NASA Space Flight Operations Facility.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena CA.
13 years before the announcement of the candidacy
Mike Simmons walked into Amit’s small office and sat down next to him on a creaky office chair that was missing one of its arms. “Did you get that email I sent you this morning?”
“Yes, I did. I just opened up the files a few minutes ago. The data don’t make sense. This is all from the April flyby?”
“Yes. April 22nd, when Cassini was at the closest point to Titan. About a thousand kilometers.”
“Do you think it’s interference from the on-board radar system?”
“No, the frequency is wrong. And the intervals don’t match.”
“Was the radar malfunctioning?”
“No, check the other file I sent. Here—“ Mike reached over and clicked Amit’s mouse, almost knocking over his coffee. “Sorry. Yeah, so this is radar telemetry. It all checks out. And we have some decent radar images of the surface from that day.”
“This is really bizarre. It must be a long range signal. Something from Earth, or Mars orbit maybe?”
“There’s no way the signal would be that strong.”
“Have you found this signature anywhere else?”
“I started running a search last night. I don’t have enough hours on the analytics cluster to really dive into the data streams, though.”
“You can use my time. I still have to pay up on that bet we made.”
Mike smiled. “Yeah, I told you the probe would survive passing through the rings. They’re just not that dense up close.”
“I calculated the odds at 23%,” said Amit.
“Then why take a two to one bet?”
“I guess I’m not much of a gambler.”
“Well, I am. But I’m not willing to bet my career on this until I have more data. I’ll go talk to the boss and see if we can try to do some triangulations before we plow this thing into Saturn.”
“There isn’t much time left. I can’t believe we’re two weeks away from the end. I’ve been working this mission for half my life now.”
“And you’ll spend the other half writing papers about it. Especially if we can confirm this.” Mike tapped the screen.
“Hey guys,” said a voice from the doorway. It was Oleksey Borodin, Mike and Amit’s supervisor.
“Speak of the devil!” said Mike. “I was just about to come beg you for some radio time. We found an interesting signal that deserves another look.”
“Nobody’s getting any more radio time,” said Oleksey in a defeated voice. “We lost telemetry on Cassini. We don’t know what happened. It’s just gone.”
“Maybe I won that bet after all,” said Amit. “Traversing the rings of Saturn is dangerous business.”
After the isolation of the candidacy, they were all shocked at how popular they had become. The reality show had the highest ratings of any broadcast on the planet. When the day came for the final selection, the entrance to the space center was a media circus. The nightly news anchor from NBC was the announcer for the event, which was filmed from the primary training room. The candidates sat in the first few rows, while behind them sat members of the press and those fans lucky enough to score tickets to the event.
The final taped episode aired on the large screen and Lili watched with her usual sense of dread. She was always so embarrassed when they focussed on her, and it seemed like she got more attention than anyone else. They played what she felt were the most awkward moments from her interviews, when she forgot that it wasn’t really a private conversation between her and the interviewer, whose voice was never included in the actual broadcast. The interviews were made to seem like the candidates were just talking, un-prompted.
There was a great deal of speculation about who would be selected as the primary team for the mission. There were fan clubs, and web sites that rated the families, and rampant gambling around the next batch of cuts. Most of this went over Lili’s head. She was still very young, and her mother discouraged her from spending too much time on the internet.
The Svenssons did not seem to mind being cast in the role of the villains, but even Lili thought they went a bit too far sometimes by accentuating every snide remark made by someone in the attractive Swedish family. Lili had watched Olivia stop to sign a few autographs as the families filed into the auditorium. She thought that was ridiculous at first, but then she felt a stab of jealousy when she reached her seat without anyone asking for her signature.
Her brother Max absolutely loved the attention. During the introduction to the show when they flashed his portrait on the screen along with some of his statistics, he jumped up on his seat and faced the crowd, raising his hands and waving. He got raucous applause and a stern look from Julia. When they put Lili’s picture on the screen, he stood up again, this time pointing at her in the seat next to him, and got another round of applause.
Carmen took her usual place at the podium after being introduced, and a series of still photos accompanied her speech.
“One year ago, the Space Union announced the Titan mission to the world. This mission is humankind’s most ambitious endeavor yet. We have, in little more than half a century, gone from tentative orbits of the Earth in tiny, primitive capsules, to colonizing the moon and Mars.”
A bright, crisp image of the Mars colony appeared on the screen, with a clear sky framing several habitat structures and colonists in their suits, standing proudly in the orange-red dirt of the fourth planet among a collection of national flags representing the people who had made that place their home.
“And now we step beyond the inner planets. Beyond the asteroid belt and even beyond Jupiter. We go to Titan.”
A stunning image of Saturn’s moon, with the ringed planet in the background, replaced the image of Mars. Titan was closer to yellow than the rusty hue of Mars. And where Mars was dry and barren, Titan had clouds, lakes, and oceans. Not of running water, but of chemicals like methane and ethane. The rocks and mountains of Titan were made of frozen water.
