The mission director was speaking to the crew from the main screen in the dining hall. He congratulated them for their quick reaction to the situation and requested the whole crew be evaluated by a therapist within the next twenty-four hours.
"It is suspected that the combination of the life extension therapy with the stress of the mission, and possibly the g-forces of the launch, may have caused severe depression and resulted in Mission Specialist Jalali’s suicide." He paused to let the crew respond.
Kara gasped, "How is that possible?"
Anesh asked, "Hasn’t the life-x therapy been well tested? How was this not a known reaction?"
The director responded, "Yes, it has been well tested on Earth. However, there had not yet been any space flight tests. No one thought it would make a difference. Sadly, it did."
"Each of you should have at least one hour of light therapy and one extra hour of exercise per day until we sort this out. We will make sure to thoroughly monitor everyone from this point forward. Also, please monitor yourselves and each other. We don’t want any more surprises. More details will be forthcoming as we learn more."
Kurt wrapped up the call and said, "Thank you, sir. We will do as requested. Again, I’m sorry this happened."
"Not at all your fault, Commander. No one saw this coming." He closed the channel.
Each of the crew passed their psych evaluations with flying colors over the next day. They were a bit rattled but these were well-trained astronauts. They each said their final goodbyes to their friends and families as they passed over the continent. This would be their last chance to have low latency conversations due to the laws of physics that would quickly lengthen the gap in both space and time between them and Earth.
Two days later the VisionStar shuttle, a large reusable spacecraft that was the successor to the original Space Shuttle, arrived with the re-supplies needed and Phoebe Rosales. The shuttle docked with Phoenix 5 and Phoebe climbed aboard in zero g. Kurt was there in the command module to greet her while the rest of the crew waited in the central chamber.
"Welcome aboard, Phoebe," said Kurt.
"Thank you, Commander. Glad to be here," replied Phoebe.
"Let me show you around."
Kurt led her into the central chamber to meet the rest of the crew. Most of them had already met back on Earth during the crew selection process. After the greetings were over, Kurt asked them all to pose for a group shot, a publicity shot of the seven astronauts headed to Mars. They were a diverse group. Not one looked like the next except their expressions. They all were grinning ear to ear.
Day 0: March 3, 2031
Today was the first day of their long journey to the red planet. The whole world was aware of the mission and hundreds of millions of people all over the planet were watching video coverage of the event. Nothing like this had happened since the first manned mission to the Moon.
The living module’s spinning torus was stopped for the duration of the burn. NASA determined that the complication added during acceleration was not worth the benefit of artificial gravity to the astronauts. However, the acceleration would only last about five hours. The Hohmann-transfer only required a burn during the beginning and end of the eight-month journey through the solar system. During the burn the astronauts experienced only half a percent of Earth’s gravity. It was more of a suggestion than an artificial gravity.
They watched on screens as they pulled away from Earth. The only windows were in the command module and they pointed the wrong way. However, they were able to access multiple outside camera views. The cloudy blue planet turned slowly beneath them. A beautiful blue-green marble with a thin veneer of atmosphere that glowed. At night they saw the city lights of civilization light up like a bioluminescent squid in the inky blackness. At their current orbit, they saw a sunrise and sunset every ten hours. This would be their last view of the sunrise over Earth for about three years, possibly ever.
The trip to Mars would take about eight months. Meanwhile, the crew had various jobs to do, but mostly they just had to wait. They spent some of their time catching up on news from Earth, playing VR games, practicing emergency procedures, talking, and sending video holograms to their friends and family back home – anything to keep the sabotage incident out of their minds.
Although they tried to keep an outward appearance of normalcy, the incident had left a palpable impression on every member of the crew. Aditya’s disappearance and the circumstances of his death were still something of a mystery, despite the assurances from NASA that it was a reaction from the life extension procedure. If it was some kind of reaction, how could they be sure that any one of them would not snap at any moment?
The crew slept in shifts so that there was always at least three people awake at a time in case anything went wrong. However, they typically came together at least once a day as a group to mingle and eat in the dining room.
One such time as they were milling around Phoebe asked, "Is anyone else getting tired of this soylent stuff?"
Rin replied, "I don’t mind it. Besides, we might as well get used to it. It’s half of the calories on board the ship."
"It was integral to keep the weight of the ship down. The less weight they had to spend on food, the more they could use for supplies, so we should be grateful for it," added Anesh.
