Houston, We Have a Problem

Submitted into Contest #184 in response to: Start your story with someone saying “Houston, we have a problem.”... view prompt


Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

Humorously, Larry uttered, “Houston, we have a problem.”

        “Dammit, this isn’t funny. This isn’t one of your documentaries that you can fix with a software program,” Dr. Grant, an egotistical PhD, snapped and huffed away.

         Marcie chuckled, “Way to go, Larry, you’ve pissed off one of the docs.”

         “Screw him. Either he or I will be gone in thirteen days. I understand the gravity of the situation, but getting surly won’t help.”


Larry Baker and Marcie Robinson are members of the United States’ contingent on the Mars galactic research facility, Casa Rosa, comprised of international scientists from the US, Japan, Germany, and Russia.

The US’ team chief, Dr. Vincent Pollard, had just initiated the site’s Emergency Containment Protocol (ECP), the “dreaded Red Book” that contains emergency-type “stuff” that no one reads until a bad situation arises.

Dr. Pollard explained the critical situation, “The storm three nights ago severely damaged components of MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Ecosystem, that stores oxygen produced by solid electrolysis of carbon dioxide. Two of MOXIE’s production and storage tanks are affected and necessary repair parts aren’t on hand. In fact, the needed parts require extensive engineering prior to production on Earth. The production lead time exceeds the time to achieve the immediate launch window for the ITV (Interplanetary Transport Vehicle) from NASA. Our risk analysis concludes that a large percentage of the site’s population must be evacuated to conserve oxygen for the personnel and experiments remaining on Mars. I’ll have more information later today.”

Dr. Pollard’s last sentence prompted Larry’s attempt at humor, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Larry and Marcie left the conference room and navigated their way through the complex’s maze of levels, modules, wings, and pods.

“Who do you think will be evacuated and who’ll stay?” Marcie asked.

“Not sure. Dr. Pollard said he’d have more information later today, so I’m sure he’s in his office now talking to NASA. Regardless, it must be quick. He said we have a short launch window. The window opens in ten days, but closes in thirteen.”

 “It’s going to be a tight schedule, but he also said there’s limited capacity on the ITV,” Marcie interjected.

Larry nodded in agreement, “Every month when I transmit our status reports to NASA, I’m amazed my data reaches Earth in fifteen minutes, yet an ITV flight requires nine months.”

“Yeah and it’s even more amazing that there’s twenty-six months between launches due to the orbital path differences of Earth and Mars.”

Larry laughed, “That’s why all of my belongings on Earth are in storage at a Covan warehouse in Houston instead of me paying rent during my four-by-four tour here.”

Four-by-four is jargon to describe the time usually spent on Mars, four years and four months, the time for two launch windows. Very few of the inhabitants arrived during one launch cycle and departed on the next; most remain for two cycles.

Marcie stopped at a door, pressed the correct sequence of numbers on the keypad, and smiled as the light turned green and the electronic lock released. Within the confines of this Casa Rosa module, Marcie conducts botanical research concentrating on wheat, sugar, and corn in Mars’ reduced oxygen and water environment. Her research is an extension of life sciences conducted in the Destiny module of the International Space Station (ISS) during 2040--2046.

Larry has been in this module on numerous occasions. His video and film production expertise chronicles the progress of NASA’s research and disseminates it to multi-media outlets on Earth. 

Marcie is his favorite scientist to film. A native Texan, she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Botany from Texas A&M. Her doctorate thesis on hydroponics, partially funded by the Department of Agriculture and DoD’s Space Command, propelled her as a prime candidate for NASA. 

“Got time for a cup of coffee?” she asked, pointing to the coffee pot.

“Sure,” he responded and reached for a platinum cup setting on the counter.

Marcie pointed to a calendar on the wall with a note, “One Hundred Years of Space Exploration”, and stated, “Looks like our centennial celebration will have fewer attendees with part of us being evacuated.”

“True, but that means more food and drink for the ones left. I find it ironic that Sputnik, the size of a beach ball, marked the start of the space race between Russia and the US in 1957 and now, in 2057, we’re working cooperatively in a facility the size of a small town on Mars.”

“We’ve accomplished a lot in a century: moon landings, MIR, International Space Station (ISS), Mars Rover, and now Casa Rosa.”

