Martian Rhapsody: Chapter 1 – Landing (REVISED)

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[Note 7/6/14: See Chapter 2 – Rocks. -Editor]

Harry Keller

Harry Keller

To the reader: I’ve decided to redo chapter one to incorporate story ideas that wouldn’t have been possible with the original chapter. Please bear with me, and I apologize for the false start. I hope you’ll enjoy this adventure as much as I’m enjoying sharing it with you. Best, Harry.

mars-As the Google Mars shuttle continues its weeks-long deceleration toward its unbelievable destination, the crew of four busily checks the instruments on the attached Citigroup crew module where they have lived and worked for four months. They are so involved in monitoring not only their own module but also the Royal Dutch Shell supply module that they momentarily forget that they’re about to become the first humans ever to set foot on another planet. The shuttle holds the two attached modules like a parent carrying twins in both arms. It may look awkward to those used to air-based flight but creates no impediment to travel in the vacuum of space.

“Final pre-separation check,” snaps Aleka as the about-to-be Martians go through procedures necessary to ensure a clean separation from the shuttle. She glances out of the small thick window and sees the edge of the red planet against the black of space with its countless bright point lights of stars strewn haphazardly across its seemingly infinite reaches as though a child had thrown diamonds and diamond dust on a vast expanse of black velvet.

A few weeks earlier, the entire crew of four was excited to see the small red dot of Mars expand and grow into a shiny red penny in the black, deep expanse of space  – nearly 14 billion light-years deep, far beyond human imagination. Now, it fills most of one side of their view. Earth has receded to a pale blue dot, left forever to the billions living there. A new world awaits. Humans will triumph over Mars someday. Aleka has promised herself that this will be that day.

“Check,” says co-pilot Chun. Her engineer’s mind racing with the excitement and the checks she’s performing to ensure a safe entry and landing.

Four years of training guarantee that the anxious crew all know their roles in this landing precisely. The captain, Aleka (Allie), is the only flight-trained pilot on the mission, but all of them have spent countless hours in the landing simulator and can take over if necessary. Redundancy has been the watchword of the Mars mission from the very beginning. For the landing at Amazon base, however, there could be only one crew module. Everything depends on its successful entry into the absurdly thin Mars air, about 1% of the density of that on Earth, followed by the powered descent to the surface. 

“Check,” echoes Balusubramanian (Balu) as he verifies his instruments further back in the cabin. Even his level-headed scientist’s mind feel an internal exuberance at this moment they’ve been working toward during their four years of trials and training, plus an edge of caution as they reach the most serious life-threatening part of their mission.

As the two landing modules decouple from the shuttle, pulses are racing above Mars and on Earth, literally across the entire globe as the world watches entry into the Martian atmosphere. The crew uses control vents to increase the separation of the modules from each other, and Aleka fires engines to slow down below orbit velocity. The crew feels weight for the first time since they left Earth orbit. “We’re on our way down!” shouts Dawit excitedly, unable to restrain his emotions despite all of the training. Dawit does not have the military training of Aleka or the science training of Balu or even the engineering training of Chun, but he has “great hands” and can fix just about anything mechanical or electrical. He just modestly insists that he’s a “jack of all trades and master of none.” Sometimes called “Mr. Fixit” jocularly by his crew mates, he’s usually just Dave.

“There goes our shuttle,” announces Aleka as the Google Mars shuttle leaves the two modules behind and continues on its pre-programmed trajectory back to Earth orbit for refueling, refurbishing, and acquisition of another cargo in preparation for the next encounter with Mars in two years.

“What a ride!” says Chun, feeling some pride in the engineering triumph that the shuttle represents. She was only a sometime consultant on the shuttle project, but feels a shared success as an engineer with those engineers, many of whom she met, who did most of the design work.

The design and construction of this shuttle has been an engineering triumph, shortening the long journey to Mars by half with its advanced ion-propulsion drive. It is using the Mars gravity well as a slingshot to aim it on the trajectory that takes it back to Earth orbit for refueling and refurbishing in preparation for the next flight to Mars. The shuttle’s ion-propulsion engine accelerates slowly, a process that will continue for weeks as it sparingly uses its reaction mass to reach high speeds. After coasting for a very long time, it will flip around and begin to decelerate after passing the half-way point. There’s no rush, and coasting saves on the total system mass during the trip to Mars. The energy comes from its nuclear reactor, which has more than enough for the purpose. Only the liquid hydrogen supply limits its ability to continue its acceleration indefinitely.

