Terrence Woodward looked out his office window at the throngs of protesters and smaller group of counter-protesters. The protesters were chanting “No more NASA” and holding signs deploring the size of the NASA budget and defaced NASA symbols. A loud but vocal minority of the protesters were against the advancement of AI and technology in general and some were conspiracy theorists, suggesting that mission specialist Jalali was murdered. Terrence sighed. He knew not everyone shared his enthusiasm for space exploration, but lately it had become much worse. It was a media frenzy. Something has to be done about this, he thought to himself. He had called Jesse into his office for a public relations meeting this morning.
Jesse arrived in his customary pin-striped suit and thin black tie. He sat down across from Terrence and they exchanged greetings.
“Hello again, Jesse. I trust you’ve seen the protesters?”
“Yes, I have,” Jesse replied.
“What are we going to do?”
“Well, in situations like this, it’s best to understand the perspective of the other side and speak their language, so to speak.”
“Okay, what is their perspective? That NASA is a waste of money? It’s ridiculous,” Terrence spate, looking disgusted.
“Their perspective is that the money would be better spent on other things, yes. With unemployment where it is, poverty at an all time high, and our social programs in peril,” Jesse said with an even tone.
“But NASA creates tons of jobs. We work tightly with our corporate partners, invent new technologies, and now we’re expanding the territory of the country! What could be better for our economy than that?”
“Well, that’s what you need to explain to the public. Show them how NASA creates jobs and helps the economy. That’s what they don’t see. And don’t just tell them show them.”
“What do you mean?” Terrence asked.
“I mean... people respond to anecdotes better than raw numbers. We need to connect the dots. Maybe tour the factory of one of our corporate partners. Interview the workers and then explain how NASA made all this possible.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Terrence said and then paused for a moment, thinking it over. “Okay, contact Final Frontier and set it up. I’ll do the interview myself. Contact the media people and I’ll work on a press release.”
“Sounds good, sir.”
“Thank you, Jesse.”
The inhabitants of Hellas 1 gathered around the video screen to watch the broadcast of the NASA director’s tour of the Final Frontier facility in San Bernadino, California. They were all aware of the events happening back on Earth and were interested to see well NASA responded. Although they were scientists and engineers, they had also been media trained and were frequently interviewed by reporters (over the twelve to fourteen minute communication delay).
The interview started with a drone-cam overview of the Final Frontier facility. It was a giant warehouse shaped building with the iconic Final Frontier logo emblazoned on the side. Then the video moved inside the facility where it panned across the impressive interior. A row of Marc-V engines in various stages of completion, an overhead shot of the assembly line, a close-up shot of a dozen smiling engineers. A famous reporter was doing the voice-over, “Final Frontier has come a long way; from one man’s dream to the largest private spaceflight company in the world. Its founder, Leon Tolstoy, the world famous entrepreneur, a man of humble origins, has done what many deemed impossible just a few short years ago: created a reusable earth-to-orbit launch system. As many of you know, NASA has been in close partnership with Final Frontier to launch their recent Mars exploration missions. Here with me today is the head of NASA, director Terrence Woodward. He’s also a man of humble beginnings that has come a long way and he’s here at Final Frontier to demonstrate how NASA is helping to create jobs.” The camera zoomed in on the director and the reporter.
“So, is it true that NASA creates jobs?”
“Yes. We create tons of jobs not only directly, but through partnership with companies like Final Frontier. They provide an essential function for us by providing low-cost, efficient, and safe rockets for sending our missions into earth orbit. At the same time, Final Frontier is benefiting since they get to keep the technology and patents they develop and can do business however they see fit. Taking space tourists, for example.”
“NASA wouldn’t take space tourists?” the reporter asked jokingly.
“No, I’m afraid that’s outside our charter.”
“Dr. Woodward, some people complain that our money would be better spent on other things, such as feeding the poor, improving our country’s infrastructure, or paying down the national debt. How do you respond to this?”
“Look, I understand their frustration. I really do, but the NASA budget pays back dividends to this country in many ways. Firstly there’s the addition of real jobs, as I’ve pointed out. Secondly, there’s the advancement of science and technologies which I can’t even begin to describe because we don’t have enough time. And thirdly, there’s the actual expansion of the nation’s territory that’s going on right now on Mars, not to mention the inspirational effect on our children. This may not seem like a big deal right now, but it’s going to be very soon and if we don’t do it, you know other countries will.”
“With all due respect director, how does expanding or territory on Mars help us right now in this country?”
“Would you have asked that to Christopher Columbus? Look, all I can tell you right now is that Mars is an up-and-coming tourist destination. All of these space tourists are going to get bored of going just around the Moon and back. There’s not really anywhere to go. Once we open up Mars, can you imagine the possibilities? And that’s just the beginning.”
