MISSION DAY 875
Among the other supplies NASA provide for a mission to maintain morale, is a supply of decorations for various holidays that we can put in the rec and other non-critical spaces. All non-flammable of course.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving. I can put up the Christmas decorations if I want. I’d have done the Hanukkah and Kwanzaa ones too, but no one on the Ares 3 mission observes those holidays. We’ve even got a little plastic Christmas tree to put in the center of the rec’s table. I spent a good hour spreading the cheer on the walls of the rec and the hallways. It’s nice to see some colors like red and green and ice blue to contrast all the grey metal, white plastic, and beige paint of the Hermes’ interior.
Sure (barring complications) we’re gonna be back on the ground by the time the holidays roll around, but you can’t tell me we don’t have reasons to celebrate. A little less than four weeks and we’re going to be home.
MISSION DAY 875 (2)
For the record, I am not the one who sat Beck’s EVA suit on the rec’s couch with a Santa hat on top of its helmet.
MISSION DAY 875 (3)
Martinez swears it wasn’t him either. Either Commander Lewis hasn’t noticed yet, or she’s deliberately ignoring it, in order to give the idiot who put it there a chance to put it back before she starts chewing our asses off.
MISSION DAY 875 (4)
Oops. Lewis noticed. Here’s the memo she sent us all on the ship’s intranet.
To: All Ares 3 Crew
From: Commander Melissa Lewis
Re: Inappropriate Stowage of Ship’s Equipment
As both the holidays and the end of our extended mission approach, I realize a sense of relief, and perhaps outright giddiness, may be overcoming certain members of our crew. However, let me remind you that we must be careful, and not take any action that might endanger the safe operation of Hermes and the health of the Ares 3 mission team. To that end I wish to point out the following:
1. When not in use, EVA suits and related equipment are to be stored in their protective bags in the Airlock 2 vestibule. They are not snowmen.
2. Likewise, to prevent critical crew errors, please do not spike the eggnog.
3. Hermes features the most advanced space life support systems ever designed to keep the ship’s interior at a comfortable operating temperature. It does not have, nor does it require, a fireplace.
3a. If you really want hot smores, you can warm them in the microwave.
4. When disagreeing with any of my orders, please address me in an adult manner. My name is Commander Melissa Lewis, not “Mrs. Scrooge.”
5. I can assure you that Santa will come to visit us at the Crew Recovery Center at Cape Canaveral on December 25th. You don’t need to leave cookies and milk in the rec for him.
6. Happy Holidays. I know finally coming home and seeing our families again will be the best present of all.
MISSION DAY 875 (5)
Wow, Lewis really does have a sense of humor. Who knew?
Also, Beck’s suit is stowed properly again. It really wasn’t me. It couldn’t have been Lewis, and I swear Beck and Johannssen were busy in her cabin when the incident occurred. Which leaves… Vogel?
Couldn’t have been...
MISSION DAY 891
Another milestone: We have crossed the orbit of the Moon. Earth is now the proverbial big blue marble in the window. In seven days we’re going to be in orbit around it. We’ll be home.
When the Apollo astronauts left the Moon, it only took them three days to home. Right now we’re actually travelling a lot slower than they did, because Hermes’ ion thrusters can only slow the ship down a max of 3mm per second. Even then we won’t be able to lower our velocity to come into a stable orbit without some tricky maneuvering.
Six days from now we’ll begin a maneuver called “aerobraking.” What that means is that Hermes will dip into the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, using the air drag against our hull to slow us down, without having to expend fuel. Once we’ve slowed enough, Martinez will fire the engines bring us back out of the atmosphere and match orbit with the OSIC, where we’ll finally dock.
If that sounds dangerous, well it kinda is. If we don’t dip down low enough, we’ll skip off the atmosphere and fly back into space, with no hope of altering our orbit again to reach Earth before we run out of food. Dip too far, and we’ll slow down too much to pop back up to a stable orbit, and we’ll just keep falling lower and lower, until we reach the mesosphere and start burning up like Skylab.
I’d be terrified if it weren’t for Beck’s prescription from his Dr. Feelgood cabinet. As it is, I’m keeping myself busy double-checking all the ship’s systems so we’re prepared for the maneuver.
