The heroic survivor of a disastrous mars mission searches for meaning amidst tragedy . . . and fame.
As we left earth orbit for Mars, I think all our faces bore the same reverent expression as Kinsey’s.
That’s how I will always remember him. Reverent.
He would’ve laughed to hear me say that.
But we all felt that devotion then. For my part, I had never believed in something so much in my life. I believed in it so hard it hurt, so hard that had I not been chosen, I would have wept. And not from disappointment, but from joyful awe.
I have never been religious, per se. But as those great engines thrust us into a Hohmann Transfer Orbit, I might have let slip a little prayer of sorts. And a tear most definitely fell. Only one, though. I was conscious of the cameras. And in truth (I have enough distance from the events that followed that I feel safe saying this), I let that tear go because I knew it would make for good television. I’m not ashamed to say it. If a little melodrama got viewers, I was happy to oblige. I wanted people engaged, because I would not let what happened to the Apollo program happen to the Mars program.
So back to that little prayer. I would have been embarrassed if anyone had heard it. And I would have likely alienated a bunch of people because I addressed it in a wishy-washy way. I never could speak to God, so instead I invoked a synonym. I said: “Universe, guide me safely to your angry, red son.” It was a bit over-the-top. Bad poetry, I know. I should have just said, “God, get me safely to Mars.” But that’s not who I was.
I often wonder if that little prayer is what spared me. Even though I know better, I sometimes feel the skeletal fingers of guilt stroking my conscience because I asked for my own safety, and not that of the crew.
Me. Selfish, Maddy Sorenski. The girl who always, always, always had to be first.
Which was just the type of person the agency had been looking for. We had all been chosen, impossibly, out of a multitude of qualified, intelligent, and dedicated professionals. Every ambassador, politician, pundit, celebrity, and blowhard with a microphone or blog weighed in on who should be picked. Odds are, there was an interest group somewhere who advocated for a woman exactly like me: late twenties, halfway between five and six feet tall, unnaturally redheaded, and addicted to Kona coffee. The crew selection process, already fraught with controversy, ignited a firestorm of debate when the agency announced a crew of only four people. Even worse, it was composed of two women and two men. In response, one TV commentator literally foamed at the mouth. Because, you know, we might have sex in space.
Pleasing all the “stakeholders” had been an impossible task, of course. And once our names were released, each of us was pilloried and lauded in equal parts by members of our own ethnicities, professions, and home towns.
And yet the mission went forward. And for the crew, at least, almost all of the politicking was left behind.
But during the quiet months of our journey, there was one political question that still nagged. It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. And that’s because of the type of people they’d chosen. As the weeks went on, the question became as intolerable as an itch on the sole of my foot. And yet there was no way I could scratch it.
Every one of us had climbed at least five of the highest mountains in the world. Kin had twice summited Mount Everest, once without supplemental oxygen. I had run four Iron Man triathlons, always finishing in the top 20. And I had done it during my college years. All of us had graduated at the top of our classes. In every endeavor we strove to be first.
And so there we were, the first human mission to Mars. Finally, after decades of delay, after all of those who had witnessed Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong’s small step had given up hope that the promise of outward exploration would be kept, we were finally taking the next giant leap. We were all highly conscious of the history we were making. And journalists reminded us about it all the time. They always asked the one question we couldn’t answer: Who will be the first to step foot on Mars?
We had kept the secret, not because the organization had told us not to tell, but because the decision had not yet been made. And more than anything, mission director, Wilson Jones, did not want that fact to generate speculation among the media. He dreaded the unending phone calls from government officials, bureaucrats, and interest group honchos who sought to influence–or purchase–the decision.
Two weeks out from Mars, the question still remained. Wilson sent us a comm packet telling us to vote on it. Only three of us would be making the descent. Mahsa would stay in the orbiter. She’d known that from day one, but it still bothered her. By the time we voted, she had come to accept it, I think. We had become good friends, in some ways closer than sisters. And because of that, the men knew that she would vote for me. And I certainly would vote for me.
