Thursday, October 9, 2014

First Earthman on Mars?

This will be the last task before landing. Strap myself into the acceleration couch. Ship is secure and ready for landing. It’s been a long voyage. Now it is in its final hours. All the check lists are completed, and it’s all up to the computer now.

Who thought that I, alone, the smallest astronaut in the history of NASA would be here? About to enter Mars’ thin atmosphere. Soon — if all goes well — and the board is lighting up green indicating systems are ready — soon I’ll be the first Earthman on Mars.

I remember when it all started some seven years ago. There were twenty-eight of us back then. A few washed out during the training process. I was the smallest. I’m only 5 foot 8 and I weigh 130 pounds soaking wet. They even had to make a special space suit for me I am so small. I didn’t expect to make it through all the training, much less be picked for the trip. Didn’t seem likely, and I doubt anyone on that first day would have predicted that I’d be the lucky winner of the ultimate lottery. The captain — and the full crew — of Earth’s first manned flight to Mars. No one, least of all myself, would have thought that it would be me — or anyone — alone.

It wasn’t supposed to have turned out this way. We had originally planned for a four or five man crew. Then it was three, before it was trimmed down to two, and then the plan changed to a single astronaut.

You see, the problem is quite simple. Weight vs. rocket fuel. The heavier the rocket, the more fuel needed to make the trip. In fact, the extra fuel adds more weight, which makes it an even tougher equation to balance. So add up the weight of all the astronauts, plus the air, water, and food required for each occupant, and you can see the problem the engineers struggled with.

The greater load required larger engines and more fuel and the tanks to hold the fuel, which increases weight all the more requiring yet more fuel. The ship just keeps growing and growing to lift the load of the astronauts and their required supplies.

The final solution was strikingly simple. If there is only one astronaut, and a small one at that, then the fuel requirement is the minimum. That made for the simplest solution, and — in engineering — simple is often the best.

It’s a long ways to Mars (and back). Over 35 million miles even when at the closest approach to Earth. Over nine months in travel just to get here. So designing a ship that could carry a small crew and all the provisions needed led to bigger and bigger rockets to carry more and more fuel, and that just proved impossible to build.

I still recall when the Colonel stopped by my small room (smile) and gave me the result. The design team had reached a decision. The rocket would be built for only one man. And, as the smallest astronaut, I’d be that man. What a way to win the lottery. It turns out that size does matter.

So here I am. Over 35 million miles and nine months later. (Funny that it worked out that way … just like a new baby.) Soon the rocket will enter the upper atmosphere of Mars. The ship has already rotated so the approach is tail down. I’m sure Mars is beautiful from here, but I can’t see it. You see, there are no portholes in this ship. (Actually, you don’t see. Get it?) No openings to reduce the structural integrity. That keeps the design simple and as light as possible.

The ship does have a view. It’s exactly like the periscope you have on submarines. It is located in the nose of the rocket and it gives an excellent, 360 degree view, but it can’t look backward. So I’ll be descending to the surface of Mars depending entirely on radar and instruments. Those are the eyes of the computer doing the actual navigation those last few miles. Shouldn’t be a problem. Besides, if it is, I won’t have long to worry about it. At the speed I’m going, if the rockets don’t fire for a gentle landing, it will be a quick trip down.

There, I can hear the pumps starting up. It’s all under computer control. I’m like that elevator operator. All I do is punch the buttons. Next stop, main floor and lobby.

Now the noises are increasing. Pumps and gyros coming up to speed. Soon the engines will fire. There, I hear the roar and, for the first time since launch, I feel weight. After coasting all the way to Mars in a weightless state, it’s good to feel the pull of gravity again — even if it is artificial gravity from the rocket acceleration. See, I did listen in all those lectures, even though I didn’t think I’d ever be the one to get here.

The computer is increasing thrust. I’m pressed hard into the acceleration couch. The timer shows five minutes to touchdown. Like the Mohel said when the knife slipped, “It won’t be long now.” I remember Abraham, the Israeli astronaut I trained with. He’d tell that joke every time we simulated countdown.

Now three minutes. The acceleration is getting hard to take. After months of weightlessness drifting through space, I’m not used to gravity. Hope I don’t pass out and miss the final moments. But then, I’m alone, who would know?

There, only one minute left. Thirty seconds. Ten seconds. Touchdown. I felt the bump. Not bad. If I’d crashed then there would be no way back even if I survived. Felt like a good landing and now the engines are shutting down. Finally I have something to do. Push the button elevator man. But the doors won’t open yet.

No, you see I’ve landed on my tail and the only way down to the ground is a small ladder through the center of the ship and between the rocket engines, which, right now, are about as hot as the center of a volcano.

So it’s more of a waiting game. I have to sit here for twelve hours until the rocket tubes cool in the thin Mars atmosphere. It’s been nine months. A few more hours won’t be bad. But at least now I can take a look around. I climb out of the acceleration couch and activate the periscope. Now I can see Mars.

Oh wait, almost forgot. I’ve landed on the night side of Mars. I won’t be able to see anything until morning. Even if Mars’ two moons are out, they are too small and we’re too far from the Sun for them to light the scenery like a full moon would back on good old Earth. So I’ve got to be patient.

