Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Mars Revisited - A short writing sketch


The planet before him was red and gray.  

He checked his dashboard and saw his ship was already entering the martian atmosphere.  The retro rockets had fired so thinly that he hadn’t even felt them.  It was a crucial moment in the mission, yet his one overriding thought was an itch in his leg he couldn’t get to. He rubbed his hand against the space suite in a vain attempt to get some relief through the 32 layers of material.

The martian landing module was designed for up to three crewmembers, but the other two seats were empty on the landing attempt.  This was an insurance against mishap.  If his ship crashed, as the first landing module had, he would die alone and the crew in the main ship would leave orbit and return to Earth with whatever data they had gathered from his failure.

After the disaster of the first landing attempt on Mars, engineers had added a series of enhanced black boxes. In theory they would survive and beam back the data of the last moments back to the orbiter craft.

The ship’s digital display clearly ticked off the time as the retros fired for the second time, but instead his eyes closely measured the seconds on his own mechanical Rolex Pepsi GMT strapped just above his glove line.  The vintage watch immaculately maintained by him, and his good luck piece.  His father had flow missions off the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan with it. He closed his helmet visor and resisted the silly temptation to take the yoke away from the computer.  Instead he concentrated on the navigation readout waiting for it to begin giving him information on his glide path.  Absentmindedly, he once again fruitlessly tried to rub out the itch in his leg through the 32 layers.

The cockpit lights dimmed to red, and a bleep told him communications black out had begun as the ionization increased. His main flight screen readout began showing his glide path.  His vehicle, represented by a black aircraft silhouette in the display, was showing dead center.  For the first time that morning he allowed himself to feel optimism.  The turbulence was bad, but because the Martian atmosphere was thinner than Earth’s, it was nowhere near as bad as re-entry to Earth.  He took his eyes off the flight path monitor as he saw some flames flickering past his windshield.  With his next glance he saw the heat shield read outs and noted no alarms.  The angle was good, and the aircraft was handling the heat.

Having entered the martian atmosphere, the cockpit lights returned to normal white light and the readouts showed data was once again being streamed to the orbiter.  The computer seamlessly began a series of rolls to bleed off speed and better pinpoint the landing area.  Looking at Mars coming up before him, he felt a sense of annoyance that a computer should be in control at this historic moment.

He was remembering frustrated Apollo Astronaut Eugene Cernan, and how NASA had been careful to under-fuel his lunar module in Apollo 10 to make sure he wouldn't try to land on the moon; when the master alarm sounded. 

As he turned off the alarm, he noted he was no longer in a preprogrammed glide path, but dropping sharply.  He felt the craft changing angle and in danger of going into a spin. Intuitively, he took the yoke and steadied.  Noting his altitude, he also manually turned on his atmosphere engines.  On his headset, he could hear the orbiter calling out to him, but he tuned them out.  The itch in his leg was forgotten along with his previous annoyance.  He was no longer a monkey in a capsule, but a pilot.  Had a passenger been sitting next to him, the passenger would have been surprised to see him smiling.

A quick look over of his navigation told him the assigned landing was still possible, but he had to watch his fuel.  Nonetheless he played with the craft to check his control and to get a feel for the Martian atmosphere.  Satisfied, he set about to perform a manual landing.  He was going to be the first successful manned landing on Mars after all.

He tersely reported to the orbiter that he had control of the craft and asked them to standby.  As he descended he saw more features of the Mars surface, he pondered how many science fiction writers had beaten him here.  Probably no Martian princess awaited him, but there was plenty of martian desert.  For a moment he allowed himself the brief fantasy that maybe Percival Lowell or Ray Bradbury had been right, and he would find relics of long dead civilizations underneath the sand. Stuff that had been missed by the unmanned probes.

A beep sounded. His ground radar identified the landing site and he began his alignment. The ground radar also showed a large metal presence that shouldn’t be there.  His brain was trying to dissect this fact when his front windshield was lit up by a brilliant green light. His vision grew fuzzy and he felt tremendous heat. His last thought before he lost consciousness was on whether the newly designed black boxes would survive his crash.  

Next: Chapter One- Mars really is Barsoom!

Mars Sunset


Post Note:  The short writing sketch above is just a quick end-of-year foray by me into Science Fiction.  In 2012 I re-read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars (it was free from Amazon on my Kindle) and that got me thinking about all the pulp science fiction I read as a boy, in particular Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  In my mind I still prefer to think of Mars in Percival Lowell’s terms- Martian canals dug by a dying civilization, ancient ruins, and all the entertaining story telling that comes with that. In the above, our hero does not die in a crash, but wakes up below the surface of Mars as a prisoner of modern day Martians. Naturally their world is dying, and naturally they want to conquer the Earth.

PS 2-  I don't care what the International Astronomical Union says. I still say Pluto is a planet.

Postscript 3-  March 2014
I heard about a new Mars novel that’s supposed to be pretty good:  The Martian by author Andy Weir.  It’s a survival story about an astronaut stranded on Mars.  A sort of futuristic Robinson Crusoe meets Mission Impossible in which the astronaut has to figure out how to survive with only the equipment on hand.  It’ll be the next book on my Kindle. 

On Amazon: $9.99 Kindle; $15 hardcover.


Anonymous said...

Happy new year. Glad you're back up and posting.

John Pacheco said...

@Anon- Thank you. 2012, besides being an all around bad year (ending with the uber-bad event of Obama's re-election), didn't allow much time for blogging.

Sterling Holobyte said...

Actually, Pluto is a dog. ;)

Just kidding. I say it is a planet also.