“Titan has intrigued us all since the historic Cassini-Huygens probe visited Saturn and its moons in the first decades of this century. Titan is the only satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere. Life as we know it, water-based life, may very well exist in a subsurface ocean. And an entirely new kind of life, one based on liquid methane, could exist on the surface.
“But why not send a machine? Why not send a robot instead of humans? A second Cassini probe is already en route to the system. Isn’t that enough? Why take the risk?”
She paused a moment for effect. “If I may be so bold as to quote the man who launched this country on its quest to the moon, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. We are explorers. Our home is the Earth, but our destiny is the stars. Titan is the next step.”
She waited a few moments for the audience to stop clapping. There were many detractors of the mission, but they were not here in any great numbers. Those in attendance were for the most part hearty supporters of sending humans, families with children, into deep space. There were even groups of them in the upper rows of seats dressed in costumes from popular TV science fiction shows.
“And now we come to the selection. The nine families sitting here in the front rows have been through a grueling ordeal, as you have all seen this year. The Space Union has received its share of criticism for its methods, and a good deal of it has been aimed at me personally.” She stopped and smiled as people laughed. She had been cast as the unforgiving headmistress of the competition. “I won’t make any attempt to deflect the criticism, or to apologize.” She addressed the candidates directly. “We put you through hell. But you were up to the challenge. And we had to go to the lengths that we did to make sure we were making the right choice. This journey will not be easy. This is the most hazardous, most complex trip ever embarked upon, and I am determined to see the day when our chosen teams—our chosen families—all return safely to Earth.
“Before we make the announcement, I want each of you to know that you are the finest, most upstanding people I have ever worked with in my whole life. I speak for the entire selection committee when I say that choosing among you was splitting hairs. In my opinion, you have all won. Please, everyone, let’s give all of our candidates a warm round of applause.”
The applause turned into a standing ovation that lasted almost a full minute before the room calmed down and Carmen flipped to the last page in her notes. The screen now showed all nine families, each one bordered by a square with rounded corners.
“The Christiaan station will be manned by three teams. And three teams will be designated as backups. I will start by announcing the families who have been chosen as backups. Those teams will have the designations Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta. When your names are called, please come up and take your seats on the stage.” Lights illuminated two groups of seats, one set off to the side opposite from Carmen, and another group slightly raised and situated in the exact center, just under the main screen.
“Backup Team Delta is—“ she paused. The room was completely silent. “the Akintola family.” The Akintolas rose and waved to the crowd as the climbed the stairs to the stage. The Putins had shared dormitory space with them early in the candidacy. Lili and Max waved to their friends, Samuel and Joy.
After the Akintolas were seated, Carmen announced the Ocampos, a Filipino family, as Backup Team Epsilon. Lili envied them somewhat, not necessarily for being chosen as backups, but because they now knew their fate. Her stomach was filling with more and more butterflies as the evening wore on.
“The third and final backup team, Team Zeta, is the Svenssons.” The room erupted in a combination of cheers, jeers, groans, and laughter. The Svenssons themselves all for a moment sank down into their chairs, deflated by not being chosen as primaries. Gottfrid stood up, forced a smile, and his family followed him up the stairs, where they took their seats and exchanged handshakes with the Ocampos and Akintolas.
“And now for the primary candidates, those families who will represent the human race as we reach to the outer solar system.
“Primary Team Alpha,” Carmen said into the microphone, regaining the attention of the room. “Primary Team Alpha is the Bell Family.” There were no looks of surprise anywhere after the Bells were announced. Out of all choices, they seemed to be the closest thing to a sure bet. A group of people in the audience began to chant “USA! USA! USA!” This was an international mission, but there was still a great deal of national pride attached to the selections.
“Primary Team Beta is the Schultz Family.”
A spotlight shone down on Helmut, Min, Tao, and Jing. They shared looks of genuine surprise. They had not been overly optimistic on their chances of being selected, so it took them a moment to recover from the reality and make their way up to the stage. Helmut stopped in the middle before sitting down and raised both hands, a huge smile on his face. He grabbed his wife’s hand, and Tao’s, and raised them in the air. Tao took Jing’s hand and they stood there soaking un the adulation of their fans. The Schultzes were apparently very popular with the broadcast audience.
Lili cheered wildly. Her closest friends had been chosen, and for a moment she forgot that she was still in a painful limbo. There were four remaining teams, four families. One of them, in a few short moments, would be sitting on the stage next to the Bells and the Schultzes. Three of them would be rejected. Lili sat down and quickly scanned over the remaining competition. They all seemed so perfect—smart, strong, and confident. She could imagine her parents among them. Even Max. But herself? She felt like she was always hanging on by a thread, like she didn’t deserve to be here. She silently resigned herself to be among those not chosen.