I knew Kinsey’s position because we had discussed it at length during many long spans of idle time alone in his cramped little sleeping quarters, arms wrapped around each other, skin against skin. He would tell me how he had to be first, and I often wondered if our love affair was merely his way of manipulating me, trying to get me to sacrifice my opportunity for history out of love. Kinsey was like that. I knew that. He manipulated as instinctually as he breathed. It didn’t offend me, because I did it, too.
The vote meant that Erich and Kinsey had a quandary on their hands. The best they could do was create a tie. Which is what they did. Erich voted for Kinsey. Mahsa voted for me.
Then the directive came in from Mission Control, a high-band audio packet instructing us to all gather. We assembled the small dining table and took our seats in the quarter gravity of our spinning tube. Tense and wide-eyed we fixed our eyes on the flat screen and the face of Wilson Jones. He stared out, smiling in his grandfatherly way. I could see immediately by the set of his mouth that the answer we’d been waiting for was coming.
He kept it short. “I want you to all know that this decision was made very early on. Kinsey, you will be the first man on Mars.”
Kinsey broke into a huge lopsided grin that I usually found so attractive. He let out a loud laugh and a relieved exhalation. “Well, damn, Wilson. It’s about time you let these guys know.”
Erich’s face paled with shock and disappointment. I’m sure I looked the same. The sting of the decision warred in my mind with the stab of betrayal. Because based on what Kin had just said, he’d known all along.
He’d known all along and he’d let me dream. “Why did we bother voting?” I asked.
I had to wait an hour and a half for Wilson’s response. “Because we’d hoped you’d have come to a consensus by now. That would have mitigated resentment among the crew. But you didn’t agree, so we fell back on our contingency.”
Later in Kinsey’s compartment, as rested my head on his naked shoulder, I held back tears because I simply would not allow myself to cry. He held me close and kissed the crown of my head. He swore that he hadn’t really known the decision. He’d only been joking. “I’d give you anything else, Mads. But be honest. If the first step was yours to give, you would keep it, too.”
He was right.
Before we left Earth orbit, during the endless media interviews that the agency’s PR people scheduled for me, journalists always asked if I was afraid. They never asked the men that, by the way. And they never asked them for “the male perspective” either.
Even the women journalists leaned forward, eyes wide. “So tell me, Maddy, what part of the mission scares you the most?”
I always answered that it was the doubt about the funding of future missions that scared me most. But in my frequent wee-hour insomnia, I did shudder when I thought of the descent to Mars. I would not be in the cockpit. Kinsey was the pilot, I was just a scientist. I never liked giving up control when my safety was in question.
When the time came, after months of silent days in the void, I was strapped in my seat, facing up, my back braced against the gees of deceleration. My heart galloped, my breath heaved, and I’m pretty sure I whooped some enthusiastic obscenities.
I tuned my headset into the cockpit chatter. Kinsey’s Tennessee twang, low and calm, was the perfect counterpoint to my exuberance. I imagined the deep furrows of concentration drawing his brows together. His lips would be pursed just so. He’d be chewing his tongue. It was the way he looked when he listened to a challenging idea. The way he looked at me when we were alone together.
Erich’s crisp German accent announced our progress. “600 meters. Forty-seven degrees.”
In the orbiter, Mahsa tracked our descent and relayed telemetry stream back to earth. She was as helpless as I was. “Looking good, boys.”
Because of the barely-there atmosphere, the craft didn’t shake like it does for earth reentry. Aside from the vibrations and roar of the engines, it was relatively quiet. Relatively. I distinctly remember thinking that my dad would have loved it. He had always taken me on the most insane roller-coasters while Mom stayed behind. He taught me to love the fear. And despite all my sleepless hours worrying about that phase of the mission, I grinned like an idiot almost the whole way down.
Erich narrated our descent. “200 meters. Ten down, forty forward.”
Kinsey’s “roger” with the hard R’s overlapped Erich’s update.
“150 meters. Eight down, 37 forward.”
“Roger. Fuel check.
“Thirty-three point four percent. Nominal.”
“There’s something not . . .”
Unusual for Kin to leave a thought in the middle.
“120 meters. Eighteen down, 28 forward. Too fast, Kin.”
“What do you mean?”
Mahsa’s voice, clipped and tinny: “Descent report.”
