From Earth To Heaven - Chapter Three
Chapter 3: On The Highway To Heaven
“Am I there yet?”
Every morning Ground Control received this reply when they awoke Melvin to begin his daily routine.
Life aboard a shuttle to Mars has its pros and cons. Enough food and water for a crew of six. All the chairs fold out into futon beds with built-in sleeping bags. Peace and quiet. TV shows and movies downloaded for him to watch. But due to hard drive space they were automatically deleted after being watched. And let’s not forget the multiple cameras that transmit everything that happens onboard. Not too good for a guy who enjoy taking naps.
Being all alone without someone to talk to could drive a person crazy. Having a cell phone loaded with family photos, music and videos helped to ease the pain. The food was tolerable. With an abundant of vegetarian meals chosen by the astronauts didn’t sit well with a man who considers chicken nuggets a side dish. And the long hours of learning how to properly use the shuttle systems were also taking a toll on him.
His daily routine was structured and organized. Wake up, wash, eat, study the manuals, run simulation tests, dinner, read manuals then go to sleep. Every other day he would get video messages from Mika, Zack and from other family members and friends. A few of those videos were of an adult nature that NASA provided Melvin to help ease his stress levels.
News stories Mark Rauch had Mika and Zack appear in were also sent to Melvin. They did a media tour to different news outlets telling their stories about family life and sharing stories about Melvin. Fun and games at first but over the weeks Mika didn’t enjoy answering questions relating to watching Melvin die in space or on Mars. Mark realized Mika’s situation and made sure those types of questions were never asked again.
Zack had his problems as well. He was lucky enough to continue his college education online while he traveled. It was getting harder for him to attend his classes due to reporters following him around on campus. Some reporters with hidden cameras started taking the same classes as Zack. Rival network female reporters were even exposed on live TV. They were fighting each other in the hopes of dating Zack. Just to get to his mother.
But with media interviews and not being able to do everyday activities made him wish to trade places with his dad. Eating at a McDonalds once led to a stampede of media reporters and other people crowding all around him. The girl he was dating broke it off once news agencies started running stories about her and her family.
The scariest times for Melvin occurred when he was sleeping. With the interior lights turned off, the stars lit up the inside of the craft. The ion engines continued to operate as the pulsing engine sounds traveled throughout the ship. Melvin described it as being inside a giant Taiko drum. It wasn’t easy looking out the window and seeing billions of stars. With no planets in view gave the feeling of nausea. Always feeling as if he was falling. But the perks of being an engineer do have their moments.
One day as Mission Control was checking in on him, they found him reading an adult magazine. A bit shocked on how it got aboard the shuttle led to a huge secret being exposed. No one, not police nor federal security agents do a thorough check of what is inside a mechanics toolbox. Porn magazines, whiskey flasks, marijuana, food even a miniature TV were later discovered in other toolboxes. No one was reprimanded but toolboxes were searched from then on out.
Mika would also checkup on Melvin. She was able to hear live communications between NASA and Melvin with an attachment added to her computer. She could tell by the sound of his voice whether he was having a good day or not. Hearing his voice helped her to sleep at night; just knowing he was still alive. NASA later offered her a job to help monitor Melvin due to how she could handle him.
During a trip to the mission control center she sat by one of the consoles as Melvin was going through a test landing drill. He was being sarcastic on how NASA performs their tests. Ground control wasn’t picking up on this but Mika did. She didn’t realize the headset she had on was carrying her voice as Melvin acknowledged hearing her. They spoke briefly as Mika scolded him for the way he was treating the NASA controllers. For the rest of the test run everyone noticed Melvin behavior and working style had improved greatly.
And so began Mika’s new career as chief psychologist assistant to Melvin. She showed up for work to make sure Melvin was not only behaving but to ease their stress levels. They talk for a while as NASA and Melvin would then go through their daily routines. A lot of their conversations went over her head so she would read a book, surf the web or head home after going on a tour of NASA. But not before letting Melvin know this.
On days she couldn’t come in to work they knew Melvin would slack off. But not by much as Mika would remind Melvin that she was always listening. A few former astronauts sympathized with Melvin as they could get away from their wives for a while but Melvin couldn’t. But in watching Mika helped them to understand what their own wives went through.
The kudzu plant had been replanted into a better container. Hanging by one of the windows for sun light kept the plant alive. But by the time the craft arrived to Mars had showed that nearly all the soil had been absorbed by the over flowing vines and roots. One of the internal cameras stayed focused on the plant helped many botanists on Earth to study the effects of plants in space.
It hasn’t been all fun and games during Melvin’s trip to Mars. Many things kept breaking down. If it wasn’t for the oxygen generator then it was the communication system or the engines acting up. What would have driven trained astronauts into despair was nothing but mild annoyances to Melvin. He knew the whole layout of all the systems onboard. NASA officials had to acknowledge that the ship was doomed from the start as many of those repairs couldn’t have been done as quickly by trained astronauts.
The breakdowns helped in two ways for Melvin. It kept him mentally focused away from the reality of living inside a space ship heading towards Mars. Plus he looked at these challenges as an excuse for not studying or going through another round of NASA simulation drills and/or test. But he was nearly at the end of his rope on constantly repairing the ship by the time he arrived to Mars.
