Rocket Man

For background context on this story, you are encouraged to read: Phobos Rising and Jumper.

Rocket Man – a short story

Copyright © 2014 by Christian Bergman, All rights reserved.

All people, places, and events are fictional … except when they aren’t.

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids. In fact, it’s cold as hell. – Elton John, Bernie Taupin (1972)

“Rocket Man, burning out his fuse, out here alone.” I recall the lyrics of the ancient Elton John song that has become the anthem of our profession, as I prepare for our deorbit burn. “Pressurizing the primary fuel loop … now,” I call out to my copilot.

“Roger that. Pressures coming up nicely,” Sam replies. “Prepping the igniters. I have New Masdar on the com. They have us in the flyway.”

“Roger that. Double-check the voltage on main B bus. I don’t like what I’m seeing.”

“It’s on the low-end of nominal, but within tolerance. It should get us home.”

“Okay, bringing reserve batteries online. Request NAV fix.”

“Patching in NAV from New Masdar”

“Got it. Ten minutes to ignition,” I confirm. “Better notify our passengers.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your copilot Samantha Smyth. Captain, Linda Johansen and I will be initiating our deorbit burn in ten minutes. Please double-check to make sure that your G-couch harnesses are fully secured. We will be landing at New Masdar in approximately twenty minutes. Daytime temperature is a balmy zero degrees Celsius with winds from the southwest. Speaking for the captain and the entire flight crew, I wish to thank you for flying TransMartian Spacelines and hope you enjoy your stay on Mars.” She looks at me and smiles.

I smile back. Sam and I are Rocket Men.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

“Deorbit burn in thirty seconds,” I announce over the intercom. “Ignition in twenty … ten … five … four … three …” The pre-programmed ignition sequence opens the fuel valves, spins up the fuel pumps, and lights the igniters. “… two … one … ” We are slammed into our G-couches by the thrust of the main engines, but we know that it will be nothing compared to the G-forces of deceleration in the Martian atmosphere.

“Heat shield temperature increasing,” Sam reports. “All systems nominal.”

The “Seven Minutes of Terror” have begun. Entry, Descent, Landing or EDL was nicknamed the Seven Minutes of Terror in the early twenty-first century by the scientists and engineers of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. As Adam Steltzner, one of the EDL engineers on the 2012 Curiosity rover mission, so eloquently put it in the famous internet video, “The top of the atmosphere down to the surface, it takes us seven minutes. It takes fourteen minutes or so for the signal from the spacecraft to make it to Earth. That’s how far Mars is away from us. So when we first get word that we’ve touched the top of the atmosphere, the vehicle has been alive … or dead … on the surface for at least seven minutes.”

The atmospheric buffeting is increasing. Heat shield temperature is now at sixteen hundred degrees … hotter than the surface of the sun. Cabin air temperature is rising noticeably. The violent deceleration hammers us into our G-couches. I clench my teeth. I hate this part.

“Touchdown in five minutes. New Masdar com reestablished.” Sam announces.

We have passed through the worst of the atmospheric reentry. The G-forces have relaxed a bit. Plasma boiling off our heatshield has diminished to the point where it no longer blocks all radio transmission.

“Translating from horizontal to vertical flight,” Sam continues. “We are now over New Masdar airspace. Transferring full control to you.”

“Roger that. I have visual on New Masdar spaceport,” I anounce as I prepare to take over manual control for final approach and landing.

“Touchdown in four minutes. Fuel reserves nominal. Main engine temperatures within spec. Thruster fuel pressure good. Battery levels stable.”

“New Masdar flight control, this is TransMartian 705. Touchdown in three minutes. I am taking full manual control … now.”

“TransMartian 705, this is New Masdar landing control. We are awaiting your arrival on Landing Pad 2. Welcome home.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

“Mommy! Mommy! We missed you so much.” My five Earth-year old daughter, Kelly, runs full speed at me and jumps onto me throwing her arms around my neck. She is native Martian, taller and leaner than than five year olds on Earth. She and Gil, my husband, meet me on the spaceport concourse as I arrive.

“I missed you too, sweetheart. It’s good to be back home.” I return her hug and give her a big kiss.

Gil finally reaches us and gives us both a hug. “How is my Space Cowboy doing? As usual we’ve somehow managed to hold things together while you were gone.” He leans in to kiss me.

After our kiss I whisper into his ear, “it’s good to be home. After two weeks without, I could go for some space cowgirl … if you know what I mean.”

He squeezes me again. “I love it when you talk dirty,” he whispers back.

“Let’s get mommy home.” I announce. “I want to strip off this flight suit and take a nice long hot bath.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

I am a Rocket Man. Despite the fact that most TransMartian crew members are women, we still proudly go by the title Rocket Men. The centuries old Elton John tune is our anthem, although many also subscribe to Steve Miller’s Space Cowboy. Strangely, the William Shatner version of each is more popular than the original.

