As time passed by, Mars was getting bigger and bigger in the window and things started to happen faster with lots to do. But in my spare time I found myself meditating near a porthole, gazing at the Red Planet, soon to be our home for some time. I was thinking about the time ahead, about our responsibility to succeed and to survive. It was the strangest feeling sitting there with Frank in silence just looking outside, trying to prepare for the monumental task ahead.
There was almost always music on the ship. We thought it was good for the general mood around Pegasus. We had a huge playlist with songs playing at random, but in this unique moment “Crossing Mars” by Harry-Gregson Williams started. Frank smiled. I did too. It was such an odd moment. Maybe our computer at some level of consciousness was also feeling the moment. It’s the first computer to carry humans to Mars after all, it must mean something also in the electronic world, I guess.
“What do you say, boss?” Frank asked pointing with his head towards Mars.
“Mm? What?” I said coming back from hundreds of miles away.
“Barsoom” he continued pointing his head towards the planet.
“I don’t think we’ll find John there. He should be dead for about a hundred and fifty years now.”
“And what about Matai Shang?”
“Mm? I think he moved on to another planet, man” I said still contemplating miles away. “He came to Earth, saw we’re on the path for self-destruction and said “too easy” after it took him so much time and effort to destroy Mars”
“I guess you’re right…”
I don’t know why Frank started this topic. Maybe it was because of the music, I don’t know.
We spent two days in orbit to prepare for the descent. We moved our stuff from Pegasus to Argo. Although most of our things needed for the mission were sent by ships way ahead of our arrival, we had some of our personal stuff. I know Frank smuggled some cigars and I brought some good ole single malt.
Our space ship is made of two modules. Pegasus is the main ship with living quarters for our round trip to Mars, and Argo is our lander and also our safety net in case of an emergency down on the planet. Pegasus will be put in parking orbit, and besides being used as a relay station between us and Capcom, will also serve as the return vessel home. Basically, when the mission ends, we’ll take off with Argo, dock with Pegasus, and after we’ll restart it, we’ll go back to Earth.
Soon it will be time to suit up. Can’t wait to stretch my legs under the Martian gravity. Basketball will never be the same again. So far, the weather looks good and also the landing site photographed by the Remus satellite looks good also. Everything is where it’s supposed to be.
Hopefully the God of war is in a good mood these days.
We’re in our seats ready for our Martian adventure.
“And mark, press for deorbit burn!”
As soon as I input the command into the computer, the manoeuvring engine started firing. It was quite a kick. The deorbit itself is pretty automatic, not much input from us is required, we just monitor the instruments.
As I was sitting in my seat in my pressure suit, at first, I thought it was just in my head. It was fast, something flickered in the corner of my eye. When I looked through my porthole, it was nothing. But as we descended it became more and more obvious that it was real. Plasma was forming around us. We hit the atmosphere. Around twelve minutes to go. Argo started to shake and crackle under the aerodynamic stress. My porthole was lighted up by the plasma, and it was like a lazy morning back on Earth.
As I was struggling to read my instrument panel, my unconscious mind flew to Jo.
It was a cold winter evening. A friend of ours hooked us up because she couldn’t go with Jo, so I went in her place. I only saw her in some photos before. I went to pick her up and there she was, with her curly hair, tall and skinny, wearing a long dress and looking like an angel, standing there shivering on the sidewalk in front of her flat, waiting for me. I went to greet her, and as I got closer, I saw her huge contagious smile. I fell in love in that moment. She spoke to me that evening like she knew me for 20 years. It was all so natural. From that evening on I knew I wanted to spend my life with her.
“I miss you, Jo” I said quietly touching the porthole looking outside through the plasma.
“One minute!” yelled Frank, bringing me back on Argo.
“Check! Altitude 194 kilometres, speed 19500 kilometres per hour!”
“We’re in the pipe, five by five!”
“Really?” I smiled. “Dude, you’re a flying cliché! Did you know that?”
“Yeah, but I don’t care! I always wanted to say that!”
“What? You were a Navy pilot! You had a million opportunities to say that. Every time you landed on a carrier you were in the groove for 17 seconds, you lined up the velocity vector on the HUD with the crutch and landed while watching a meatball outside! You’re just now in the pipe?!”
