I woke up to the sad news that Michael Collins had died. Five years ago the Apollo 11 astronaut inspired the first story I wrote that I was pleased with. I don't remember watching the Apollo 11 mission on TV, but there's plenty of information online which I used as research: Computers in Spaceflight: The NASA Experience, and Glamour: Would you go to Mars? Meet the four women astronauts who can't wait to go, and most importantly, the EP-72 Log of Apollo 11. Here's my story. Hope you enjoy it.
“What are you doing there?”Static crackled through the radio receiver.
“Nikki!” The guy on the ground was really angry. “This is Houston. What the hell are you doing orbiting the moon when you should be on your way to Mars? Do you read?”
It was 20th July 2029. Nikki had planned everything in the minutest detail except what she was going to tell them at this point. She had hoped that in the initial confusion they would focus on finding out how her accomplice had spoofed the telemetry. No need to say too much now. Let them do the talking. Only a couple of minutes until loss of signal.
“Roger that, Houston, I’m just making a short detour, then I’ll be back on course.”
The comment took two and a half seconds to make it’s way to mission control and the reply took another two and a half seconds to reach Nikki.
“A short detour? You call a quarter of a million miles a short detour? Do you have any idea how much your short detour is costing?”
Sure I know how much it’s costing. Six billion dollars, not counting the money NASA spent on my training.
She had never wanted to be anything other than an astronaut. As a kid Nikki listened to her grandpa tell stories about rockets and spacemen. She dreamed of walking on the moon and discovering life on faraway planets. And she had made it happen. The dream had become reality through 45 years of ruthless determination and hard work. It was Nikki who had survived the brutal drill sergeant, Nikki who had completed a 17 month tour of duty, flying fighter jets in the Middle East combat zone, and it was Nikki who now had her own solo mission. A personal mission too.
Hundreds of thousands of miles away the earth looked like a shiny beach-ball, covered with swirls of white cloud, delicate as lace. Such a fragile planet. The first time she had seen that view, she wondered why humans spent so much effort defining their differences. Like grandpa said, seeing the world from up here, where there are no borders and no arguments, you realize just how insignificant we are. From space the world is just blue and white, not rich or poor, not Christian or Muslim, not male or female, just blue and white.
There was a burst of white noise in the headset and then an abrupt silence. The spacecraft’s orbit had crossed the boundary between the light and dark side of the moon and radio contact with Houston was now lost. For a minute Nikki’s sense of isolation was overwhelming. On earth eight billion people were going about their daily lives, breathing, working, fighting, but for the next forty-eight minutes they might as well not exist. It was just Nikki, the stars and the vast universe, black as a desert sky under a new moon, but wider and deeper.
She clicked open her seat belt and floated the short distance from the mother ship into the landing module. All systems normal, no abnormalities. Power up lander engines ... start undock procedure ... fire command module rockets.
Astronaut genes ran in three generations of Nikki’s family. She had never doubted that her application to NASA would be successful. But everything grandpa had told her, and all the training, none of it had prepared her for the first few days on the International Space Station. There was the dizziness as her brain could make no sense of what her eyes saw. She was always crashing into people and knocking equipment off the walls. Then her face bloated and smoothed out all the wrinkles. She looked ten years younger and with a military style hair-cut everyone had remarked how much she looked like grandpa. They nicknamed her Mike. At least I didn’t throw up like on the vomit comet. Embarrassing. How many years ago was that? It must have been at least thirteen.
With the command module out of the way, the landing craft descent engine could be ignited. In just over an hour Nikki would be on the moon. She had made a dozen space flights and countless simulated landings, but this was the real thing. Her heart thudded against her ribs and her face flushed hot in spite of the cooling vest. All systems normal. Ignition.
The ship was descending fast and Nikki’s heart beat faster. She throttled up the engine to reduce speed for the landing approach, now and again catching a glimpse of the barren lunar landscape. The computer counted down the altitude readings in its calm, electronic voice: fifty-five-hundred feet ... three-thousand ... fifteen-hundred. At eight-hundred feet the horizon disappeared and the approaching surface filled the window. Thirty-one feet per second ... twenty-five ... nine. The module cast a faint shadow on the surface, then the footpads touched down with a jolt, stirring up the moon dust.
Nikki shut off the engine. The landing trajectory had taken her to the near side of the moon again and mission control would see that she was back in radio range. I’ll worry about that later. Computer readings confirmed that the command module was orbiting as expected. No point worrying about getting back up there either.
At the rear of the craft Nikki slid open the space suit entry hatch and portable life support system. She manoeuvered herself upwards then dropped into the suit, feet first. There was a reassuring clunk-click as the cover and life support locked back in place, followed by a hiss as the backpack started circulating air. She only had to release the suit from its frame on the lander, then she was free to walk on the lunar surface. Her first few steps were clumsy, like a novice skier, kitted and booted, climbing down an uneven slope. At the edge of the lander Nikki gripped the handrail and hesitated above the powdery surface. Just one small step? More of a jump really.
In the lander’s lamplight everything was grey. The ground was scattered with stones and lava-mottled boulders, all covered with chalky white dust. It was not long before sunrise but without an atmosphere there was no telltale pre-dawn glow. With only a few seconds’ warning, sunlight exploded over the horizon, transforming the dull terrain with its warmth. Rocks and craters cast sharp shadows over the stark landscape, like a high desert denuded of its joshua trees. The intense glare threw a distant range of jagged mountains into the spotlight and Nikki had a flashback to the time grandpa had taken her hiking in the Providence Mountains. Focus! This is neither the time nor place to reminisce.
It took a moment for Nikki to flick the switch on the lander-mounted video camera, then she jumped to the ground and hopped and skipped a few feet from the ship. She turned to face the camera.
“Hi. Commander Nikki of the Mars Solo Mission here. I know you guys are mad as hell with me, and I guess I owe you an explanation. Well, here it is. When I was five, I told my grandpa I wanted to go to the moon. He told me, “Forget about that old rock, the moon’s not so interesting. But Mars ... that’s the future.” I set about doing everything I needed to be an astronaut like him.
“Grandpa was always supportive. He helped me apply to NASA, introduced me to all his old buddies, and was so happy when I got on the astronaut training program. He was even prouder when I got accepted for the Mars program.
“Many of you in Houston know my grandpa real well, ‘tho at ninety-nine he doesn’t get out much these days. Prefers to stay home, painting, reading, worrying a little about his investments. I go see him whenever I can, and we drink a glass of red wine and look at the stars.
“What he likes best tho’ is spending time with his family, telling tales about space travel. Once I asked him what he thought when people said that Armstrong and Aldrin would go down in history as heroes. Boy, he didn’t like that. He told me, “Astronauts aren’t heroes, we work hard and do our jobs. That’s what we’re hired to do.”
“Well I have a message for you grandpa. You’ve always been a hero to me and I wanted to do something for you, something real special.
“All the times you got grumpy talking about this old rock got me thinking. You kept saying it didn’t matter, but I know you better than that. You said so many times it was an honour to be part of Apollo 11 and that you were perfectly happy piloting the command module. But how could you not want to walk on the moon? You can deny it all you want grandpa, but I know you’d rather have been here.
“So, Houston, I guess at six billion dollars, you could say this is the most expensive selfie ever taken. But what’s more important is that I’m here to say thanks to my grandpa Michael Collins and to make sure his name’s remembered alongside them other two guys.”