On a more positive note, we’re close enough to Earth that we can spare the bandwidth for real time video conversations with our families. I’ve been talking to Mom and Dad, telling them how much I’m looking forward to seeing them, and letting them know how much I appreciate their emails both when I was stuck on Mars and after the Hermes rescued me. They look a lot better than when I got that first video message after I got rescued. Both of them said how much they love me, and that they’ll be there to meet at the Cape when we land. It’s so damn good to be able to talk to them again, hear their voices, see their faces, I don’t really have the words to describe it
The only problem I’ll be spending Christmas stuck in rehabilitation instead of back home, but at least they’ll be able to visit me.
Assuming we don’t all die a fireball in a week.
* * *
On the eight hundred and ninety-ninth day of their mission, the crew of the Hermes took to their stations in the control room. It was the first time they had all gathered there since the ship had entered Martian orbit a little over two years ago on Mission Day 124, and the small room seemed even more cramped than it usually was.
Martinez sat before his console with the complex controls that would guide Hermes, should the ship’s computer suddenly fail and it could not make the course corrections required. Behind him, Johannssen and Watney sat at their own stations, where they would monitor the ship’s overall health during the upcoming maneuver. Further back, Vogel kept track of the Hermes as it traveled down the narrow reentry corridor it had to fly to successfully complete aerobraking, ready to compute the numbers for any course correction if so required. Beside him Beck sat, monitoring the both the ship’s life support and the crew’s health.
Finally at the front, next to Martinez, keeping in contact with Houston and watching over the rest of the crew, Commander Lewis sat. Though the ship and its crew were her overall responsibility, ironically she had the least to do directly in deciding the success of the maneuver. All she could do was watch, ready to intervene if some unforeseen circumstance made action necessary, and hoping nothing would come up.
None of them had slept very well the night before. The previous day had been a rush of activity as they locked down the centrifuge and secured loose items in preparation for today’s maneuver. Even with the work to occupy their minds, the excitement of finally reaching Earth had kept them too wired to really sleep. In the morning, they ate the last of the protein bars they’d learned to despise during their long trip home, and drank a cup Martian coffee to finish waking up, the supply of real coffee and tea being exhausted over a year ago.
Though the windows of the control room the Earth loomed, its surface a swirl of bright brown land, deep blue oceans, and white clouds. For the first time since the Earth portion of the gravity assist maneuver almost a year and a half ago, they were too close to be able to view the entire planet.
“Houston, this is Hermes,” Commander Lewis spoke crisply into her microphone. “We are conducting final checks for atmospheric braking maneuvers.”
“Roger Hermes,” came the reply from CAPCOM. “You’re coming in straight down the pike. Begin radiator translation.”
“Roger, Houston. Go for radiator translation,” Lewis repeated. She turned in her seat towards the back of the control room. “Engineer, proceed with translation.”
“Roger,” Watney replied, “beginning radiator translation.” He flipped back the protective covers back on several switches and activated them, unlocking the stoppers that prevented the radiator vanes from moving freely on their own. Then he threw another set of switches, activating the rotation motors.
On the hull of the ship, by its VASIMIR reactor, the heat radiators began to turn slowly. Normally the large rectangular radiators were kept with their long edges perpendicular to the ship. Now they rotated ninety degrees, and would appear to an outside observer as large flat metal sails. Except that rather than propelling the ship, they would act as massive brakes, dragging against the Earth’s atmosphere and slowing the great ship down until it entered a stable orbit. It took a bit over a minute for the rotation of the four radiator vanes to be completed, upon which the motor locks were set back in place by Watney, ensuring they would remain in this position for the next portion of the maneuver. “Cooling vanes locked into aerobraking position,” he reported.
“Acknowledged. Vogel, time to entry interface?” Lewis asked.
“Five minutes, twenty-five seconds,” Vogel replied, checking the reading on his computer display. “We are at an altitude of 95 kilometers, descending at 45 meters per second.”
“Thank you. Johannssen, reactor status?”
“All non-essential systems offline,” Johannssen reported. “Reactors are at minimal power.” With the radiator vanes acting as brakes, they would soon heat up as a result of atmospheric friction, interfering with their ability to cool the reactors. As a result, the VASIMIR reactors were operating at the minimum power necessary for life support and control of the ship. Even the ion drive was shut off until it would be needed again.
“Beck, life support status?”
“All green,” Beck reported.
“Thank you. Martinez, are you ready?”
“Ready, willing, and able,” Martinez said, cracking his knuckles briefly. “We’ll be in a stable orbit in less than thirty minutes.”