“It’s just not the same and you know it!” he smiled.
“117 kilometres, speed 19600 kph” I continued smiling
“Check! We’re good!”
“What, no more pipe?”
“Parachute deploy in ten seconds”
“Check! Speed is good, altitude is good.”
Parachute deployment was quite the jolt. We were thrown against our safety belts when it fully inflated. I had marks on my shoulders for several days after the landing. We slowed down from 19000 kph to around 7000 kph when we ejected the chute and continued as a glider to our landing site. The idea was to conserve as much fuel as possible as it was needed for the ascent. I deployed the two large wings tucked in the fuselage and glided towards our landing site. This part wasn’t so automatic. I had to manually fly the Argo towards our destination. Flying a glider on Mars.
When we’ll be reaching the landing site the wings will be retracted back into the fuselage, pitch the nose up and land like SpaceX landed its Falcon 9 rockets.
We glided for another 5 minutes. On Earth we never experienced such a smooth flight. There was no turbulence, it was just buttery smooth. We passed over Hydraotes Chaos, Margaritifer Terra, Iani Chaos, Endeavour Crater. We saw them live from orbit or in photos also from orbit, but flying right above these landmarks was quite a unique feeling.
Frank took photos.
“Two minutes to go. Last stop Meridiani Planum! Mind the gap!” I said.
Frank stowed his camera so we can get ready for the final descent.
As we got closer, I gently retracted the wings and pointed Argo’s nose towards the sky for the landing. As I was pitching, the rocket engine started spooling up to maintain altitude and attitude.
“Master caution with no error code!?” reported Frank puzzled.
“I see. Disregard! We land! Landing gear down now! It will be hard and fast!”
“Landing gear down, and we have three green!”
One by one every light on the warning panel lighted up. Every alarm was sounding, but Argo was still flying normally. It must be a sensor glitch or something. Frank was hovering his finger over the abort switch while reading the instruments to me.
“Only on my command, Frank!” I told him, and he understood I was speaking about the abort.
“Yes, sir! Altitude 50 meters, 3 meters per second down, 5 meters per second forward”
“OK, read them as they change” I ordered.
Shit just got real and it hit the fan!
“45 meters, 3 meters down, 6 forward” he continued.
In this cacophony of sounds, Frank was reading me the numbers. Every alarm was sounding, every light was flashing, it was a celebration of light inside Argo.
I thought again of my Jo.
“10 meters, 0 meters down, 2 forward!”
Argo sounded of death.
“Small crater to the right!”
“I see it”
“3 meters, half a meter down, 0 forward!”
“Not today, Grim Reaper! I promised her I’ll be back!” I said.
All the alarms stopped.
It was quiet.
I closed my eyes for a moment and exhaled relieved in my helmet and I listened to the silence in my headset.
It was the same strange feeling like back when I was a kid and my father took me to the airfield. He put a chair for me right in front of the helicopter line up on the tarmac. I sat there quietly and watched them start one by one, listening to the engine roar and trying to take in as much as possible, sounds, images, everything, because I wanted to be prepared when, one day, I will be flying one of these helos. One by one they left the tarmac, and a strange silence enveloped the aerodrome. After all that commotion, after all that energy, I remained alone on my chair listening to the silence of the airfield.
It was the quietest moment of my life!
“Like a pro!” said Frank smiling “Outstanding, man, outstanding!” he continued cheering.
“Engine Arm Off and engine command override” I said as we continued to shut down and secure Argo’s systems for the stay here “Put the safety back onto the Abort switch, please!”
We’re here, we’ve made it! The whole world was waiting news from us. I can imagine some of the engineers back in Houston about to turn blue.
“Houston, the argonauts have found the Golden Fleece in Meridiani Planum!”
A few hours later, both of us were suited up and ready to step out.
I stood in silence in front of the hatch for a second, then I grabbed the latch and I rotated it counter-clock wise and finally I opened it.
There it was, red, brown, grey, dusty Mars!
I stepped outside wondering about all the wanderers and said:
“For all the wanderers in all epochs and meridians, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas”
TO BE CONTINUED