Rocketship to Mars

flight to mars

Image: From the 1951 film “Flight to Mars”

The four glittering, silver tail fins of Space Ship Ares One settled firmly on the red sands of the planet Mars as Colonel Bradley Graham flipped the toggle switch cutting the rocket thrust.

Then he picked up the microphone and depressed the transmission button on the side. “Space Ship Ares One to Earth Space Control. We have landed on the planet Mars. Repeat, we have landed on Mars.”

It would take minutes for the radio waves carrying his message to make the trip from Mars to Earth, but Graham vividly imagined the cheers of the crowd at Space Control and all of the Americans watching on their televisions or listening on their radios when they finally heard his voice from across the void.

“Okay, let’s get to it. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Roger that, Skipper.” Major Alan “Kip” Corrigan, Graham’s exec, was in charge of the duty assignments once they landed.

“Okay, Dr. Horn, you do the initial air and temperature check before we open the hatch. Once we do, after the Colonel steps onto the surface and does a brief reconnoiter, you’ll do a more detailed weather and climate check.”

“I know my job, Major.” As the only female scientist and crew member on man’s first trip to the Red Planet, she was used to be treated with less respect than the men on board, which made her a bit testy at even the slightest provocation.

“Right. Dr. Emery, you’ll follow up with taking soil and plant samples, and Dr. Fleming, as our medical doctor and life sciences expert, you do a complete sweep of the area for any potential fauna.”

No one was sure if they’d find animal life larger than an amoeba on or under Mars, but if it was there, Fleming would find it.

“Just let me get my sample kit.” Emery looked like an English lit teacher, the kind you hoped you wouldn’t get assigned to in college, but inside, he was a kid in a candy store. Being the first Geologist and Botanist on Mars was his life long dream.

They were all out of their seats now. Emery and Fleming were digging through the supply cabinets getting their equipment ready. Horn was at the environmental controls taking air samples, Corrigan assigned himself the task of doing a maintenance check of the ship to make sure she didn’t sustain any damage in the landing, and Graham, as the man selected to first step foot on Mars, was putting on his leather bomber pilot’s jacket, the one he’d worn flying twenty-six missions over Nazi Germany during the war.

Graham donned his Air Force cap and walked over to the hatch, placing his hand on the lever, ready to open it when Horn gave the word. Once the hatch opened, a ladder would deploy and the Colonel would make the long descent down the shining, slender hull of America’s most advanced space craft.

“Wait! Colonel, don’t open the hatch!” Lisa Horn was normally about as emotional as a ham sandwich, but right now she sounded absolutely panicked.

“What’s the problem, Dr. Horn?” Graham didn’t like delays. He’d already made into the history books just by safely landing the ship on Mars, but he couldn’t wait to be the first human being to breathe the air of an alien world.

“You can’t go out there without a space suit. None of us can. If you open that hatch, we’ll all be dead in less than a minute.”

“What are you talking about? All of our studies say Mars is certainly colder than Earth, being further from the Sun, but we have confirmed it has a breathable atmosphere.” Emery was also on the threshold of a dream, not because he craved fame, but rather knowledge.

“Not according to these readings, Emery.”

“How so, my dear?”

Horn bristled at Fleming’s condescending words, but it’s doubtful he meant them that way. Next to Horn, he was the most scientifically detached member of the expedition. Horn’s being a woman didn’t matter to him one bit. It was the fact that he was decades older than she.

“My findings are a lot different from any data we previously examined. I’m reading an atmospheric density less than one percent of Earth’s at sea level.”

Everyone in the cabin registered shock but it was Graham who spoke up.

“Are you sure you’ve taken those samples correctly?”

Graham was condescending and meant it. He’d made it plain from the first day she was assigned to the mission that he preferred male crew members and that a woman would just be a distraction.

“I’ve run the tests three times, Colonel. There’s no mistake. The atmosphere outside the ship is approximately 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, and 2% trace elements. Totally unbreathable.”

Fleming looked over Horn’s shoulder. “This isn’t my field, but from what I’m seeing, Dr. Horn is absolutely correct.”

Horn thought about giving him her worst withering gaze, but the old man really didn’t mean it. If Graham or Corrigan had said the same thing, she’d loudly have let them know how insulted she was.

“That’s not all. The current temperature outside is minus 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Even if we could breathe the air, we’d all freeze to death. I don’t think that dashing leather war memento of yours is quite going to do it, Colonel.”

“She’s right, Skipper. If cabin conditions weren’t set for space flight and the hatch sealed, we’d be goners by now.” Corrigan was double-checking his engineering panel. He’d forgotten to reset the controls after landing, and that’s what saved them from freezing. They’d expected temperatures ranging from 32 to 45 degrees F, not cold found only on the most frigid night in Antarctica.