“Let’s hope so.” She turned her attention back to Mission Control. “Houston, this is Hermes. We are go for aerobraking.”
“Acknowledged, Hermes,” came the reply from CAPCOM. “Good luck.”
As the crew waited in tense silence, Watney spoke up, “Remember what I said about barrel rolls, Martinez.”
For a brief moment, laughter filled the control room.
* * *
Around the world, attention turned briefly to the event. This was the third time that Hermes had performed this maneuver in its operational lifetime, and it lacked the unique human drama provided by Watney’s escape from the red planet. The audience was barely a quarter of what it had been on that day,
In Houston, the families of the Hermes crew, more acutely aware of the significance of the event, had gathered to watch in the VIP section of Mission Control. Watney’s parents had been drawn from their Chicago home at the behest of the other families, finally meeting them for the first time. Beck’s sister, and Lewis’s husband sat with them, as they kept each other calm by talking about how wonderful it would be to see their loved ones again.
In her seat, Marissa Martinez sat a squirming David in her lap. He had entered kindergarten in September, and didn’t quite understand what all the excitement was about. His father was someone his mother spoke of often, but the boy only really knew as a spaceman they sometimes watched on TV.
Johannssen’s mother and father sat together, gripping each other’s hands tightly, her mother openly crying. She was pale, having undergone bypass surgery six months earlier after a heart attack. They had debated telling their daughter about what had happened, but had elected to keep silent, not wanting to distract her from her duties.
Helena Vogel sat with her children, everyone holding hands. Two weeks previously, Vogel’s mother had quietly slipped into a coma. She was not expected to survive long enough for her son to escape the required medical monitoring period after the crew returned to the Cape, so he could see her one last time. Like Beth Johannssen’s parents, Helena had elected to keep this information secret, to avoid unnecessary stress on her husband during this critical period. She knew he would understand.
In Mission Control Mitch Henderson paced, watching the graphic on the big center screen, showing the Hermes traveling dead center between two lines that represented the highest and lowest safe altitude for the aerobraking maneuver. Even though all seemed well, he was acutely aware that could change in a second’s notice.
With everyone else, he watched, and waited.
* * *
Hermes dropped down in the Earth’s atmosphere, entering what was referred to as the Mesopause. Eighty kilometers above the surface of the planet, it marked the division between the Thermosphere and the Mesosphere, the two highest sections of the Earth’s detectable atmosphere. At only about 0.1mb in pressure, it was also the highest point that water vapor was able to form. By comparison the pressure at the sea level was 1000mb, over ten thousand times as dense.
Even with that miniscule amount of pressure, Hermes’ tremendous velocity was slowed, as pressure waves built against the nose of the ship and its enormous radiator vanes. Martinez and Vogel kept careful watch as the ship shed its momentum, looking for any sign that it was losing speed either too quickly, or too slowly.
Lewis kept in contact with Houston, relaying the ship’s status, letting them know that the crew was still okay. Even though Mission Control was receiving a constant stream of telemetry data, the numbers didn’t convey the most important information, the state of the crew. Even decades after the disasters of Challenger and Columbia, the belief that the crews of those ill-fated ships survived their initial catastrophes long enough to understand their doom persisted in some circles, even within NASA. More than anything else the team at Mission Control needed to know that the crew, not just their vessel, were all right.
Strapped in his seat, Watney drummed his fingers unconsciously on his control panel, keeping his eyes glued to the figures on his screen. Trying not to the think about the doors to the VAL. The tough outer door had been undamaged in the controlled decompression. The inner one had a twenty centimeter wide hole blasted in it by Vogel’s bomb, which had been repaired by Johannssen and Lewis in the days following Watney’s rescue, using a large plastic composite patch intended for meteorite impact repairs, sealed by more of the resin that had proved critical to Watney’s survival on Mars. Even if the outer door malfunctioned by some dark mischance, the repaired inner door should hold. He’d inspected the repairs himself once he’d healed enough to move freely again. And even if that door lost pressure somehow, the compartment behind it was sealed as well. There was nothing to worry about, he told himself, and wished he could believe it.
“Two minutes to periapsis,” Johannssen announced.
Watney snapped out of his worried fugue. “Ready to translate radiators back to normal flight position,” he announced.
“Standby,” Lewis called to him. “Vogel, how are we on velocity?”