“What would you say if some people just think that’s too far off?”
“Too far off? We have men and women on Mars right now. The only way that’s too far off is if you cut NASA’s budget.”
Akshara and Rin were harvesting wheat in one of the greenhouses, when Akshara brought up something that had been on her mind, saying “Rin, can I ask you something about Kurt, but promise you won’t tell him I asked?”
“Sure,” Rin responded with an inquisitive look.
“I’m sure it’s nothing, but have you noticed he frequently goes far away from the hab?”
“What do you mean?” Rin asked. She thought it was a rather odd question and did not like the implications. Everyone went far from the hab every once and a while. It was the only way to really get any semblance of alone time out on the surface.
“From what I can tell, he always goes north some distance and then comes back. He’s not collecting samples, because he doesn’t come back with any. At first I thought he was just exploring, like we all do, but he always seems to go to the same place. I was just wondering if he’s told you anything about it.”
“No. He hasn’t mentioned anything special. Maybe he’s just being very thorough,” Rin postulated.
“Yes, maybe that’s it,” Akshara said. “Thanks.”
They continued harvesting the wheat for a few minutes and then Akshara asked, “What’s this I hear about you building a zeppelin?”
“Yes, I’ve always wanted to build a zeppelin. Maybe a solar montgolfiere.”
“What’s that?” Akshara asked. She had never heard of it.
“It’s like a hot air balloon, but using solar heat,” Rin replied.
“Cool,” Akshara said, smiling. “Let me know if you want help with that.”
Norbite and Kara were relaxing in the habitat after a hard day of work exchanging back rubs as they often did when Norbite brought up something that was on mind.
“Are you paying attention to the presidential election?”, Norbite asked.
“I try not to think about it. It hurts my brain,” Kara replied.
“They’re talking about cutting NASA’s budget back down. Can you believe it?”
“Like I said, I try not to think about it.”
“All of our hard work would be for nothing. We’d basically be back to square one. Mothball everything.”
“Well it wouldn’t be for nothing. We’ve claimed this area at least. And collected a lot of data, and proved humans can live here.”
“I guess so,” said Norbite looking dejected.
“You should do something to get your mind off that. You need a project,” Kara suggested.
“Maybe you’re right.”
“I’m always right,” Kara said, grinning.
February 21, 2032
The seven astronauts gathered around the central video screen again for a viewing of what was to be a somber event. Today marked the one year anniversary of mission specialist Aditya Jalali’s death and apparent suicide. NASA had planned a small event of remembrance with appearances from Jalali’s family. His parents and widow were in attendance.
They had been so busy and distracted by the mission over the past year, the astronauts had barely been able to process what had happened. Kara felt it was important they watch the event and some of the crew had sent recorded videos talking about what they remembered about Jalali, how surprised they were by what happened, and how they felt.
After some words from a Sikh Granthi, Kara’s monologue was played, “Although we can’t be sure exactly what caused his him to take his own life, the events leading to his death are regrettable and we all wish that it had went differently. But no amount of wondering and ’what ifs’ will bring him back. We can only look forward into the future and continue the mission with new hope and vigor. Although I did not know him for very long, I know that is what Aditya would have wanted as a scientist and as an astronaut. I thank Aditya and his family for their sacrifice. Thank you.”
Next up was the director, Dr. Terrance Woodward. “We should always remember him in life. As well as being an astronaut, Aditya was a great biologist with many accomplishments in his field. As we are grateful for the sacrifice of every astronaut in our program, we are also grateful for Aditya’s sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, which occurred in the line of duty. Although we are a civilian program, I feel we can use that phrase because each and every one of our astronauts is serving a duty for our county. They are pushing the frontiers of science forward. They are inspiring our nations children, and they are exploring the solar system.”
With help from NASA engineers back on Earth, Norbite decided to build a light two-person rover over the course of about two weeks. Rigel was not suitable for long distance travel since it was so large and heavy and the crew wanted to explore more of the surrounding area. He used the metal 3D printer to print sections with a magnesium-aluminum alloy using plans sent from Earth. He then welded the parts together and attached some crude chairs. Lastly, he attached some simple aluminum-nickel batteries, a steering column, controls, wheels, and electric motors. It had no cabin so the riders would need to leave on their spacesuits. They named it Rover One.
Norbite loved putting his skills to use this way. Nothing could have made him happier. He felt like a kid building toy cars again. When he was done, he asked Kara if she would like to join him for the test run. “No thanks. Let me know after you’ve tested it,” she replied.