“Update,” asks Aleka.

“Nominal,” responds Chun.

“Systems nominal,” says Balu, next in order.

“All good,” says the iconoclastic Dawit who is in charge of telemetry and sending the video feed back to Earth. His role is less critical to survival right now.

Aleka continues to make adjustments that ensure the closest possible landing to the unconnected habitat modules sitting on the surface like an incomplete ring of five people waiting to join hands. Once the crew lands, time becomes important. The crew module and Mars suits can sustain them for a few sols (Martian days), but they absolutely must connect to the other modules with all of their machinery and supplies as early as they can, and it’s a slow process in the awkward suits and with the slow-moving rovers. The high whine of the supersonic thin air streaming by fills the cabin.

“Rockets off,” announces Aleka as she checks to see that their heat shield on the bottom of the crew module faces forward to meet the thickening Mars atmosphere. Despite its near-vacuum thinness, it will heat the shield to bright orange as it speeds through the air at nearly six kilometers per second, well beyond the speed of sound for this pressure.

Aleka watches her monitors carefully; the computers are taking care of everything now, but she’s ready in the event of a problem. She listens as each of the other three crew members reports and adds her own “Systems nominal” to the familiar chatter. In space, they can hear each other clearly, but on descent the noise level elevates and requires use of the cabin intercom. This is it, thinks Aleka, ready for this, the most dangerous moment of their mission – so far.

The air slows the landers until they finally begin to drop more directly toward the surface. Careful steering during the heat-shield portion of the descent should put the landers near their landing sites. Chun (aka Chunnie) eyes her electronic gauges carefully. They show thrust, elevation, speed, and fuel levels, the purvey of the flight engineer. Chun, you’re not in San Francisco anymore, she muses to herself, comparing herself to Dorothy. But where’s Toto, she thinks, and who’s the wizard or the wicked witch? Funny how your mind can be on two tracks at the same time. The answers to her questions lie ahead.

Balu (Bob to his crew mates) checks that the elevation radar and computer surface recognition software are functional and ready for the descent. “A-OK,” he sings out, mimicking the astronauts of a half century ago. He imagines the crops he’ll be growing. The first plant life on Mars – ever!  The seeds are wrapped up in airtight pouches and lead foil against radiation damage. Balu thinks of stories of how the Earth gained life, all just fables and myths, and how he’ll be bringing life to Mars, a modern Prometheus of plants instead of fire. “Just wait until the first home-grown meal,” he says to himself as he savors the first bites and listens to his crew mates’ praise in his imagination.

Extensive mapping of the Mars surface has made it possible to pinpoint landing sites with feature-recognition software operating with high-resolution cameras. Automated guidance systems will take the crew module to within 500 meters of the surface when Aleka will take over for the final landing. The human touch still provides a safer landing than machines can perform. The very difficult task of guiding the craft to the right spot requires so many on-the-fly calculations to ensure minimal use of precious fuel that computers do all of that flying unless there’s an unexpected emergency.

The large artificial fiber parachute helps to slow the descent even in the thin Martian air. “Chute out,” notes Balu. Eventually, this parachute will be recovered and used by the settlers. On Mars, the motto is “Waste not, want not.” The heat shield also drops to the surface. The landers are now falling toward the surface at a speed of about 100 meters per second, roughly the terminal velocity for Mars.

Chun is watching the fuel pressure gauges and will monitor the engines as they begin the initial braking burn right through to the final moment of landing when the engines will forever become silent. “Ready for final burn,” she intones in a clear monotone of her unaccented English, a result of growing up near San Francisco. Her Emerald City is red, not green. She knows that scientists and engineers back on Earth are working on plans to make Mars more livable. She’s praying for a wizard now, not one to go to Kansas, but one to make Mars green and her Emerald City a reality.