"Well, it’s just hard to be grateful for something so bland," said Phoebe.
"Did you try adding sriracha?" asked Norbite.
"Eww, gross. No thanks," replied Phoebe with a look of disgust. "Never mind. It’s fine. I’ll get used to it. I’m looking forward to growing some real food in about eight months, though."
Just before mealtime, Anesh brought up a new development from Earth, "Did you guys see this? There have been reports that the Chinese are planning to launch their own Mars growth mission. Instead of a manned mission, it seems to be only an automated probe."
"Are you sure it’s not just some kind of April fools joke?" asked Norbite incredulously.
"No, it’s not. I checked," replied Anesh.
Phoebe had also seen the story and confirmed, "Yes, it’s true." She asked, "Do you know where they plan to send it?"
"They wouldn’t want to get too close to us, surely," Kurt said, sounding a bit concerned.
Anesh braced himself as if having felt a brief chill. "Has NASA contacted us about this?"
Kurt responded, "No. They probably wouldn’t say anything official until the rumors have been confirmed."
They all knew the stakes were high. For years China and the US had been in a new cold war. What had started as a cyber war had grown into a battle for world influence, and finally a cold war in space as well. What was unspoken was that at any point a cold war could become hot and they were on front lines.
Kurt called a group meeting in the dining area. He looked serious. Addressing the whole crew he announced, "Listen up everybody. I have some news. The Chinese launched their Mars probe. They say it’s going to land in the northern hemisphere so we shouldn’t have anything to worry about. I just wanted to let everyone know."
"What is it like?" asked Phoebe.
"Apparently it’s a simple lander with a biosphere contained inside. Upon landing it will orient itself and activate several seeds embedded in a self-contained hydroponic system," Kurt replied.
"So they’re going for a land grab," noted Rin.
Akshara added, "Isn’t that what we’re doing?"
"Yes and no. We’re at least going to be doing tons of science and establishing a permanent habitation," replied Rin flatly. Kara nodded in agreement.
"Well, call it what you want, but what they’re doing is no different," Akshara argued.
"I agree with Akshara," added Anesh.
"That’s enough arguing for today, everyone," Kurt said. "It doesn’t matter how you define it. It’s happening, that’s all. We can keep our opinions to ourselves. Thank you. Dismissed."
With that, the subject was dropped and everyone went back to what they were doing. The Chinese probe was not discussed in the dining area for many days afterward.
As mission commander, Kurt knew it was his duty to keep morale up, but he was not sure what could be done about it. Everyone was still tense from the incident, while also being excited and nervous about the mission. After discussing some options with central command, he decided to schedule twice per week to get the crew together for some kind of group activity. One person would choose the activity and it would be rotated so that everyone got a chance to pick their favorite. There were several games to choose from on-board the ship - cards, board-games, and VR varieties – or they could choose some kind of group training exercise, such as an emergency drill. He and central command hoped this would breakup the dull routine and improve the crew’s mood.
One night while the crew was enjoying a card game called “Space Scramble,” and everyone’s was in a relatively good mood, at least temporarily, Kara brought up a question she had on her mind, "Can we give the ship computer a name? It’s so weird calling it ship all the time."
"How about Hal?" joked Norbite.
"I wouldn’t mind calling it computer, like in Star Trek," suggested Anesh.
"No, really. Something else," Kara said flatly.
Kurt suggested, "How about Rigel since that’s the module it’s located in?"
"Yeah, that sounds good," replied Phoebe. After some discussion, they all agreed, Rigel would be the computer’s name. Akshara programmed it in. From then on the crew used the name, Rigel, when addressing the ship’s voice recognition system.
After doing his routine check of the nuclear reactor, Anesh cornered Norbite in the science lab, saying, "Do you believe what NASA said about Jalali? That it was the life-x?"
Norbite replied, "Why would they lie about that?" He was not sure about it himself, but had no reason to think otherwise.
Anesh answered, "I don’t know, to cover up their own incompetence? They spent so much time and energy to make sure we all have the best personalities for this mission, and then that happens. It looks pretty bad."
"Hmmm. I hadn’t really thought about it. I guess it’s possible." Norbite was generally trusting in the NASA administrators and had not considered such a thing.
"Were you completely truthful in your evaluations? I know I wasn’t," said Anesh, smirking.