“Perhaps you should radio base for instructions, Colonel.”

Graham didn’t like taking suggestions from civilians like Emery or anyone else, but he was right.

As the commanding officer walked over to the pilot’s control panel, he muttered, “Come to think of it, why hasn’t Earth responded to our last transmission? It should have gotten here by now.”

He sat down in the pilot’s seat and picked up the mike again. “Earth Space Control. Earth Space Control, come in please. This is Space Ship Ares One on Mars. We have encountered unusual environmental problems and request instructions, please reply.”

Each member of the exploration team soberly returned to their seats as long minutes passed. No reply came.

“Earth Space Control, this is Colonel Bradley Graham aboard Space Ship Ares One on Mars. Atmosphere determined to be unbreathable and outside temperature will not sustain life. We will be unable to explore without space suits. Please advise.”

There were adequate space suits on board the rocket, but they were intended to be used only in an emergency such as a hull breach. The Ares One crew never thought they’d have to use them once they landed.

“Unidentified…plea…respond…”

It was a voice, a human voice coming over the speakers, but the static drowned out most of the message.

Corrigan checked his instruments. “Skipper, you’re not going to believe this. That message came from the surface, here on Mars. It’s not from Earth.”

“What?”

Almost frantically, Graham snapped down the transmit button and replied. “This is Colonel Bradley Graham aboard the American Space Ship Ares One. Who are you and where are you located?”

Static was the only reply when Graham released the transmit button.

“Skipper. Got something on the radar. Small, about the size of a truck or other transport. Coming at us from the Northwest at about 30 miles per hour.”

Horn, Emery, and Fleming got out of their seats and crowded around the port that faced in that direction.

“I can see it, Graham, but it’s nothing like anything I’ve imagined.” Horn adjusted her glasses hoping to see more clearly.

“She’s right, Colonel. It seems to be a multi-sectioned vehicle.” Anyone else would have expressed astonishment, but Fleming just reported the facts.

“Seems to be a passenger compartment in front,” Emery added. “Perhaps equipment or cargo bay in the rear.”

The radio speakers squawked again. “Colonel Graham. My name is Jessica Kane, Commander of Hermes Base, Arcadia Planitia. Please forgive me, but I can’t believe I’m seeing your ship, over.”

“Commander…Kane…” Graham was momentarily surprised that a woman would be the Commander of anything, especially a space mission. “What do you mean? What about my ship?”

Kane wouldn’t have known what to make of the Ares One spacecraft, but her husband was a big fan of retro-science fiction and must have made her watch old 1950s B-films such as Rocketship X-M and Flight to Mars dozens of times.

“Maybe it would be better if we could come on board, Colonel. Can you open your airlock?”

There was an auxiliary airlock available, but Graham never thought he’d have to use it on Mars. Fortunately, the over-eager engineers who designed the ship thought to include a ladder that would reach the surface, just in case.

“Yes, Commander. It’ll take a few minutes to get it prepped.”

“Thank you, Colonel. Prepare to receive a party of two.”

Kane knew she and Shu Chen, the colony’s chief botanist, would be taking a chance entering this refuge from the SciFi channel, but it was here, there were obviously people on board, and as military head of Hermes Base, she had a responsibility to investigate. She would have radioed Hermes and reported, but what was she supposed to say?

“Acknowledged.” Graham released the mike button. “Corrigan, get the airlock ready.”

“On my way, Skipper.” He went opened the hatch in the center of the floor and started down the ladder.

Each of the remaining four took turns looking out the port. The odd vehicle pulled up a few yards from their space craft and two heavily suited figures emerged. “No space suit design I’ve ever seen,” Graham mused.

“Could the Soviets have beaten us here?” Emery was genuinely concerned. A Soviet base on Mars would threaten America’s plans for colonization of the planet.

“No, look.” Horn would have pointed if her face wasn’t pressed against the glass. That’s an American flag on the side of their…truck or whatever it is.”

“What! The flag has 52 stars, not 48.” For the first time, Fleming was beginning to sound anxious.

The intercom interrupted the quartet. “Skipper, airlock’s all set and ladder’s been deployed. Shall I open it up?”

Graham answered on the comm, “Don’t see any other way to play this. Go ahead.”

As Graham clicked off, Emery grabbed his forearm. “What if they’re not human, Colonel. What if this is a Martian trick.”

“Don’t be absurd.” Fleming was the foremost expert in the possibility of animal life on Mars. “We have absolutely no indication of intelligent life on Mars. I’m afraid H.G. Wells’ novel aside, the only aliens we are likely to find are microscopic.”

Graham removed Emery’s hand. “Calm yourself. Dr. Fleming is right. I don’t think we are facing danger, at least not from Martians.

