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Mars by Stealth

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Olympus Mons

For some reason the human condition loves to blame catastrophes on a single thing or preferably person. But usually it's a combination of things, a miss-communication, and assumptions about how things should be or distraction by things more interesting than preventative maintenance. No single member of the crew could really be blamed for what was about to happen. They had been thrown together at the last minute. What could you expect?

To be really honest Victoria knew she was not the best person for the job. She loved coming up with clever new ways to do things. That was all well and good but space travel in these early days needed an almost fanatical attention to tedious details. This is where Keith was an expert. She could always go to him if she wanted to know about tedious details. This quality however did not make him the greatest husband in the solar system.

She slogged through her schedule of maintenance duties but her head was always in how the next mission should be different to make it better. And she wasn't that great at keeping notes.

Now they had to make a straight line into a circle. They had gone through the procedures to get from travelling to orbit to landing everyday for the last week. But now they had to play a game called actual reality. It was like trying to wake up after an ancient slumber. Like having laid in the sun all afternoon and then suddenly having to run for the bus.

They used virtual simulations to rehearse important technical procedures like entering orbit and landing, but there was another novel way this technology was employed. Using high quality virtual reality headgear they could simulate environments of unlimited size. This was supposed to give everyone more personal space and a temporary holiday from each other. If the virtual reality was immersive enough it worked quite well for the person using it. The virtual environment stories that had comedy were most popular with Victoria. This was until she realised how unpopular they were making her with the others. The virtual helmet blocked out external noise and allowed the wearer to become engrossed in a private world. Victoria could forget about the others for a while but they all had to endure her out of context laughter. Max tried using the headgear inside his space suit. This silenced the laughter but you still ended up with a disturbing jiggling or flinching that was not much fun to be around. Max was the chemist on this trip. He was a restless creature and very fond of things that exploded.

In preparation for this mission Victoria had done some study on group and family dynamics. They had spent quite a lot of time examining studies on people in prison. At the time Victoria thought this was a bit extreme but not any more. At that time she had it in her head that what they were doing was important and exciting enough to make individual quibbles unimportant. But not any more.

One of the ways they described group behaviour was to talk about each person like a balloon that would self inflate until it came up against resistance. Victoria knew about herself that she used to have a bad habit of trying to give people as much room as they needed. This never worked. They would just keep expanding. Victoria was surprised to realise that people 'liked' to meet resistance. That is to say that if you set a boundary you had confidence in they would stop where you told them they had to stop. They would even respect you for it. Anna, the chief pilot was a good example of a person who could expand forever if you let her. In six months the balloons in this tin can had got pretty chafed and ready to pop.

They tried every variation of distracting activities. There were group research projects beyond what was essential for the mission. This was to make sure they had unlimited opportunities to bond. There were self-devised projects that an individual could complete independent of the rest of the crew. But eventually every last one of these artificial activities got very old.

Down on the surface a small collection of sand coloured, bubble shaped buildings stood in a barren red landscape. Near by was the return vehicle. A tiny point of light high in the sky glowed brightly.

The vessel now was engulfed in a red glow that emanated from its heat shield as it entered the atmosphere. Inside all the occupants were strapped to the walls of the vessel and suited up in case of a mishap. Hmm. An intermittent commentary came from Mission Control. It was all one-way because of the long return delay. They made it sound so orderly and well thought out. It was more for the press than anything else. That is what ever press were still interested.

Now they were in the flame of re-entry. While they were in the flame there was nothing they could do. They just had to let inertia and friction fight it out.

Brian was a dreamer in the best possible way. He would have exciting new ideas but they would always be grandiose and much bigger than he could hope to do anything about in one lifetime. He told Victoria about an idea he had which would make re-entry less perilous. The problem is that even if a spacecraft is only in orbit around a planet it is travelling at a tremendous speed. In the vacuum of space it has nothing to slow it down unless it uses as much fuel as it took to get it to that speed. So it hits the atmosphere very hard.

He had worked on a medical centrifuge once that had a very clever way of slowing down at the end of a cycle. The standard models slowed down using friction in the same way break drums on a car do. But this one was much smarter. When the cycle ended the motor circuit flipped over so it was configured like a generator. It used the drag of the magnetic field to resist the motion. It was very elegant and produced no heat. Brian wondered if a spacecraft on re-entry could use a planet's magnetic field in the same way. It could do this in the vacuum of space before it entered the atmosphere. It could recharge the batteries at the same time. Victoria knew what Brian had been doing, everyone did. Re-entry was always pretty tense with not much distraction. By the time his story was over it was time for the next stage.