The early days of spaceflight were the domain of men: Yuri Gagarin, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Yang Liwei, Mohamed El-Guindy. Women were an afterthought. The Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova may have been the first women in space in 1963, but she was essentially cargo in the largely autonomous Vostok 6 capsule. Women did not become pilots and mission commanders until decades later. Even then men were assigned to command positions for the most dangerous and prominent missions.

A century later, in a strange ironic twist, studies determined that women had a better aptitude for spaceflight than men did. Women excelled in all aspects of command and control when it came to spaceflight. They were better pilots. They were able to think more calmly and rationally under the stressful situations and high G-load. They were better equipped to withstand the psychological stress of long duration missions. When the Arab Gulf States founded the Mars Project and funded the subsequent colonization of Mars, demand for flight crews skyrocketed. Soon the long-haul carriers began a push to recruit women astronauts. Nightly public service announcements touted the need for experienced’s female flight crews. Colleges, universities, and flight schools soon bulged with female students. Every girl dreamed of being a Rocket Man or a Space Cowboy.

When I met Gil, I was flying trans-martian and trans-terran long-hauls. When we discovered that I was pregnant with Kelly, we decided I should work closer to home. Since we both worked for TransMartian Spacelines, we had the unique opportunity of making our homebase on either Earth or Mars. Earth had become technologically, socially, and politically stagnant. It was overpopulated and polluted. Petty wars were the norm. Mars, on the other hand, was becoming the center for social and technological innovation. We chose Mars.

During arrival and departure season, I fly orbital transfer missions, shuttling passengers from and to arriving and departing long-haul flights. These are usually two-week missions, with a week off in between. The long-hauls are launched toward Mars at one week intervals, although this season they seem to stacked mere days apart. The return flights are generally scheduled at similar intervals. I don’t like being away two weeks at a time, but the pay is too good to pass up. In the off-season I pilot suborbital jumpers. The pay isn’t as good, but I’m never away from home more than two sols. Frequently I can jump after breakfast and jump back in time for dinner.

Our home is in the outer ring of New Masdar. One hundred forty-five years after the Coronal Mass Ejection of 2135 that wiped out every other settlement and outpost, New Masdar continues to be the nexus of science and technology on Mars. The original Arab Quarter still flourishes, even as the rest of New Masdar has evolved into a multiplanetary exemplar for multicultural, multiethnic, and multinational cooperation and synergy.

I turn off the hot water and adjust the jacuzzi vents. The hot bubbling, frothing, water feels so good against my naked skin. The worst part of working orbital transfer duty is being stuck in that damn flight suit for two weeks. Wiping down with a cold wet washcloth in zero-G just isn’t the same as luxuriating in a hot tub. I showered completely to wash off the stench of my two-week imprisonment before getting in the tub, so this was just pure decadent pleasure. The bubbles caressing my skin are divine. This is better than weightlessness.

My reverie is unexpectedly interrupted. “I finally got Kelly settled down for the night by promising her that we would all go to the butterfly gardens tomorrow,” Gill announces as he climbs into the tub with me.

“She gets so excited every time I come home.”

“Why shouldn’t she? We all miss Mommy when she’s gone.”

“I bet you say that to all your wives.”

“Well, it is legal on Mars to have more than one wife, or more than one husband for that matter,” Gil replies. “But I assure you that I have my hands full with you … and Kelly.”

“Mmmmmm,” I close my eyes and sink farther into the water.

Gil eventually gets out, towels off, and begins to walk away. “Do I recall your mentioning something about cowgirl earlier today? … ”

“Just give me a little while longer, honey,” I yell after him. “It’s just that after two weeks in a flight suit, this water feels soooo good.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

This is the first arrival season that Kelly has really known, as she was less than two Earth-years old the last season. She really loves the butterfly gardens. It has become her favorite treat after I return from a two-week trip. With this arrival season she is practically guaranteed a visit here every twenty-one sols.

A Martian sol is only slightly longer than a standard Earth day at 24hr 39min. The Martian year is 669 sols, with arrival and departure season occurring every 760 sols. Seconds, minutes, and hours are identical to those of Earth, except that the twenty-third hour of the Martian day is 99 minutes long. A week is seven sols long. There is no Martian month, since that time period is based on Earth’s Moon. My cycle, however, is still locked at twenty-eight days.

“Mommy, come see, come see,” Kelly squeals as she grabs my hand and drags me from one butterfly covered bush to the next. The bushes, trees, and air are filled with butterflies of every size, shape, and color. Gil is happily viding 3D immersive holos of us with his com unit. “Look Mommy!” A giant green and black Birdwing butterfly has perched on her finger. It lingers for a moment, then flutters away. Kelly squeals in delight. Gil is getting all of it with the com vid. Of the fifteen thousand or so butterfly species found on Earth, New Masdar has successfully transported five thousand, with new species coming in every arrival season. I personally must have delivered several hundred species.

