The year is 1971 — not too far off in the future.
Emboldened by the success of Gemini, in the late 1960s the United States undertakes an all-out effort to establish a permanent manned presence in space. While NASA concentrates on the development of the Apollo moon landing program, the United States Air Force assumes responsibility for the development of Earth-orbital stations that would serve as habitats, experimental laboratories, and even industrial manufacturing facilities.
Riding into space on Gemini and its successors Gemini-B and Big Gemini, dozens and eventually hundreds of civilian and military astronauts begin settling in Earth orbit. As the number of spaceships and space stations grows, so too does the nation’s confidence that its future would be found in space — that the frontiers of knowledge extended far beyond the limited horizons of the planet, over whose finite resources humans had fought for much, much too long.
To keep the eyes of the nation and the world looking outward into space, and to push the space program to strive to accomplish ever more ambitious and inspiring goals, NASA and the Air Force set out to achieve the seemingly impossible — a manned mission to Mars in 1971, when the red planet and Earth would be tantalizingly close . . .
* * *
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER DOWNRANGE, 06:30 HRS 04 MAY 1971
From orbit, the azure Atlantic curved below until it faded to a pale blue in the distance. On the far left horizon, a smudge of brown-green marked the Florida coast. Indistinctly at first and then growing in brightness, a yellow pinprick ascended from the coast and grew into a teardrop as it moved higher, its arc flattening as it traveled from left to right.
In front of the teardrop of rocket exhaust, a silver and white Titan I booster propelled a sleek, black wedge into low-earth orbit. Inside the cramped cockpit was a single astronaut, ensconced in a form-fitting silver spacesuit, the face obscured by the dark visor on the bulbous helmet.
“Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty, Cape Departure,” a voice crackled through the headset. “Prepare for booster cutoff and sep.”
“Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty roger,” the astronaut replied, the voice unmistakably that of a woman. “Cutoff in three . . . two . . . ”
The yellow bloom behind the Titan I’s conical engine bell disappeared, followed a few seconds later by the briefest shudder as the Dyna-Soar spacecraft uncoupled from it and fired a bank of small thrusters to accelerate it a fraction faster than the booster. On the booster, a similar set of thrusters fired in reverse.
“Cape Departure, Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty. Clean separation,” the astronaut said as she nudged her craft’s side-mounted control column.
“Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty, Cape Departure, handing you over to station approach control. Switch to one four three point six two five, safe flight.”
“Point six two five roger,” responded the astronaut. “Thank you.” Leaning forward, the astronaut’s gloved hand adjusted a dial. “Orbital station McKinley, Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty, good morning. Requesting approach.”
“Dyna-Soar Five-Twenty, McKinley. Good morning. Transmitting vectors to your computer.”
The Dyna-Soar adjusted its path automatically, its onboard computer pointing the craft toward a rendezvous with a distant point of light that gradually grew in size in the cockpit window until it resolved into a donut-shaped inflatable station with a central docking core.
As the Dyna-Soar approached, a pair of small doors behind the cockpit unfurled, revealing a small cargo bay nearly taken up by an airlock. The spacecraft rotated almost lazily until its top side was facing the docking module on the station. The distance between the Dyna-Soar one-man reusable spaceship and the station slowly closed as a cloudy South Pacific swept by unnoticed below. All eyes in both vehicles carefully monitored the approach. As they drew closer, the difference in size between the two became increasingly apparent; the station was nearly one hundred feet across, while the spacecraft was a mere 35 feet long.
A quick burst of reaction control thrusters spun the Dyna-Soar at a fractional speed to match the rotation of the station along its axis, and then the two slid into a perfect docking connection without even a bump. The astronaut signed off and unbuckled herself as soon as she heard the clank of the hard locks.
In the McKinley’s docking module, two astronauts in pale-gray jumpsuits waited for a green light on the control panel before spinning the wheel on the floor-mounted hatch and swinging the hatch open. The Dyna-Soar’s pilot floated up through the hatch, reaching out for the steadying hands of the station’s welcoming committee.
Once safely inside, she raised her visors. “Thanks, guys.”
“Welcome aboard, Colonel Braden. General Carstairs wants to see you right away.”
