Commander Amanda Nichols was disappointed as she opened the Mars lander’s hatch and saw that her helmet obscured much of her first view of the upland region of Arabia Terra. Major Terry Chang, the lander’s co-pilot who was standing behind her, always referred to the Martian terrain as “planet Nevada,” but for Amanda, the stark beauty and even the romance of Mars far outweighed a more objective observation.
This is supposed to be one of the oldest terrains on the planet, heavily eroded and very densely cratered, which is part of the reason NASA chose this part of the Arabia quadrangle as the landing site of the first human mission. There’s a distinct possibility of studying evidence of tectonic activity and even volcanism here, plus previous robot landers detected the likelihood of ice water under the surface.
To Amanda, the landscape before her looked like God had taken the ancient red crust, rock, and dust in her field of vision and etched, crumpled, and then pounded it, creating a texture and fabric that spoke of a life lived long and hard resulting in a face marked with character and even a hint of majesty rather than merely scars and age.
A disembodied voice mixed with faint static coming from her helmet speaker reminded Amanda that she wasn’t there to admire the scenery, at least not exclusively. “Copernicus One to Mars Lander Ares, confirm that you are EVA, over.”
Captain Robert McCarthy, the third person on the crew, and the one tasked with staying aboard the main ship in orbit was probably getting impatient. She and Terry only had 96 hours on Mars before they had to return to Copernicus, and with their resources being precious and limited, there was no time for any delays in the surface portion of the mission.
“Acknowledged, Bob,” she replied a little louder than she intended. “Hatch is open, I’ve got a wonderful view looking west over Arabia Terra. Beginning my descent down the ladder.”
“Beginning of descent acknowledged, Ares. Everyone back on Earth is waiting to hear about the first human presence on Mars,” chirped McCarthy.
Terry didn’t say a word but she felt his heavily gloved hand press on her right shoulder from behind. For all his teasing about her over attachment to the planet, he knew exactly what this mission, her being the first person to set foot on the Red Planet, has always meant to her.
Amanda took a deep breath which was no doubt audible to not only her crew mates, but would be heard by everyone watching and listening on the television sets once the video and radio signal made the approximate thirteen minute transit back home.
Her sense of wonder had been rapidly replaced with the startling grandeur of this moment and her personal responsibility as first astronaut to walk on Mars. Amanda began her slow and careful climb down the side of the lander, realizing that she was not only on the cusp of fulfilling the human dream of visiting another planet, but also her personal dream; her Grandfather’s dream. She swallowed hard at the memory of Pop-pop, (that’s what she called him when she was four…before she learned to say “Papa”) and found that actually being on Mars made her remember him more than she thought. Of the millions of people waiting to see the transmission from her helmet’s camera of the first human being to step on another planet in our solar system, she wished he could be one of them.
Pop-pop was Air Force Major Dwight A. Edwards, Amanda’s great-grandfather. He had always dreamed of flying to space but he was born too soon. He was the first African-American selected for astronaut candidacy in 1961 but was never chosen to fly a space mission. Finally, he was forced to resign the Air Force in 1966 due to the climate of hostility government officials created.
The old man was closer to Amanda than just about anyone except her Mama. Daddy had left the family when she was a baby and Mama’s Daddy’s Dad was the only man who little Amanda felt really loved her as a child. He gave her his spirit of adventure and defiance. He said one day, they’d have to let black men and women go to space. She knew she was going to be one of them.
He knew that even if he’d been selected as an astronaut, he probably would be too old by the time NASA sent a mission to Mars, but he always dreamed of being the first person to step on the Red Planet. He died a decade ago, but he lived long enough to see her become an astronaut. Now his great-granddaughter was about to fulfill Pop-pop’s dream, which had also been Amanda’s dream for as long as she could remember.
Amanda welcomed the return of gravity, no matter how faint, as she neared the scarred and pockmarked red stone just a meter beneath her feet now. She tightly gripped each metal rung as she lowered herself, one hand, one foot at a time. Finally she was at the bottom rung and she extended her right leg and her booted foot, isolating her flesh from the astonishing cold, the near vacuum, the “alien-ness” of the environment, and stepped down onto the Martian surface.
Mission leader and Naval Commander Amanda Juliet Nichols had just made history. She put her other foot on the ground, let go of the last rung of the ladder, and turned to face Arabia Terra as the first living being (as far as anyone knew) to walk on this world.
“As I step onto our sister planet Mars, I am not alone. All humanity is here with me in a spirit of peace and hope as we extend our reach to other worlds, and one day, to the stars.” She had rehearsed that statement for weeks knowing a watching and listening Earth would expect the first words spoken by her to be something profound and uplifting. She hadn’t been born yet when Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, but she listened to the recording of his first words and hoped she could inspire the same awe in the people of her home world as she now carried the same torch borne by the space pioneers from generations before.
But in her heart, she had more to say that the world would never hear and maybe never understand, “I came to Mars for you too, Pop-pop. I wish you were with me. I miss you.”
The faint winds of Mars were blowing dust directly in front of her causing her vision to waver. The little dust devil swirling in front of her began to change form, and Amanda’s eyes grew wide as she recognized who was taking shape directly in her path.
“Pop-pop!” Amanda was whispering, then suddenly she remembered her comm was open and thirteen minutes from now, everyone one Earth would hear what she just said.
“My angel! It’s so good to see you again. Welcome home.” Pop-pop’s voice wasn’t coming through Amanda’s comm but she could hear him anyway. He ran toward her looking just as she remembered him dressed in that old flannel shirt and faded jeans. He embraced her clumsily trying to get his arms all the way around her spacesuit.
“Shhh. Hush child. It’s okay. My dream came true and so has yours. I’m here, sweetheart. I’ll always be with you.”
Pop-pop relaxed his hug and stepped back a few feet. “I’ll always be with you, angel. Never forget that. I love you.” The dust and wind took him away but he left his presence with Amanda as tears streamed down her cheeks. She was the commander of the mission, but it really belonged to her Pop-pop.
Behind her, to the east and south, as Terry was just starting to climb down the lander and join her, Amanda and the Ares lander were majestically framed by rugged rust-colored ridges climbing four kilometers into the pale blue Martian sky. This was the beginning of an adventure that belonged to all mankind. Amanda and Terry were the representatives of something greater than themselves, the hopes and dreams of an entire planet.
But Amanda was also the representative of Pop-pop’s hopes and dreams. Thanks to her courage and determination, Major Dwight Edwards had finally made it to Mars.
According to Wikipedia, Ed Dwight was selected as the first African-American astronaut candidate in 1961. He resigned from the Air Force in 1966 after government officials created a threatening atmosphere. I leveraged this information using Captain Dwight as a model for “Pop-pop,” at least superficially.
I’m pleased to say that Dwight is still alive, and at age 83, he has become a noteworthy sculpter and has created over 100 public art sculptures.