Vision, Part I

j.m. raymond By j.m. raymond, 11th Feb 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Short Stories

On July 25, 1976, the Viking I spacecraft snapped a picture of the surface of Mars that has spawned years of speculation, an untold number of conspiracy theories of cover-ups and countless discussions of who and how and what. This is the first installment of a longer piece that discusses some of those possibilities.


The transmitter on Paul's ear chirped.

"Private Number," the device said although he had already guessed that.


"You're go," said a voice, and the connection went dead.

Paul was not at all sure how to react. Everything he had worked for, everything he had put his family through hell for over the last three years had just come to fruition. From the first announcement of the decision to go he had stumped for his chance, pleaded his case. Someone had listened. He had just been approved as the Science Mission Specialist on the first manned expedition to Mars.

He was eminently qualified for this mission. He had graduated from Stanford at the top of his class with a degree in Structural Geology and repeated the feat at Duke in Cultural Anthropology. He added an MA in Astrogeology from the University of Arizona and a Doctorate in Structural Geology and Tectonics from the University of Michigan before he reached thirty. In other words, his qualifications were impeccable.

He knew that it was his credentials that had kept his name in the running past the first week at all. The sticking point, and the constant threat of missing this opportunity, came from his associations rather than his education or the fact that he was nearing forty.

Since before he could drive, he had been collecting pictures of space. There were several thousand in his collection from Apollo and the Moon, Mars and the rest of the planets. There were another several hundred of the gorgeous Hubbell releases and shuttle missions. He had artists' drawings and concepts of launch vehicles, both real and planned, by the dozens. If it was space related, he most likely had a copy of it cataloged, tagged and stored digitally at his fingertips. Because of the divergence of his degrees and his hobby, his wife, Julie, often accused him of having his head in the sand and his heart in the clouds.

By the time he began his doctoral studies, he had become somewhat of a professional debunker of unfounded, nonscientific, sometimes outrageous claims regarding space photography and photographs. This did not stem from any personal belief system or superiority of science attitude or the amount of incredulous factor of any specific claim; rather, in most instances in which human or extraterrestrial involvement was touted as the explanation for what appeared in the photographs or videos, Paul was able to construct a reasonable argument and explanation that refuted the outrageous claims. His explanations, logic, and patience in discussing his hypotheses had earned him the respect of the space community worldwide—grudgingly, but respect nonetheless from some on the fringe.

Paul had earned a reputation as an honest observer; if he did not have a plausible explanation for what he was looking at, he said so. He followed that admission always with, "we need human eyes on site and feet on the ground; I hereby volunteer."

If he could present a reasonable, natural explanation he did so, followed with "I hereby volunteer to go verify my analysis."

There were anomalies however in several of the images he perused, both from the Moon and from Mars. Curiosities, he preferred to call them because of the sensationalist claims regarding some of them and the fact that he did not want his name readily associated with a great deal of the wild speculation and some of the speculators that comprised the anomalists.

Most of these curiosities were from the Apollo era and early Mars exploration through probes and landers and orbiters. Items from the current Lunar Habitat Exploration, or "Man on the Moon" project were not readily available. NASA had coded most of the mission classified and thus effectively sealed the majority of the records and research from the prying eyes of the world and the American taxpayer.

They had done the same thing during Apollo. Most people were unaware of the fact that NASA's original charter installed the space agency as an extension to the Department of Defense, and therefore, ultimately under the DOD's control. Only now, fifty years later, because of the passage of time, and in part, a number of Freedom of Information Act initiatives, were the majority of the classified Apollo photographs being released. Paul doubted that they would ever all be available in a single public collection.

Obviously, in his unsought role of transearth-geology aerial photography specialist, he saw a multitude of images at a multitude of resolutions in every available light spectrum of The Face. Ever since the first Viking photographs from way back in 1976 that revealed this enigma to the world, the debate had raged both for and against. The remote imaging didn't help much either. NASA would release an image taken by a particular system and show that it was just a hill, only to have the next round of images rekindle the debate because they showed a haunting resemblance to a face again. Paul was a firm fence sitter on the matter.

