The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 122: Sol 214

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Vogel floated in the small exercise cabin, looking out the little window at the tiny splotch of white and blue in the distance. The half-full Earth looked smaller than a half-moon would on Earth, a tiny blue dot (as Carl Sagan put it) in the vast, hostile reaches of space.

Normally Hermes would be shutting down its main engines about now for a leisurely three-day cruise into Earth’s gravity well, passing by the Moon to shed momentum then slinging around through its upper atmosphere for the first of three aerobraking passes that would, over the course of a week, reduce its speed enough to drop it into an intercept orbit with the space station.

Now the Moon was well off to one side and out of the way, and come this time tomorrow Earth would not be ahead but beside them, as Hermes slung around its dark side for its gravity and trajectory assist maneuver. And two days from now the half-Earth would be even smaller in Hermes’ aft-facing windows than it was in the forward-facing ones.

Two days before the crew had scoured the ship, securing absolutely everything loose- exercise equipment, kitchen utensils, lab equipment, experiments, all of it. Hermes normally rotated on its long axis to produce artificial Martian-level gravity, but the ship couldn’t both rotate and maneuver on its thrusters. The big ship now had to thread a needle through thousands of satellites and possibly millions of tiny bits of space debris tomorrow and then dock with two resupply ships the next day. That meant the gravity had to go away, and after firing certain thrusters, it did.

But, as they’d learned before, no matter how careful you were, you never did get everything secure, so Lewis had sent the others around the ship to double-check for anything floating free. Beck was checking the vehicle docking bay, docking ports, and spacesuit storage. Martinez was checking the reactor room and labs. Johannsen was checking the living quarters, which left Vogel the recreation area, exercise area, and galley.

He’d done his looking, and he’d found nothing out of place. But with that task done, he had a few minutes to look at Earth, at his home, and to think about many things.

First, that he had agreed, along with the others, to pass by, postponing their homecoming for over a year and a half. Another year and a half without his wife and the monkeys- how much of their lives would he have missed, between training and the mission? Another year and a half with a comparatively fragile metal box his only protection against almost instant death. Another year and a half of muscular and skeletal atrophy. Another year of the only green being in photographs and Watney’s botanical experiments, the only animal sounds being the soft squeaking of the newborn third generation of ship’s lab rats.

But on the other hand, consider the superlatives. The Hermes crew would fly closer to the Sun than any astronauts had ever dared before, testing Hermes’s magnetic field, anti-radiation insulation, and cooling systems to their limits. At perigee during their Earth fly-by they would become the fastest humans in recorded history; they would then set an even higher speed record at perihelion. Their flight would be the longest single space duration ever, the first rescue of someone stranded on Mars, the first time individuals returned to Mars’s sphere of influence for a second visit.

First, fastest, most, best. Vogel wouldn’t be human if he didn’t like the thought.

But there was a dark side to the scenario. If the mission suffered a catastrophic failure, it would likely be a century, if ever, before anyone returned to Mars. Hermes would not, could not be built a second time. The conditions that had made it possible at all, much less in the short timeframe between the program’s beginning and Ares I’s landing, no longer existed.

And if any number of lesser mishaps occurred, Hermes might survive the trip (with or without its crew), but it would end up in the wrong place or at the wrong speed or with insufficient resources to rescue Watney and his aliens. Or, possibly, Watney would dock with Hermes functional but its crew dead, dead of solar heat, dead of micrometeorite impact, dead of failure of the reactor shielding or the magnetic field system…

The risk, when one thought about it for any length of time, sobered a man up and made him put away thoughts of first, fastest, and most.

It wasn’t likely, of course. Hermes had been designed to withstand coronal mass ejections, a threat which would have slain Apollo astronauts without warning had any occurred during that program. It had been built for a thirty-year lifespan, and it was just past its tenth year of operation now. The ship was strong and healthy, and it had a crew to match. The only danger was that the resupply missions might fail, and even then it would require that both missions failed to equal disaster. One failed resupply would merely be very bad, but not absolute doom.

Not likely… but still possible. Thus Alexander Vogel, chemist, astrogation expert, backup EVA technician, stared at the tiny fingernail clipping which was Earth and thought about the other choice.

But not for too long. The duty shift wasn’t over, and there were other preparations to make for the fly-by.

He bumped into Beck on his way down the ladder into Hermes’s central hull. “Pardon me,” he said. “Are the airlocks secure?”

“Huh?” Beck stared at him a moment, probably stunned by the bump. “Oh, yeah, the airlocks. They’re all good. I was just checking my bunk.”

“Was that not Johannsen’s task?” Vogel asked.

“Yeah, well, it’s our bunks, our personal items, you know?” Beck said. “We ought to all be responsible for our own stuff. And my bunk’s also our sickbay, so I’ve got more stuff than the rest of you to watch over.”