And yet her heart was beating as though it would explode from her chest. Carmen’s words came to her as if through a thick, soupy fog, in a foreign language. There was more applause, cheers, whistles, and she was confused as she looked up and saw her family standing. Max was tugging at her arm. They had been chosen. She was going to Titan.
The Interview Room—Isabelle Svensson—Exobiologist
“I feel so insulted. Insulted that we were not chosen as a primary team, when everyone knows we won the competition. In every category. We deserved to be the first pick. And now they want me to train Anita Bell in exobiology. Train her? She is a firefighter. Did she even go to university? I have spent decades studying. I have published a dozen papers and written two books on the subject. And now she is the mission’s exobiology expert? Ridiculous. Insulting.”
It was surreal for Lili to be at home again. The space center had begun to feel like home, and now everything here was strange to her. There was a musty smell in the air, and all of her things seemed old. She was sorting through her belongings, treasured toys that were her favorites less than a year before, but which now seemed uninteresting. She felt that she had outgrown them. It was for the best, because they would not be allowed to bring many possessions on the voyage. Every spare kilogram cost a surprising amount of fuel. Food and water had a premium over dolls and coloring books.
Even during their upcoming training period, which would last several years, they would not be afforded much in the way of personal items. They were being moved into a newly constructed housing complex at the space center in Houston that was not much bigger than the cramped dormitories that they had called home during the candidacy. Her father had commented that it was ironic, how the selection meant they were being paid astronomical sums of money—Sergei had nudged Lili when he said “astronomical” and winked at her—but they would have little opportunity to enjoy their newfound wealth. Training was to be their focus, not expensive new cars or lavish lifestyles.
Lili was digging through boxes in the basement with a pad of sticky notes, labelling her things into one of three categories: Houston, Storage, and Trash. Her father was there also, sitting cross legged, paging through an old photo album.
Lili came across her telescope. “Dad, do you think we could go out observing one more time before we move to Houston? I never did finish checking off the last of the Messiers.” Lili had become obsessed with astronomy before the candidacy. She had printed out a checklist of all the Messier objects, 110 of the most easily seen astronomical targets, like the Orion nebula and the Andromeda galaxy. Spotting them all was a rite of passage for budding astronomers.
“I suppose we could,” he said. “You could bring your scope to Houston if you like.”
“It’s too big for the station, though, right?”
“You won’t need it there. The station is being equipped with some very nice optical equipment. In fact, I have a feeling they will train you to be a navigator, so it will be your job to operate the scopes.”
“Cool!” said Lili. “But it won’t be the same. There won’t be hot chocolate.” Sergei always brought a thermos of hot chocolate with them when they drove out to the remote site to gather with other amateurs to escape the bright lights of the city.
“Why can’t we have hot chocolate in space? I will refuse to fly without it.”
Lili smiled up at him. “What about marshmallows?”
“Especially the marshmallows. Marshmallows are light. They can’t complain about the extra mass.” Sergei pulled his phone out of his pocket. “Let me check something quickly. Oh, perfect,” he said.
“What is it?” Lili asked.
“Saturn is at opposition right now. I had lost track while we were candidates. It will rise just after sunset. And it looks like it will be a clear night. And not too cold.”
“Cold enough for hot chocolate,” she said. She picked up the telescope and carried it upstairs.
She almost collided with Max, who liked to skip as many steps as he could while coming down to the basement.
“Watch it!” said Lili, protecting the telescope.
“Lili, guess what I just heard?” he asked. He didn’t wait for her to reply. “Mom was talking to somebody at the space center, and they said they were going to install all the video games on the station.”
“What do you mean all the games? Which ones?”
“I mean all of them. Every video game ever! And they will even transmit new ones to us as they come out.”
“You mean all the new VR games?”
“No, I mean every game ever. Even the old silly ones they had when mom and dad were kids.”
“Why would you want to play those games when you have VR? Don’t they just play on a flat screen? Were they even in color back then?”
“Hey!” protested Sergei. “I’m not that old. They had video games way before I was born.”
“I know,” said Max. “I played them all in VR. There’s a retro ‘game game’ that I bought with my allowance.”
“Seriously?” asked Sergei. “You play video games inside a video game?”
“Yep. I even played one called Pong, on a tiny little TV. It had an antenna on the back because they didn’t even have the internet yet. When you go in the room, the first space shuttle launch is playing on the TV. And then you have to play Pong and beat the computer to get to the next level in the game.”
“What’s the next level?”
“A game called Atari. Actually it’s a bunch of games. They came on little cartridges that you have stick in the front. But at least the TV was color.”
“Atari,” Sergei mused. “I remember my father bought one, an old used one, when I was your age. He said he always wanted one, but when he was a child, Russia was the Soviet Union, and anything from America was strictly forbidden.” Sergei thought for a moment. “What about all the controllers? We don’t have room for all the different controllers for every video game ever.”
