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Drama Science Fiction

Hugo Franks gave me what was probably the most terrifying half hour of my life. Terrifying situations were pretty much every day risks of my job as an astronaut. I had flown F-15s, supersonic jets, once I crashed in the Pacific test flying in the middle of the night and I had to swim back to shore. I did not think anything was capable of making me lose my mind. They chose me for the Mars launch precisely because nothing, including the thought of dying, really bothers me all that much. I was not, at that time, in any form religious. I expected death to be a lights out and that's it. Don't get me wrong, I didn't plan to die during any of my spaceflight missions. But it's was a calculated risk of employment, for me.

There was a lot of fanfare on the ground of course, especially with it being the first manned trip to Mars. I've gotten to the point where I don't notice cameras, the press, it's just noise. We did interviews, we get asked questions. I think it's the same as professional athletes who get asked the same things after every game. Proud to serve our country, excited about the science, whatever. I always leave those wondering exactly what else they wanted me to say. When my daughter said she wanted to be a writer and publish poetry I told her she was crazy. I didn't use the word crazy. I don't mind reading but I can't say I pick up poetry, if I have the choice.

One of the media asked me what it was like to sit on top of an exploding missile. I said I had never thought of it that way. That's not how I understand the experience. I wish they would ask about the technical details, the CO2 scrubbers, the gyrometers. I guess that's what I understand better.

Hugo, though, he was the press guy. My co captain. He could do that stuff for hours. What psychiatrist matched us up, I don't know, but we seemed to function well together. He joked with them, laughed with them, he signed autographs. I just didn't have the personality for that.

The actual launch of a spacecraft is less remarkable than you might think. There's the countdown and the pressure but it's mostly muscle memory. I have a task. And I want to plan ahead for whatever could be wrong later. You don't have time to do anything except react if there's a problem. Crossing your fingers isn't good enough. That's where Hugo could be a little irritating. I always caught him looking out the window during simulations. He got famous in the astronaut corps for sneaking things aboard, stuff from his kids school, unauthorized photos, things he can say have gone into space. He snuck a rosary aboard twice. I really got on to him a couple times about that. What if that stuff got into a electrical bus or something? It's the perfect size.

So it's the first mission to Mars. We've spent a year calculating it out, practicing. The launch is unremarkable. I'm sure you watched it on TV. We reached stage three and decommissioned the fuel cells. We're in orbit. Reactive docking went fine. All the steps were normal. We did an initial burn and we're in communication with the ground and then, just like that, everything goes out. Lights, power, electricity, communication, all of it. I can't speak to ground. We have no manual thrusters. It's dark. It's cold. I'm thinking, what kind of electrical failure knocks out all of that at once, and number two, why am I still alive? The oxygen supply is obviously preserved, because I'm breathing. I can't ask command what is going on. I'm out of control. It's awful.

I look over at Hugo and he just looks back at me. “What the hell,” I say, and he's just smiling. I see he's looking down at the main power supply breaker with his hand on it. And it occurs to me, he's gone crazy, he's going to kill us, had a nervous breakdown.

“It's good,” he says, and smiles. “This is for us.”

“If you're trying to kill me-”

“Ssh, come on,” he says. “You'll wake up the aliens.” Hugo wants me to follow him. He unbuckles his harness and starts to float away. He's still not reaching for his helmet or his suit. I try again to reach the ground but nothing. We're still good on CO2 and oxygen. He's turned off everything except what we have to live and our position is stable. That takes a little planning. Maybe the word is premeditated murder, I think to myself.

It's completely dark in the Pegasus module. No choice but to follow. Normally a spacecraft has a lot of background noise, humming, computer sounds. Now it's just the soles of Hugo's white boots and his dangling gold chain as I float behind him. He floats towards the outer Pegasus hatch and turns the handle to open it into the Ares landing module. When we arrive on Mars in six months this is the component to land us there while Pegasus orbits. It's got its own control panel, fuel supply. I see the seat where I'll sit in when we pilot the first landing vessel to Mars half a year from now.

But apparently we aren't stopping there either because we actually move upwards into the biologics area and I remember that's the science annex where they are testing plant species to see how they respond to Martian sunlight. So it's a rounded windowed cupola with basically a half dozen terrariums all around filled with some resilient Earth horticulture. Specifically, onions. For some reason they picked onions. And there are hundred of them in there, in boxes, little seedlings in hydroponic boxes. It's nearly dark except for the grow lights of the plants as we float into that room.

That's the first thing that hits me. What thought have I ever given to onions? Literally, none. No thoughts. I was a terrible biology student. I don't eat onions. But it occurs to me, in a way that's hard to describe, that besides Hugo and I, there are other things here that are alive. There's commonality. I'd never have put myself in the same category as an onion. But when I started see how black and how cold things were, out there, I started to think about how we were the only ambassadors. Me, Hugo and some onions. We were the only living things for a long, long way in either direction.

Then Hugo says, “Watch this”, and then he goes over to the grow lights which are still on and he hits the master bus and those turn off too. And I realize that the cupola, which is entirely fiberglass so those onions can get exposure to the Martian sun when we land, is the only light we have now. Because the stars from outside the cupola are overwhelming. It's actually not dark in there at all anymore. Every constellation is overwhelming. The sun is positioned behind us, I suppose he planned that too, and there are a billion stars in every direction, a billion miles away. It's the first time I've ever felt anything that I could describe as beyond comprehension or beyond my ability to quantify. Like I said, the experience was terrifying. I don't just mean Hugo's prank of shutting off the power. I mean that I felt something I've never felt before or since, in the dark in there.

I had spacewalked before. I felt good about that but it's too consumed with technical activities for me to feel what I felt this time.

Hugo doesn't say anything. We just sit in the silence for five, seven, ten minutes. Just us, the onions, and space, and total quiet.

Then he says to me, pointing to the stars, “Someday, Mark, people are going to live out there and it won't be any big deal to them. We're closer to that, now, than anybody has ever been before.”

I put my hand on the window where condensation is forming because the fans are turned off. My hands can cover a billion stars from here. I thought about my daughter, thought about my own backyard with the green lawn and the trees and I wonder what the weather is like at home.

A few minutes later everything is back on and we are back to the business of space flight. We told control we weren't dead and we said it was a sensor failure. I've never told anyone that story until now, of what really happened. But that few minutes changed my life, it really did. I never did think about space the same way after that.

We went on to have a great career and do a lot of things you already know about. Nothing he did for me during our time on Mars was as important to me personally as what he did during our journey. I've not discussed my daughter's death with the media much or how it affected me that she died while I was in space. I'd like to leave it private, but I would like to say that during that impossible time, when Suzie died and I was millions of miles from home, Hugo was my comfort and my support.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. I told myself I wouldn't cry and I'll try not to break that rule now. Hugo was one of the most important people in my life. It was an honor to be in front of you today. He made me realize the universe was infinite. Hugo changed my life and I've got no doubt he lives now amongst the stars. Thank you.

September 11, 2020 17:37

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15:28 Sep 21, 2020

I really liked this story. I love it when there is a lesson involved, something to learn, something to take away from the story, something that makes you see life differently. I also liked finding out he was giving a speech. I love space movies and I absolutely love Martian with Matt Damon, this story made me want to go watch that movie for the 10th time.


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