First job is to contact Earth. Let them know I made it. Then I’ve got some equipment checks and maybe a light meal and a short nap. Actually there is no way I’m gonna be able to sleep now with the surface of Mars only a few feet and a few hours away.

I know Neil had prepared his speech for when he first stepped down on the moon. We’ve talked about it a lot during training.

“A small step for man ….” He meant to say “A small step for a man …” In fact, he is sure he did say the “a.” But we’ve all heard the tapes.

In any case, it worked OK for him. As famous as “Dr. Livingston, I presume.”

At first I thought I would tease him in my little speech. “A small step for a small man.”

But this is a great moment for Earth … and not just the good old US. No, this mission was international. Sure, I’m an American, born and raised in Montana. Over half the astronauts were from the US. But it is a Russian engine and a Japanese computer and an Israeli periscope and … well, you get the idea. So my little inside joke would not be appropriate. Kids in school will probably learn what I said. Better be formal if this is for the history books.

What will I say? Actually I have no one to say it to. No orbiter over head. No copilot in the lander. This mission is much simpler. One rocket. One man. Land on Mars. Take off from Mars. That too kept the weight and the fuel requirements small. I do have a recorder, however. So my speech will be heard ultimately.

What will I say? Now you’ll just have to wait and see.

The hands on the clock move so slow. A couple more hours and it will be time.

Getting close. The sun is starting to rise, and I’ll be descending the ladder in just fifteen more minutes. Now that it’s light, I can check around. “Up periscope.” That’s fun to say, even if I’m just talking to myself.

Looking west. Nothing much to see but sand and hills. Swinging the scope around to the north. More of the same. Now looking east. Wait. There. Off in the distance. It looks like a city. I’ll crank up the magnification. Yes, it is a city. A walled city. Looks like a castle. Wonder how old it is. Possibly millions of years. Are there going to be relics and fossils of a previous Martian civilization? Were the canals actually “man”-made?

No, on top of the castle. I see it. A flag is raising. A flag waving in the thin air. That’s not a fossil. Someone raised that flag. There must be life.

Suddenly it dawns on me that the periscope has another control. I can aim it down and observe closer to the rocket. I think the excitement of spotting the castle in the distance made me forget all about that. I’ll rotate the scope downward now.

Wow. There’s a caravan of people moving toward the ship. I can make out the animals … very odd. Looks like they have too many legs. Look a bit like a camel but somewhat like an elephant too. And more the size of an elephant. I can see people riding on the back of the animals in big boxes held by straps under the belly of the strange beasts. Other are walking alongside. They’re carrying shields and spears and some have colorful flags. They are bare skinned with little but wide belts for clothing. Also I think I have spotted some flying craft off in the distance. What a strange combination of ancient and modern items. Half naked riders on animals and aircraft too. Odd indeed.

They look a lot like Earth people, although it appears they have a bit of a red tinge to their skin, but there are some dark skinned people too. They have very large chests. Probably needed for the thin atmosphere. Long legs. I can’t tell at this distance, but I’ll bet they are taller than me. But that’s an easy bet. Odds are that I would win it on Earth too.

I’ve move the scope’s direction to the front of the procession. It’s led by a large man. He's riding some beast about the size of horse, although, again, there are too many legs. He doesn’t look quite like the others. Not as thin. I think his skin is white, although he has a good tan. He’s only wearing simple clothes, sort of a skirt or kilt, and his chest is bare. He’s riding in front and headed toward the ship. He has a loose article of clothing with a wide belt at his waist. A curved sword hangs from the belt. There are other things attached to his belt. I see instruments and devices that look like a cell phone or portable radio walky-talky. Even something that looks distinctly like a gun or a hand weapon of some sort. Looks rather high-tech for a society with castles and swords.

I don’t know if there is danger, but the mission plan has me staying here for four months until Mars is in the correct position in its orbit for the return trip, so there’s no use trying to hole up in the rocket for defense. This space craft could easily be toppled or disabled. I had best go out and meet these “people.” If they are blood thirsty savages, that will be the end of me. No reason to delay. “What’s for dinner? said the one missionary to the other.” “Clowns taste funny,” said the cannibal to his friend. I think I’ve read too many comics.

Better get into my surface clothes. A heavy jacket as the morning is pretty cold. Warm pants with boots and gloves. I also have a small oxygen concentrator to assist with the thin air. Back on Earth they assumed that I would quickly adjust to the thin air like mountaineers get used to high altitude. Then I won’t need the oxygen device. I best head down the ladder now. I may be the first Earthman on Mars. I just hope I’m not the last. No use putting it off.

Climbing down. Between the engines. They’re still a little warm. On the last step. There, I’ve stepped off the ladder. Darn! I forgot all about my little speech. Turning around.

The procession is approaching. They’ve stopped at the base of the rocket. The man in the lead dismounts from the odd looking animal. Up close I can see that the creature he rode has four legs on each side and a ferocious looking face like a wild boar. He walks toward me and appears ready to speak. And so the first Earthman on Mars meets the first Martian. I hope it is a welcome and not “no trespassing.” But then why would I understand his language. But I do. It is English with a bit of a Southern drawl.

He says, “Welcome to Barsoom.” “My name is John Carter.”

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