“We don’t need them all,” said Max. “We can just use one of the recent ones and emulate the older ones.”
“It won’t be the same,” said Sergei, shaking his head.
That night, Sergei and Lili packed up the car with her telescope and a thermos of hot chocolate. They drove away from the suburb where they lived until the street lights gave out, and the roads went from being neatly paved to gravel and dirt. Sergei turned off the headlights and navigated into a large, open field with parking lights, to avoid ruining the night vision of any other astronomy enthusiasts who had made the trek to the observing site.
It was a perfectly clear night, and the Milky Way was easily visible to the naked eye. Lili and Sergei spent a few minutes observing with binoculars before they set up the telescope. Lili quickly found all of her favorites: The Orion Nebula, The Andromeda galaxy, and the Pleadies. She saw that Saturn had risen, and she tried to make out the rings with the binoculars, but they weren’t quite powerful enough, so she set them aside and helped Sergei wire up the controls to the telescope’s control panel.
The scope came to life with a beep and a whirr of finely tuned motors, and Sergei quickly went through the alignment routine. “This always feels like cheating to me,” he said.
“Why?” asked Lili.
“When my father taught me astronomy, we had a Dobsonian, like that one.” He pointed to a very large telescope that sat directly on the ground. It was being used by an equally large gentleman who had on a pointy wool hat with a ball at the end—Lili thought he looked like Santa Claus.
“Our scope had no motors. You had to use your star charts and find things yourself.”
Lili pushed a few buttons on the control panel and the telescope began slewing towards the Eastern horizon. “Well, back in my day,” she said with an elderly voice, “we had to walk ten miles in the snow to see Saturn.”
“Uphill, both ways,” said Sergei, laughing.
Lili chose an eyepiece from a holder mounted to the tripod and slipped it in to place. She had to stand on a stool to get here eye up to the right height.
“There it is,” she said with satisfaction. “The seeing is really good tonight.” She moved aside so Sergei could take a look.
“The rings are really opening up.” The first time Lili had ever seen Saturn, its rings were facing edge-on to Earth, so she had been a bit underwhelmed. But now they had opened up to give the planet a three-dimensional look. Lili felt like she could reach out and touch it.
Lili went back to the eyepiece. “And there’s Titan,” she said. “I think I can make out one of the other moons. I always get the names mixed up, though. Rhea?”
Sergei leaned back and looked up at they sky. “I can’t wait to be there and see it up close.”
“How long will we orbit Saturn before we go to Titan?”
“A few weeks,” said Sergei.
“How big will it look? Bigger than our moon?” Luckily for them, Earth’s moon was not up yet. Its bright light made stargazing difficult.
“Yes, much bigger, but the atmosphere is very cloudy, so it would have to be a clear day to see Saturn from the surface. Even then it might not be visible at all. Nobody really knows.”
“We’ll just have to go there and find out.”
The Interview Room—Sergei Putin—Astronaut Pilot
“Lili loves astronomy. She loves space. But she is only a child. It is easy to forget that, when she is so smart. So capable. I wonder sometimes if I am not being a good parent. Maybe when she is an adult and she is a million miles from home, she will be angry with me. She did not choose this, the way her mother and I chose it. I have to hope that it is worth the risk. That she will respect the choice, in the end.”
After the hectic pace of the candidacy, the training schedule was like an extended vacation. Lili actually found it to be quite boring at times, since most of it was spent in the classroom. It wasn’t very much different than middle school, and in fact the Space Union had a hired several teachers from the local area to conduct mundane classes that had nothing to do with space travel. The parents were attending classes on how to teach basic subjects, so that the education of the children could continue after the long journey began. It seemed pointless to the children, when all they really wanted to learn was how to be an astronaut.
Lili had seen an old movie where the students at a rural school had all fit into a single classroom, and had just one teacher. She looked around and thought that her current situation was very much like that movie. There were fourteen children, from the six chosen families, within a relatively small range of ages. The youngest was Nicklas Schulz, who had turned nine years old just days before training began. And the oldest was Angel Ocampo, who was thirteen. Lili thought she looked like she was twenty—she had full hips and breasts already. She made Lili feel very self-conscious.
The current lecture, on a rainy Tuesday morning in February, was on western civilization in the 18th century. This was one of the classes where everyone was on equal footing, unlike the hour spent on mathematics every day, when Lili and half the class struggled to complete problems in basic algebra and trigonometry; meanwhile the other half, including Nicklas and Tao, breezed through orbital trajectory calculus equations.
The teacher, Mrs. Greensmith, wore an American flag on her lapel. Her hair was cropped in a close wedge, she wore a dark gray wool skirt, and heavy-looking pair of clogs. She spoke with great fondness of the founding fathers of the United States.