Casa Rosa, opened in 2045, was designed using Kevlar, carbon-carbon composite materials, and epoxy and zinc coatings. The self-sustained modules of the facility resemble a rose’s petals that fold into a protective sphere when threatened by Mars’ brutal environment.

As Marcie sipped her coffee, Larry asked, “Twenty years ago when we joined NASA, did you ever think you’d have an address on Mars?”

           “I wanted to go to the moon, but Mars was not on my dream sheet,” Marcie smiled.

           “I can see you scientists getting to the moon and beyond, but … damn, I’m a cinematographer.”

           “No, you’re the creative force that documents our scientific advances. Your name’s on more documents being transmitted to Earth than any of us scientists.”

           “Yeah, by volume, but not in importance in progressing science.”

           “Not true…”

           Larry interrupted, “You make me feel good about my contributions, but you’re a minority. Arrogant Dr. Grant refers to me as ‘camera man’ and never utters my name. My college roommate used to tell me that cinematography was a dead-end job. I feel as inferior as Wolowitz on that old sitcom ‘Big Bang Theory’.”

           Marcie chuckled, “I watched that show, too. To a degree, we all identify with Wolowitz. Why let it bother you?”

           “You have a point. Heck, I can boast that I’m the only camera man on site while there’re many scientists.”

           Both laughed, finished their coffee, and Larry headed to his next appointment.


           The scientists establish their own routines and Larry establishes a flexible, monthly schedule identifying research to cover and transmits monthly update videos to NASA.

           The scientists bask in the cinematography of their projects, not only for prestige, but to ensure monetary donations continue to flow for their research. 

           There are many “Eureka” moments, but “Aw, crap” ones seem to prevail.

           Larry is a South Carolina native. Instead of attending a university in the tri-state area of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia, he headed to Texas. After receiving his Fine Arts bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, he obtained his master’s degree from Baylor University in Films and Television. His post graduate experience with National Geographic and internships with two television stations highlighted his resume and selection for a position with NASA’s planetary science division.

            Leaving Marcie’s area, Larry took the elevator to another level and filmed two experiments, one concerning asteroid interception and the other involving solar powered turbines. The filming went well, but the conversations focused on the imminent evacuation. 

           He took a break, relaxed in his quarters, and pondered. After reading Jeremiah 29:11 in his Bible, he took the elevator to the headquarters level and asked to talk to the Chief.


           Midafternoon, Chief Pollard announced that he and five others would remain on Casa Rosa. He said he and the five had all volunteered to stay. Larry and Marcie were two of the five. The other three nations would have five people each remaining on site. Included in that number was a medical doctor, a nutritionist, a thermal engineer, and a meteorologist. Chief Pollard expressed confidence that the non-evacuees were technically proficient to maintain Casa Rosa’s life safety standards.

           As the meeting dispersed, Marcie asked Larry, “Why did you volunteer to stay?”

           “I’m a cinematographer. What better script than to record Casa Rosa’s activities during its evacuation period? As long as our communications network is viable, I can transmit updates from here. Why did you?”

           “Similar reasoning. My research is to establish food sources. Now, by necessity, I’ll expand the research to ascertain if plants can generate more oxygen for life support.”

           “It looks like we’ll be spending a lot of time together.”

           “I agree,” Marcie replied and turned to leave.

           To himself, Larry thought, “I’ve admired you for years and never had the nerve to ask you out. You’re a trifecta woman—personable, smart, and beautiful. Spending time with you, even on a distant planet, is the epitome of my greatest fantasy.”


           Frenzied activities blurred the next ten days as scientists scrambled to document the stages of their research and pack their belongings. Encrypted documentation was transmitted to Houston and filed in high security rooms within the facility.

           Scientists that usually ignored Larry clamored for his attention to memorialize their research. Larry scurried from module to module to accommodate.

           Maintenance technicians provided preparation instructions for the various modules to be mothballed. Shutdown was imperative to conserve oxygen. Upon evacuation, the modules would be sealed and hazardous warning labels posted in four languages: “Do Not Enter” and “Oxygen Void Area”.


           The ITV launched two days before the launch window closed. 