“80 meters. Ten down, 20 forward.”
“Switching control circuit.”
“Am I missing something?”
An alarm warbled, rude and piercing. It cut off after a second. My heart beat in an all-out sprint. I held my breath. My grin was gone.
“There!” Erich cried.
“60 meters. Ten down, 20 forward.”
“It’s gonna be hard.”
“40 meters ten down 20 forward. Fuel 15%. Burn it.”
Kinsey’s voice. “We’re locked. Unrespons–”
“Abort!” Mahsa’s voice crackled. “Come back up, we’ll do another try–.”
“24 meters. Five down, 15 forward.”
Fear, sharp and bitter, spread my nostrils and constricted my throat.
“20 meters. Five down, 10 forward. Still too fast.”
Kinsey’s voice, strained: “I got something.”
“12 meters. Four down, 10 forward.”
My weight doubled in a second. An unholy roar swallowed my groan.
“5 meters. Two down, 6 forward.”
“2 meters. Two down–”
We struck Mars hard, canted at a weird angle. The lights went out. Gravity switched, confusing my ear. With a jolt, my arms and legs jerked toward the forward bulkhead. Gravity pulled me against my harness, sending electric jolts of pain across my chest.
The ship tumbled. I can only imagine what it might have looked like from the outside. Our lander bouncing end over end like bowling pin.
We slammed to a stop and the engine noise cut out. A symphony of alarm squawks, beeps, and buzzes filled the cabin, accompanied by the hissing of air escaping from piping. Seconds ticked by in syrupy drips, each time-span as wide and empty as interstellar space. Thoughts popped on the surface of my consciousness, each as insubstantial and fleeting as a soap bubble.
I inhaled. And with that breath, time returned and my thoughts coalesced.
Instinctively, I turned to check the life support displays off to my left. Most of the screens were dark, but several indicator LEDs flashed red. I couldn’t remember the order they were in, but it didn’t matter. The ship was obviously bleeding air. My training kicked in. I slid the visor down on my helmet and checked the seal, thankful that we’d been forced to wear the damn things during the decent. And this despite all of the arguments we’d made that the helmets weren’t necessary.
“If we crash, the helmets won’t save us,” Kinsey had argued.
My visor display showed that my suit was intact and functioning properly. My hands went to my harness buckles, but I was shaking so hard I couldn’t release them. And it was then, staring at my gloves, that I realized that Kinsey wasn’t wearing his, and he certainly wasn’t wearing his helmet. His mantra had always been, “Ask for forgiveness, not permission.” And 25 million miles from earth, nobody had any leverage over him. He would have done what he had always done–things his way.
Knowing this, I fumbled even more urgently with my buckles and finally got free. Mars pulled me sideways right into the life support diagnostics panel. We had landed on our side. The fall wasn’t far and the gravity was light, but my helmet struck one of the screens, sending a spider web of cracks across it. I got to my hands and knees and climbed forward, pulling on loose hoses, drawer handles, and bulkhead braces to reach the cockpit hatch.
“Kin? Erich?” The radios were silent.
I slammed the button to open the hatch. It did not respond. I glanced around trying to spot the source of the leak of our atmosphere, but it wasn’t apparent. The computer was set to override the hatch controls in just such a case. I pounded on the door. No response. I pounded again, screaming for Kin, for Erich. No response. And then the lights and the alarms cut out, and I was left in absolute blackness and silence.
The sudden quiet made my thoughts sound like screams, my breath, roars.
Panic built in my chest, threatened to explode in a flurry of tentacles that would pull me into the depths of madness. My lungs gulped in short, shallow breaths, desperately building up to power the shrieks my animal mind wanted so desperately loose.
But I held it at bay. How, exactly, I don’t know. Maybe it was shock. But in my quieter moments, I think it was faith. In the Universe, perhaps. But more than that, I believed in the mission. I believed in it so hard that I curled my hands into fists, and with jittery blinks of my eyelids, got my helmet light turned on.
It took me 45 minutes to go through the manual override procedure for the exterior hatch. The hardest part was making sure the stairs didn’t deploy, because the hatch was facing straight up toward the pink sky. I emerged into Martian daylight and looked around, not really caring about what I was seeing. I pulled myself onto the hull and stood facing the landing cockpit.