“I would like everyone to tell me who is their favorite historical figure from the American revolution. I have to say that I find Thomas Jefferson to be most intriguing figure.” She put her had over her heart when she said his name.
Joy Akintola raised her hand. “Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.”
Mrs. Greensmith looked at her silently for a moment, as if expecting her to finish the sentence with something more. “Well… yes, that’s true. He did own slaves. It was a—a different time.”
“I like Abigail Adams,” said Joy. “And her husband, John. They didn’t own any slaves. Also, John Adams wrote the constitution.”
Mrs. Greensmith took in her breath sharply. “Ah, no, Joy, that is not correct. Everyone knows Thomas Jefferson wrote the constitution.”
“But John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which they basically just copied. I mean, Jefferson, like, physically wrote the US constitution, I know that, but he had the best hand-writing, so he got to hold the pen.”
“Well, you seem to be very well informed for a girl from—ah—where are you from again, Joy?”
“Liberia. Do you know where that is?”
“Of course, dear, it’s on the African continent. I must say your English is quite good for someone who is not from the states.”
“English is the official language of Liberia. Our country was formed by freed slaves.”
Mrs. Greensmith found her attention diverted by Max, who had been patiently holding up his hand. “Yes, Max, and who is your favorite?”
“Ben Franklin. Because he invented electricity.”
“Excellent, yes, that’s correct—“
Olivia Svensson looked up from a chemistry book she was reading and laughed out loud. “Nobody invented electricity. Electricity just exists. He invented bifocals, and the lightning rod. Very clever fellow.” She went back to her book.
“Well, perhaps, Olivia, it would be safe to say that he discovered electricity.”
“No,” said Olivia flatly, not looking up from her book.
Mrs. Greensmith decided to change the subject again. “Tonight I would like you all to read chapter twelve, and write a short essay comparing the American revolution to the French revolution, which followed later in the same century.”
Lili’s shoulders sank. She had time scheduled in the Christiaan simulator after dinner, and she didn’t want too much homework to cut into an opportunity to do something that actually felt like astronaut training.
The Interview Room—Milly Bell—Junior Astronaut
Milly twirled her finger in her curly, tightly packed hair, smiling politely at the camera. “I try to like everybody. There’s no sense in hating people. My Mom says hating somebody is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die. Everybody’s trying to be good, even if they seem bad. But, I guess if you want to know who I like like—“ she giggled and looked away. “I don’t want to say. Everybody will know! We all watch the show too. And besides, I’m supposed to be focussing on training. And one of us is going into space for years and years and the other one—oh wait, did I just give it away?”
The replica of the Christiaan station that occupied the center of Building 9 was almost a perfect copy of the version currently being constructed in orbit around the Earth, with a few notable exceptions on the account of gravity. The central hub of the station was a mostly hollow cube that served to connect the four Taurus capsules with a booster on one of the remaining two sides. Opposite the booster was a docking ring.
In space, while on their way to Titan, the cube would be the center of rotation, as each capsule faced outwards at the outside of the circle to create the forces necessary to keep them from floating. Lili had learned that besides being an annoyance once you got over the novelty of zero-G, a person’s bones deteriorated after too much time in orbit. Hours of exercise per day could stave off the effects for a few months, but over the long term, what a body needed was gravity, or a semblance of gravity produced by a spinning craft. Also, exercising for hours each day burned a lot of extra calories, which means increasing the mass of the cargo necessary to sustain them.
Of course, the Christiaan station, even including four large capsules, could not carry enough food to get them all the way to the outer planets and back. The Space Union had already begun launching cargo on small, fast vessels to meet them along the way.
There wasn’t much they could do to simulate the odd transition from half of Earth gravity in the bottom of the capsules, to the total lack of gravity in the very center of the docking cube, so there were various replicas staged in close proximity to one another. If you wanted to practice going from one capsule to another, first you started in an upright simulator, with a docking tube attached to the top, and you climbed a ladder to the top until you emerged on a platform. After hurrying down a set of stairs, you then climbed up a short tube into the central docking space. You had to pretend that the stairs weren’t actually there, and you had made one uninterrupted trip.
Tonight Lili was with Tao and Jing conducting blindfold drills inside the capsule and connecting tube. Jay had instructed them to all strap in to their seats, applied a blindfold and then gave them various tasks to perform.
“Ok, astronauts, on my mark, I want Lili to retrieve a bandage from the first aid kit; Tao will reset the circuit breaker on the main bus leading to the cube, and Jing will power up the backup navigation system.” Jay had stopped calling them candidates—they were astronauts now, even though they hadn’t yet been to space. Max wanted to be called a cosmonaut, and they humored him, although astronaut was the official term, English being the agreed upon language of the Space Union. Jay held up a stopwatch and said “Mark!”
Lili quickly unbuckled and sprang up from her seat, in the opposite direction from Tao, who she noticed had a tendency to bump into her a lot more than would be expected, regardless of the blindfolds. The candidacy was over, but she couldn’t shake the competitiveness, especially since she knew that Olivia was still secretly keeping score. Tao’s clumsiness around her always cost them a few precious seconds.