Norbite agreed, but did not want to admit it out loud. He thought about ending the conversation there, but decided against it. It looked like Anesh would not give up without a proper answer. "Look. There’s no way to completely predict what people will do in certain situations. So, yes, maybe they screwed up, but can you blame them? I think it was just a fluke. Or maybe it was the some malfunction of the life-x. Who knows?"
"Yeah. I guess you’re right,” Anesh conceded.
Norbite added, "Meanwhile we just need to look out for each other.”
After a brief pause, Anesh replied, "True,” nodding his head in agreement, then pushed himself back out of the lab and made his way back to the crew quarters.
Although he tried to push it out of mind, Norbite was a bit disturbed by what Anesh had brought up. After the initial few days after the incident, he had convinced himself that everyone was fine, but now he was reliving the fears again. “What if there was something fundamentally wrong with the crew selection process? What if there is some other cause we haven’t identified?” he thought to himself. The images of the oxygen streaming into space resurfaced in his mind. He still could not imagine a reason anyone would do such a thing, and any potential evidence for motive or cause was gone along with Aditya.
Perhaps the Chinese were somehow responsible. Then why did Aditya just sabotage the oxygen and then fly off? Maybe he found the real sabotage and sacrificed himself to stop it. A hundred possibilities floated through his head.
One way or another, Norbite had to find out what really happened. First, he needed to get close to everyone on board. Maybe someone else knew something that he did not.
"Isn’t it interesting how the trip to Mars takes about eight months?" Norbite asked to no one in particular in the dining area.
"What about it?" replied Rin.
"Well, it’s kind of symbolic. It takes about as long as pregnancy. It’s like we’re gestating. To be born again on a new planet."
"You’re weird, Norbite," said Anesh.
"Thanks," Norbite said sarcastically.
"Actually, gestation normally takes 40 weeks, which is more than nine months," added Kara.
"So, we’re like premies then?" joked Rin.
"Or hippos. They only take eight months," said Phoebe, smiling.
"That’s us. The Hippo Seven. I like it," suggested Kurt, laughing.
"Yes, a majestic creature," added Norbite.
"Is it too late to change the mission patch?" asked Akshara, straight-faced.
Everyone broke into laughter. The mood raised everyone’s spirits, as if a haze had been over them since the mission began and was finally beginning to lift.
As everyone filed out of the dining area after the meal was over, Kara and Norbite were left alone for a moment. Kara gave him a inquisitive look that seemed to be saying more than words could convey and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, what your parents thinking when they named you?”
Norbite guffawed and answered, “They’re the type of parents that wanted a ‘snow-flake’ name. You know. Something no one else would have,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Well. Mission accomplished,” she giggled.
By this time everyone was beginning to feel the invisible hand of biology moving them to couple. A kind word or eye contact that lasted a heartbeat too long carried with it a weight that wouldn’t otherwise be there were they not trapped in a tiny, spinning apartment complex in space. If two people of opposite sex went missing for a period of time the others grew suspicious.
It went unspoken that NASA had planned for this outcome. Each of the men on board had been required to get a small non-invasive surgery long before launch. An unplanned pregnancy would have been much too disastrous to leave any room for error. Pills require being taken. They could be forgotten.
Kurt called a meeting at the behest of the mission director. He was not excited to be doing this. "Okay, folks. It’s time to address the elephant in the room. Everyone here, with the exception of Phoebe, is single back home. Let’s be adult about this. However, if there’s going to be coupling it needs to be above board, completely consensual, and no drama. That means if you want to establish a sexual relationship or a breakup - yes, even a break-up - you need to notify me as commander and the director O’Donnell. Okay? We’re all stuck together for at least thirty months. We don’t need any bad feelings harbored between ex-lovers. Got it?" Everyone nodded in agreement. "Okay then. Dismissed."
A few hours later, Akshara floated over to the nuclear reactor monitoring station, where Anesh could usually be found. "Which is better Star Trek or Star Wars?" she asked point blank.
Without hesitation, he responded with a grin, "Star Trek, of course."
"Good enough for me," she said and kissed him square on the mouth. His eye bulged with surprise for a moment, but he then returned the kiss wholeheartedly.
Within the next two weeks, everyone had notified Kurt and the mission director of their relationship status: Norbite and Kara, Anesh and Akshara, and Kurt and Rin were all officially couples.