The engines will ignite a vaporized mixture liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen with a spark to produce the fiery thrust to slow the module down and then to drop it gently on the Mars surface. Large quantities of water will be dumped into the Martian atmosphere just as has happened three times previously and will happen again in two years when the second group of intrepid pioneers leave Earth for their final home on a very alien planet. Remaining fuel will find use as reserve oxygen and, under more controlled conditions, as the raw materials for making water.

The chemical rockets slow the landers as they approach the surface where the gravity is 38% of that of Earth. While the low gravity means that less fuel is required for descent, it still is strong enough to kill everyone if the landing module crashes. Every element must function perfectly for a safe landing. Chun is as nervous as the rest of the crew. What if something goes wrong? Her eyes fly over the readouts seeking any tiny problem. Dawit can hardly contain himself as he watches the video feed being sent to Earth. The others are busy with their systems, but he just has to glance at the telemetry meters and make sure that he is sending the correct video feed back home. Home? he thinks. It was. Now, I have a new home!

Five modules have already arrived on Mars during three previous trips of the Google Mars shuttle. The Toyota greenhouse module will be crucial to long-term survival. The five modules contain supplies, machinery, and living space. The first two rovers, Sinopec and Gazprom, all-purpose vehicles set in place of one module, already have slowly moved the modules close enough together so that the settlers can link them into a total habitat manually. Once the last two modules have landed safely, the crew will begin final assembly.

The module design includes means to move them on the rock-strewn Martian surface. Ultra-lightweight caterpillar treads made of composite plastic/nanofiber that extend after landing allow for slow module mobility. They have low-friction bearings to allow the low-powered rovers to move them over reasonably level surfaces. Once the modules are placed permanently, these treads will be scavenged for use internally.

With over a billion people watching, this is the most watched event ever on television, far more than the most recent World Cup. Millions may be watching on their mobile telephone screens or the new voice-tablets, called VTs in an odd reversal of the abbreviation for television from nearly a century ago, which have supplanted earlier tablets and, now, laptops. The most earnest watcher of all must be José Alvarado, the Peruvian business magnate and primary mover of this gigantic project. You might say that his family’s honor is at stake. He is watching with his son, Ricardo, from the Atacama Mars training facilty that he built.

This will be the first time that a human has set foot on another planet, the first anthropod on Mars ever, and Dawit has the job of making sure that everyone has a great view, a ringside seat, to this event. Dave, as the world knows him, must act as a sort of television show director and decide on a moment-to-moment basis which of the live video feeds to send to Earth.

The people on Earth view the images six minutes after they happen, but no one cares about that delay, caused by the finite speed of light. The signals from Mars will travel at 300 million meters per second back to Earth – but no faster or slower. That speed is unaffected by the relative velocities of Earth and Mars, a result of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

The upcoming moment of hoped-for triumph has been a decade in planning. Ensuring adequate funding has been arguably the most difficult part of this project. From the beginning of selecting those who would go to Mars, the entire project has been televised 24/7 on a pay channel with commercials to generate the billions of dollars necessary. Naming rights have been sold to large corporations. Thus, the Mars shuttle that has been and will continue to be seen leaving Earth orbit every two years was named the Google Mars shuttle. The producers of all of the television being transmitted around the world and translated into a dozen languages guaranteed that the Mars shuttle would not be mentioned on television without being called the “Google Mars shuttle.” Every visible man-made portion of the program has a corporate sponsor name. In this manner, a billion dollars was raised early in the program and a guarantee of hundreds of millions of dollars more every year that the program continued successfully.

Major events were not only shown on the Mars channel but also sold to networks and cable channels. All told, over ten billion dollars had been raised before this landing. Another two billion will funnel into the mission coffers over the next two years as the second manned mission prepares to again boldly go where people had never gone before – if this mission lands successfully and survives.

Aleka guides the lander for its final moment while thinking back to her many hours in the simulator so many months ago. For the first time, it’s real! The possibility of failure does not even enter her well-trained mind. She’s used to succeeding in all that she essays. So it was that she forced her reluctant crew mates repeatedly to run through the landing simulation during their long trip through space.

She remembers their distinct reactions as she had cajoled them into yet another drill. She had reminded them, “One slip, and we’re toast.”