Lili knew exactly where the first aid kit was located. There were rungs built into the bulkhead just behind and to the right of the back row of seats. A few feet up and to the left was a metal box with a latch. She couldn’t see through the blindfold but she knew it was painted white and had a large red cross on the front. She had never opened it in the real simulator, but she had studied its location and contents, and she had opened it in VR. As she expected, the kit was inside the box, strapped in with flexible webbing to keep it from falling out. She quickly popped open the container, retrieved a large, soft bandage, and neatly stowed the kit back into place. She hurried back to her seat, to be followed a few seconds later by Jing, who dropped from the ladder above the seats, and her brother Tao, who flung himself roughly back into his seat and wound up leaning against Lili’s left side. She shoved him off and heard Jay click the stopwatch.
“Great job, astronauts. That’s your best time yet. Ok, let’s remove the blindfolds and call it a night. I hear some of you are behind on your homework assignments.”
The Interview Room—Helmut Schultz—Diplomat
“I am starting too see some signs of, well, let’s call it ‘teenage drama’ between the kids. That is to be expected. I don’t want to discourage it too much. Of course, we wouldn’t want anyone to get pregnant during training, but they will have to learn how to navigate relationships if we are going to succeed on such a long mission in space. It’s just human nature for them to develop feelings for each other.”
The parents from primary teams Alpha, Beta, and Gamma were gathered in a small meeting room in the Space Union’s headquarters building. On a small video monitor on one wall, there were various graphics displayed. One was a chart of the Saturn system, with glowing green lines pointing towards Titan. A visual representation of what looked like an audio recording. A photo of the Cassini probe.
Carmen Tindall, whose job title had changed from Chief of Candidate Selection to Chief of Staff for the Titan Mission, sat near the head of the table. Sitting next to her was a compact, well-dressed man with a round face and rosy cheeks. His name was Oleksey Borodin, and he was the Director of the Space Union. The astronauts were all staring at him. No one spoke for several seconds.
He broke the silence, his voice husky, with only a hint of an accent betraying his heritage. “We will give you some time to consider everything that we have just told you. We will understand if you decide to withdraw yourselves from the mission.”
“Withdraw?” said Timothy Bell, surprised. “Why would we withdraw now? This makes me want to go even more.” He looked around for agreement, and a few parents were nodding their heads. But there were also concerned, even worried, looks from Julia and Helmut.
“This adds an additional element of…” Oleksey paused for a second, searching for the right word. “…risk, or at least the unknown, to the mission. Since your children are involved, it’s only fair to give you a chance to reconsider. We could swap you out with a backup team, or replace you entirely if that is your desire.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this long ago?” asked Julia. “Why not during the candidacy?”
“This is very sensitive information,” said Oleksey. “The fewer people who know about it, the better. None of the data are confirmed. We don’t know how to interpret this, and we don’t want it to become public.”
“How is it not public already?” asked Helmut. “NASA has always published all of its mission data online.”
Oleksey answered. “The first Cassini mission was managed by NASA, and they did publish the data. The findings were not obvious, so no one noticed. But the second probe was the first official Space Union project. And the Space Union does not operate strictly under NASA guidelines. Even still,” he said, pointing to the screen, “the data are not conclusive. That is why we are sending you. That is why we are not satisfied by just sending probes. Something this important, this significant, requires the presence of a human mind.”
Sergei sat with his arms crossed. “Or maybe the Chinese are involved. I think that’s a more likely explanation.”
“Perhaps,” admitted Oleksey without enthusiasm. “But what do we know of their program? They are very secretive. Their efforts to colonize the moon have been less than successful, so it’s doubtful that they could have reached out so far into the solar system.”
“But you want to make sure that we reach out before they do.”
“The Space Union does not admit to being in a competition with the Chinese. This is not the cold war.”
“What about the children? What do we tell them about this?” asked Julia.
Carmen and Oleksey looked at each other. Carmen said, “We feel that it would be best to wait.”
“Until they are a bit older,” said Oleksey. “Perhaps even after the journey has begun. Children are not so good at keeping secrets.”
“Neither are adults, when everything they do is broadcast on a television show,” said Timothy. “This is something we need to talk about. Prepare for.”
“You will be prepared,” said Carmen. “For the most part, you already are. We selected you very specifically for your suitability to this type of mission.”
Helmut laughed. “I was wondering why on Earth you chose me. I’m still wondering, to be honest. I think it’s because my wife is so wonderful that you had to take me along for the ride.” He put his arm around Min dramatically. Min blushed and shook her head. “But I understand. I am still ready to go. We all knew we were signing up for a risky job. What do you think, Min?”