Regarding The Face, he had once said. "Given the surrounding geography at its location, the symmetry of the base upon which it sits and some of the apparent similarly geometrical groupings of other features in relatively close proximity to this enigmatic presentation, it would be difficult, if not foolish, to proffer a solely natural explanation for its existence at this time, especially at such a great distance removed from the source and provided with such a dearth of observable, actionable data. I hereby volunteer to go take a look around."

The wildfire on the forums had blazed for weeks that Paul Welker was a believer in The Face. His oft repeated protestation of "that is not what I said" went largely ignored.

Given the resources of time and machinery and manpower that NASA had thrown at attempting to prove it was not a face over the last sixty years or so, that comment, he knew, was strike one against him.

Strike two was from a forum discussion he had had as an undergraduate at Stanford. He had been asked to review a photo that at first glance, and extreme enlargement, appeared to show the surface buildings of a possible mining operation in a crater on the moon. There was a former mining engineer participating who produced overhead shots of mining operations here on Earth and Paul, fantastic as the proposition seemed, had to admit the resemblance was uncanny.

Further investigation into the source of the photos and copies obtained at original resolution eventually revealed that what appeared to be pipes and shafts were undoubtedly only large boulders and shards that had tumbled down from the crater rim. Paul had convincingly proved his argument by showing the roll trails originating from the break off points to the final resting places.

The black mark had come from the discussion that followed where Paul had said, "If I were going to attempt mining of the moon and wanted to keep it a secret, I would build my installation on the back side near the edge of a crater, thus effectively hiding what I was doing from all but the properly oriented, closest in observers."

It had proved a bit easier to refute the claim that he believed there was an alien base on the back side of the Moon than the still rampant rumors about his stance on The Face.

Some of the friendships he had made had grown out of these and similar discussions; friends from all over the space spectrum. It was some of these not quite mainstream friendships that he felt might have hindered his chances to get approved.

Now, those fears appeared to have been unfounded. He had just been presented with the opportunity to join the greatest adventure of Mankind thus far in history. There may have been other, greater adventures waiting somewhere along the corridors of time, but surely not for him. He called his wife to tell her the news.

Her reaction was a bit less enthused than Paul would have hoped.

"Jaynie's supposed to start college in just over a year. You will have left by then and will be gone for two years, if you make it back at all. No one has ever flown on this new Zeus Rocket before."

She was right, of course. This wasn't like running out and buying a new car to replace an old one. Automobiles all pretty much just worked. With rockets, because of design changes, thrust requirements and overall rocket mechanics, the slightest flaw or defect or missed detail could be spectacularly and violently fatal.

"Maybe not on this rocket," he said. "But, we've been flying rockets for about a hundred years now, and sticking fools like me inside 'em for about seventy. We'll be fine and I'll only be gone for just about a year with these new engines. Besides, with me not underfoot you can get started on that greenhouse for those prize tomatoes you keep threatening to grow."

There was more to the conversation, but the important issues had been covered: her concern, his assurances, love, and mutual understanding of each others' dreams. The conversation would continue for most of the next year as his actual space flight training commenced and the day of departure drew ever nearer.

NASA called a press conference two days after he had received the confirmation phone call. It was to be a session for the masses to meet the new astronauts. It was still more than a full year before the manned mission, but NASA and other officials wanted to generate as much public interest as possible. Paul and the other nine astronauts were instructed to travel to Houston so that they could be introduced to the press and the public.

The space agency sent a driver to pick him up at Ellington Airport and drive him to the Mission Control Complex. He was chauffeured to a large building that resembled an airplane hangar from the outside. The driver informed him that someone would be along to escort him to the conference room momentarily and not to worry about his luggage; it would be waiting for him at the hotel. The driver waved and drove off. Paul entered the building through the only door and occupied himself with perusing the space flight pictures hanging on the walls. He was fascinated. Some of them, he had never seen before. Such close proximity to the pictures naturally triggered thoughts of the upcoming voyage.

According to what Paul knew of the mission profile, it was largely based on Von Braun's The Mars Project updated as necessary for new technology and new discoveries. Instead of a fleet of ten ships, this mission would require only two. Other than that, the similarities were obvious. Both ships would be assembled in space, and then launched from LEO II, the newest space station hanging in low Earth orbit, and hence its designation.