Dawit, illustrating with hand movements, had said, “I can fix anything that might break – except us.”

Chun had tossed back, “We can handle anything. We’re people, not machines!”

And so, with Earth listening in, they once again run through the landing drill. Perhaps due to all of that practice, the landing goes smoothly.

A little earlier, on the unmanned supply module, making its way down to land nearby, a cosmic ray hits the housing of a microchip. Such hits happen rather often in space, but this time is different. Cosmic rays are mostly protons of extremely high energy moving at near light speed and can pass through matter, which looks relativistically very thin from their “viewpoint” due to Lorentz contraction, without much interaction. Occasionally, one hits the nucleus of an atom in the material it’s traversing. Matter, even solid lead, is mostly empty space with electron clouds filling it very tenuously. Incredibly tiny atomic nuclei are scattered around, in a regular pattern in crystals, like motes of dust in the air – only smaller and fewer. When a cosmic ray proton hits one of these nuclei, much of its tremendous energy is converted into mass according to Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2, a miniature version of an atomic bomb. A shower of very energetic, newly created particles rains down on whatever is below, shotgun style.

One of these shower particles hits a microscopic transistor in the microchip and flips a bit. Another hits a different transistor, the redundant partner to the first and has the same effect, a million-to-one chance event. Bits are the language of computers and can either be a 0 or a 1. Changing a single bit can make either an insignificant difference or a major change in what the computer does. It’s like changing the last digit or the first one in your bank account balance. In the supply lander’s computer, the change alters an instruction causing the supply lander to mistake the terrain nearby the landing site for the actual landing site. It lands perfectly safely but over five kilometers away instead of the 100 meters planned.

That supply module is crucial to longer survival on the planet. It contains supplies, especially food to tide the settlers over until their farm begins producing, that must be available. In one month, the situation will become dire. That module must be retrieved within four weeks. Even before retrieval, the settlers much connect the remaining modules, deploy the solar collectors, and get all air, water, and recycling facilities started. The time allowed for this purpose cannot be delayed.

Five kilometers would not be a large problem on Earth. It’s only about a half-hour’s leisurely walk. Things are different on Mars. The Curiosity Mars rover could travel at 90 m/hr using its RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) power. Improvements since then haven’t changed the speed much. Just imagine taking an hour to walk the length of a sports field or pitch, a distance that sprinters can run in ten seconds. At a speed of around 100 m/hr (0.10 km/hr), it takes one of the two new rovers 50 hours to reach a site five kilometers distant. The Mars day is only 40 minutes longer than an Earth day meaning that the trip will require over two sols each way, but the return trip requires pushing the supply module and will take much longer.

The radiation shielding efforts were planned to take months and can wait even though one living unit should be shielded as soon as possible. The food growing operations can wait a day or so, although the group would love to have any fresh food as early as possible. The food stores, plant growing, and battery facilities of the missing module must be retrieved right away.

Completing the landing takes all of their attention. The final braking runs smoothly, and they’re on Mars, the first humans ever to be there. At this moment, Dawit, his long training showing, says, “Oh no! Darn! Phooey!” They’ve been trained to keepall  chatter “family friendly.” A feeling of dread passes over him as he reads the distance to the other module. The first glitch of their mission is now a reality.

Everyone starts talking at once until Aleka shouts them down. She asks in measured tones, “Dave, what’s wrong?”

“The other module is five clicks away,” he responds.

Chun cuts in, a worried expression on her face, “Is it OK?”

“Yes, all systems check out fine, but it’s awfully far.” Suppressing another word, he waves his arms meaningfully. “Too far for an easy rover retrieval. I can walk there, even in my Mars suit, in less than an hour. Hell, if I could strip down and run, I’d be there in fifteen minutes.” Dawit is rather proud of his athletic ability. Some of the world’s greatest runners hail from his native Ethiopia.

Aleka does her best to remain calm. “The information is already on the way to Earth. Let’s proceed normally. We’ll work on this problem once our living quarters are set.”

