Chapter II: The Long Haul
by Rich Reifsnyder
He heard a dull, low-pitched beep and opened his eyes. In front of him was the Mission Control communications light, flashing red. He remembered that he had switched off the radio shortly after the upper stage began its burn, so he could take in the launch experience without the prattle of controllers’ voices. That was probably a risk on his part, as anything could have gone wrong with the booster.
He switched on the radio. "Blake, please report in. Your heart and breathing rates are becoming erratic." That was the voice of Dwight Palmer, Blake’s doctor and now his flight surgeon. He had selected his Mission Control Team himself, employees he trusted as friends who would look after his safety. After the Cape Canaveral launch operations concluded, they would be his only link to Earth.
Blake started to speak but felt a lump forming in his throat. He knew the effects of zero-gravity, the dizziness, the collection of fluids in the upper body. He was literally falling over the edge of the Earth. He forced the feeling down and commended himself for not eating anything for twelve hours: he was still wearing his spacesuit and couldn’t afford to vomit.
"Blake here. Thanks for the warning, Doc."
He could already feel the pounding in his chest subsiding. All he really needed was some contact with Earth. He knew that, six months from now, radio communication would be at least twenty minutes for the round trip and all human interaction would be by voice mail. It would take some getting used to.
Jason Blake had never had formal astronaut training. Acting under the guise of a tourist of sorts, he had paid NASA top dollar for test flights on the KC-135, their zero-gee simulation airplane, and for time in the EVA training tank.
Unfortunately, he was sure that most of the time he had failed the tests. He "dropped" most of the wrenches and screwdrivers in the EVA tests, which technically meant they were irretrievably lost, he was excessively disoriented, and vomitted frequently during weightlessness.
NASA would never had considered Blake as even a guinea pig in a zero-gee experiment, much less a spacecraft pilot. But Blake wasn’t about to tell them that he was going to Mars whether they liked it or not.
In fact, he had taken great pains to not let anyone know that his capsule was manned. His engineering team sealed him up inside before decontamination procedures, and he had lived in the capsule for weeks before launching. But at least he had the comfort of E-mail and voice mail and human beings wandering around outside the hull.
His Mission Control team were the only ones participating in the launch who even knew that the featureless bell-shaped pod did not contain a probe.
Standard operations had begun. Blake activated the atmospheric pumps which would siphon nitrogen out of the air and create a low-pressure atmosphere of mostly oxygen which would make EVA operations much easier. Then he flipped the switch which would unfold the solar panels in the underside of the ship and provide power.
He heard an odd clunking noise.
"Blake, we have a problem," said Cynthia Morgan, his spacecraft operations engineer. "One of your solar panels has failed to deploy." Blake was astonished. He was barely two hours into his mission and already something had malfunctioned.
He had understood that things could easily go wrong on the mission. Three American probes and six Soviet probes to Mars had been lost due to trivial mechanical failures. But that happened because they were unmanned, and incapable of self-repair. A skilled mechanic on board a Mars ship could grab a tool kit and, in mere minutes, fix anything from a loose bolt to a fuel line rupture like the one that destroyed Mars Observer.
Blake had used that theory as an excuse to cut costs on hardware and simplify his designs. And it made sense that the solar panels would be the first to malfunction: they had moving parts, and caused the demise of more satellites than he could remember.
Unfortunately, to fix the problem meant he would have to go EVA.
He gazed out the window. Earth was so small by now that he could almost see the entire sphere at once if he leaned way out.
If he slipped and fell away from his ship, he would probably live out his last few hours in his suit looking out at the stars an infinite distance away in all directions.
So much for a nice, relaxing, safe voyage.