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Rescue Mode

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Rescue Mode

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Author: Les Johnson
Ben Bova
Publisher: Baen, 2014

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Gritty and scientifically accurate science fiction adventure from New York Times best-selling author Ben Bova and NASA space scientist Les Johnson.

The first human mission to Mars meets with near-disaster when a meteoroid strikes the spacecraft, almost destroying it. The ship is too far from Earth to simply turn around and return home. The eight-person crew must ride their crippled ship to Mars while they desperately struggle to survive.

On Earth, powerful political forces that oppose human spaceflight try to use the accident as proof that sending humans into space is too dangerous to continue. The whole human space flight program hangs in the balance. And if the astronauts can't nurse their ship to Mars and back, the voyagers will become either the first Martian colonists--or the first humans to perish on another planet.


August 6, 2032
Earth Departure Minus 32 Months
18:08 Universal Time
Spaceport America, New Mexico

Steven Treadway stood in the baking desert heat, a microphone embedded in the stylish pin on his short-sleeved shirt. He gestured toward the twelve-story-tall rocket that stood on its steel launch stand, gleaming in the bright sunshine of a cloudless summer morning.

"This is the first of ten rocket boosters that will carry components of the Mars-bound Arrow spacecraft into a low orbit around the Earth," he was saying. The pin-mike picked up his words clearly.

"Over the next six months the Arrow will be put together in Earth orbit, then its crew of four men and four women will board the spacecraft and head off to Mars."

In the morning's heat, Treadway had dispensed with his usual studio "uniform" of crisp white shirt with navy blue trousers, and stood in an open-necked polo shirt and whipcord slacks. He was a handsome man, with finely chiseled features and cobalt-blue eyes. The latter were the gift of his parents, the former the product of cosmetic surgery.

This Mars program was Treadway's path to the top of his profession. Basically a science reporter, he had fought with every ounce of determination and cunning in him to have NASA select him as the one news media person who would "travel" with the astronauts all the way to Mars--without leaving the safety of Earth, thanks to virtual reality technology and the new three-dimensional TV system that the network was pushing so hard. And it didn't hurt that Treadway's cousin was a senator...

When they land on Mars, he thought, I'll be with them. Everybody around the world will watch me standing on the red planet. In 3D.

His voice deep and reassuring, Treadway continued, "The flight to Mars will take one hundred seventy-eight days--almost six months--and then the two astronauts and six scientists will spend thirty days on the surface of the red planet--the first human beings to set foot on Mars. During that thirty days, they will perhaps confirm the discovery that so rocked the world just six years ago when China's Haoqi robotic sample return mission found evidence of organic chemicals in the Martian soil. We may finally be on the verge of answering the question, 'are we alone in the universe?'"

Behind Treadway, technicians were at work up on the launch platform. A half-dozen white SUVs were parked around it. The rocket booster towered over them all.

"And I'll be going to Mars with them," Treadway said, with a dazzling smile. "Not physically, but through the wonders of three-dimensional virtual reality, I'll be digitally embedded with the crew, so I can report to you every day from the Arrow spacecraft."

"T MINUS TEN MINUTES," blared the loudspeakers set around the launch stand.

Technicians began to climb down the steel stairs and clamber into the waiting SUVs.

"The final minutes of the countdown have started," Treadway said into his mike. "Time for this reporter to go to the visitor center and interview some of the notables who have come to witness this historic moment."


Inside the air-conditioned visitor's center, Treadway was standing between the two astronauts of the Mars crew. The center was crowded with luminaries: the governor of New Mexico, the head of NASA, several senators and congressmen, other dignitaries and glitterati, including two major Hollywood stars and a handful of pop musicians.

Coming up through the news media ranks as a science reporter, opportunities to meet with political luminaries such as this were microscopically small for Treadway. This Mars program is my ticket to the big leagues, he told himself, envisioning a new virtual reality global news series, with him as the immersive host, saturating the worldnet with viewership and downloads exceeding even the latest soft-porn reality shows.

Treadway smiled. First things first, he thought. He had a launch to cover.

Most of the visitors were gathered around the temporary bar the spaceport management had set up along the far wall of the center. The rest stood at the sweeping, ceiling-high windows, staring out at the rocket booster standing alone and seemingly inert more than a mile away.

"Quiet please!" shouted Treadway's producer, a plump round auburn-haired woman in jeans and tee shirt. "On the air in three... two..." She aimed a finger like a pistol at Treadway.

Standing before the hovering thumb-sized camera, Treadway smiled and introduced, "This is Benson Benson--or Bee, as he's called--the command pilot of the Mars mission."

Benson was tall, lean, almost regal in his erect posture and calm, austere expression.

"And this," said Treadway, swiveling his head slightly, "is the crew's other astronaut, Ted Connover."