The Colonel had read every intelligence report and had been assured by top security experts that the Soviets were nowhere near ready to send a rocket to Mars, let alone establish a base. Also, if this was a Soviet base, why the American flag on the vehicle and why the wrong number of stars? Too stupid a mistake for a Soviet to make.

Then again, who else could be here ahead of the Americans?

“Where’s Dr. Horn?” Emery suddenly noticed her absence. Before the rest could react, the intercom came on again.

“Corrigan here, Skipper. Dr. Horn’s with me at the airlock and our two guests are inside. It’s pressurized.”

“I’ll be right down, Kip. Sit tight.”

Graham turned to the other two scientists. You two wait here.” Both answered with silence, and after a moment, the Colonel turned away from them and went down the internal ladder.

When he got to the airlock level, he faced down Horn or tried to. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? I’m the commander of this mission.”

“I just wanted to see them.” Horn didn’t typically get flustered, but the Commander of Hermes base was a woman, and when she looked into the airlock through the inner hatch window, her companion was as well, a young Oriental woman. Whatever sort of mission these two were from, Horn wanted to join it, at least in her fantasies.

“Well, you’re here now. Just stay out of the way.”

Without waiting for Horn to reply, Graham turned to Corrigan. “Open it up, Kip.”

Corrigan pulled down the lever disengaging the lock. The door opened outward with a hiss.

Kane and Chen removed their helmets and then their thick gloves.

“Colonel Graham, I presume?” Kane extended her right hand.

“And you’re Commander Kane.” He took her hand and grudgingly accepted her greeting noting that she had a pretty good grip.

“That’s right. Naval Commander. I’m in charge of a handful of officers and about thirty civilian colonists. This is our Chief Botanist, Shu Chen. We were heading back to Hermes after collecting soil samples a few kilometers from here when we got a report from Hermes that they’d spotted your descent on radar. We diverted here to have a look. Mind telling me where you’re from and who built this thing?”

Graham didn’t like being questioned by a woman, Naval Commander or no. “Young woman…”

“That’s Commander Kane, Colonel.”

Horn was standing off to one side absolutely delighted that Kane was putting Graham in his place. Corrigan was just looking embarrassed.

“Very well, Commander. We are from Earth, the United States of America to be exact. We are the first space craft to land on Mars and our authority is Earth Space Control in Huston, Texas.”

Kane blinked several times in near disbelief and then had an epiphany. “Colonel, what’s today’s date?”

“Friday, July 20th. Why?”

“What’s the year?”

“The year? What’s that got to do with anything?”

“The year, Colonel.”

“It’s 1951.” It was Horn who answered, eagerness apparent in her voice. Kane turned toward her. “My name is Lisa Horn. I’m the mission’s Climatologist and the only woman on board.”

“1951. 1951.” Kane was whispering. Talking to herself.

“Commander?” Graham’s patience was running low.

“I can’t deny you’re here, Colonel, and this space ship is certainly real, but it’s impossible for you to be from 1951. The first man-made satellite wasn’t launched into orbit until 1957, and Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarian was the first man to orbit the Earth, but that wasn’t until 1961.”

“You must be insane, Commander.”

“Colonel, today’s date is October 1st, 2041.”

“You mean we’re ninety years in the future?” Corrigan’s eyes were wide with excitement.

“That’s impossible.” Chen spoke up for the first time. Like Commander Kane said, manned space missions didn’t occur as early as 1951 and certainly not a manned mission to Mars. This isn’t time travel. It’s something else.”

“Look, I can prove everything I said, Colonel. We’ve got room for two more in the Rover, and Hermes is less than twenty minutes away.”

“Fine. Corrigan, break out two space suits. One for me and one for Dr. Horn.”

“What? Skipper, I thought I’d…”

“No, Kip. I need you here in charge of the ship and someone has to keep an eye on Emery and Fleming.”

Corrigan was disappointed but resigned. “Whatever you say, Skipper.”

Horn gave Graham a puzzled look.

“Don’t look so surprised, Doctor. You’re obviously curious, and after the hard time I’ve been giving you, maybe I owe you a look at the unknown.”

“Maybe there’s hope for you yet, Colonel.”

“Don’t count on it, Doctor. On the other hand, I can’t deny…” he made a sweeping hand motion at Kane and Chen “…that there are woman Astronauts in space.”

*****

“Your colony base is remarkable and nothing like anything our scientists have proposed. I’ve seen your records and listened to messages from…uh, NASA. I admit I am at a loss.”

For the past two days, Colonel Graham and Dr. Horn had been given the grand tour of Hermes base, met the senior military and civilian staff, and been made to feel at home, although quarters were cramped. The colony wasn’t scheduled to be built out for additional personnel until the Cappella Five resupply mission two years from now.

