Mission to Mars Part 1: Curiosity will be the death of us all

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They had lowered the shades over the big window as much to block out the excessive and red-orange sunlight as to get some reprieve from the mystery of just what was going on with the rover out there.  Carl and Jamie were engaged in their daily ritual of silence.  They sat at an ultra-light-polycarbonate table and sipped very weak green tea from mugs so thin the edges could accidently get caught between your teeth, especially the angled canines.  The overhead fan was small like the ones in a train or airplane and made the sound of an object traveling through space.

Camera1- Zoom out for Wide Shot – breakfast scene. The shades rose slightly of their own accord.  The deep amber-red light saturated the room again, shining through the blue and orange food trays. The atmospheric data screen powered up and the window shade opened to three quarters of its height to let yet more solar radiation in.  It was going to get very hot.  There was no one to report the malfunction to. It was becoming increasingly clear that without earth based tech support they had very little control.

Tim and Natalie were sleeping; they were on the night shift.  Jamie lifted her clear nano-fibre mug just in front of her mouth and trepidatiously broke the silence.

“Tim might be able to do something about the rover when he gets up.  He’s pretty tech, maybe he can at least just shut it down.”

Carl looked into his mug, he had not spoken yet today. There was no residue to study, the tea was made from a tiny sprinkle of powder that seemed to perfectly dissolve.  The rover was now fully visible out the big window, it had the mast cam  extended and pointed at them; it was driving backwards away from their structure, making a wide arc up a gentle slope.

Protocol which remained in place since the rovers scientific NASA mission in the early 10s had put it into an autonomous operation mode.  The earth-mars solar conjunction[i] lasted about twenty five days and during this time the robot would run a series of tests, operated by artificial intelligence guided by its mission objectives.  In the past, when NASA was in control, it would simply sit still and monitor atmospheric data. Since MarsOne[ii] had purchased and reprogrammed the rover, it was still mostly operated from ground control but the producers wanted to make the most of it during the Solar Convergence so they had it set up to work on motion tracking and artificial intelligence.  In a typically rushed way they got together for a lunch with the camera techs to set up a shooting schedule and chose some locations.  At the last minute it was the executive producers call to let the computer modify it if there was anything in particular to film or otherwise observe.

The four-person crew was told that while they were without a direct link to earth, they were supposed to just keep making the show themselves. Act normally, face the cameras for conversation, be quirky. The interior cameras would still be motion tracking, everything was supposed to be relatively the same just without the feedback.  The lab computers were storing up copious amounts of video data to send back as soon as they had a signal.

Curiosity, they had said, was going to do some light roving, and collect b-reel planet shots.  Vast empty Martian landscapes. Far-off exterior shots of Base Camp.  As no one was supposed to leave the habitat for this time there was no need for it to be focused on them.

Once the rover reached the zenith of its dolly shot, it lowered the mast cam almost to the ground, leveled the lens at the window of the habitat and began to drive forward for a low-altitude-fly-over effect.  From this angle the rocks looked like massive boulders and the mast swiveled back and fourth to avoid them.

Carl was standing in the big window watching.  The rover was moving at near full speed.  It reached the staging area in front of the window and still driving, it raised the mast up in a smooth arc.  The camera panned up his body, on the other side of the glass and stopped where the lens was eye to eye with him. Carl could see the aperture change as it zoomed in on his eye.  Jamie put down her mug and watched the stand off.  Carl was frozen, knowing that this was all going to be on tv and, that the robot has a rock vaporizing laser. It could vaporize rocks[iii]. Simultaneously mystifying and terrifying.  If it could make rock into gas what would it do to him?

Jamie got up and went over to the window, the heat of the sun made her bare legs tingle.  Camera1 zoomed in on them from behind, there were more noises of the other cameras adjusting for multiple perspectives.  At least four angles of the scene were being recorded.  Curiosity reversed slowly and panned the mast cam back and forth, Carl, Jamie, Carl, Jamie before zooming out for a shot of them both and driving away.

The small satellite could be seen in the morning and evening when the sun reflected its light to the surface.  The satellite relay was still active even though no communication was being received by earth.

Outside, Camera5 tracked the rovers movements through the orange dust.  It was circumnavigating the habitat to the left again.  Carl spoke.

“Rover behavior has been erratic since the solar convergence began. It looked me in the eye, Jamie, you know, the MastCam can’t focus on something that close.“

“this is all pre-programmed by earth team, it could be using different sensors, are you sure it cant see up close?”

“It has a rock vaporizing laser.”

Jamie remembered to fully vocalize her thoughts, like the producers and scene coach had said.

“Enough with you and your rock vaporizing laser paranoia”

She glanced over at Cam2 for a dramatic look.

One of the sleeping pods opened and Natalie squirmed out.  The sleeping pods were in the small hallway between the main room which was the kitchen and living quarters for all four of them and the lab where the computers and equipment were kept.  The lab had an airlock that led to the rover bay with the one they could ride and a kind of closet where the space suits were.  Natalie appeared to be only wearing a baby blue tee shirt.  The producers loved this stuff.  She just stood there confused in the light.