Norbite had developed a bad cough and went to see Kara for medication. After some examination, Kara diagnosed him with a minor case of bronchitis. She gave him some medicine, small red and blue pills, and said, "Take this. You should feel better in about 24 hours. If not, come back and see me."
"Do you think we’re here for a reason?" he asked.
"What? Yes. We’re going to Mars to search for life and establish a colony for America," she replied.
"No. I mean… Do you believe in a higher power?" Norbite asked quizzically.
"I’m sorry, you know I can’t answer that. According to directive 42 we are not to discuss religious or political matters," she said robotically.
"Look. We’re going to be stuck together for a long time, so we might as well get to know each other," replied Norbite with a smile. "Come on, what are they going to do? Fire us?" he cajoled.
Kara sighed. "Okay, fine. I was raised Catholic, but I don’t really believe in it all. I like to think we’re here for a reason, yes. Otherwise it all seems kind of meaningless; doesn’t it?"
"Well. I think we all have to make our own reasons," he replied. "If there is a god, I think he/she/they/it is kind of unknowable..." he trailed off.
"How were you raised?"
"I was raised agnostic, but I was exposed to all kinds of religions. Nothing really stuck."
"Where do we go when we die then? Do we just disappear?"
"I don’t know. I try not to think about it, but I figure once you die, all your problems are over."
"Unless you’re going to hell," Kara said with a smirk.
"Didn’t the pope say hell doesn’t exist anymore?" asked Norbite, probing a delicate issue.
"Okay, Purgatory then," Kara suggested.
He decided it best to stop there.
After a pause, Kara asked, “How’s the ‘investigation’ going?” putting air-quotes around investigation. “Have you found anything more out?”
“No, not really,” he replied. “No one seems to know anything else. At least, not that they’d tell me.” It was true. If anyone knew anything more about Aditya, they were not forthcoming.
“Well. Maybe there’s nothing more to the story then. Like I told you, sometimes people just get that depressed.”
Three months later...
During a few spare hours while their schedules were aligned, Kara called Norbite into the science lab near the cargo bay. She was floating next to one of the experiments she was in charge of - a group of lab mice.
There were about two dozen mice in six cages arranged in a grid in the science lab. They were all white with beady red eyes. Two of the cages were blacked out to simulate night and the rest were lit up with slightly different colored lights to test whether the light or sleep schedule had any effect on the mice. One mouse was lying still and lifeless strapped to a cold, gray countertop and Kara was positioned in front of it. She looked around Norbite to make sure no one was nearby.
"The mice are dying," she declared quietly once she was sure no one else was listening.
"What’s wrong?" asked Norbite, concerned by Kara’s behavior and tone of voice.
"They’re getting cancer. I think it’s from the radiation," she replied.
"Well, we already know that radiation causes cancer. Why aren’t they shielded?" Norbite asked quizzically.
"That’s the problem. They are," she replied with tension in her voice.
"Have you told NASA?" he asked, trying to remain calm. “Shit, oh shit, oh shit,” he thought to himself. Radiation was perhaps the biggest threat to their lives at the moment.
"Yes, they don’t want me to tell anyone else. They don’t want us to be alarmed. I just had to tell someone." She took a deep breath. "They said we shouldn’t be affected since we all have the life-x bacterians. It should repair enough of our DNA to counteract the radiation."
"Well, that’s good. What about the mice?" he asked.
"I’m going to see if I can start cancer treatment and IVF, in vitro fertilization, on them to improve their chances of survival going forward. I could pick the healthiest mice to reproduce."
"Okay. Will that help?"
"I think so," she replied. "I hope so."
Anesh, Kurt, and Kara were sitting around the dining table. Akshara came in having just finished watching the news feed from Earth.
"Did you hear the news?" asked Akshara, her lips forming a thin line.
"No. What?" replied Anesh.
"Cape Canaveral has been hit badly by Hurricane Charley."
"Crap. How bad is it?"
"The VAB was destroyed and they’re saying the launch pad is badly damaged. Much of the surrounding land is underwater. The death count is in the hundreds and still rising."
"They should be able to fix it in the next two years," Kurt postulated, looking confident.
"Yes, that’s true," replied Akshara. She still looked concerned. Kara frowned with the knowing look you would expect from a doctor that just received some bad news about a patient. "It’s going to set them back, though."
They all knew it was a large set back for the space program. However, there was no point in belaboring the point. There was nothing they could do except continue on the mission. The mission which was fast approaching its destination.