I took careful steps across the white aluminum, stopping on the agency’s olive-branch-encircled logo. There was no need to go farther, as I could easily see the crushed and torn panels ahead of me, as if a giant had crushed and twisted the command pod like a Coke can. Kin and Erich hadn’t a chance, both likely killed between heartbeats. I didn’t want to go down and investigate, didn’t want to see what was left of my lover and of my crewmate.
Panic threatened to rise again. My mind wanted to think twenty thoughts at once, and it couldn’t handle any of them. I turned it off. Somehow. Maybe it was my meditation training. Whatever it was, I managed to turn away from the damage. And I kept turning, using the vantage of my perch atop the fallen spacecraft to assess my location. I recognized the terrain right away, having stared for hours upon hours at panoramic photographs of that very location. We had crashed right in the middle of our intended landing zone.
I picked out the small, pointed boulder we’d named Eiffel Tower. That was north. I turned right, and in the hazy, pink distance rose the lip of Terrance Crater, like a miniature mountain range. Turning south, past the bulk of the engine pack was Kit’s Shelf, named after one of the lander’s design engineers who had lost his life in an auto accident. Another 90-degree turn to the right sapped the panic from me. As welcome as a candle in a window a blustery autumn night, I saw the Habitat and the departure module.
A strange sensation buzzed in my bones and blood vessels upon seeing it. We had known the habitat module had landed in perfect condition. It had been there, generating oxygen, fuel, and water for over two years before we had even left earth. It meant I would live. And the departure module was my return ticket home, assuming I could be trained to fly it.
But that wasn’t the foremost concern in my mind.
I slipped back into to the damaged spacecraft and dug out five or six narrow straps, which I connected to each other and secured to a handhold inside the hatch. Then, with my heart leaping, I started to rappel down the side. It seemed ridiculous to me as I was doing it. I knew that my helmet cam was capturing the moment. But I had no idea that one of the exterior cameras on the lander was recording footage of my climb in its onboard memory. So I had no clue that my inelegant descent would become such an iconic moment in the course of human history. So much so that the USPS issued a stamp commemorating it, even though no one had used a stamp in thirty years.
So I climbed most of the way down before stopping with my feet braced against the side of the lander, just above the rusty soil. Despite the buzzing fear still clouding my mind, I became very conscious of where I was and what I was about to do.
To this day I am grateful that I did not recite the line I had prepared. “One giant leap for mankind, one small step for a woman.” I cringe when I remember how much I labored over that stupid phrase. I spent weeks wondering if I should take the “a” out of the second line or to leave it in. I had decided to leave it in. Who was I to speak for all women, after all? Besides, I was far too egotistical to share the credit. But because of the accident, I offered a different phrase, an alternate that I’d toyed with during the flight.
I wasn’t aware at the time that I had phrased like a prayer. “Let this small step be the first of many upon this world. And from this day forward, let not a single day pass that the human race does not dwell here.”
I let go of my improvised rope and landed softly on the dirt. I looked down at my feet, encased in heavy boots, surrounded by the alien ground. I stared. And I stared. Finally, I checked my helmet cam to make sure that the moment had been captured, and it had. And then I looked straight into the pinhole camera inside my helmet, the one aimed at my face. What I said next was not preplanned. “I am here now.”
I see still see t-shirts with that phrase emblazoned across the front. It makes me smile.
I checked my air and then walked alongside the craft until I got to the command pod. I stopped, chilled by the jagged rent in its skin, which gaped like the mouth of a huge, alien predator. After a few breaths, I forced myself to creep closer, knowing that once I got to the Habitat, I would have to report whether my crew mates were alive or dead. I peered into the fissure . . . and that’s as much as I’m going to say about it. My helmet cam captured it, and I hope that those images stay classified until the sun goes nova and burns us all to nothingness.
I turned away from the ship and started my traverse to the Habitat, which jutted like an inflatable Quonset hut from the red dust. After months spent in the .25 gees of spin gravity, Mars’ .38 pulled at me. Though my legs burned, I welcomed the weight because of what it meant. Success.
