A Deep Breath
by Stuart Atkinson
Page 1 of 2An hour after the Polar Lander was due to have sent its long-awaited first
signal from the surface of Mars, I couldn't take the suspense any longer. I
logged-off and fled from my PC. A short walk took me up to the top of my
favourite quiet hill, where I stood, hands in pockets against the cold,
until the sky was dark enough to allow me to catch a glimpse of Nova
Aquilae. It was there, just where the SKY & TELESCOPE map had said it would
be. A new star...!
I was alone... but not. Standing there I could hear Mars calling to me, as
always, but I couldn't bear to look at it. I felt like it was taunting me,
taunting everyone who had spent the day nervously looking forward to the
Polar Lander's arrival. It was as if the planet had its hands behind its
back, hiding the probe. "Come on! Which hand is it in?" I fought hard for
half an hour to stop myself looking towards the south, but it was no use. I
looked. And there it was, a tiny orange flame flickering through the bare
branches of the trees. Mars. My Mars.
But it looked different. Felt different. As I looked at it I could almost see
the probe sitting there on the dusty red ground, frantically scanning the
sky for Earth. Closing my eyes I imagined the machine crying out in the
darkness like a lamb lost on a barren hillside, its electronic bleating
Two nights later the new star and Mars were both hidden behind thick cloud,
and as a howling gale blew leaves and trash past my window the TV
newsreader was reporting how yet another "window" had passed in silence.
Fighting off images of the little probe smashing into the surface of Mars
like a meteorite, obliterated in a cloud of tinkling metal, plastic and
glass I stared at the NASA artwork on the screen behind him, and wondered
if the probe really was dead, . Could the Universe really be that cruel? Or
crueller? Could the probe have reached the surface only to land awkwardly on
a boulder, and topple over onto its back to lie there like a turtle, with
its robot arm flailing and twitching on the frost-covered sands..?
The talking head and artwork were replaced with a view of the JPL control
room, and as I looked at the faces of those gathered before the screens and
monitors my heart went out to them. Their haunted expressions revealed
their thoughts. They didn't know, they just didn't *know*. All they had was
the silence. The awful, lonely silence. I felt like a gate-crasher at a
funeral, and had to turn the TV off. Too much.
Almost a week after the landing there is still a faint hope that the probe
will phone home, but that hope literally grows fainter with every minute,
and in our hearts we all know the truth. It's gone. We'll never hear from
it. And although it is just a machine, a construction of nuts, bolts and
paint, I ache inside. Children often sigh and moan about how things are
"unfair", but that just sums it up. It happened again. Again. It *is*
unfair, damn it.
But it's gone, and now difficult times lay ahead: despair for the
stubbornly-optimistic men and women of JPL, who deserve so much better than
this cruelty; frustration for all of us who Believe in Mars and our future
on it; disappointment and confusion for all the children who go to sleep
and dream of becoming astronauts, of walking on Mars one day.
Among the most disappointed will be the million people who travelled to Mars
with the Polar Lander; a CD etched with their names was carried by the
probe, a truly wonderful gesture which will be repeated in years to come, I
have no doubt. But the gesture was not wasted, because whatever happened to
the probe I know the CD survived. Don't ask me how I know, I just do, I can
feel it, in *here*. Whenever I visualise the probe tearing itself apart
during its fiery re-entry I see the CD falling clear of the conflagration,
gliding down through the thin martian air, glinting in the sunlight before
knifing into the red dust, lost but safe. One day it will be found, and my
name, and the names of all my fellow travellers, will be read by the people
of Mars, and they'll smile. I'm smiling now, just thinking about it. It
eases the pain... a little.
But here in the present I fear there are confrontations ahead. I am sure
that even as the Friday night news showed the mission controllers rubbing
their tired eyes there were ambitious, publicity-hungry politicians plotting
in the light of their widscreens how to turn the tragedy to their
advantage, rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of ridiculing and
condemning NASA for its spectacular waste of money.
But as depressed and down-hearted as we are, now is not the time to give in
to such dark thoughts or feelings, or ignorant, short-sighted enemies. We
have to keep our faith in Mars and in each other, in our belief, and keep
our gaze fixed firmly on the future. We must learn from this tragedy, not
live within it forever. Next Page
Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Stuart Atkinson, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.