He drove around the habitat in a large circle, taking care not to go too far away in case something went wrong. After too tight circles he ventured out about one hundred meters, then two hundred meters, driving over small rocks and craters that might be millions of years old. Although the rover maxed out at around forty kilometers per hour, it felt like a race car to Norbite after having to settle for walking during most of the past eighty days and being stuck in the spaceship for the eight months before that. He yelled, “Woo!” as he executed a hairpin turn, kicking up a red cloud of dust behind him.
Norbite drove back to the base and told Kara the test drive was successful. She jumped in, snapped on the seat belt and started to ask, “Are you sure this is safe?” as Norbite punched the ignition. “Ah!” she exclaimed as the rover jerked forward and accelerated.
They drove out about one kilometer north of the base before stopping and disembarking from the rover. They stretched and bounced around, feeling almost as if they had escaped into some privacy, although that was not entirely true. They were never completely private on the surface of Mars when there were so many satellites overhead constantly taking pictures. Kara bent down and brushed a layer of regolith off a rock, exposing the blackness underneath.
“Isn’t it amazing how diverse Mars is, once you go just below the red dust that covers everything?” she said.
“Yes, I know. Phoebe never stops talking about it,” he replied.
“Well, I think it’s just beautiful.”
“Yes. It is.”
“You asked me once what we’re here for?” Kara said and then paused before adding as she gestured her hand around her, “How about this? To explore.”
“God did say be fruitful and multiply. He didn’t specify which planet,” Norbite added jokingly.
Kara laughed. “That’s not exactly what I meant.”
Norbite brought up the overhead view of their location on his visor display. “Hey, there’s something interesting not too far from here. It looks like it might be an aquifer upwelling. Wanna take a look?” he asked.
“Sure,” Kara agreed. They hopped back on the rover and drove east about half a kilometer. They approached what appeared to be a large dark stain on the terrain.
“What is that? Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” asked Kara.
“I think so. It almost looks green,” Norbite responded. They disembarked and bent down to get a closer look. Norbite took out a sample collector and scooped up some of the substance. He picked it up and held the sample up to the light.
“It looks like dark green chalk,” he said.
“Wow. We need to get this back to the lab immediately,” said Kara.
They drove back to the base and contacted NASA command to tell them about their odd discovery.
April 21, 2032
The Mars mission director, Kirk O’Donnell, called the head director of NASA directly to tell him about the discovery of a dark-green chalk substance. He did not sound as surprised as Kirk had expected.
“Do you know something I don’t know?” Kirk asked.
Terrence paused for a moment then replied, “I can’t comment right now, but I will get back to you.” Terrence ended the call and then reached for his keys, unlocked the bottom drawer of his desk and took out a small black cell phone. He dialed a number into the phone and waited for an answer.
When the other side picked up he said solemnly, “Sir, the astronauts have discovered the experiment faster than we anticipated. May I tell them?” He paused for a minute, listening to the person on the other side. “Okay. Understood. I’ll keep a lid on it for a couple more months. Thank you, sir.”
Terrence closed the phone and put it back in the drawer. Heaving a tired sigh, he leaned back in his chair and then called his secretary. “Charles, please cancel my next meeting. Thanks.”
The perchlorate scrubber landed about two kilometers west of Hellas 1. Kurt requested Norbite join him to retrieve it and bring it back the base. Norbite added some additional straps to the rover for carrying the large device. They drove over to the location, the exact coordinates of which were given to them by ground control.
As they made the long drive, Norbite took the chance to interrogate Kurt, “Rumors have been going around that you might know something about that green chalk.” Kurt remained silent.
“From what we can tell, it looks man-made... You can trust me, I won’t tell anyone else if that’s what you’re worried about,” Norbite added.
Kurt said flatly, “It’s not that I don’t trust anyone, it’s not my secret to tell. I know you all must be chomping at the bit to know what’s going on. Don’t worry, I think you’ll all know soon enough.”
“That’s not very reassuring,” Norbite said with a disappointed look.
“I’ll say one more thing, if you’ll leave me alone after.”
“Okay, go,” agreed Norbite.
“Classified? So you do know what it is. I knew it,” Norbite said, sounding a bit annoyed. “What is it? Nanotech? Genetically modified bacteria?”
Kurt stayed silent.
“Oh, right. Classified,” Norbite said finally.
It took a moment for Kurt to realize what he was hearing over his comms. Rigel was saying something about solar activity. “Wait, what’s going on, Rigel?”
“You are in imminent danger from a proton storm, sir. You need to seek cover within the next two minutes and twenty-six seconds,” Rigel declared.
“Crap,” Kurt cursed under his breath. “Does Rin know?” Rigel replied, “Yes. I’ve informed her also.”
Kurt started sprinting towards the hab.