I’m still amazed that I was able to see it that way. But I did. I felt that we had succeeded.
And we had.
As I crossed the flat, rocky expanse from the crash site to the habitat, I looked around, stupidly. I kept telling myself to pay attention, but I started to get distracted by a meaningless philosophical question. What does it mean to see what I’m seeing? After all of the controversy of the crew selection process and the decision for Kinsey to be first, the fact that it was me seeing it all had to mean something. Damned if I knew what it was, and I still don’t know.
Instinct told me that some commentary was needed, that those who had been following my official mission blog back home would want to know my thoughts and feelings. You can hear the raw audio and see the video at the agency’s website. I find the written version more compelling, but I am self-conscious. I don’t like to hear my own voice, and I hate how ragged my breathing was. I’m told that it adds to the drama, though.
Here’s the transcript: “I have just crash-landed on Mars, and this is a record of my first steps. The landscape is at once alien and familiar. The rocks look like rocks, although I’ve been trained by geologists to see things that I otherwise would not. I say it’s familiar because over the past five years, I’ve studied this region in minute detail via rover images. Most of these landmarks already have names. There’s Thumbtack, Junk Drawer, Mickey Nose, Star Destroyer. And Punk Face is . . . Oh no. PF is behind the lander. That’s where we came down, not sure what went wrong yet. Um . . . Walking is hard, and I do wish our artificial gravity had been somewhat heavier than this because it would make it a lot more fun. But still, I can stride long distances. I’m certain I could do a flip. That’s what Erich kept talking about the whole ride over, how he was going to do flips.”
I did a flip.
The agency didn’t want us doing flips. Or anything else that involved risk. They never seemed to accept that the whole endeavor was fraught with danger. I think that was their arrogance, that every risk could be mitigated through design and redundancy. Sometimes you just have to go for it. And that’s what we had done. We went for it, and something went wrong. I didn’t know if it was a malfunction, or if Kinsey was hot-dogging, or if it was just bad luck.
Even as I traversed to the habitat, I worried that the accident would jeopardize future missions. That was my biggest concern. And that’s why I turned the helmet cam on the crash site for another moment and uttered, extemporaneously, what became my most famous lines: “I am here. I am standing here. Alive. We made it. It can be done. Don’t let this tragedy end it. Let’s not make the mistake we made when we gave up in 1972. Let’s not cast the shadow of disappointment over three more generations of dreamers.”
Once in the habitat, I got to take a shower for the first time in three months. There were no cameras there to capture my tears. Joy, grief. In that order.
I’ve been criticized for my lack of emotion over the death of my crewmates. I understand this, but the public doesn’t know about the psyche evals we endured during the screening process. Among other things, they established that I am not claustrophobic, and I am not phased by finding snakes or spiders in my bed.
Early on, they forced us to take off our parachutes, throw them out of a plane, and then jump after them. I was one of only two candidates in my cohort who made it past that screening. The other was Kinsey, of course. Even after we’d been selected, we were told on three separate occasions that one of our crewmates had been killed in an accident. They once told us that Erich had committed suicide, just to see how we’d react. Xing Pan, my alternate, washed out of the program because of that lie.
During the training, I lived for three months alone at the Antarctic base. I came away happier and more at peace with myself than I’d been in my entire life. That’s when I’d taken up meditation. I know when I say all this, I sound arrogant. That’s not my intent. I’m just trying to make a logical point, that for whatever reason, I’ve been gifted with resiliency, an ability to take setbacks in stride and not be defeated by anything. I think that’s what made Kinsey and me so compatible. Yes, we loved each other, and I don’t want to minimize that, but we knew that each of us could live without the other. He had even talked about that very thing. I’ll never forget how he kissed my nose and brushed the hair from my eyes. “If something happens to me . . . you will carry on.”
My grief over his death stayed quiescent for a long time. I shrug off the criticism that I’m too cold, because I know in my heart that it was because I loved Kinsey that I carried on the way that I did. In fervent whispers over his pillow, we had revealed our hearts to each other. The commitment that bound us together was not to each other, but to the mission.
