The lights came up gently in Gordon’s sleeping pod. The bed was tiny but sufficient to fit his six-foot frame in extraordinary comfort. Like everything surrounding him, it had been designed with exquisite efficiency and attention to detail. Millions of dollars had been spent to make sure that he had a comfortable and restful sleep. Surprisingly, he had been able to. He had spent the evening watching an old Tom Hanks movie and drinking what was supposed to be the celebratory champagne. Nothing to celebrate now, and no one to share it with. There didn’t seem to be a point in saving it. Wasting precious electricity on watching a movie and getting drunk was not his style, especially not in his current situation, but he didn’t think that anyone would reprimand him for his indulgence.
He got up and stretched. Normally, he would exercise for an hour in the morning before taking a shower and getting to work. However, here was not much use in exercising anymore, nor in taking a shower, or even going to work. He decided that he would shower and then check the instruments one last time regardless.
Gordon checked the clock on his desk. It read 10:00. Of course, he knew that it was much earlier than 10:00 in the morning. This was a countdown clock. Gordon had only ten minutes remaining in his relatively short life. He was a mere 38 years, three months, and five days old, but he would not get another day older. He was of above-average fitness, and he had just recently passed a rigorous physical. His normal life expectancy, according to his family and health history, should have him living until he was at least 90.
After he had showered and shaved, he went to his workstation. He saw that he had a message waiting for him.
“Hi, Gordon, this is John. Sorry, I scheduled the system to wake you a bit earlier. This is the middle of the night for you, I know, but I didn’t think you would want to miss it …uh, I mean sleep through it, after all we went through. I know that we expected things to be different, but still, it is amazing, isn’t it? In some ways, I envy you…but of course, not really. Sorry, I have gone the last few days with very little sleep. We have all been working really hard. Thinking of you…geez, this is hard.” The voice choked up before continuing.
“You know that we all did everything we could to save you – we went through every possible scenario. But we failed, and I am really, really sorry for that. Everybody has been rooting for you, and looking for ways to keep you alive, but there is really nothing that could be done. No one could have expected…I feel terrible, and believe me, I would trade places with you in a second if I could. I just wanted to say goodbye. It was an honor to know you, and I just wanted to let you know how proud we all are of you. We will honor you and your work for the rest of our lives. We will take care of your daughter for you, Gordon. We will see to that. Due to the message delay, this will be our last communication before… well, you know. God bless.”
Over the last few days, Gordon had received a lot of such messages – from the President of the United States, school children, Hollywood stars, famous musicians, friends, colleagues, and family. Even from his ex-wife and daughter. They wanted to let him know that they were praying for him, how sad they were that he had to die, how much they looked up to and respected him, and how he would never be forgotten. His high school had been renamed in his honor. He had received honorary degrees, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and too many other awards than he cared to remember.
He felt his anxiety rising. He had always been a risk taker, and had faced the possibility of death more times in his life than he could remember. He had even faced the probability of death a few times, and lived to brag about it. But he had never faced the inevitability of death, and he was not prepared for it. He had been so focused on his career that he never had time to deal with the existential questions of the meaning of life and where we go after we die. What does one do with the last ten minutes of one’s life?
Gordon got himself a cup of coffee. Then he checked his instruments for a final time. He knew there was no reason to, they would continue to record data for as long as they could without his involvement.
He took his coffee to the window and looked out at the stars. The view always inspired him and filled him with a sense of amazement and adventure. How many worlds were out there? How many beings might be staring right back at him from an unimaginable distance? Today, he felt a certain melancholy that he would never know the truth. The future would have to reveal its secrets to another generation.
There! There it was! The brightest light in the sky. He had never seen it so bright and so large before tonight. He grabbed an old-fashioned telescope from the wall and trained it on the bright light.
“I slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” he said reverently. One of his favorite quotes. He would be touching the face of God soon enough. The blunt force trauma of it would end his life instantly. If there was a God, Gordon hoped that he would forgive a sinner like him, even one that had murdered his colleagues.
His mind began to race. His thoughts came to him like they were being sprayed from a firehose. It was as if his brain was trying to get in as much thinking as it could in the last few minutes of his life. His thoughts wandered back to when things had all gone wrong.