Min put her hand on Helmut’s arm, which was still around her shoulders. “This is exactly what we signed up for. I wish you had been more up front with us, but I’m still in.”
“Same here,” said Timothy. “The Bells are ‘go’”. He did not look at Anita when he said it.
Sergei was nodding. Then he looked at Julia, who was scowling, and said, “Maybe we will discuss it privately. We have come a long way. I would not want to quit now.”
“We will discuss it privately,” said Julia. “What worries me the most is that we have established a precedent of hiding information from the astronauts, and I’d hate to think we have to spend the next decade, or more, second guessing everything we hear from mission control.”
Oleksey shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“We could have waited until you arrived at Titan,” said Carmen. “It’s not fair to say we’re hiding information from you. We’re telling you. Now. Weeks into a multi-year training program.”
The Interview Room—Zhang Jing Schultz—Junior Astronaut
“I wish I could just be an adult already. I’m so sick of being treated like a child. The grown-ups go off and have secret meetings and they act like we’re babies. We’re astronauts! We qualified just like they did. We can handle anything. I’m going to be the first person the get their Phd in space. I want to be in charge of all the experiments. We don’t really have a scientist on the crew—I mean, Lili’s Mom is a surgeon, so she studied medical science, and Mrs. Bell is a chemist, even though everyone calls her a firefighter—she was a volunteer firefighter, in her spare time—but really she worked for a big company that makes industrial chemicals. That doesn’t really count. Mrs. Svensson is an exobiologist, which is so cool! But she’s not going.” Jing paused her rapid speech to get a breath. “Maybe I’ll study exobiology too, she could help me, since she’s on the backup crew. Or maybe regular biology. But anthropology is neat, and psychology—a long trip in space will be a good chance to study human behavior. I’ll have to start designing some social experiments—but my Mom is a computer scientist, and there’s lots of computers on board the Christiaan, but that’s more like engineering than science—“
Lili was breathing heavily as she rounded the last corner of the outdoor track for the fourth time. Her legs were starting to burn, but she was feeling confident that she could beat her personal best in the 1,000 meters. And Olivia was actually behind her, for a change.
“TRACK!” Both Miles and Axel gave the warning just before they flew by on Lili’s right. They were in lockstep, Miles just barely ahead of Axel. Miles drifted back to the left-most lane and Axel made a move to his right in an attempt to pass. Lili was silently rooting for Miles, although the rivalry seemed pointless now.
Just as they came out of the corner onto the straight, Axel abruptly cut to the left and collided with Miles, who went down hard and tumbled into the grass. Without a glance backwards, Axel continued to power forwards. Miles came to a stop and clutched at his knee, which was badly scraped and bleeding.
“Are you all right?” Lili asked breathlessly as she stopped next to him and offered her hand to help him up. “He just knocked you over, that was not cool!”
Lili had to step aside quickly as Olivia passed them, still running at full speed. Lili drew in a sharp breath and let it out in frustration through clenched teeth. She again put her hand out to Miles.
Miles pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes as he watched Axel rounding the next corner. He brushed Lili’s hand away, jumping to his feet and trotting down the track. He was limping, and Lili could tell he was in pain. “Miles, you should stop, you’re hurt.”
“I’m fine,” grunted Miles. He started picking up speed and said “watch this”. Lili started jogging again, realizing that her chance at a decent time was ruined. She worried that Miles might be seriously injured, and now he was going to make it worse by trying to catch up to Axel, who had what looked like an insurmountable lead.
Lili watched Miles pass Olivia like she was standing still. He was running as if it was a hundred meter sprint, even though he had already run over a kilometer, and he was gaining ground quickly. Axel glanced back and for a moment a look of surprise crossed his face as he realized Miles wasn’t still on the ground. He bent forward and picked up his pace.
Miles passed Axel with less than ten meters to go before the finish line. Lili wanted to cheer but she didn’t have the breath for it. She still had a half lap to go herself, and she was gaining ground on Olivia. A quick glance at her wrist showed a time that was still well under her personal best if she could sustain it through two more corners. After Miles slowed to a stop he turned around and began to cheer Lili on. Axel was hunched over, retching into a drainage ditch. He had pushed himself too hard trying to stay ahead of Miles.
Lili thought it would be perfect justice for the Svenssons to both lose. It seemed like the perfect story, but it wasn’t to be. Olivia put on a great burst of speed at the end, and Lili came up short. To make it worse, she missed her best time by three seconds.
She didn’t bother with a cool down lap. She doubled back to Miles and said “You need to report that. He deliberately tripped you.”
“What’s the point?” asked Miles. “I still won.”
“Look at you, you’re bleeding.”
“It’s just a scratch. Don’t worry about it, Lili.”
“If you won’t say something, then I will.”
“Please don’t. It won’t solve anything. Besides, I’m a little embarrassed that I let him trip me up. I should have been ready for that.”
“You should at least confront him about it. Don’t let him get away with it.”
