For years, there had been talk. Goals set, dreams dreamt, aspirations left unachieved. Finally, after decades of research and hard work, it was time to begin the journey. Man would soon once again plant their boots on the virgin soil of another world.
Or so they thought.
Over fifty years ago, the world had watched as Apollo 11 blasted off on its mission to land mankind on the moon. Now, millions—perhaps, billions—around the world watched as the gleaming Starship rocket sat atop the historic launchpad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, preparing for takeoff.
"T minus ten seconds," said a voice, pregnant with anticipation. In homes across the globe, mothers and fathers called for their kids to come see the launch. To see what the human spirit was capable of; to see mankind at its best.
"Nine," said another voice, as smoke and steam billowed from beneath the rocket. The countdown was here. History was being written.
Samuel Lawson, the lead astronaut on the mission, checked and re-checked the information being fed to him by the large, touchscreen console in front of him. Temperature, check. Engine power, check. Fuel levels, check.
Since his childhood, Lawson had been dazzled by the stars. He would spend hours sitting on the roof of his California home, finding the constellations and hoping to see a shooting star. He would fantasize of one day planting his foot on the lunar surface and his name in the history books. After two decades of service in the Air Force, he had been recruited by NASA and became the first black man ever to step foot on the moon. Now, he was so close to achieving a goal he had once been afraid to even dream of, for fear it would be left unfulfilled, being the first man on Mars.
Seated next to Lawson was Henley Grey. Grey was a no-nonsense kind of guy who strictly dealt in the material. He wasn't interested in the fanciful or the historic. To him, beauty was to be found in a perfectly balanced math equation or the wonder of prime numbers. Going to Mars was a chance to discover and understand. Another world meant new facts and figures to explore.
The last member of the crew was Ian Hawthorn. An Englishman by birth, Hawthorn had come to the US at age twenty-five to begin his work at NASA as an engineer. After three decades of work at NASA, climbing the ranks and continually putting himself in the right spot at the right time, he had been selected as the third member of the first crewed mission to Mars.
The powerful reusable methalox staged-combustion engines started up, the historic takeoff looming only seconds away. As the engines rumbled, the thousands of people gathered to watch the launchpad cheered, then grew eerily quiet in anticipation of the launch. It was a beautiful, warm day in Florida. Not a cloud in the bright, blue sky.
As Hawthorn felt the engines begin to rumble, he thought back to the years of training he and his fellow crewmates had endured to make certain they were physically and psychologically prepared for the nearly two-year journey to the martian planet. He thought of the times when he felt he couldn't possibly power through the intense physical training. He thought of how hard it had been to say goodbye to his wife and two kids and how much he would miss them.
His mind came back to the mission. Seven months to get to Mars. Six months on Mars. Seven months back. During that time, Hawthorn and his crew would be pushed to the limits of their endurance. It would be extremely tough, but in the end, worth it. Not just for the scientific community, but for the world. People had once said July 20, 1969, was the pinnacle of human existence. Now, they would have a new date to look to, and new achievement to tout.
NASA and their partners in the private industry had battled setback after setback. Rockets that malfunctioned. Bureaucrats that thought the expenditure was too expensive. Even cyber attacks from China and Russia had threatened the mission. Finally, the impossible was becoming possible right before their eyes.
Until it wasn't.
Inside the cockpit, Lawson, Grey, and Hawthorn suddenly felt a massive explosion rock the ship. The numbers on their screens began flashing and rapidly changing.
Inside Mission Control, the engineers began shouting and trying to identify the problem and abort the mission. From years of training for this very moment, Jack Dean knew they had to abort the mission before the solid-rocket boosters, or SRBs, ignited. At that point, the rocket was flying no matter what.
"Abort! Cutoff!" Dean was screaming into his headset. Three lives depended solely on what he did in the next four seconds, and he had no intention of letting them die. "MPS, cut off the SRBs now!"
Seated behind a sign that read: MPS/SSME (main propulsion systems/space shuttle main engines), technicians worked furiously at dozens of grey work stations to abort the takeoff. But it was already too late. The explosion had been one of the SRBs firing prematurely. The rocket was slowly lifting into the air, except at an angle.
All three astronauts felt the jolt as the rocket detached from the ground and began lifting off the launch pad, except instead of going straight up, they felt the craft leaning. Oh no, thought Lawson. The SRB fired.
With the other two SRBs aborted the mission was to keep the rocket from smashing to the ground in a horrific explosion.
Dean was now at one of the computers himself, but he quickly realized there was nothing that could be done. All of Mission Control were on their feet now. Some were crying, some were screaming, and some stood in shocked silence as the rocket lifted into the air—as if watching it could keep it from crashing down to the earth.
Seated in the captain's seat, Lawson knew there was only one outcome here. Once again, he thought of his family. He thought of his crewmates and their families. Somehow, though this wasn't his fault, he felt guilt for letting them down. What was supposed to be a triumph had turned into a catastrophe.
Henley Grey's mind went to the NASA slogan: "For the benefit of all." He had once been told there were no bad takeoffs. Even in disaster, lessons could be learned for the next time. He found consolation in the fact that his final act as a human being would be for the betterment of mankind. Man would get to Mars one day, and when they did, he would have helped them do it.
Ian Hawthorn placed his right hand over the American flag patch on his chest and his left hand over the spot where the Union Jack was folded up inside of his uniform. "For God and country!" He shouted over the main communications frequency.
As fast it had lifted, the crewed Starship—what was supposed to be the first manned mission to Mars—came crashing down to earth. The rocket exploded in a giant ball of fire that was seen and heard for miles in all directions. Launchpad 39A became engulfed in flames, shooting thick, black, acrid smoke miles into the air.
Families huddled around their televisions recoiled in horror. The thousands that had come out to watch the launch began running in fear for their lives. The engineers in Mission Control openly wept and cried.
It was over. What was supposed to have taken almost two years had ended before it even really got started.
* * * * *
One year later.
It had been a year since the disaster that took her husband's life. NASA had made it clear to Marie Grey that they understood if she didn't want to come to the launch of the first try at going to Mars since the crash. They understood if she never wanted to see another NASA emblem in her life.
"Lift-off! We have lift-off!"
But her husband would have wanted her here. As she watched the rocket lift into the Florida sky, she thought of the mission patches placed on the crew uniforms. Alongside the names of the crew members were the names: Lawson, Grey, Hawthorn.
"For the benefit of all."