The butterfly gardens are but one small part of the New Masdar biosphere. Scattered across the sprawling Martian megalopolis are apiaries, aviaries, aquariums, botanic gardens, farms, forests, grasslands, green belts, and zoos – all located indoors under carefully controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, and humidity. The productivity of New Masdar’s farms and aquaculture is legendary.

It is nearly lunchtime and we stop at a street vendor for some traditional Martian cuisine, roasted crickets. Gil orders an extra-large bag of chile-lime crickets for himself, whereas I order a regular-size bag of honey roasted crickets to share with Kelly. We order a cold ayran for each of us to drink and find a table near a waterfall.

“Mmm, I like butterfly days,” Kelly smiles as she digs into our bag and comes up with a handful of crickets. “Why don’t we ever have crickets at home?” She pops several small ones in her mouth and begins crunching happily.

“You know they are always better when you get them on the street,” Gil replies. “Besides, if we had them at home they wouldn’t be as special.”

“Oh, Daddy, crickets are always special!” She says through a mouthful of crickets.

“You know Kelly, there was once a time when people on Earth would never have thought of eating crickets. People thought they were yucky,” I told her.

“Yucky? Crickets could never be yucky.”

I agree. Crickets were the perfect food: high in protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and fiber; low in fat and carbs. For the early Martian colonists, crickets proved to be easy to transport and farm, much easier than poultry, fish, or beef. Even now, after several hundred years of colonization, crickets are still a Martian favorite. We finish our crickets, slurp down the rest of our salty yogurt drinks, and continue on our journey of exploration.

“Tell Mommy about preschool,” Gil prods as we walk along.

“Its good.”

“Is that all you have to say? It’s good?” I ask.

“It’s good, but you and Daddy aren’t there.” She takes my hand and squeezes it. “Don’t go away again, Mommy. Stay with us.”

I blink. Something is in my eye.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Gil tucked Kelly in and is now in bed cuddling me. I always feel so warm and safe in Gil’s arms. Side by side, skin to skin, there is no place I’d rather be. I think back to the time when we first met. I was a probie pilot and he was a senior flight engineer. It was my first round trip to Mars and we were on the trans-terran long-haul. The flight crew had never worked together before and so we were all a little nervous and unsure of ourselves. Sixty days into the mission, we began experiencing a problem with the com link to Earth and Gil diagnosed it as a failure of the AE35 unit. He had to go EVA to replace it and on the way back in a problem developed with his pressure suit. The coolant water loop had sprung a leak and by the time we got him back into the airlock he had drowned inside his suit. I gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while the copilot did the CPR. I was never so glad that the suit engineers decided to use normal saline as the coolant fluid and not something toxic. When Gil came to, the first thing he did was look into my eyes and remark “if this was all I needed to do to get a kiss from you I would’ve done it sooner.”

From that point on we were lovers. Six months of nonstop zero-G sex. We tried every known position and invented a few of our own. There are things you can do in zero-G that just can’t be done anywhere else. Gil asked me to marry him a week before Earth orbit arrival. Kelly was born two round trips later.

I roll over to face Gil and kiss him. He responds with a long slow sensuous kiss of his own and his fingers begin to push my buttons … all the right ones. My com unit chimes. I ignore it. It chimes again. I ignore it. It chimes the special chime I’ve designated for urgent. “Shit.”

I answer it. “Unh huh, unh huh, but I’m on days off. How much? … Say again? … Seriously? … Seriously? … Unh huh … Zero hour? Unh huh, tomorrow 9 AM? Hmm. Shit. Okay.” I hang up.

“What is it?” Gil asks, but the look in his eyes says he knows. “I’ll pack your bags.”

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

“Main engines shut down,” Sam reports. “Thruster fuel pressure good. Battery levels stable.” I’ve pulled Sam for my copilot again. At least we work well together.

Once the main engines are shut down we float free in our G-couches, weightless, held only by our harnesses. I stare out the window as Mars falls away beneath us and switch on the com link. “Inbound long-haul, this is TransMartian 710. Anticipate rendezvous in six point seven days. Do you copy? Over.”

“Roger that, TM 710. It’s been a long trip. Looking forward to setting foot on solid ground. Godspeed.”

I am already missing Kelly and Gil. Despite the company of the crew and passengers, this girl gets lonely out in space. One day in thirty together just isn’t enough, for any of us. I promise myself to spend more time at home after this trip, as the old tune starts running through my head again, “It’s just my job five days a week.” … If only it were just five days a week …

I’m a Rocket Man. Burning out my fuse, out here … alone.


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