Authors: Ian Sales
Tags: #Apollo Quartet
If not for the freefall, these past weeks—his first Christmas and New Year alone; and so far from another human being—would have been unbearable. He at least has the full volume of the cabin in which to move around. He misses Walker’s presence, though it’s been good to get some real solitude after one hundred days in the flyby spacecraft. They’d never have made it if they were just amiable strangers—no, they’re best buds, a true team. All the same, he’s not looking forward to the 537 days of the return journey…
The mission planners have given him plenty of science to occupy him, but his tools are necessarily limited and he’s only done as tasked in a desperate attempt to stave off cabin fever. It hasn’t really worked. Instead, he has spent hours staring out the commander’s window at Mars, a rusty globe smeared with umber lines and shadows, growing larger and larger each day. He can see surface features now, Valles Marineris a cicatrix stitched across the planet’s face, Mons Olympus so high its peak pokes out the atmosphere, the Tharsis Bulge… and the blurred swirls of a vast dust storm drifting across Chryse Planitia.
He and Walker talk every day, and together they check each system again and again and again. His course is programmed into the MGC, the numbers put together by much smarter guys back in Houston than the two of them. He trusts them, he has no choice, there is no way he can manually fly this spacecraft across millions of miles of space and hit his target. Periodically, he checks his IMU and feeds the figures to Walker, who passes them onto Houston. And sometimes they come back with updates he has to input on the DSKY. And every day, minute by minute, hour by hour, Mars draws closer, expands in the windows, its baleful presence gradually, inescapably, blotting out the heavens.
It’s an astonishing act of faith, he belatedly realises, to imagine this mission will succeed, that he will spend nine days on the Martian surface, and then return safely to the Earth.
Yet his conviction is unshakeable. Nothing will go wrong because the engineering is up to the job. He’s heard the stories, he knows how the space programme used to be run—Gus Grissom’s “Do good work”, and then the lemon and the Apollo 1 fire; even Alan Shepard’s crack about “built by the lowest bidder”… But he knows how they built Ares 9, he was involved in the design, he visited the suppliers, he saw the parts being made, inspected them, ensured they met specification, and worked precisely as designed; and if he had not been confident in the hardware, Elliott would never have accepted the mission. Not even to be the first man on Mars.
Or so he told Judy.
The days pass and the photo of his wife on the control panel keeps him company as the Red Planet swells in the windows until it fills his entire view. Once a week, he speaks to Judy, his S-Band signal relayed through the flyby spacecraft. She asks him how he is, he assures her he is fine, not mentioning he grows weaker with each day he spends in freefall and he worries he may not be strong enough to move about on the Martian surface. She tells him neighbourhood gossip, but he doesn’t recognise the names, or recalls them only dimly, and their house in Nassau Bay seems like a distant memory and only Judy, kept fresh by the photograph, is clear in his memory—so much so she comes to represent home, Earth, the life he left behind and to which he is determined to return.
Now he’s hurtling towards a curved plain of russets and ochres and reddish-browns, and soon he’s so close all hint of curvature has gone. After one last report to Walker, he positions himself at the commander’s station, attaches the waist restraints, and waits for the Mission Timer to hit 31234315, when the DSKY will tell him the MGC is running the descent program.
As the MM skims across the top of Mars’ atmosphere, he has one hand to the thrust/translation controller and the other to the attitude controller, but he’s not flying this craft. He looks down on the planet, and he’s spent so long training for this he’s used to the montages from the simulator, but now the landscape of Mars is written so emphatically across its face he can pick out major features and it all seems perversely unreal. The three Tharsis Montes: Arsia, Pavonis and Ascraeus; and now Noctis Labyrinthus, Hesperia Planum… It amuses him the Latin names sound so scientific, but translated into English they describe a fantasy land: Peacock Mountain, the Labyrinth of the Night, the Lands to the West…
The MM begins to vibrate and rattle as its heatshield hits wisps of Martian air. The atmosphere here is only fourteen miles deep and less than one percent as dense as Earth’s. It’s not enough to slow him from his interplanetary dash—but the designers have that covered. There’s a rocket engine in the heatshield and it fires on schedule, dropping the MM through the Sound Barrier, and he’s briefly amused at the thought of a sonic boom rolling unheard across the lifeless hills of Lunae Planum.