Those big parachutes look so soft and comforting from the outside. But the jolt inside could break your neck if you weren't sitting down the way you were told to. For a while they could all breathe again. With the vessel now more or less upright Victoria looked out that tiny porthole to glimpse their destination.

Olympus Mons is the largest volcano known of in the solar system. The central edifice of Olympus Mons has a summit caldera 24 kilometres above the surrounding plains. This made it three times the height of Mount Everest. Being a third the size of Earth it stood to reason that Mountains on Mars could be three times as high. With low gravity and no erosion they hang around for a lot longer. But where Everest is pointy Olympus Mons is so wide its sides gently slope at an average of five degrees. The rock doctors call it a shield volcano. Surrounding the volcano is an outward-facing scarp 550 kilometres in diameter.

Victoria used to think the icon for the Mars base was Mars and its two moons Demos and Phobos but now she realised it was the crater formation at the top of Olympus Mons. The icon was a large circle in the middle with two smaller craters interrupting its circumference on each side. The centre crater on the volcano is 80 kilometres across. Big enough to hold any of Earth's largest cities and all its sprawling suburbs with plenty of room to spare.

The camp was right on the rim of this great circle. Even though she had never been there before Victoria was already very familiar with the camp through satellite images and 3D models of it in place on the mountain. The camp was mostly a lot of sandy red hemispheres, like bubbles on a chocolate milkshake.

When there's a global dust storm this mountain top was the first place to clear. This was a benefit when it came to the solar energy supply. Many elements made the Olympus Mons location an advantage but the main reason the base had grown here was that it put the return vehicle so much closer to the sky.

The huge parachutes billowed open, jolting the crew. Everyone took their orders from the Captain but between the chutes opening and touch down Anna was in charge. She was a highly skilled technician like the rest of them but she was the best pilot. Anna was impressive at the controls. Her focus and nerves of steel were awesome. Everyone knew she was good. But no matter how professional Anna's conduct had been Victoria knew her heart wasn't really in it. Assignment to this mission had been some kind of a disappointment for all of them. There was something careless about everyone's attitude.

If the crew had anything in common it was the feeling that they had the capacity to make a mark, that even if they didn't know what it was there was something special for them to contribute. But in being assigned to this mission the system was telling them they were wrong.

Victoria felt that their mission reflected space travel moving into that of the routine. The missions were at a point where the heady intoxication of walking on Mars had passed into history. The new worlds in the headlines were places like Europa. That crew were on their way at the same time to make the first landing there. Anna was supposed to be on that historic mission but only hours before launch she was bumped. Whatever the reason was it certainly was not any lack of piloting skill.

After this mission Mars would always have people on it. They were here to set it up for the first long-term colonists. But this crew wasn't really a part of that. After they had done the fix ups they would return to Earth and to careers full of uncertainty.

The mission had two areas. There was the mind numbingly simple, endlessly repetitive stuff. Empty this, fill that, replace this, throw that away, a monkey could do it. The other half of the mission was much more tedious. When you move house no matter how organised you are the last and most annoying part always involves those fiddly things. They are either so awkward they don't fit in any of the boxes or so small and fragile they don't make it to the other end without breaking or getting lost. Then there were the bits of the move you had never anticipated or that were so tedious you left them to last or hoped someone else would do. That was the team Victoria was on. This was their mission. All of those things crews before them had put in the too hard basket. If a part had been too short it was their job to some how make it longer. If someone else was slack and had stripped the thread on a screw now it was their problem. They were supposed to have been completely prepared with everything they needed, but this mission had been put together in such a hurry Victoria knew it was going to be a shit fight. The captain called the crew 'The Last Detail' because that was what they were there to take care of. Some of them had much more colourful names for it.

However unglamorous they might be, this crew was of a new breed. They were not astronauts with toolboxes; they were technicians with space suits. Tedious or not, the sort of mechanical and electronic on sight problem solving they had to be prepared for was not for the faint-hearted. Anna was the only one here that could be thought of as the old style gung ho test-pilot style astronaut.

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Copyright Peter Rasmussen 2001