by Rich Reifsnyder
His name was Jason Blake, and he had amassed his wealth in the usual manner, with hugely successful websites. But in addition to his primary career, he had an odd sort of hobby: he loved space travel. He showed up at every shuttle launch, logged on to every space-related website, had a huge file of Ad Astra magazines, and as a child had always dreamed of being an astronaut.
He had reached his mid-forties and was unmarried. His business methods had made him very unpopular in America. He soon came to realize that he needed to accomplish something grand and important, something that would leave his footprint on the beaches of time.
Every human being sets that kind of goal at some point in his or her life. Not everyone, though, has billions of dollars at his disposal.
Almost his entire lifeís earnings went into that one mission. He wanted it carried out in secrecy until shortly before touchdown, at which point the whole world would have its attention focused on him.
The Titan IV accelerated into orbit. The upper stage detached, fired its engine, and pushed an unusually heavy satellite out of orbit and shooting away from the Earth and the Sun. Its destination: the planet Mars.
This particular satellite bore very little resemblance to the usual probes bound for Mars. True, it had a heat shield, solar panels, and an antenna, but it didnít carry many of the usual scientific instruments. It was very large and hollow. Inside were several tanks of water, oxygen, hydrogen, an inflatable plastic tent, packets of seeds and hydroponic racks, freeze-dried food canisters, an arcjet furnace, and a bicycle. There were also an exercise machine, a laptop computer, and an acceleration couch.
Lying in that couch was Jason Blake.
Blake knew from the moment this crazy mission had formed in his head that he wouldnít be coming back to Earth. No manned mission to Mars had ever been designed that small and could still return the crew members to Earth.
So he was in for the long haul. He would live in the tiny space capsule, which was shaped like a bell and had the interior space of a Winnebago. He could barely stretch his legs in that tiny cabin, because half of it was filled with cargo. His acceleration seat was also his bed, and the seat flipped up to reveal a toilet which worked both in zero-g and gravity. He had a "shower bag" which he could pull out of the closet and wrap around himself to take a shower, but he had only budgeted enough water to scrub himself twice a week. Heíd probably smell pretty nasty after eight months, but whoíd be around to notice?
In his wardrobe he had three coveralls, made of stain-resistant cloth, and one spacesuit. There was a small washing machine, but it used a minimum of water, so the clothes would look kind of grungy after a while.
A microwave oven and a bungee-cord treadmill completed his inventory of household appliances. The rest of the space had racks upon racks of food supplies, seeds, and a library of CD-ROMís.
When he got to Mars, he would plunge into the atmosphere, his heat shield smoking, and land on (hopefully) a deserted terrain of rubble and rocks, like the landing sites of Viking and Pathfinder. He would depressurize the whole craft -- he had no room for an airlock -- and drive his rover, the size and shape of a go-cart, out onto the surface. Then he would unpack the greenhouse and open it up to create a little bit of farmland. He would detach the solar panels and unfold them to provide power. His chemical factory would start up and turn a small supply of liquid hydrogen into extra water, at least until he could find more in the Martian soil.
At least, thatís what he thought before the launch.
At T-zero, the Titanís solid boosters ignited. At T plus fifteen minutes, the upper stage had already used up its fuel, and his eight-month-long period of coasting began. He looked out the window and saw the massive orb of the Earth beneath, separated from a perfect inky black sky by a thin blue haze. Even as he stared, the horizon seemed to drop lower and lower. Could that be an illusion? Surely he wasnít traveling fast enough...
He looked around him at the cramped interior of the capsule. In zero gravity, the walls seemed to sway, then to close in. It was deathly silent.
Just fifteen minutes into a flight that would last the rest of his life, Blake began to panic.