He watches the altimeter and rate of descent meter. It’s a rough ride and his wasted muscles are making it hard to cope. The heatshield ablates as he hurtles across the Martian sky. He can see an orange glow from below, but is that the Martian surface or the heatshield burning? And now a white fireball envelopes the MM. This spacecraft was not designed for atmospheric entry, not even an atmosphere as thin as Mars’. It’s two hundred and fifty times thinner than Earth, but it’s still air, it’s not a vaccum, and this flimsy thing was originally built to land on the airless Moon.
At least he’s not experiencing the crushing Gs of an Earth re-entry. After thirty days in freefall with no exercise, it’s a real strain, and his legs are aching, he’s feeling a little light-headed, but he knows it feels much worse than it is so he rides it out—
Now the MM is in freefall, dropping towards the Martian surface. The spacecraft shudders as the heatshield is discarded. The MM is still flying descent stage first, so all he can see in the window is dark sky. A moment later, the spacecraft rocks as the drogue chutes are released. The MM jerks from side to side as the chutes open, there is a moment of vertiginous stability as the spacecraft falls for more than 15,000 feet, and then the drogue chutes are gone, work done, and he hears a loud bang as the mortars fire and the main chutes deploy.
The MM drops toward the surface with the chutes reefed for several long seconds, then the reef lines are cut and the chutes open to their full extent. The sudden deceleration is worse than he expected, his knees buckle and he has to lock them to avoid falling, and he swears as his forearm slides from the arm-rest and bangs against the control panel. The MM abruptly pitches upright, and the Martian landscape pivots into view.
He gasps, he can’t help himself. He’s looking down on a vast desert, reds and umbers and pale browns, from horizon to horizon. It looked so unearthly from orbit, but now, a thousand feet above the surface, it could be Earth, some unvisited corner where dunes creep across the land while sand vortices dance from crest to crest, a landscape punctuated by rocks and hills and ridges. But he knows no one has ever set foot here—he can feel it, a sense of solitude, of desolation, which rises from the Martian soil, is written in the red sand, in the jagged and crumbled escarpments and cliffs.
He thinks, This is it; I’m going to land on Mars, I’m going to be the first man to walk on another planet, I’m in the goddamned history books for sure.
If only Judy could see him now, could feel the same anticipation, the same excitement, the same heightened awareness he now feels, could recognise that this moment
him, that a palpable sense of purpose stretches from this moment, from his heart, both back and forth in time. She’d forgive him for accepting the mission, of course she’d forgive him. He’d told her he was coming back. Again and again, he’d told her he was coming back. Not even one hundred and fifty million miles could keep him from her.
He looks up from the DSKY at the photograph of his wife on the control panel. He will be on Mars for the next nine days, he can talk to Walker, who will be swinging by within one hundred miles of the planet, but Earth is on the other side of the Sun, so there’s going to be a long delay on any conversation with Houston. He knows there’s been important guests in the MCC throughout the mission, and the viewing gallery will probably be packed with press and VIPs during the nine days of his stay on the surface. Judy will be there, of course. He’s looking forward to speaking to her before his first scheduled EVA.
The DPS fires its final burn, and moments later the contact light shines, telling him there’s five feet to go, so he braces himself for the landing. The DPS cuts off and the MM drops and hits the surface of Mars with more force than he’d expected. He stumbles and bangs against the control panel, adding another bruise to the ones he’s gathered already.
A profound silence fills the MM. He thinks, by God, I did it. I’m on Mars, goddamnit.
He speaks, but his mouth is too dry and all he can make is an unintelligible sound. He tries again, remembering he is speaking to posterity. Houston will not hear his words for thirteen and a half minutes, but this is all part of the script:
Houston, he says, this is Cydonia Base, Discovery has landed.