It was a routine night shift in the command center. The hardest part of watch duty was trying to stay awake. Gordon was slumped down in the commander’s seat, his glance wandering from the large screen in front of him to the starfield visible in the windows. There were no changes visible. Boredom had set in, and he began to daydream. He knew that daydreaming could easily lead to sleep if he wasn’t careful. For the 100th time, he walked through the EDL procedures and his role for when they finally, after a long three months trapped in close quarters, reached the final orbit. EDL was the acronym for Entry, Descent, and Landing, but it was also known as the “Seven Minutes of Terror” when history would be made. Whether it was a tragic or victorious history would be up to him and the rest of the crew. While Gordon’s role was relatively minor compared to the mission commander’s, it was still critical.
Suddenly, Gordon was torn from his reverie by a loud bang and the subsequent alarm. At first, he was frozen in shock, but then his training kicked in, and he checked the display to see that the source of the alarm was multiple fire sensors in the living quarters. The airlock between the command unit and the living quarters had already been closed by an automatic trigger. Gordon quickly switched on the cameras to the living quarters. All he could see was smoke and the odd round blue flames that occur in zero gravity. He had trained for this eventuality, but it had never occurred to him that he might ever use his training. Nevertheless, he knew that he would have to act quickly, even as the stress tightened in his stomach and invaded his thoughts. A fire in a spaceship was a very serious matter. They were sitting on tons of fuel that could explode at any minute. Gordon activated the intercom. “Hey, guys, what is going on down there? What happened? Initialize fire prevention measures immediately.” There was no response. Gordon walked through the training in his mind: Assess the problem. If critical, warn the other crew members. Initialize fire prevention measures. Use fire extinguishers to put out the fire as quickly as possible. As a last measure, evacuate the airlock of the impacted sectors. Gordon knew that the last step was an extreme one, and only should be taken if the crew members were suited up. Opening the airlock would instantly remove all the oxygen and pressure from the sector, essentially exposing it to space. This would instantly put out the fire, but would also kill anyone who was not in a protective suit.
“C’mon guys! Talk to me! This looks bad, I think you need to suit up!” No response.
Gordon was starting to panic. His training hadn’t taught him to deal with receiving no response from anyone else. He needed to know what was going on. What the hell had happened? As the seconds ticked by, he watched the fire getting worse. The smoke was blocking the view of the camera, and he could neither see nor hear any sign of the crew. Were they already dead in their sleeping bunks? He needed to make a decision. The guidance that he had been given was to use his best judgment. Easy to say when you are in a training facility, but not so easy when one was 200 million miles away and with no support or information. He had already sent an emergency message to Boca Chica, but he could not expect a response for at least another 15 minutes.
“Can you hear me? Please respond! Suit up guys, I am evacuating the sector in 5 minutes!”
For the first time in his life, Gordon was experiencing outright terror. He was drenched in sweat, and felt almost paralyzed. His mind could not deal with the sudden lurch from boredom to panic. He needed to fix this, and to fix it fast. He expected that at any moment the fuel tanks would catch fire, and the entire mission would be torn to shreds. He also knew that any surviving crew members would suffocate if they had not heard his call to suit up.
“Initiating airlock evacuation. Guys, if you are there, you really need to talk to me. Give me a sign!” No response.
His heart sunk and his finger trembled. “Opening outer airlock…Outer airlock open. Opening inner airlock in 10..9..8..7..6..5..4..3..2..1. God forgive me. Opening inner airlock… now!”
Gordon watched in horror as the air, smoke, burned material and random items that had become loose were blown out into space. He knew that whatever had just happened, he was now very, very alone. The loneliest human in history. Lonely and without hope.
Although there had been miraculous stories of people surviving plane crashes, he was hurtling through space on an 85-ton ship, traveling at 26 kilometers per second. The energy released on impact would be the equivalent to the largest nuclear bomb that had ever been detonated. The impact would be visible from earth. His body and everything that made up the “Big Falcon Rocket” would be instantly atomized.
In the intervening weeks since the VBE (Very Bad Event), the team in Boca Chica, in cooperation with experts across the world, tried to work out any possible way to change the trajectory of the ship and of Gordon “Lightfoot” Jackson. It was determined that the VBE was caused by a large micro asteroid that had pierced the fuel tank on its way to setting the living quarters on fire. It was estimated to have been about the size of a pea. The fuel tank was now empty, and even if there was fuel available, it would have been suicidal to try to restart the navigation rockets with the damage the ship had been dealt.