“We’re almost there,” Kurt added, apropos of nothing – but they were all thinking the same thing.
By now the distance of the ship from Earth meant that it took about thirteen minutes for messages to travel across the void at the speed of light. This made back and forth communication a slow process. The crew was more isolated now than they had ever been before.
They had not been able to talk with their families back on Earth for seven months, except for short one-way videos or text messages. This hurt Phoebe the most out of all the crew. She knew beforehand that she would miss her children but she did not know how bad it would feel. Frequently she would cry herself to sleep thinking about all of the events she was going to miss in her children’s lives: birthdays, homecoming dances, recitals, plays, first kisses.
The only sound was the constant whirring of the air circulatory system as Phoebe laid awake in her sleep sack. Thoughts were circling in her head. She asked herself silently, Why did I do this? What was I thinking? For science, for my country, and for all people, she reminded herself. It did not make the pain go away.
Day 252: November 9, 2031
The torus stopped and the ion rockets fired, capturing the Phoenix 5 in orbit around Mars.
"Today we land on Mars. I can’t believe it," Anesh declared, gazing at the screen.
They looked out the windows and saw the dusty red planet below. Just below them was Hellas Planitia, the giant crater where they would be landing. It was a dull red color and almost impossible to fathom. It was much bigger than any canyon on Earth stretching 2,300 kilometers wide and seven kilometers deep. The entire continental United States could fit inside.
Kurt called for a meeting in the central room.
"This is it, gang. The day we’ve been training and preparing for," Kurt bellowed.
"You know the plan. We send down the robots and supplies first and make sure they land. Then we go down in the Lander using the robot beacon as a target. We’ll try to get as close as possible without hitting anything. Then we make sure everyone is okay."
"Once everyone is checked out we confirm the landing with Houston. Got it?"
Everyone replied, "Aye." or in Akshara’s case, "Yes."
Their heads were swimming with excitement despite the years of training. Nothing can prepare you for the actual reality of landing on another planet. Being the first humans ever to do so.
They sent the robot lander to the surface. It included the bulk of cargo they would need to set up a base on Mars and survive for two years: machines, seeds, raw nutrients, biomass (their waste), 3D printers, printer feed, some food, water, and the robots. Not having humans aboard, it could undergo a more turbulent landing which saved on fuel.
They all watched their respective live feeds from the lander with baited breath as it descended to the planet below. The mission depended on this landing being successful. All they could do is watch.
"Rigel, describe to us what’s happening to the lander and simulcast to central command," Kurt commanded the computer.
The lander floated away from the ship and down into the Martian atmosphere for what seemed like an eternity.
"The lander is now 127 kilometers above the surface and moving at about 5.8 kilometers per second."
"The lander is now 113 kilometers above the surface and moving at 5.7 kilometers per second."
"Altitude 100 kilometers and 5.6 km/s"
"The heat shield is starting to heat up. Altitude 86 kilometers and 5.5 km/s"
"Altitude 74 km and 5.4 km/s"
"Heat shield temperature estimated at about 2100 Celsius. 58 km and 5.3 km/s"
"45 km and 5.1 km/s. Temperature at 3532 Celsius. Critical temperature at 7700."
"He means it blows up at 7700," Anesh specified. Everyone else shushed him, "Shhh!"
Rigel was silent for some time; then, "Starting peak deceleration. 23 km and 4.2 km/s… 5634 Celsius, 22 km, and 3.8 km/s... 7201 Celsius, 20 km, and 3.4 km/s… 7356 Celsius, 18 km, and 2.7 km/s… 16 km… 14 km… "
"Deploying parachute… Parachute successfully deployed and rapidly slowing lander. Altitude now 12 km and speed is 0.57 km/s." The sigh of relief was audible from the crew.
"11 km and 0.39 km/s. Preparing to drop heat shield. Heat shield successfully dropped."
"9.8 km and 0.13 km/s."
One minute past in silence while the lander descended towards the surface.
"3.1 km and 87 meters per second. Radar system now detecting the surface."
"1.3 kilometers and 79 m/s. Firing retro rockets. 1 km altitude and 60 m/s speed."
"700 meters and 55 m/s… 400 meters and 45 m/s… 200 meters, 33 m/s… 100 meters, 28 m/s… Deploying airbags…"
The crew collectively held their breath.
"The lander is signaling. It has landed."