Connover was a bantamweight, no taller than Benson's shoulder, a typical jet jock, wiry, bouncy, full of energy, his blond hair trimmed down to a military-style buzz cut. He was smiling lopsidedly, but in his intense, eager face the smile looked like a challenge, almost pugnacious.

Turning back to Benson, Treadway said, "I understand you're sometimes called Bee Squared."

Obviously suppressing distaste, Benson softly replied, "My parents had an offbeat sense of humor."

Obviously Benson's name was not a subject the man relished talking about.

"And you're the command pilot of the Arrow."

"That's right."

"And you're a Canadian."

A minimal nod. "That's right."

Making Benson commander of the mission had been a political compromise, Treadway knew. Although the United States had shouldered the major burden of funding the Mars mission, their European, Japanese and Russian partners chafed at the idea of having an American in charge. So the Canadian Benson had been given the responsibility.

Treadway gave up on trying to get more than curt replies from Benson. He turned to Connover, and the tiny camera automatically pivoted to keep their images centered. Treadway asked, "And you will be the pilot of the vehicle that actually lands on Mars?"

"Yeah," said Connover, with a cocky grin. "I'll put her down on Mars and then I'll fly her back to the Arrow for the trip home."

"And you're an American."

"Like Mom's apple pie. Born in Nebraska, flew for the United States Air Force, got my doctorate in engineering from Caltech. How American can a guy be?"

Connover was much easier to interview than Benson. All Treadway had to do was ask a banal question and Connover rattled on happily.


Looking directly into the camera again, Treadway said, "The final seconds of countdown are here. Remember, this is an uncrewed launch, totally automated. Commander Benson, Pilot Connover, thanks for your time and your thoughts."

"You're welcome," said Benson.

"Anytime," Connover said.

The crowd surged toward the sweeping windows. Out at the launch pad, umbilical lines were disconnecting from the rocket booster. A thin cloud of white vapor issued from its lower section.

"LAUNCH VEHICLE ON INTERNAL POWER," the speakers in the ceiling announced. "ALL SYSTEMS ARE GO."

Treadway noticed that Ted Connover headed not for the windows, but toward a slim, good-looking woman and teenaged boy standing alone across the room. His wife and son, Treadway knew. The astronaut wrapped one arm around his wife's shoulders and pecked her affectionately on the cheek, then tousled the teenager's straw-colored hair.

They should have made him the mission commander, Treadway thought. NASA had wanted Connover for the top job; he was the veteran of a dozen spaceflights to the International Space Station and two flights to the International Moon Base. But the politicians had overruled the engineers.

Benson stood alone and seemingly aloof, no one within three feet of him. The Canadian was married, but his wife was not present for this launch. There were rumors that their marriage was on the rocks, but Benson refused to discuss his private life with the news media.


The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Treadway felt their excitement. He had covered dozens of rocket launches over his years of reporting, yet the final moments of a countdown always clutched at his guts. It was as if his pulse rate synchronized itself to the ticking of the countdown clock.

"FIVE... FOUR... THREE..."

Despite himself, Treadway held his own breath. And felt foolish for it. He reminded himself that they'd launched this kind of rocket a hundred times. It was the most reliable booster on Earth. Still, he held his breath.

A burst of flame flashed from the base of the rocket, almost immediately blotted out by billows of steam from the launch platform's cooling water system. Standing tall in the midst of the clouds, the booster seemed unmoving, immovable.

Come on, Treadway urged silently. Get your ass in gear.

Slowly, slowly, the tall slender booster lifted out of the billowing steam, bright orange flame streaming from its base.

"Go, baby," someone shouted.

Then the noise hit them, the dragon's roar of the rocket engines, pulsing, throbbing, washing over them even through the thick, shatterproof windows. Treadway's innards went hollow; he felt as if he wanted to weep.

Up, up the booster rose. Slowly at first but then faster and faster, accelerating into the bright turquoise sky until it was no more than a bright star hurtling across the heavens.

Treadway turned to the huge screens that covered the visitors' center's rear wall. One showed a telescope's view of the booster soaring up into the sky. Another relayed the view from a camera on the booster's outer skin, showing the Earth falling away, the launch pad and spaceport buildings dwindling to dots on the desert floor.

Faster and faster the booster rose. The flash that separated the spent first stage brought a gasp from the crowd, but the gasp quickly turned into a cheer as the second stage's engines lit off and pushed the bird higher and higher until it was too distant to be seen by unaided eyes.


The crowd sighed, then cheered, and then rushed to the bar. Treadway looked past them, toward Connover and his little family, still standing by themselves off on the other side of the room.

Connover's eyes were fixed on Benson as the Canadian was pushed to the bar by the press of news media and celebrities.

But Treadway saw the expression on Connover's grim face. Silently, the American astronaut was saying to Benson, You shouldn't be the mission commander. They should have picked me. I'm the better man for the job and we both know it.

Copyright © 2014 by Les Johnson

Copyright © 2014 by Ben Bova


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