“I am as well, Colonel. By the way, thanks again for letting two of our engineers examine your space craft. They came back with an astounding report.”

“Yes, I know. The Ares One technology shouldn’t have gotten us into Earth orbit let alone to Mars. It’s a…”

“An anachronism. Like the ships imagined for old science fiction films eighty or ninety years ago.”

“Do any of your experts have a theory as to why we’re here and not on the Mars we expected in 1951?”

Kane, Graham, and Horn were sitting in the Hermes community lounge area at a small table. The coffee was passable but the vegetables from the aeroponics lab were astonishingly tasty. The first potato crop grown in Martian soil would be ready inside of a month.

“Nothing unless you want to believe in parallel dimensions. Admittedly, something must have occurred on your flight that let you travel from your reality to ours.”

“What happens if we launch back to Earth?” Horn pushed her glasses up higher on the bridge of her nose with her right index finger.

“I don’t know that, either.”

“As I see it Commander, if we launch and stay in your reality, we’ll likely die before we reach orbital space.”

“On the other hand, if you reach your reality, you’ll be perfectly safe, relative to the hazards of space travel, anyway.”

“We can’t stay here. Our science, our technology are archaic.” Graham had learned a great deal about humility in the last forty-eight hours.

“I’d like to stay.” Kane and Graham turned toward the enthusiastic Horn.

“Think about it. I’m the anachronism in the world I came from. A woman scientist in a world full of men. It was amazing that I was even selected to go to Mars, and I suspect it was just a political ploy so President Truman could win the woman’s vote for the Democrats next year.”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Horn, but our resources are limited here at Hermes. Even one more person would cause a strain.”

“I’m still the commanding officer of our mission, Doctor. I will not permit you to remain.”

“Is this just because my education and skills are outmoded, Commander?”

“I’m telling you the facts, Lisa.” Kane looked sympathetic and Horn knew it was a long shot anyway.

Horn turned to Graham. “We could all die if we launch.”

“We can’t stay here, both because supplies on Ares One are limited and because we don’t belong in this reality.”

“Commander.” Graham stood and extended his hand to Kane. “I thank you for your hospitality and apologize for my earlier brusqueness toward you.”

“Apology accepted, Colonel.” Kane stood and shook Graham’s hand. Then she turned to Horn and put her hand on the scientist’s shoulder. “Good luck. Even making it back to your Earth, I think you’ll still need it.”

“You’ve been an inspiration to me Commander…Jessica.” Kane hugged Horn which surprised her for a moment before she relaxed and accepted the act of friendship and support.

*****

“Still no word from Earth to any of our transmissions, Colonel.”

“I didn’t expect there would be, Kip.”

All five members of the mission to Mars were strapped in to their seats in launch position aboard Space Ship Ares One.

“Seems a shame to come all this way and not even take a few samples.” Emery was first angry, then frustrated, and finally depressed over the state of affairs. He’d been placed at the very edge of the realization of all his ambitions only to have it yanked away at the last moment.

“Can’t be helped, Doctor. This isn’t our Mars to explore.”

“How are we going to explain this when we get back to Earth?”

“If we get back to the Earth, Major Corrigan. I understand there’s a significant chance we won’t.”

“Have courage, Dr. Fleming. I flew us here, I can get us home.”

Lisa Horn could tell Graham wasn’t as confident of his abilities as he sounded, but he was the commanding officer in this time and this place.

She was the only one who felt she’d taken away something positive from their trip to Mars. It wasn’t her future, but maybe she or her daughter or granddaughter could have one like it someday. When she married, when she had children, she would teach them that nothing is impossible if you work hard enough for it, including overcoming a male-dominated world.

If in this reality, Jessica Kane could be born and grow up to be the Commander of a Mars colony, then Horn could raise daughters to do something like it.

“Rocket ignition in ten seconds, everyone.” Graham’s fingers were on the controls that would send their craft into space.

“Aye, Skipper. All lights on the board show green.”

“Ignition in five, four, three, two, one…Blast off!”

old marsSpace Ship Ares One commanded by Colonel Bradley Graham and carrying four other crew members including a hopeful Lisa Horn launched into whatever future that awaited them.

George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois edited an anthology called Old Mars published in 2013. The idea was to commission modern science fiction writers to author short stories about Mars such as might have been conceived when we still believed it could be possible to live on the Red Planet without space suits and shielded habitats; before the mid-1960s when we discovered just how inhospitable the Martian environment was.

The cover of the book showed a long, slender space craft resting on its rocket fins on the surface of the Red Planet. Sadly, none of the stories in the book had a tale about such a rocket, so I decided to write one. It’s for sale if Martin and Dozois decide to edit a sequel.

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