Mahsa had spotted the fallen lander using the orbiter’s onboard optics. Because the lander’s transmissions had cut out, including all telemetry, Mahsa–and everyone back home–had assumed we were all dead.
My shower was short, 33 seconds of piping hot water. I dried off, slipped into my khakis and a blue polo with my name in white embroidered on the left breast. Misspelled, of course. M-A-D-D-I-E. It just goes to show that details get missed.
It was only then, when I was clean and dressed, that I went to the radio. “Orbiter, this is Mars Habitat 1.”
Almost instantly Mahsa’s voice came back. “Maddy? Oh my God! Maddy, are you okay?”
Mahsa had always been more emotional than the rest of us. The psyche evaluators had determined that her short, intense outbursts were an acceptable way to deal with her emotions, and that she was in no way fragile. After working with her for several months, none of us questioned her mettle.
“I am fine and uninjured. Kinsey and Erich are both dead. We crash-landed approximately 250 meters from the habitat. The command pod was crushed and suffered instantaneous decompression. The bodies are inaccessible until hatch overrides inside the lander can be sorted out. I commenced an EVA at approximately oh-eight-hundred, Mars time. I stepped onto the surface, inspected the damage, assessed the condition of Kinsey and Erich, and then traversed to the habitat.”
When I listen back to the recording of that transmission, my voice sounds flat even to my own ears. My only explanation is that I’d crashed from the adrenaline high I’d been riding. That, and I’d popped a mild sedative from the pharmacy in order to calm my shaking hands.
Mahsa and I continued to talk after she turned the earth relay off. She cried a lot, but I knew it was her way. At all times she remained professional and attended to her duty.
Once we ran out of things to say, I got to work. The first order of business was to package my helmet cam footage along with an official report of the crash. I included a package of the lander’s telemetry data, which I’d cross-loaded before exiting the lander. That info would allow the agency to reconstruct the descent and hopefully figure out what had gone wrong.
But I had already figured out what had gone wrong. Kinsey had lost attitude control due to a malfunction of one or more of the thruster arrays. He had slowed us as much as he could in those last seconds. It hadn’t been enough. I survived due to dumb luck. Or maybe it was that prayer.
Three hours later, Mahsa relayed a video packet from Wilson Jones. His eyes, red and puffy and set deep in his gray face, blinked at me for a few moments. He said something about sorrow and prayers. In truth, by then I was ahead of him. And then he changed his tone to encourage me, making sure I’d buck up and keep going forward. He said everyone was impressed with my plea to not let this setback keep us from our continued mission, and that insta-polls showed that support for the Mars program had actually increased in light of the accident and my response to it.
“You are a hero, Maddy,” Wilson said. “Perhaps the most famous person on earth.”
I don’t know why he said that. Fame had never mattered to me. I never made a habit of turning around to see how many people were watching me. I always focused ahead to make sure that nobody was in front of me.
Wilson said that the agency wanted me to secure the bodies and bring them back to the Habitat. I could leave them outside, but when the launch window arrived, I would bring them inside and I would return with them to earth.
I refused. I said I would bury them on Mars, which is what they would have wished.
This caused a fair amount of consternation, but I didn’t budge. And to make sure that they dropped it, I improvised a funeral ceremony in view of the Habitat cameras. I used one of the dozers to scoop out a giant chunk of dust and rock. I dragged the body bags into the hole and covered it up. And then, using the backhoe on the dozer, I placed Eiffel Tower on the burial mound. I edited all this video into a five-minute film and synched it to an audio recording of a graduation speech Kinsey had made three years earlier. “I have climbed mountains. I have flown jets. I have taken enemy fire. I have wept with my brothers. I have been given opportunities I wasn’t ready for, and I’ve been fired from jobs I was too good for. I have sometimes taken more than I’ve given. And in quiet moments on ocean shores, I have stared at the immortal stars and made wishes. I won’t tell you that your dreams will come true if you believe hard enough. Luck does play her part. But I will say this: Action is the thing. So I charge all of you with this–and once you’ve heard this, you can’t in good faith live your lives in any other way. Never do a thing merely for the accomplishment. That’s looking backward before you’ve even started. Whatever you choose to do, do it for the doing. Because doing is the perfect expression of humanity.”
