Vision, Part V

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 fifth installment of a longer piece that discusses some of those possibilities.

Start at the beginning

Nadir

The concept was simple. A sled would be positioned in the center of the cargo bay, directly over the outward swinging doors. A robotic arm, tested and proven during the days of the now archaic and long retired space shuttles would grasp the sled, its steel fingers acting like the tines of a forklift. The doors would be opened, the arm would extend down through the opening and simply release its hold on the sled and its contents, pushing it toward the planet below. Gravity would ensure the rest.

The trouble was, the whole process had never actually been done as a process. The shuttles had demonstrated the utility of the robotic arm. The Mars landers of the early 2000's had employed the rubber bladders with amazing success, surviving the unrestrained crash landing to zoom about the planet's surface for years after rolling out of their protective cocoons. Material and supplies had been dropped out of airplanes back on Earth for a hundred years with great success. Heat shields had been in a continual state of improvement since man first ventured into space and braking and maneuvering thrusters had been standard rocket technology since Sputnik. But, at no time had all of these components and technologies and mission parameters been incorporated into a single event. Today, forty million miles from where the ideas had originated, would be the first attempt to coordinate them all.

"Before we do anything else, I want every one secured to a tether line," Brookings said over the commlink. "If you fall through that hole in the floor here, I will not, repeat, I will not jump through after you to save your ass. You will be a hundred-eighty pounds or so of less mass we have to transport home. Better gas mileage for us, you might say."

Paul was the first to laugh, realizing that Brookings had made a joke. The rest of the crew joined in as they saw the humor in his words.

"Thank you, Dr. Welker. At least I know one of you is paying attention this morning," Brookings said, this time devoid of any trace of humor. "Now, everybody snapped in? Good. You all know this part of the drill; we did it dozens of times back in the sims. I don't have to tell you that how it went down in the sims is most likely not how it will transpire today. Something will go wrong; it usually does. Remember your jobs. Don't panic. We'll take it slow and easy and we'll prove the selection committee back home was justified in pulling our names from the hat."

He glanced quickly around the cargo bay, ensuring that everyone was tethered, signaled to check suit pressures and oxygen supplies, waited for a thumbs up or a "go" from all of them.

"Ops," he said, "Secure sled one."

The arm operator began pulling levers. The arm swung up and began rotating its grasping claw around to the first sled. Slowly it descended until the fingers on the claw had meshed with the retaining slots on the space age pallet. A slight lift on the arm pulled the sled off the magnetized floor, supporting its bulk on the finger tines. All was ready for the operation to begin in earnest.

"Magnetics off. Evacuate air supply in cargo bay. Vision, prepare to disengage tether on my mark. Mark. Open cargo bay doors. Retarget cameras to follow our bouncing baby boy here as far as possible. I want to know if this works.

Mission log: Preparations complete for initial drop. Begin visual recording now. Ops, extend the arm down 3 meters."

The robotic arm slowly crawled through the opening in the ship's deck, pushing the sled and its contents into the void to hang below the hurtling spacecraft.

"Ready, Commander."

"Drop in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… Let 'er go!"

The arm operator spun a knob, releasing the pneumatic pressure which in turn, caused the steel fingers to spring open. The cargo dropped away. The initial retro rockets fired, causing the sled to lose orbital speed and begin its fall toward the planet below. The first sled was offloaded, without a hitch, helped along on its crash course with muted cheers and wide smiles behind glass faceplates.

"Ops, close cargo bay doors. We have visual yet? Throw it to me here on these screens. "

The screens lit up with images of the sled as it encountered the atmosphere at an oblique angle designed to slow its descent as much as possible. It was a fireball, quickly fading to their rear as the ship moved out of range. The hi-res cameras were locked on to that fireball, recording every possible second of its descent. That sequence would then be played back for the astronauts to assess success or failure and make any necessary adjustments for the second drop. If all went well, the second drop would occur in just over two hours.

"Log: sled one away. Sled one, drop is green. More as we know it. Stop log."

They began readying the second sled. If the first one managed to get down without mishap, they would toss the second one out on the ensuing third pass. If it didn't, then drop operations would be suspended until they could sort out why. The transmitter on the sled, if it survived, would broadcast a locator signal along with the vertical orientation of the sled and minor information on the status of the cargo it carried, like whether all of it was still attached to the sled or not. One of the several ever present orbiters had been realigned by the controllers at NASA to relay the signal to Beyond and Vision so the crew would have plenty of notice if they needed to abort for the day. The satellite would also transmit the signal to the sleds to disengage the heatshields and deploy the parachutes.