Braden paused as she was unfastening her helmet. “Not even time to get out of these duds?”
“No ma’am,” the astronaut replied apologetically. “It’s very urgent.”
“Well, at least let me get this thing off,” she said after a pause, continuing to unbuckle her helmet from the Gemini-style suit. A moment later she lifted the helmet off, shaking her head from side to side to loosen her neck and shoulder muscles. Her chestnut-brown hair remained carefully pinned to the back of her head.
“This way, Colonel,” the astronaut said, gesturing toward a hatch in the wall. The two of them floated through as the other astronaut continued securing the docking area. Aside from the urgency, it was after all just another routine on-orbit arrival at the station.
McKinley was essentially a giant inner-tube divided into airtight compartments. They passed through several compartments — each packed with equipment and astronauts engaged in various station and mission tasks, held in place by the station’s fractional-gee rotation — until they reached a hatch marked “General Carstairs.” The astronaut opened the hatch and gestured for Braden to go ahead of him. She glided through the hatch.
General Carstairs was seated in a strap-chair behind a utilitarian bare-metal desk. As Braden entered, he unbuckled himself and pushed off the wall to meet her. “Liz,” he said expansively. “It’s good to see you.”
They shook hands. “Frank, it’s been a long time. Congratulations on your promotion.”
Carstairs gestured to the curved walls. “I get to play with all these wonderful toys. It’s my dream job.” They both chuckled.
“So what’s so important that I have to charter a Dyna-Soar for a special launch and then I don’t even have a chance to get out of this suit?” Braden asked as she followed Carstairs back to his desk and strapped herself into a chair in front of it. “There isn’t a problem with the Lowell, is there?”
“Not with the Lowell,” Carstairs said with a sigh of irritation as he strapped himself in. “With the crew. There’s been a last-minute crew change. The reason I didn’t give you time to change, Liz, is because you’re turning right around and going back to Kennedy as the new commander of the Mars expedition.”
Braden’s dark eyes widened as she stared uncomprehendingly at the general.
“John Walden has come down with acute appendicitis. We need someone who knows the Percival Lowell as well as he does. You’re the chief of mission planning, you’ve been involved in the program since day one. You’re the natural replacement. John thinks so too.”
Braden blinked, furrowing her brow as she tried to wrap her head around the fact that the night before she had gone to bed looking forward to her vacation in the Bahamas, and today she was suddenly in orbit being told to pack her bags for a 420-day round trip to another planet aboard a nuclear-powered super-rocket that would be departing in just over two weeks.
“Say something, Colonel,” Carstairs said with a mischievous grin. “Like, maybe, ‘Thanks for the opportunity of a lifetime, Frank’?”
“What about Taff Endicott?” Braden finally said, visibly struggling to impose order on her thoughts and her demeanor. “It would be logical for the second-in-command to be promoted.”
“Major Endicott will remain the mission’s second-in-command. He’s good, but he’s needed where he is. He’ll stay in charge of the mission’s Mars landing portion of the mission.”
“Does he know?”
“Right now, only Walden, you, and me know,” Carstairs said. “And Walden’s doctor, of course, but he’s not talking.”
“Lovely,” whispered Braden.
“Liz, I’m offering you the chance of a lifetime here. Command of humanity’s first mission to another planet. It will outshine everything, even the moon landings. The Percival Lowell is the largest, most complex spacecraft ever built. This mission will prove that we have the technological capability not only to live and work in space, but to venture deeper and deeper into the cosmos. If this mission comes off, you will be the Christopher Columbus of space exploration.”
Braden’s eyes narrowed. “Except that Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t roust Columbus out of bed one morning and tell him to set sail in two weeks.”
Carstairs laughed heartily. “Does that mean you’ll accept your commission, Colonel Braden?”
She took a deep breath and straightened her back. “‘Never refuse a flight assignment,’ isn’t that right, General?”
“Not one like this, certainly,” he said, extending his hand.
“Thank you, General,” Braden said, shaking Carstairs’ hand, a smile slowly dawning on her face as the magnitude of the adventure ahead of her began to sink in. The Bahamas could certainly wait until she returned.
“I’d better get back, then,” she said. “I have a lot of work to do.”
* * *