Rigel continued, “Due to its weak magnetic field, Mars is much more exposed to the radiation caused by solar storms than Earth. The solar storm detector parked at the L1 Lagrange point notified me of an event that had a high likelihood of affecting the crew so I sounded the alarm, so to speak.”
Kurt was too busy running to tell Rigel to stop.
“This solar flare was a particular intensive one which will cause a heavy bombardment of energized particles. It will surely cause some damage to any equipment or humans in its path. I’m doing the best I can to diminish the damage.”
“Thank you, Rigel, that’s enough,” Kurt huffed out while running down the tunnel to the hab. When he arrived inside the hab, he checked to make sure everyone was present. Only two were missing. “Where are Phoebe and Rin?” he shouted.
“They went out on the rover-” Norbite began before getting interrupted by Rin on the intercom.
“We’re stranded out here sir. The storm must have damaged the electric motors some how,” Rin said over the speakers of the hab.
“Crap,” Kurt cursed.
“How far are you?” Akshara asked.
“We’re about sixteen kilometers east of the base,” Rin answered.
“How much oxygen do you have left?” Kurt asked.
“A little over an hour’s worth,” she replied.
“That’s not enough to make it back by foot,” Norbite added.
“We know. Maybe we can fix the motors?”
Anesh, who had been staring off into space, interrupted, “That will take too long. How about one of us take an oxygen tank and jogs toward them and meets them half-way. That way each of us only has to go about eight kilometers. We could do that under an hour.”
“I can easily jog at around twenty kilometers per hour in this gravity,” added Kara.
Norbite sighed and said, “I feel partly responsible since I built the rover. I should go.”
Kurt thought for a moment and said, “Me and Kara will go. Norbite, you and Anesh will go fill up the oxygen tank. Rigel, how long until the proton storm is over?”
“It appears to be over now sir, although I would recommend that everyone stay inside until we are sure.”
“Shut up, Rigel,” Kurt commanded. “Okay, everyone, let’s do this. Stay on the common band so we can all communicate.”
“I’ll stay here and let NASA know what’s going on,” Akshara added, “Is there anything else I can do?”
“Pray to whatever god you believe in that nothing else goes wrong,” Kurt replied.
Norbite and Anesh exited the airlock first and bounded up to the greenhouses. Luckily they had left an oxygen tank connected to each greenhouse near the airlocks in case of emergencies such as this. Norbite twisted off the left bolt while Anesh worked on the right one. Just as they had unlatched the air tank, Kara and Kurt came up behind them.
Kurt grabbed the tank and asked Kara, “Ready?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” Kara replied.
“Be careful,” Norbite said to Kara and reached out to grab her hand. They held hands briefly and looked into each other’s eyes as Kara answered, “I will.”
“Let’s go,” Kurt suggested and they started jogging.
Every kilometer Kurt and Kara would switch carrying the oxygen tank. It felt heavier as time went on. About half-way there after they had jogged about four kilometers suddenly a dust storm appeared over the horizon.
“Shit, a dust storm,” Kurt huffed.
“We’re half way there. We should make it,” said Kara, hopefully.
“Hmm,” Kurt moaned.
He sent a text message over the Mars satellite system to Rin: How are you two doing?
Rin: We’re okay. About 12 kilometers from the base.
Kurt: What’s your exact location?
Rin: LAT -33.45915 LON 62.96539
Kurt: OK c u soon
They continued on through the storm using their MGPS to guide them. Although the winds moved at up to eighty kilometers per hour, it barely felt like a breeze due to the thinness of the air. Twenty minutes later, Kurt texted: How’s your oxygen?
Rin: I’ve got about ten minutes left. Phoebe has twelve.
Kurt: What’s your location now?
Suddenly, he saw two figures rounding over the next impact crater through the dust. He picked up his pace and his heart-beat quickened. They had been jogging so far, they had forgotten to check over the common band radio.
“Rin? Can you hear me?” Kurt huffed between breaths.
“Yes, we can!” Rin shouted back.
“I see you,” added Phoebe.
Kurt and Rin ran towards each other and embraced when they finally met. Kara got to work attaching the oxygen tank to Phoebe’s air intake. Phoebe took a deep breath as fresh oxygen was pumped in. Next they worked on Rin.
“Thank you so much,” said Rin, tears streaming down her cheek.
“Of course,” replied Kurt, feeling his heart might burst at any moment. “I’m just so glad you’re okay.”
After filling their tanks, the four returned to the base to an unfortunate discovery. As they came back, Norbite informed them over the comms, “We have bad news, Kurt. All of the LEDs in the green-houses and the solar panels were damaged by the proton storm.”
“How bad is it?”
“We lost ninety-six percent of the LEDs. The solar panels are down twenty percent in efficiency.”
“That’s not good.”