Before it was captured and bent to NASA’s needs, the Robert H Goddard was a Near Earth Asteroid named 1862 Apollo. Peering through the docking windows as the LM Taxi approaches the spacecraft, Elliott sees a grey potato-shaped rock, details unnaturally sharp in the vacuum, smooth and lightly dimpled, just over a mile in length. As the rock rotates beneath him, three white cylinders, resembling the lower stages of rockets on spidery legs and arranged in a triangular formation, roll into view. Two Apollo Command Modules and a single Lunar Module lacking its descent stage are docked to an adaptor on the top of one cylinder; a single Command Module occupies the docking adaptor of another. An area of 1862 Apollo’s surface alongside the silo-like modules has been smoothed flat and laid with metal decking. Secured to this decking are three long tubes, which Elliott identifies as launch vehicles in some sort of casing, though he’s not sure what type—from the size Atlas Vs, perhaps. He wonders how they managed to get them up into space and out here to the Lagrangian point.
Now that he is closer, Elliott sees the habitation modules have been adapted from S-IVB stages, cylinders forty-eight feet in height and twenty-two feet in diameter. He is surprised: this is old tech. The Ares 9 flyby spacecraft was based on the same hardware, as was the simulator—later known as Skylab and the first station out here at L5. And even back then, the designs were old and their use for Ares 9 more a matter of what was do-able than what was best. He remembers Walker, his CMP on Ares 9, saying they’d flown to the Red Planet as much on political desperation as on Aerozine 50.
Doesn’t look like much, does she? says Weber. But she’ll take you ninety trillion miles in a couple of weeks.
Where’s the Serpo engine? Elliott asks.
Other side of the rock, with the nuclear reactor.
Weber returns her attention to the FDAI and altimeter on the control panel.
They are both in spacesuits, helmets and gloves on. It is procedure when flying a LM Taxi. Elliott spent seventy days in his Mars Module, an uprated LM, and pretty much all of that in his A7LB, so none of this is unfamiliar. True, he had the MM to himself, but here his left arm is inches from Weber’s right and he has barely enough room to stretch.
You’ve flown on her, Elliott asks Weber, to Earth Two?
She shakes her head. No, I’m NASA. It’s you guys who fly the Rocks.
Us? Elliott doesn’t follow.
USAF. We’re strictly passengers, and I’ve never been assigned to Phaeton Base.
The LM Taxi drops toward the asteroid, then an abrupt shift in his frame of reference hits Elliott and he now sees himself approaching a grey and powdery vertical cliff. The LM Taxi shoots “upward” and he notices Weber is peering up through the docking windows in the roof. Ahead, or above, it no longer matters which, he can see the Goddard’s hab modules, like some strange minimalist chemical plant. This is all automatic, computerised, though Weber has still moved the COAS to its mount on the docking window frame and set the panel switch from off to ovhd. She keeps her hands on the thrust/translation controller and attitude controller as the docking adaptor drifts nearer. The two tee-crosses, one on the LM Taxi, one on the docking adaptor, gradually line up as the LGC fires tiny corrective bursts from the RCS until, with a thunk, the probe on the Goddard’s hatch thumps into the LM Taxi’s drogue, and the capture latches engage with a confident crunch.
Once Weber has confirmed the docking tunnel is pressurised, she unfastens her waist restraints and kicks herself upward to the hatch. Moments later, she swings it wide, revealing a man in a blue CWG framed in the hatchway.
Welcome aboard, sir, the man says. With one hand to the coaming to hold him steady, he salutes.
Major William Finley? asks Elliott
It cannot be anyone else. The golden oak leaf on his collar gives the man’s rank and Finley, the commanding officer, is the only major on the Robert H Goddard. Finley also has a Space Command shield on one shoulder.
Sir, acknowledges Finley. He pushes himself back, and gestures for Elliott to join him.
I have to head straight back, Weber says. She gives a tight smile. Good luck, she adds; and then pulls herself down to the commander’s position and sets about refastening her waist restraints.
Elliott unlocks and then lifts off his helmet. He breathes in through his nose, but the LM Taxi’s cabin is odourless. After removing his gloves and dumping them in the upturned bowl of his helmet, he disconnects his spacesuit from the spacecraft’s environmental system, and unclips his waist restraints.