Balu interjects, “We’ll be fine for quite a few sols. We should have the module back within a week or so if we can figure out a way to get it here. It can only go about 100 meters in an hour because it’s powered by an RTG.” He referred to the rover’s radioisotope thermoelectric generator, which generated only about 150 watts of power along with a bit of heat. Each module had one installed as well, mostly for heat but also for backup power. “The RTG has a long history. The thermoelectric part uses thermopiles, a ‘pile’ of thermocouples. The thermocouple operates by the Seebeck effect discovered in 1821 —”

“That’s enough, professor,” says Aleka, controlling her voice. They are all familiar with Balu’s lectures on any aspect of science. He may have an encyclopedic memory, but he doesn’t know when to turn it off.

Dawit scoffs, again waving arms, “Yeah, I could run 100 meters in 12 seconds on Earth in my school days.” No one is amused.

Now, it’s Chun’s turn. The engineer speaks carefully, “Rovers weren’t designed for kilometer moving missions. Five clicks will take a rover 50 hours if there are no obstacles. Pushing a module back will more than double that time. A week is possible but optimistic in my opinion.”

“Let’s see what Earth says. Time is passing,” says Chun. “If Earth hasn’t an answer, we can think of something. That’s why we’re here instead of mere machines.” Chun believes strongly in the eternal superiority of people over machines.

Aleka takes charge. “We cannot shepherd the rover for that long. Our suits won’t last 50 hours. They have a ten-hour EVA design.” An  EVA is an extra-vehicular activity – some acronyms persist even when the literal meaning no longer applies. She continues, “Even that fancy new insulation, whatever they call it, won’t do it.”

Balu cannot help himself. He interrupts, “It’s imide aerogel, the newest form of  ‘liquid smoke,’ light, flexible, and great insulating properties.”

Aleka responds, “Yeah, like I said – fancy new insulation. Remember our training. We’ll run out of heat or carbon dioxide removal.” They all know that the limitations of outdoor excursions in Mars involves the cold and removing potentially toxic carbon dioxide from their air.

“Wish we had the new rover design today,” Chun says helpfully. “It will have hookups for our Mars suits to handle power and air. We can sit on the new rover and explore the countryside for a sol or two like going on a picnic.”

Balu adds his two bits in typical scientist fashion. “Except that we’ll be gathering samples to analyze for NASA. They’re providing the financing and the new design.”

“That’s true, Bob,” says Aleka. “NASA is paying for those results, our first Mars export.”

It’s still morning on Mars, leaving plenty of time to complete post-landing procedures. Their module already has its treads down, and Gazprom is linking up to move the module into place. While being moved, the crew continues their checks and reports to Earth that all systems remain nominal. Finally, all four suit up and make final suit and module checks before depressurizing the module and stepping out. Dawit will stay behind to handle communications.

With cameras beaming the event back to Earth, Allie steps out of the module onto the Martian surface. This moment has been planned for so long, required so much work, involved so many people. What to say to those back on their home planet? She would not echo the words of Neil Armstrong and say, “One small step for a woman, one giant leap for mankind.” That just would not do.

Once both feet are firmly planted on Martial soil, she speaks to the entire planet of Earth, her sentences long compared to her usual laconic announcements. “Greetings to the people of Earth on behalf of the first Martians. While we can only fervently wish for peace on Earth, we can and do declare peace with Earth now and forever.” Balu has joined her by now. Chun soon follows. Dawit shows himself at the module hatch, and a picture of momentary triumph flashes across the vacuum of space, carried by photons, for all of the news organizations on Earth. Finally, well into the 21st century, we are on two planets.

The team now splits up for work. There’s no time to lose.

Aleka directs the crew to begin assembling the modules while using their comlinks to discuss ways to retrieve that missing module. A rover might or might not be capable of finding the wayward module on its own. It wasn’t designed to traverse uneven terrain for such long distances without help. The slower return trip lies even farther from its design parameters.

– end of chapter 1 –

2 Responses

  1. I’ve been doing some deep diving into issues and have had to make some plot changes. New chapters will introduce new characters and develop the first four quite a bit. The book is about half done now.

  2. The entire book is now published. Extensive revisions, including new chapters, including before this one, make the book much more interesting.

    You’ll find it on Amazon at 99 cents for the e-book. The paperback is coming very soon.

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