Miles laughed and pointed to where Olivia was crouching next to Axel, who was lying prone and groaning miserably after emptying his stomach. “I didn’t”.
The Interview Room—Olivia Svensson—Junior Astronaut
“I told my father we should drop out of the program. There are business opportunities on Mars, and if we wanted, we could book passage on a transport later this year. We would get to space before any of the others, even the primary teams. I don’t think I could stand to be on the ground crew for the whole mission. And I don’t like Houston very much. It’s too hot. I miss Stockholm. And skiing. We used to go to the resort at Vemdalen a few times every year.” Olivia had a wistful look on her face. “If we go to Mars we won’t get to go skiing, but at least we won’t be stuck in this place forever. And we also won’t be stuck in some dreary little capsule for years and years. I never really wanted to go to Titan anyway.”
Lili had never actually held the controls of an airplane before. Not in real life. She sat in the front seat of a shiny white and blue T38-D, with her father riding in the seat behind her. Sergei’s voice came over the small speakers in Lili’s helmet, which had been made specially for her—it was bright yellow, with her name etched in bold green letters on both sides. “I’m going to take my hands away from the stick now. Are you ready?”
“Ready,” she confirmed. She didn’t feel ready. Flying in a simulator was one thing, but this was a completely different experience.
“You have the stick.”
Lili felt the aircraft wiggle a bit under her grip, but she kept it straight and steady. Her feet put even pressure on the rudder pedals, and her left had rested easily on the throttle.
“Ok, Lili, I want you to execute a banked turn 90 degrees to the left, nice and easy.”
She applied pressure to the stick, and adjusted her feet, just as she had been taught in the simulator, and the aircraft eased into a turn. She had an expansive view from the bubble cockpit. “Oh wow, is that Galveston? We’ve got a great view from up here.”
“Watch your altitude, Lili,” warned Sergei. “Give it a little more throttle when you turn.”
She pushed forward on the throttle and the jet shot upwards more than she had intended.
“Hold the stick steady,” said Sergei in a calm voice. “Go ahead and straighten it out.”
“Sorry,” she said.
“No worries, you’re doing fine. Now let’s go back to the right until the heading reads 110 degrees.”
She managed this turn with a bit more finesse. “Max is going to be so jealous,” she said.
“You’re right,” said Sergei. “He’s worried he won’t meet the height requirements before we launch.”
“That would be a shame,” said Lili. “All he’s ever wanted was to be a pilot like you.”
“If they made smaller planes he would be already.”
They were headed out over the water, and everything was blue. Lili felt a sense of freedom like she hadn’t felt in a long time. Like anything was possible. She weaved the small jet back and forth in easy curves and began to get a feel for the controls.
“I could get used to this,” she said after they had spent a half hour conducting basic flight maneuvers.
“It’s in your blood, Lili. It’s in your blood. Now let’s get back to base. You think you’re ready to land this thing by yourself?”
“What? Land? Really?”
“No, not really. I was joking.”
“Not funny, Dad. You’re supposed to tell funny jokes.”
“Ok, how about this: what do you get when you cross a snake and a plane?”
“Um, I don’t know. I haven’t heard that one.”
“A Boeing Constrictor.”
“Ooh, that’s pretty bad, even for you.”
“Hey, don’t criticize. I’m your flight instructor, it might cost you a few points.”
“I flew perfectly today. Well, almost. But you can’t take points for not liking your jokes.”
“You know what, Liliana?”
“If you had flown through a rainbow, you would have passed with flying colors.”
“A rainbow—?” she paused for a second, and then she got it. “Oh, right. Flying colors. I get it. Ok, that’s not bad.”
“Ha ha, see, my jokes are always funny.”
He let her take the controls again on their way back, and she handled the communications with the tower on their approach. He didn’t take back the stick until they were a few hundred feet from the ground.
After they landed, Max greeted them and peppered her with questions. Rather than show any jealousy, he was very excited about her day, and wanted to hear every detail.
“Did you do a barrel roll? Or a loop?”
“No, silly, I never went upside down. It was my first flight.”
“Oh. I would have.”
“Not if I had anything to say about it,” said Sergei. “A good pilot is not over confident. Maybe in the movies it’s Ok for pilots to have—what’s the word?”
“Bravado”, said Lili.
“In real life those types don’t last so long.”
“I do loops and rolls in the simulator all the time,” protested Max. “What’s the difference?”
Sergei laughed. “Hitting ground hurts a lot more in real life.”
The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Astronaut
“I remember that day,” she said. “It seems like so long ago now. Back when things still felt new.” Lili stared at the camera in silence for a few seconds and let out a long sigh, shrugging her shoulders. “I don’t know what else to say. Really. What can I possibly say that I haven’t already said before? It’s all getting so repetitive. Everything. The training, the interviews—can we just go to space already? Let’s go. I’m ready.”