, New Mexico, and knows of the part it plays in UFO lore, but he’s always believed it was a weather balloon. But if USAF wants to use that myth to hide a bigger secret, the true origin of the Serpo engine… It’s typical of the creative use of misinformation with which the US military protects its most closely-guarded secrets.
Someone appears in the hatch and, grateful for the interruption, Elliott turns to watch them enter the module. It is another member of the space station’s crew. He is wearing a communications cap and his nametag reads Young. He is older than Parazynski and Weber, but still a decade or so short of Elliott’s own fifty-eight years. The man’s mouth is a tight line, his face expressionless.
You going on the Goddard? he asks.
Yeah, replies Elliott.
It’s not due to depart for three weeks, Young says.
Elliott tells him, This is urgent. They should be prepping now.
Young scowls. They don’t tell us shit, he complains. I guess you can’t either?
Elliott shrugs. Classified, he says. You know how it is.
Yeah, says Young. Fuck.
After twenty days, Elliott smells a little ripe, as does the interior of his spacesuit. Three times now, he has undressed and given himself a sponge bath. And each time, it has taken an effort of will to struggle back into his A7LB. He would sooner wear a CWG, of course, and shower regularly, as he did aboard the flyby spacecraft. But the MM’s cabin is only 235 cubic feet and he has to spend seventy days cooped up in it and all he has is a sponge, recycled water and a bar of soap. He has to wear his spacesuit constantly because the walls of the Mars Module are so thin a micrometeorite could easily pierce them. The five layers of his spacesuit also provide a better shield against radiation than the thin cotton of a Constant Wear Garment.