“Current velocity 28,500 km per second and falling,” he replied. “We are safely within normal parameters. One minute thirty seconds to periapsis.” In other words, they were less than two minutes from the lowest calculated point in their orbit around Earth. Which in the laws of orbital mechanics meant it would be the most energy efficient point to apply thrust to change their orbit.
“We’re good, Commander,” Martinez confirmed. “Ready to burn the jets.”
Lewis checked the event timer on her control display. “Watney, prepare to translate radiators on my mark.” When the timer reached sixty seconds to periapsis, she called out, “Mark!”
Once more Watney began flipping controls. The motor locks were released, and slowly the radiator vanes rotated back to their original positions, presenting the minimal amount of drag while the ship rose back out of the atmosphere.
With one exception.
“Malfunction in Vane 3,” he said, his voice not showing the jolt of terror that suddenly ran through him. “It’s jammed at 41 degrees.”
“Houston, are you seeing this?” Lewis demanded.
“We confirm your reading, Hermes,” came CAPCOM’s reply. “Do you have a visual on Vane 3?”
“Confirm visual, Commander,” Johannssen reported. “I’ve got it on Camera Five. It’s definitely stuck. Thirty seconds to periapsis,” she added.
“Martinez, if the vane remains in its current position, will you be able to put us into a safe orbit?”
“I can try,” he said, furrowing his brow in worry. “I can use the remaining fuel in the maneuvering thrusters to give us an extra boost and compensate for the offset the drag to put on our course.” His fingers danced over his console, running numbers. “Yeah, but it’ll use up so much we won’t have enough left to dock safely at the Shipyard. We’ll be stuck until someone can come along and refuel the OMS.”
“Watney, can you get it unstuck?” Lewis asked. “Johanssenn, reactor status?”
“Fully online,” she reported. “We’re ready to start up the ion engine.”
“Standby,” Martinez interrupted, touching his controls. “Starting main engine. We’re accelerating.”
“Commander, we have three minutes until we must begin using the thrusters to shape our orbit properly,” Vogel said.
“Working on it,” Watney said tightly. He flipped the switches controlling Vane 3 back and forth, hoping to free the jam. It was the equivalent of rattling a stuck door handle, hoping the parts would shake back in place to function properly. Back and forth it went, Watney’s sweating fingers making the switches damp. Once. Twice.
Finally on the third try the recalcitrant radiator vane moved past the 41 degree mark, returning to its normal flight position. Watney quickly locked it in place, and Johannssen confirmed his success with both the ship’s telemetry and Camera 5.
“That’s it,” Martinez said triumphantly. “We’re back in the green to reach a safe orbit. Might have to give the thrusters a short burn to circularize it, but that shouldn’t eat too badly into what we got left.”
“We confirm Major Martinez’s evaluation, Hermes,” Houston reported. “You’re green for orbital insertion.”
Within ten minutes, Hermes rose back to a low earth orbit, just a hundred and twenty kilometers above the surface of the planet. In an hour they reached apoapsis, where Martinez burned the main engine briefly to circularize their orbit, having no need to use the thrusters.
The great ship orbited the planet Earth at 7.8 kms, fast enough to circle the planet indefinitely if it wanted.
Ares 3 had finally come home.
DECEMBER 24th, 2037
Y’know it took me three tries to enter the correct date in there? I kept wanting to type in “Mission Day Number so-and-so.” I’m so used to using sols and mission days, it’s gonna take me a while to remember how to use a normal calendar again. Shit, I’m still trying to remember what year it really is. I left on the Worst Camping Trip Ever in 2035 after all. It’s hard to believe it’s 2037 now.
Doesn’t matter. I’m home. On the ground. On Earth. There are no more mission days, or sols. Just days, months, and years. And thanks to everyone on the crew and here on Earth, I’m going to have a lot of years to enjoy now.
After shitting myself over that jammed radiator vane during the aerobraking maneuver, Martinez got Hermes to orbit and then piloted us for six hours to rendezvous with the OSIC. Actually it only took five hours to reach it. The last hour was spent very slowly inching Hermes into the OSIC’s docking module. When something as big as the Hermes and the OSIC try to make beautiful music together, you have to move in millimeters per minute. It’s the only way to make sure neither of the craft get seriously damaged when they finally dock.
Once we were successfully docked, there was a half-hour of fooling around to make the pressure between the station and our ship was equalized properly, and then we opened both the hatches. As the Hermes’ engineer, it was my responsibility to open our side up. When I did I kinda just stared for a minute, looking at the OSIC’s crew. They were the first people, aside from my own crew, that I had seen face-to-face in over two years.