I had Mahsa relay the video on the open channel so that the media could pick it up directly. The agency never said anything about it, and the issue of returning the bodies to earth never came up again. Mahsa later told me that the insta-polls had swung dramatically, and that following the burial, sentiment was 97% in favor of leaving the fallen astronauts on Mars.
A few days later a video comm packet arrived. As always, Wilson Jones peered out at me. And I could tell by the look in his eyes he thought he bore good news. He told me that a Hohmann transit window would open in a few weeks. I should prepare to evac from Mars, and Mahsa and I would return home.
My reply was famously punctuated with a few coolly voiced obscenities. If you must hear it, you can find it in its gloriously profane entirety in any number of places on the net. The gist of my fifteen minute response was this: “Hell no!”
A journalist once asked me why I was so committed to colonizing Mars. She wanted to know what about earth I found so objectionable that I would forsake my comfortable blue home world. This is what I told her. “It’s not that I find earth objectionable. I loved this world, I love my fellow humans. I love what humanity has become, despite all of our flaws. But humanity wasn’t put here just to live and grow and procreate and exist. I believe we were put here as a way for the universe to explore her own depths. We’re here so she can understand herself. Exploration is our sacred trust.”
The reporter stared at me with a strange look in her eyes and said, “So you’re religious?”
That was the depth of most of my interactions with the media. They never really understood what I was talking about. Maybe it’s because it didn’t fit into the 60-second segment they were trying to shoot. Maybe I just explained myself poorly.
The Habitat had small windows. During my two earth-years on Mars, I often stared out of them, taking in the landscape. Not thinking about it, just observing. I knew the cameras were recording everything at all times. They were recording when I ate, when I slept. When I left the Habitat, while I was gone, and when I returned. They recorded my helmet’s view both front and back. And then there were the computers, which continuously recorded all the telemetry from my suit and the habitat. There were even computers dedicated to recording the state of other computers. My point is that there is no factoid about that mission that was not recorded. And yet I felt a compulsion to watch the landscape, as if my eyes could pick up something the unsleeping machines missed.
I wish I had been trained as a painter so that I could describe the colors and shadows more accurately. And I wish I’d studied poetry, so that I could move you with the emotions I experienced there. Talking about it now, I feel like a child who simply does not have the words to express her magnificently important idea. If you were here with me, you would learn more from how I wave my hands when I talk about Mars than by what I actually say.
Even now I can feel Mars, the same way I can close my eyes and feel Kinsey’s cheek against mine.
The universe revealed herself to me in Mars’s muted pastels. She is awash in gradients, continuums of color, of reds and even occasional stains of blue and verdigris. I caught glimpses of something profound–something significant–in those strange pink dawns and fiery red sunsets. I saw the shadow of a message in the cloud-veils scudding overhead at 100 kilometers per hour. I grasped at an astonishing truth etched in the rusty basalt. I counted her years in the salmon strata that mark the epochs of the world, like the pencil-thin rings in an oak’s stump. I beheld her face, molded by her own indelicate hands, in the rusted boulders she’d strewn across fields of impact ejecta.
She speaks in these ways. She leaves clues in the details you can’t see until you look without thinking.
I told Mahsa all this and she said, “Don’t put that in your reports. They’ll think you’re going nuts.”
But in my daily interviews, the psyche profile always came back normal. Ironically, I think that worried some people back home. That I was doing too well in light of the crash. But it’s not true that I forgot about Kinsey and Erich.
When I went out to take care of some manual labor involved in expanding the Habitat or to scope out possible new sites for the next lander, I always stopped at their grave. I knelt in the dust and wiped off whatever had accumulated on Eiffel Tower. I would talk to Kinsey, making sure to cut the microphone so that my words weren’t recorded for posterity, because that conversation was for him. But I remember what I said because it always followed the same riffs. I would tell him about the weather. “It’s minus 30 today. Winds are 60 kilometers. It’s as clear as it gets.” I would tell him about how the dozer was performing. I confirmed his fears about the buggy and its tendency to pop wheelies when hitting stones at speed. But I also told him that the suspension was doing very well and was much more robust than we’d expected.