The initial components of the manned craft would be launched to rendezvous with LEO II immediately after the press conference; designed to serve as an exclamation point to the rather mundane introductions of astronauts.

Immediately following that launch, the television cameras would cut to views of the station from orbiting satellites where the already complete, unmanned supply and reconnaissance vehicle employed for this venture, named appropriately Beyond would be accelerated via space tug and set on a trajectory to intercept Mars after a flight of two months. The ship would settle into Mars orbit and take up station keeping for almost a year before its human occupied counterpart, the Vision, would arrive. During most of that time, Beyond would photograph the surface of the planet, monitor the weather and any changes in the atmosphere and perform the other routine scientific duties of any remote sensing space probe. By placing most of the necessities and equipment needed for the manned portion of the mission on the cargo vessel, the manned ship could devote more area to living space and to the overall care and well-being of its fragile human occupants.

Once arriving in low Mars orbit, the astronauts would tether the two ships together. Two of the crew would remain on Vision, while the remaining astronauts would transfer to Beyond and begin the drop operations—literally dropping inflatable buildings and supplies cushioned with what amounted to million dollar bubblewrap to the surface from the cargo bays.

Suspended below Beyond was a structure about the size of a school bus that would serve as the landing vehicle and then become the living quarters for several of the astronauts while on the surface of the planet. A pair of the dune buggy like "Red Rovers" would be dropped from this during landing, although those vehicles would have specially designed parachutes attached to them to slow their descent enough to prevent damage and hopefully land them gently on their wheels rather than the nose or upside down. He had been told the human condition of this mission was the most difficult in terms of landing, equipment and recovery, but the details of altitude and velocity and retrieval he left to the engineers, trusting their expertise in such matters.

This mission was the first of a series of seven scheduled to Earth's nearest planetary neighbor under the blanket name of Hermes, patron of the traveler and bringer of speed and good luck. Hermes I was code named "Focus". The name Walkabout had been suggested, but rejected for some undisclosed reason by the decision makers at NASA.

"So, you're the Cydonian," said a voice on his left. "Don't know how you can believe that crap, given your qualifications and scientific background."

Paul turned to regard the speaker, and immediately recognized him. He proffered his hand.

"If by Cydonian, you mean that I have not decided yet as to the origins of The Face and am reserving judgment until further and more complete scientific data can be obtained and analyzed, then yes, I'm the Cydonian," he said with just a touch of sarcasm. "Doctor Paul Welker. Mission Geological Specialist."

"Major Roger Brookings, Flight Commander."

Brookings offered his hand in return and the two men shook hands, each sizing up the other. Brookings' name had been mentioned as a possibility for command of this mission for months. A career military man, decorated pilot and experienced astronaut with a month on LEO II, he seemed the logical choice for this new venture.

Though mostly glory and ribbons, Brookings career was not perfect. During his stay at LEO II, an Extra Vehicular Activity he had participated in had swiftly turned tragic. Brookings was working a cutting torch under the supervision of Bill "By The Book" Swenza, the most senior astronaut in the program at that time. Swenza's radio malfunctioned during the EVA. In an attempt to communicate with Brookings, Bill had tapped him on the shoulder from behind. Brookings had turned, startled, and the torch had sliced through Swenza's suit before either man knew what had happened. The man was dead before Brookings could get him back through the air lock to safety.

Swenza's body had been returned to Earth where he was given a hero's burial, carried live on every network and cable news television station across the nation. Brookings had delivered the eulogy, and thus, his face and his name became etched in the minds of the American public as synonymous with space travel, much as Armstrong's had with Apollo and the Moon.

next -- Part II, Altitude

Image credit -


Face On Mars, Mars, Mission To Mars, Space Travel, Viking I, Viking Spacecraft

Meet the author

author avatar j.m. raymond
Satire, humor and fiction are my primary interests, although occasionally, I make forays into the worlds of technology and small business management.
You can also find me on twitter: @rentedfingers , my website at micha...(more)

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author avatar Denise O
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

Going good, on to part 2.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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author avatar Retired
11th Jun 2011 (#)

Excellent stuff. I will make time to read all the parts.

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author avatar j.m. raymond
12th Jun 2011 (#)

Thank you, savaswriter I appreciate you taking the time.

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