“This is true,” Vogel said. “I think I also shall check my bunk. Thank you for reminding me.”

“Sure thing,” Beck said, pushing off the walls in the direction of the bridge.

Vogel floated down through the ladderway to the living quarters. He had to pause and flatten himself against the side of the compartment to let Johannsen pass. She said nothing, but she seldom did, so Vogel thought nothing of it.

As expected, everything in Vogel’s cabin was in its proper place, properly secured, even the little photographs of his wife and children. Again he paused, looking, thinking.

But then his eyes flicked over another photo, taken at a children's party place and pizzeria in Pasadena. (That is, Pasadena the suburb of Houston, and not Pasadena the suburb of Los Angeles. Vogel had once made a snarky remark about how Americans were short of names for large cities, and Martinez had mentioned Frankfurt-am-Main and Frankfurt-an-der-Oder. Vogel had argued that the example was irrelevant, but he'd failed to persuade the others.)

He remembered the day the photo had been taken. The pizza was bad even by American standards. The games had been simple, juvenile, little challenge. Rolling a ball up a ramp and dropping it into the center hoop held few difficulties for a man who’d bowled candlepins as a child in an outdoor alley as God intended. And hitting plastic alligators with a padded hammer had much less entertainment value after one had encountered a real live alligator fresh from Mud Lake sunning itself just outside Building 34.

But he’d had fun. They’d all had fun. And the most childish of their group, the one who’d had the most fun, was also the one who’d made sure that everyone else had fun.

And there he was, in front of Martinez and next to Commander Lewis, making the goofiest face he could for the camera. That was the reason his wife and children would have to wait. They could wait, but Mark Watney couldn’t.

Watney had promised to take them all to a Chicago place for some “real pizza” after landing and quarantine.

Vogel, for one, planned to hold him to his promise.

And as he looked at the photos on his bunk wall, Hermes drew closer to Earth.

Author's Notes:

While cooling my heels at a Honda dealership getting necessary (and some unnecessary) maintenance done on my personal car, I wrote 2250 words of tomorrow's chapter.

It's not finished. I'll do that shortly.

Clear Lake is the more famous tidal inlet from Galveston Bay that runs near the Johnson Space Center. It has thousands of sailboats and yachts moored in it, even now, despite having had in the past fifteen years two major hurricanes plus Harvey strike the Texas coast nearby. Mud Lake, on the other hand, runs almost adjacent to the JSC campus. It's a shallower, much less scenic branch of Clear Lake- essentially the estuary of Armand Bayou (Middle Bayou before 1974), a minor creek that runs from central Pasadena southeast. The Armand Bayou Nature Center was created to preserve Mud Lake from development, which is why today you can drive up Space Center Boulevard north from NASA Road 1 to Bay Area Boulevard and see nothing but JSC grounds on the left and Texas swampland on the right.

And yes, Mud Lake has gators. Lots of gators. Alligators came close to extinction at one point, but once given protection as an endangered species they made a vigorous comeback, and once more they're all over southeast Texas... as witness this recent news article from a town sixty miles INLAND from JSC: https://www.chron.com/neighborhood/cleveland/news/article/Massive-alligator-stops-US-59-traffic-in-Cleveland-12874150.php?ipid=happening

A moment about coronal mass ejections: that's what happens when the Sun burps, basically. A tangle of the Sun's mighty magnetic field grabs a portion of the Sun's surface and flings it out into space at escape velocity. The one time in recorded history that we know such an eruption hit Earth was in the 19th Century, where it basically set all the telegraph lines on fire- this despite Earth's own magnetic field. A lot of disaster theorists speculate that if such happened now, it would cause the collapse of modern civilization. Our technology would be destroyed, and our infrastructure for practically everything along with it. Now imagine if one of those had passed by Earth while an Apollo mission was in flight. "Cooked Spam in a can" would be an accurate description. As much as "got away with it" is a mantra in Changeling Space Program, it can also be applied to early human space flight. Any future long-term space travel like the Ares program is going to plan for a CME event.

In the book, when the Hermes crew is preparing to deliberately breach the ship as a source of emergency thrust, Beck asks Martinez to secure the lab rats. While it is technically possible for lab rats to live as long as five years, that's not the way to bet- doubly so in space- and by that time Hermes had been in space for one and three-quarters years. Therefore I'm guessing that the rats were allowed, within reason, to be fruitful and multiply, insofar as they could in 0.4 g.

A certain NASA document estimates Hermes flying by Earth around Sol 360. I'm going by Andy Weir's dates as much as possible, and my math says differently. This one I'm NOT going back to tweak.

Next Chapter: Sol 215 Estimated time remaining: 17 Hours
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