I told him that, when I went far out–eight or nine kilometers from the Habitat–an amazing peace settle over me. In those situations, when I was one equipment malfunction from death, my muscles released, my jaw unwound, my heart slowed. I would say, I wish you were here with me, Kinsey. I wish you could see it. I wish you could report to Wilson and share in the fun of exploration, feel that continuous stream of amazement that flows in the subconscious, and which frequently bubbles to the surface and stops you mid-step, forcing you to lift your eyes and behold the wondrous landscape just to make sure it’s real.
I wish you could hear the refrain that rings in my mind, like the opening phrase of a beloved hymn. “I am on Mars. We are on Mars.”
The return went flawlessly. I was ready to go. The second team had arrived. Perfect landing. I had everything ready for them, like the hostess at the bed and breakfast Kinsey and I stayed at in Maine. How we kept that trip secret, I’ll never know.
But secrets can be kept if people really want to. That’s why I didn’t know the truth about Kinsey’s final act until I’d been back on earth for a few months.
Wilson Jones had let me regain my strength, had let me finish the talk show circuit, the White House dinner, the world tour, the parades. He showed up at my beach house, where I was huddled, writing my memoir and taking long barefoot walks with my dogs and watching glorious sunsets. He’d aged more than the years that had passed. Like what happens to the President.
We sat for a while in my small, cozy living room, sipping chamomile tea and exchanging small talk. But then he turned serious and pulled a report from his jacket pocket. He unfolded it with trembling hands and handed it to me.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Our final analysis of the descent telemetry. The data you recovered was invaluable and helped us fix an issue that would almost certainly have doomed the second mission.”
I didn’t open the report. I wasn’t ready to revisit the details of the crash.
Wilson swallowed. “I think you need to know what happened.”
I waited. If Wilson wanted me to know something, he would tell me.
He shifted from the armchair to sit next to me on the couch. He smiled, but his lip quivered. “In the last moments Kinsey did something very . . . brave.”
“He increased thrust to slow us down. I felt it.”
“Not exactly. Maddy, he made a choice. Our models show that he could have skidded the lander, engines first. The fuel was gone, and the engine and main cabin would have protected the command pod. Kinsey knew that. He’d drilled that scenario hundreds of times in the simulator. He and Erich would have lived.”
“Then why didn’t he?” I felt my heart galloping, just as it had on the descent.
“He chose a different option. He chose instead to fire the functioning attitude thruster array, which swung the lander through a 180. He put the command pod into the dirt to protect the rest of the lander.”
I set down my teacup. My hand shook so badly it clattered on the saucer. My mouth went dry and my heart shook such that I instinctively pressed my hand to my breast. Wilson wrapped an arm around me, and I fell into his embrace like a child.
“He saved me?”
Wilson’s hot tears fell on my head, and he shook nearly as hard as I did. “He chose you.”
Grief flared then, burned its way out of the depths of my heart. The small tears I’d expending on Mars, and later during earth-based memorials, hadn’t begun to tap the vast sea I carried inside of me. It was like Titan’s methane ocean, merely awaiting the tiniest spark to ignite it. And who but Kinsey had the power to do that, to reach across the black quiet between my world and his and touch off an inferno?
I wept in Wilson’s arms until I fell asleep.
But it took weeks. Months. Maybe it’s still not all burned out of my system. In the darker hours, when I can’t sleep, I sometimes even question whether the mission was worth the cost.
But every morning, when I’m out with my dogs, I feel no doubt at all.
It was worth it. I still believe in it very hard.
These days I often stand barefoot in the surf, feeling the water erode the sand beneath my feet even as it buries them. I pray more often these days, more intentionally. I have become one of those scientists who, after two glasses of wine, admits to being “spiritual.” My ocean-side meditations are what keep me grounded when people approach me with reverence in their eyes, or when my book agent reports my sales, or when I read letters from political groups asking me to run for office.
I’m happy to be grounded, feet burrowed deep in the sand, here on the warm edge of the wide world.
I can see Mars from here. And when I stop thinking about it, I see much more.
“The Warm Edge of the Wide World” is Copyright 2016 by Eric Kent Edstrom. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.