One of Melvin’s major annoyances was the interviews from reporters around the world. Out of all the failed attempts to get to Mars, Melvin has gone the furthest with the greatest chance of success. One team years earlier made it to Mars but burned up on entry. But for Melvin that would feel like heaven compared to listening to the same questions repeatedly asked to him.
Traveling future away from Earth created a growing transmission gap. By the time it took a minute for a message to be received Melvin decided to have some fun. He would answer the reporter’s question then wait 10 seconds before notifying NASA of having to check a system error. Five minutes would go by before resuming the interview. Within 30 minutes the interview ended as Melvin would have only answering roughly 4 questions.
NASA picked up on Melvin’s little trick. Mostly because none of their data showed any real problems and that Mika made Melvin confess to it. Seeing the news reports and articles confirmed that all the reporters were indeed asking the same questions all the time. So they made a deal with Melvin. Melvin would talk his head off about anything as a pool of reporters would edit bits of it down into different full length interviews. The reporters ended up with over four hours of non-stop talking that created over fifty interviews. Melvin was left in peace and NASA kept the media focused on the mission.
For Mika and Zack it was anything but peace for a while. Eventually they had to move to a more secured area. With the media and NASA groupies constantly harassing them, Mr. Rauch helped them sell their home as they moved into a gated condo community. The place offered plenty of security and was a lot closer to NASA. Moving there took a lot of planning that Zack helped to organize.
Once everything was loaded onto the moving truck and had left, the media followed it. In reality Mika and Zack had already moved all their belongings out with the help of their neighbors. During the middle of the night they would carry boxes and furniture to their next door neighbor. With high bushes and storage sheds, no one outside of the neighborhood knew of these secret passageways the kids use to go from house to house during the early days of the NASA program.
Loaded into a cargo van where a driver, working for Mr. Rauch, would deliver it to their new place. It took a few weeks but the media never caught on. Once everything was moved out a moving truck backed up to the garage as large tarps blocked the view of two people pretending to make noises of it being loaded. The truck was then driven to Houston, Texas as all the media outlets followed it. All the while Mika and Zack were at their new condo watching the whole world follow an empty truck.
In the final days leading to the Mars landing Melvin was becoming much more serious. He could see Mars growing larger by the day in his viewing windows. He went over all the ships systems and software. Against NASA’s best judgment he bypassed a few fail safe systems and prepared for the worst. Two hours before entry he had what he thought was his final meal. Then he suited up.
An hour before entry he received a video message from his wife and son. They appeared alright and wished him the best of luck. They never told him the problems they were facing. Instead they took a page from his book and never mentioned the bad times. It worked in that he could control his stress levels. But he knew his family well as he to put on a face of confidence when he sent a reply. NASA gave him a few final pointers. With 15 minutes to go he entered the coordinates as the ship maneuvered to make entry to Mars.
As the ship officially entered orbit around Mars it locks on to where the supply ship was located. By the third orbit the computer knew where to begin entry. So as to land near the supply ship. Not as a fiery entry as when the Space Shuttle reenters Earth’s atmosphere but Melvin did encounter a bumpy ride. Once the shuttle craft began gliding towards the planet surface Melvin kept an eye on the homing beacon. He takes control of the ship as the computer system began to overload. At the right time he activates the parachutes and a new type of landing equipment.
Much like the maglev system on those high speed trains, this unit locks on to the planets magnetic field. Like a surfer riding a wave on a surfboard this ship was riding the magnetic waves to the surface. On Earth this worked perfectly but on Mars the magnetic field has lots of gaps in it; hence the parachutes. In theory the ship could stay stationary in the air, travel upwards like a missile or fall as gently as a leaf.
In reality alarms are going off as the main computer started to shut down due to multiple overloads. Melvin is flying blind but the ship finally lands just in sight of the supply ship. The maglev system burns out just feet from the ground. The parachutes kept the ship upright as the ship was being jerked about due to the maglev system trying to lock-on to a magnetic field.
As everything calms down Melvin begins restarting the main computer. After a few minor repairs everything on board except for the maglev system is working again. The solar panels open up as the batteries begin recharging. After a quick trip to the bathroom Melvin makes contact with NASA to give them the news. Everyone breaks into excitement as Mika is crying nonstop. A camera inside Mission Control catches everyone’s reactions. The whole planet is also watching and listening to these events.
The outside temperature reads 65 degrees. Melvin has just a few hours to spend outside before nightfall. As onboard cameras relay everything back to Earth, Melvin readies to go outside the ship. He goes over the prepared quote NASA had asked him to say. The oxygen is vacuumed up and he opens the door. Immediately he forgets what to say.
He looks out as dust and wind blows into the ship. He takes a few steps onto the planet. His breathing slowly returns to normal as he is able to hear the Martian wind blowing all around him. He sees rocks of different sizes lying all around him. With little atmosphere he is able to see stars in the daytime sky. He sees a valley area where the supply ship is waiting for him. For almost five minutes he just stands there; looking around. NASA chimes in to get his attention.
To which he replies, “Mika, I’ve found heaven”.