*****

According to the instruments, the first sled managed to hit the planet as intended with its cargo intact. One down, two to go for today. The readying ritual onboard ship in the cargo bay was repeated for the second sled. Even before they were out of camera range, they observed that number two appeared to explode just moments after being pushed out by the robotic arm. Supplies scattered like a jet contrail behind the twisting, tumbling, falling sled, most of them consuming themselves from the heat and friction produced as they encountered the atmosphere.

"Better supplies than one of us," Brookings said from where he was watching the screens. "Let's make sure the rest of them don't do that, shall we?"

Drop operations were suspended for the rest of the day. Because of the number of factors involved, including the rotation of the planet and inclination of their orbit they only had a limited number of opportunities each day in which the targeted landing area would be reachable. With the failure of the second skid, they would not be able to find and resolve the issue and resume drops before they were out of range.

Brookings ordered the environment restored and had Vision re-tether, and then the investigations began. Strappings were checked. Couplings were inspected. Controls on the robotic arm were investigated. Computer aided assessments were run on the whole of the video sequence, looking for clues. While the astronauts and their computer surrogates were attempting to determine the cause, the cameras on board both Vision and Beyond continued to do their assigned task of recording the terrain below the spacecraft.

"I told you it was a face!" Mick said enthusiastically, hours later when they had a chance to sit down with the recording. "Look at that thing! Absolutely beautiful!"

"It certainly resembles a face from this vantage point," Paul said. "We'll see. We'll know for sure once we get down there and start kicking rocks."

Getting down and heading out to kick rocks was still several days out in the mission parameters. Even after repairing the pressure system on the robotic arm—the cause of the earlier failure—they would not depart Beyond for at least four days because of the remaining supplies to get to the surface. Once down, provided all went according to plan, they would not be allowed outside for another day or two to give their bodies an opportunity to acclimate to being under the influence of gravity again. NASA had told them it would be almost like learning how to walk again. Brookings had told them it would be excruciatingly painful while their muscles recovered from the imposed atrophy from long duration space flights and that it would be the most frustrating thing they had ever done; knowing what they wanted to do and being unable to make their limbs function as they wished. Meanwhile, there were dozens more passes over Cydonia, all dutifully recorded by the cameras.

Though very few of the passes were directly over The Face, Paul and Mick found themselves reviewing the recordings in every moment of free time they had. One pass was directly over the apex of the D&M Pyramid. Named for the discoverers, Vincent DiPietro and Gregory Molenaar, this enigma had an uncanny resemblance to a five sided pyramid, although the south side looked to have suffered some sort of collapse or possible impact from an asteroid. From the images alone that he was viewing, Paul was almost convinced that it was artificial. He cautioned himself not to leap to any premature conclusions.

Mick, however, had no inhibitions against those leaps.

"That's a pyramid if I ever saw one!" he pronounced.

"Pyramid, yes," Paul agreed. "But what's important is whether or not it is an artificial construct."

"You know of any geological force or forces that can create such a perfect five sided pyramid, Mr. Geologist?" Mick asked, a huge grin plastered on his face. "Water tends not to leave such sharp edges, wind doesn't change directions so many times without destroying its previous handiwork, and you and I and the school marm all know that lava flows or impact craters don't ever resemble anything remotely close to that."

"We'll see, Mick," Paul said thoughtfully. "We'll see."

Several curious reflections chased each other through his mind. Given their proximity to these anomalies, and the inability to tell from this close whether they were natural land formations or artificial constructs, why had NASA already declared them to be naturally formed landmarks? What criteria had they used to make that unwavering decision and how could they be so certain in their public discourse? And where was the proof? What if it turned out that they were wrong? What would the reaction be? He knew another restless night lay ahead of him as he continued to wrestle with those questions.

The preceding is an excerpt.

The links below should help to navigate through the entire story.
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Image credit - http://www.public-domain-image.com/space-public-domain-images-pictures/mars-planet-of-the-solar-system.jpg.html

Tags

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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Comments

author avatar Melissa Dawn
12th Feb 2011 (#)

Just found this jm. Good stuff off to read the rest of it.

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author avatar JohnH
23rd Feb 2011 (#)

good stuff to read. Many thanks for writing it.

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author avatar Denise O
3rd Mar 2011 (#)

You still have me hooked and I am on to the next part.
Thank you for sharing.:)

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