           With the evacuees en route for the nine-month return to Earth, the stay behind staff adjusted to new routines. The orbital path differences of Earth and Mars dictated twenty-six months would pass before the return launch window would occur.

           Larry continued providing audio-visual updates to NASA, but initiated an innovative twist. He delved into the back stories of the individuals and augmented the technical documentation with personal details. He spent numerous hours “just talking” to people to learn more about them.

           He enjoyed learning about everyone, but he truly relished learning more details of Marcie. He kept a copy of his interview with her on his computer and viewed it often. 

           It went something like this:

           Marcie inquired, “Why do you want to know more about my background?”

           “So I can document the real person behind your scientific genius.”

           “Okay, but tell me more about you first,” she replied.

           “Alright. In middle school, while the cool kids read Thrasher, J-14, and Justice League comics, I was reading space exploration books and National Geographic. Having these books discovered in my backpack drew the ire of bullies who excelled in mental harassment and physical abuse.”

           “What space exploration books?”

           “My favorite was Earth’s Last Hope by Scott Taylor. Others I remember are Ken Lozito’s Genesis series, Starship Freedom, and Mars Mission 1.”

           “I read Mars Mission 1 and Earth’s Last Hope and loved National Geographic. They motivated me to study science and join the STEM club in high school. Girls may not get bullied physically like boys, but we were ostracized. If you were such a science geek, why did you major in cinematography?”

           Larry smiled, “Chemistry and calculus. I was intrigued by science, but couldn’t master chemistry and calculus was a never-ending nightmare. I’m good at geometry and algebra, but calculus, ugh! Anyway, I decided if I couldn’t be a scientist, I could record and document scientific achievements.”

           “Makes sense.”

           “I think I told you before, but my college roommate asked what type jobs were available for film and media. I told him the course catalog listed radio/TV announcer, a producer or director, a multi-media artist, or a broadcast news analyst. He referred to those as dead-end jobs.”

           Marcie laughed, “Yet you’re on a multinational, research facility located on Mars.”

           “Funny, huh? That roommate hasn’t moved more than two hundred miles from Austin, Texas since we graduated.”

           “He still think you’re in a dead-end job?”

           “Probably. I’ll ask him when we get back to Earth. Other than science, what other books did you read?”

           “I liked John Grisham and Nicholas Sparks. After I read Sparks’ A Walk to Remember, I was hooked on his books.”

           Larry confessed, “I like Sparks, too. Remember the part when the bad boy took the girl to the state line so she could be in two places at once?”

           “Yeah, that was a neat event.”

           “Well, that scene was instrumental in getting me involved in Artificial Intelligence and holograms.”

           “Aren’t holograms how you’re sending your work back to the States?”

           “To a degree. The hologram me in Houston has its knowledge database updated each time I send my work to the States. Much like Sparks’ character being in two places at the same time, I’m there, too. The human me is here and the holo me is there, so I exist in two places simultaneously.”

           “You do!” Marcie exclaimed, “I’m glad I’m with the real you instead of the AI version.”

           “Thanks, but I’ll keep you away from the holo me when we get back to Houston.”

           Every time Larry watched this interview, it fueled his fantasy of being with Marcie. Fearing rejection, he was content to be a close friend instead of pursuing a romantic relationship.


           Three months before the return-to-Mars launch with the MOXIE repair parts, Larry transmitted a report to NASA and received a return transmission.

           He jumped from his desk and scampered to Marcie’s research pod waving a document.

           “You’ve got to read this!” he exclaimed.

           “What?” she asked and reached for the document.

           “Mr. Baker, FYI. Your cinematic documentary on Dr. Robinson’s breakthrough research and her personal life’s story aired on “60 Minutes” and the Discovery Channel. It has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature Film and the prestigious IDA Documentary Awards.”

           Marcie gasped, “Congratulations. Not bad for a dead-end job.”


February 07, 2023 01:39

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Scott Taylor
22:54 Aug 16, 2023

Nice way to end the story...LOL


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Jeannette Miller
19:11 Feb 11, 2023

Ed, I like this story. It has a lot of exposition but doesn't feel weighed down by it. So much going on here and it still leaves you with wanting to know more about their relationship. Well done!


Ed Wooten
21:46 Feb 11, 2023

Thanks, Jeannette. Appreciate the comment.


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