According to the colour on the panel either Tim wasn’t in his pod, or he was dead.  No, he wasn’t in there.  She touched the panel, not in there.  This was dreaming again.  She was dreaming.  The whole mission was mixed in her mind with dream imagery.  It was seamless and real. Mars wasn’t a solid baseline reality so it blended very freely.  She was the only one who didn’t think about the tv.  She had stopped caring once she was launched on the one-way trip.  This was freedom, 800 square feet of freedom.

Her hair was tussled and messy and she felt the side of her face.  Curiosity passed the porthole going at an incredible speed.  The dust hung for sixty two percent longer than it would on earth[iv], the long slow suspension created a ring around the base that was renewed with every lap.  Slowly Natalie realized she wasn’t asleep.  The orange food tray glowed luminescent with the bright light form the big window

“You guys seen Tim?”

Tim was pretty far away.  He had the ride-on rover and was skirting the edge of a massive rift valley.  The display in his helmet said the rover had forty five percent power.  He was going full speed and driving on manual to avoid linking to the base computer.  This wasn’t supposed to be possible but he had been thinking about taking the rover out by himself for a while and had figured out a hardware way to get around the data link; he unplugged all the antennae.  The rift valley looked accessible from the other side.  Tim spoke out loud for the helmet to record.

“I see a vast lake in this valley and a broad leaf forest, waterfalls cascading down the cliffs with their cooling spray.” He was gesturing dramatically and he pulled himself up so he sat on the backrest of the seat.  The rover seemed to be autopiloting now.

“I see groups of children, maybe a summer camp with cabins where they sleep and canoes on the shore.  When I was young I would wake up there would be dew in the grass.  I see dew, I can see the archery range, we will play capture the flag across the rockslide and sneak through the cat tail reeds with muck in my toes”

There was a dry riverbed at the head of the canyon and he had to drive along side for a while before there was a place that looked like the rover could get across.  Taking over control again, he sat in the front and descended the bank at a sharp angle.  The bottom was deep with dust and small rocks, the wheels spun and he lurched forward slowly.  Tim swiveled the wheel back and forth to gain traction and thrust his own weight forward.  The other bank was steep and with only dust to push against the rover couldn’t climb it.  Thirty six percent battery remained.  He got out and tried to lift the front wheel up onto the bank.

Natalie was still walking around in only her tee shirt and underwear and she did slow laps of the small living quarters in the opposite direction that Curiosity lapped the habitat outside.  Carl was in the lab at a computer terminal looking for the rover.  No signal.  Jamie was making a video log entry in the booth.  They were all required to make a daily entry and encouraged to tell earth their candid thoughts away from the others.

“Day sixty-five, two days into the solar convergence.  Tim has taken the rover out. I’m worried, we can’t find it anywhere.  Curiosity is acting weird and Carl still refuses to talk about anything besides the rock vaporizing laser. “ She bit her lip and brushed her hair off her forehead.

“I love Tim but, maybe I’ve been a little distant recently, I hope he’s not mad at me, I hope he’s ok.” She was crying now, she knew it was wonderful, pure gold teaser trailer material, maybe they’d start the season with it.  She looked to the side, and thought: furtive glance and then she really let go with the crying.

“Oh god, we are so alone out here, I need Tim to be ok, we need a plan”

Jamie took a deep breath and leaned into the camera, she wiped the ears off her cheeks and smoothed her hair.  This was what it was all about.  The booth opened and Jamie strode out and announced that they should have a meeting.  Natalie was over by the big window staring out into the distance, she nodded but didn’t turn around.  Carl came out of the lab and shook his head.

“I can’t find him, he’s disappeared…”

Natalie wandered over to the counter and pushed the button for green tea.  She pushed it three more times and dissolved it into half a mug of hot water.  Jamie was at the table with a tablet display marking off coordinates on a map for the search.  Carl’s eyes narrowed as he tracked Curiosity across the big window and came to rest on Natalie.  Natalie stirred her tea.

“We can still connect to the relay sat imagery, put some recent pictures up on the big screen and just look for the rover; its pretty white. “

Jamie responded almost instantly.

“Make it so” and Natalie took her tea over to the lab.  Carl watched her leave the room and then watched the rover make another pass.

“What will we do when we find him?”

“One of us has to take the other personal rover and go get him”

The atmospheric data screen lit up and became roughly pixilated before switching to an image of the area around base camp.  The rover was easy to spot.  Jamie jumped up from the table, looked right at Cam2 and said: “What the fuck is he doing out there?”

Carl asked the computer to power up the spare ride-on rover.  It refused the request as it was supposed to be confirmed by earth. Natalie now had the relay sat sending live video as it passed over.  They now had a few minuets of intermittent video with each pass.  Tim was out of the dry river bed and making his way along the opposite side of the canyon.

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