Gordon had to be convinced to collect the bodies of his colleagues, place them in the airlock, and eject them into space. There was a concern about a “biological contamination” of the impact site. In other words, if they eventually found evidence of organic material on Mars, they would not know if it was native or the remains of his colleagues that had been splattered on impact. There was even a question if Gordon would be willing to eject himself before impact to prevent such “contamination”. He quickly shut down that discussion by telling them in no uncertain terms to go fuck themselves. He would be the first person to see the surface of Mars with his own eyes. He would be the first human to reach the surface of Mars, even if it were only for a tiny fraction of a second. He would be the first man to die on another planet. He actually hoped that some bacteria or virus from his body might, by some miracle, survive the impact. The idea that his corpse might serve as some sort of panspermia that would eventually seed life on Mars had crossed his mind. It brought him some sort of comfort.
He had carefully suited up and moved into the living quarters. He was met with a chaotic scene. Everything that had been broken loose in the collision, fire, or the pressure of the air hatch release was floating around in zero gravity. Gordon’s breath stuck in his throat as he encountered the first corpse of the crew. He had hoped that he would find them strapped into their beds. He wanted to believe that they had died in their sleep and not due to the sudden loss of oxygen that occurred when the airlock had been evacuated. He did not want to believe that he had panicked and killed them all. The fact that he had not found them in their beds made this a strong possibility that Gordon had hoped he would not have to face.
On the other hand, he thought to himself, what good would it have been had they survived? They would also be in the same position that he was in now. He could not have saved them; he could only have extended their lives by a few weeks. Somehow, that did not comfort him. He dressed the three corpses that he could find in their IVA suits before placing them in the airlock. There was no real reason to do so, but he thought it was somehow more dignified. He never found Tom Thompson’s corpse, and assumed it had been sucked out into space when the airlock opened. Gordon said a few words that he remembered from his parent’s funeral, and then started the sequence to open the outer airlock doors. As he watched his friends drift off into space, he felt like a murderer.
Gordon shook his head to bring himself into the present once more. He checked his watch. Another three minutes and two seconds left to live. The brightest light in the sky had gotten significantly brighter, and he had finished his last cup of coffee. He moved to the larger windows in the command module and the view that he had traveled 300 million miles to see. On the navigator’s seat was the last bottle of champagne emblazoned with the bright label “First Crew to Mars!”. It was fastened by security belts so that it didn’t float around the cabin. He sat in the comfortable seat, and watched with fascination and horror as Mars began to grow ever larger until he could make out individual features on the surface. “It won’t be long now,” he thought as he took a swig of the champagne.
He wondered if he would be able to see where his landing site was supposed to be. He knew that the ERV, the Earth Return Vehicle, had been delivered by a previous mission, and had been supplied by autonomous robots with enough fuel to get him safely back to earth.
“If only…” he sighed.
He punched a button on the control panel, and David Bowie’s “A Space Oddity” began to blast on the speakers. He watched in terrible fascination as the screen began to fill with a spectacular view of the planet. How many people would be willing to die with me just to be able to see this? Gordon thought. Maybe it was worth it after all. He need not worry about his legacy. He had led a fairly decent life. He got to do and see amazing things. Maybe death would not be so bad. Better than wasting away in dementia as he had seen with his grandparents, or slowly being eaten away by cancer as his parents had suffered. Still, he wished he could have been around a little longer. Maybe even fix the relationship with his daughter, who was the only one left that he really loved.
“Better to burn out than slowly fade away,” he said to no one, “this will be one hell of a burnout.”
Of course, the cameras would be capturing his last minutes and transferring them back to Boca Chica. The delay in communication would mean that his last words would arrive 10 minutes after he no longer existed.
The screen by now had filled with the red planet. Gordon wished that he had time to analyze what he was seeing – to take it all in and to enjoy this historic moment. He checked the time once more, and saw he had about 10 seconds left in his life. He pulled out a piece of paper that he had prepared weeks in advance, just for this moment.
In a strong and determined voice, he read, “This is one small sacrifice for a man, one giant leap for mank….”