Thankfully the silence didn’t last long, because the first words out of the station commander’s mouth were, “You said ‘30 minutes or it’s free’ man!”
Once I finished laughing my ass off, we kinda floated together and hugged each other. After that we got down to business connecting the Hermes to the OSIC’s umbilicals, and running through the shutdown checklist.
It was a pretty melancholy moment, putting that ship to sleep. It had been my home for over a year, and everyone else’s for over two years. It had gone far beyond its design specs for a single mission, keeping everyone alive and saving my ass. I hope they’ll be able to overhaul it so it could continue doing its job. I’d hate to think we pushed it so hard it would have to be written off.
Next I got to try on my shiny new flight suit, with its really expensive tailored gloves. It all fit perfectly. Once we were assured that was problem was out of the way, the rest of the Ares 3 crew got dressed in their own suits and we piled into the Orbital Science Corp. mini-shuttle, which was docked to the OSIC’s other airlock. Since we’d be flying back into Earth normal gravity for the first time in two years, Martinez was stuck being a passenger while one of the OSIC’s crew did the piloting. In less than two hours we deorbited and came to a rolling stop at Cape Kennedy’s runway.
I’d like to say I hopped out immediately and kissed the ground, but the truth is I just sat in my seat, sweating in my flight suit and feeling like someone had dumped a bag of bricks on my chest. Even though I’d been doing my exercises once I’d recovered from my injuries, I was still three times heavier now than I’d been all during my journey to Mars and back.
Fortunately there were plenty of helping hands to ease me out of the mini-shuttle and onto a reclining wheelchair. From there I was whisked into an ambulance to be transported to the recovery center, where all returning long duration crews have to spend several days going through medical evaluations and getting physical rehabilitation to re-learn how to walk in Earth normal gravity. Given the extended and extraordinary nature of our particular mission, we were looking forward to being stuck in there for at least two weeks, with periodic medical checkups to follow for months after our release.
After I was helped out of my flight suit, I went through a quick medical exam and got dressed in sweatpants and a t-shirt, and the sweater that Mom made for me. Then I was wheeled into a little lounge area. There I found my parents waiting for me, looking older, more tired, and happier than I’d ever seen them.
I’d love to say that I did something really manly like fist bumping my dad and telling my mom thanks for the sweater. But I didn’t. What I did do was hug them both and sob like a little lost kid for about fifteen minutes. It wasn’t until I saw them that I really, really believed that it was finally over, that I was home.
There’s part of me that still believes it can’t be real. That I can just walk outside without a spacesuit and not have worry about exploding. That I can get water from a tap without having to break down rocket fuel. That I can light a fire in a room and not have worry about it being instant death. That I can eat food, any kind of food I want, and it won’t be potatoes, or protein bars. Heck, I could eat ice cream if I wanted. Real ice cream made from frozen cow’s milk and sugar (and who the fuck thought that was a great combination to try two hundred years ago? Seriously.), not a chemical brick you can buy at the National Air & Space Museum’s gift shop.
I think the hardest thing to take is that I’m never going to be able thank people enough for what they did to save me. “Pay it Forward” is a nice idea, but short of me discovering a cure for cancer, I can’t pay forward or back the fact that five of my crew sacrificed a year and a half of their lives for my sake. That so many others paid so much.
NASA and the Chinese National Space Program poured hundreds of millions of dollars into my rescue. How do I pay that back?
Martinez has a son who doesn’t recognize him. How do I pay that back?
Bruce Ng separated from his spouse due to the stress of overseeing JPL’s operations during my rescue. They’re in counseling I’m told, but it doesn’t look good. How do I pay that back?
Mitch Henderson tendered his resignation the day we landed at the Cape. I can guess what he was responsible for. How do I pay that back?
How do I pay any of that back?
I guess the answer is, “I can’t.”
Of all the problems I’ve faced over the past two and half years, this is one that just doesn’t have a solution. Except to accept the gift that was given to me, paid for by their unselfish efforts.
Maybe someday I’ll be able to pay it back, at least a bit. Give blood. Donate my time and brains to a good cause. Point somebody in the right direction when they’re lost. All little things, compared to what was done to save me. But it’ll be something.
Humans like to help each other. We’re funny like that.